Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Is a Shockingly Progressive Queer Allegory

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the Rankin-Bass stop-motion classic narrated by the inimitable (and formerly blacklisted) Burl Ives that just so happens to be a magnificent allegory for the gay liberation. While just about every animated holiday classic goes down pretty easy, the subtexts are where the joy really shines through, and Rudolph’s core theme is about as progressive a message as 1964 was capable of producing.

The unloved ungulate’s struggle over discrimination is almost universally known. But the most remarkable section concerns the Island of Misfit Toys. Populated by a Charlie-in-the-Box, a water pistol that shoots jelly, a cowboy who rides an ostrich, and other rejects convinced no child will love them, the island is a limbo of wayward desires that can never be consummated. Alienated from Santa’s reach, they await liberation in Christmas boxes (metaphorical closets). Until, that is, fellow misfits Rudolph, Herbie the elf, and prospector Yukon Cornelius eventually convince Santa to bring them into the Christmas fold and find suitable partners for them.

Herbie is a twinky blond and Yukon Cornelius is a burly daddy, but is Rudolph himself queer? In love with the bashful Clarice, he’s obviously heterosexual, and his athletic prowess initially impresses Santa. But his flamboyant physiology, which his hyper-masculine father Donner tries to suppress, marks him as ambiguous and socially unacceptable. In the end, he’s more of a messianic figure who leverages his own experience to open up a space for the true misfits. Rudolph isn’t necessarily queer, but Rudolph is.

[jump] By contrast, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, an animated Rankin-Bass production from 1974, could be considered a bad queer text. It’s the story of a kindly clockmaker named Joshua Trundle (voiced by Joel Grey, who’d played the uber-queer Emcee in Cabaret only two years prior) who aims to lure Santa Claus to Junctionville by constructing a big, musical clock. This sacred offering is thwarted by an anonymous letter-to-the-editor in the local paper, signed “All of us,” that claims Santa doesn't exist. By the time it’s revealed that the writer was actually Albert, the nerdy son of the mice who shares the Trundles’ house and who later breaks the clock by trying to understand its mechanics, Joshua has been disgraced and his family consigned to Yuletide poverty.

Albert is bespectacled and ungainly, with an outsized vocabulary. While he could be read as a smartypants atheist ruining everyone’s holiday cheer, he’s also an effete crybaby with unsavory friends who must prove his allegiance to a patriarchal order crowned by the God-like (and not particularly jolly) Santa. The worst kind of redemption-through-song follows. A chastened Albert renounces his skepticism after nearly destroying two families, accepting that sometimes it’s best not to ask questions: “Let up a little on the wonder why/And give your heart a try.” The message is clear: conform, or else. Whereas Rudolph forces social change for the benefit of an oppressed class, it is Albert who must accede to the prevailing system on penalty of shaming his parents.

Denouncing a Christmas classic is a little like calling for people to burn rock 'n' roll records because they can be played backwards to summon Satan. Best to just let it all roll over you — particularly if, say, your parents taped them off of TV for you and your siblings in 1988 along with Frosty and The Grinch with all the vintage commercials intact. ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas isn’t perfect, but at least it’s well-done. Rudolph, by contrast, is a magical holiday fantasia with an almost incredibly progressive message about people who are different, and deserves its place in the canon forever. Also, Yukon Cornelius: Woof!

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