Thursday, November 17, 2005

Rudolph the Politically Incorrect Reindeer

Since the Rankin-Bass classic, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," plays a big role in my holiday decor this year, it's been on my mind lately. If you really think about it, "Rudolph" is a very politically incorrect cartoon. I'm surprised there hasn't been a P.C. sequel like the travesty that features John Goodman as Frosty the Snowman, featuring a solstice-celebrating youngster. I'm all for honoring other traditions, religions, and holidays, but it annoys me when it's done in an obvious "look at how warm-and-fuzzy and inclusive we can be" manner.

Still, given the messages that Rudolph sends, there are a lot of places where the story could be shored up for a contemporary audience. For example, poor Rudolph is ostracized unmercifully by the rest of the young reindeer herd. In this day and age, the other young bucks would be forced into a sensitivity class to learn how to deal with "differently-abled" playmates sensitively and appropriately.

Donner, the coach, tears into little Rudy quite cruelly, too. If that was nowadays, I smell a big lawsuit. Rudolph's mom and dad surely could have won a cool million pounds of corn for the willful infliction of emotional distress on their physically challenged youngster. Rather than being excluded from the reindeer games, those games would be modified to accommodate Rudolph's "specialness" (I can just imagine who would win a "find your way through the dark cave" competition).

Actually, I think the Reindeer Games were a bit too competitive; the reindeer who weren't as good at flying had their fragile little self-esteems crushed. Donner should have been forced to create "competitions" where everyone is a winner. After all, the concept that the world should adapt to you and always make you feel warm and fuzzy is an important lesson that every young reindeer should learn as soon as possible.

When Rudolph reaches adulthood, he shouldn't have to put up with Santa Claus's blatant discrimination. After all, he's already proven that he's the most qualified critter for the job despite that bright, rosy honker (or, actually, because of it). In an appropriately updated version, he could file suit under the North Pole-ians with Disabilities Act rather than be forced to wait for a foggy night to prove himself.

I also suspect that Santa Claus might be the victim of an eating disorder. It's no wonder, what with Mrs. Claus following him around, demanding, "Eat, Santa, eat!" and sending him negative body image messages like "Nobody likes a skinny Santa."

Furthermore, the treatment of indigenous creatures (i.e. The Bumble) is nothing short of shameful. To have his teeth yanked out without benefit of anesthetic and then to be forced into a servile role is a glaring example of exploitation. But then again, it's no wonder that Hermey the Elf has unresolved anger issues that manifest themselves in Bumble abuse. The poor little dentist wanna-be is a helpless victim of stereotyping. After all, all elves made toys just like all Native Americans run casinos or all Indians work at 7/11, right?

Nobody thought about those issues when "Rudolph" was created 40 years ago. It was a rougher and less-easily-offended world back then, but somehow most of us who were raised in it managed to turn out okay.

Still, kids are impressionable, so I'm glad that modern cartoons and television shows are becoming more realistic and inclusive. The progress hasn't been as rapid as you might think. Just 15 years ago, in 1990, an episode of "The Simpsons" was going to feature a gay man, Karl, as Homer's secretary (voiced by Harvey Fierstein). The ensuing outcry forced them to change the episode; it contained many "hints," but never came right out and confirmed Karl's orientation.

By 1997, an openly gay kitsch store proprietor appears, and this year Marge's sister, Patty, came out of the closet as a lesbian (although there have been many hints about her in previous episodes).

Of course, my favorite example of inclusiveness is Virgin Mobile's new holiday, Chrismahanukwanzakah, created in 2004 as an ad campaign. The official date of their "all-inclusive celebration" was December 13, when they honored Christians, Muslims, Pagans, Jews, Agnostics, Scientologists, and just about any other group you can think of.

This year, they have ressurected their website, although sadly it doesn't feature the original song or commercial (thankfully, I saved them to CD last year). They also have a gift hotline, 1-888-ELP-POOP, where you can get gift-giving guidance from Jews, a Hindu Santa, a gay elf, a Black Muslim, or other the Chrismahanukwanzakah characters.

Yes, in the brave new millenia of 2000, it's a very different world. A cartoon like "Rudolph" would never pass muster in this day and age, but I still consider it a classic. As a little kid, I never pondered the societal implications; I just glued my eyes to the television like a good little Baby Boomer to get my yearly fix (remember, in those dark days, there were no such things as DVDs...we actually had to wait a whole year between holiday shows). It may have its politically incorrect moments, but at least it has the requisite happy ending. And when you're a kid, that's what matters the most.

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