One of my favorite perennial Christmas classics is that edition of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer where Burl Ives narrates as Sam the Talking Snowman and sings. You know, the one where the little figurines move around jerkily but endearingly. (For some interesting info about this classic, click here.)
My favorite character in this thing is Hermey, the Elf who wants to be a dentist. Herbie reveals this sick unnatural ambition in a conversation with the Elf Boss, who lectures him threateningly:
Hermey, miserably: Not happy in my work, I guess.
Head Elf: WHAT??!
Hermey: I just don't like to make toys.
Head Elf: Oh well if that's all...WHAT??!! You don't like to make toys?!
Head Elf, to others: Hermey doen't like to make toys!
Others: (repeat it down down the line) and in chorus: Shame on you!
Head Elf: Do you mind telling me what you DO wanna do?
Hermey: Well sir, someday, I'd like to be...a dentist.
Head Elf: A DENTIST? Good grief!
Hermey: We need one up here...I've been studying it, it's fascinating, you've no idea, molars and bicuspids and incisors--
Head Elf: Now, listen, you. You're an elf, and elves make toys. Now get to work!
The ontology undergirding the Head Elf's reprimand of Hermey leaves no room for consideration of an elf who deviates from his "nature" by not liking to make toys. It's simply inconceivable. Hermey's attempt to "fit in" is stymied when, engrossed in the task of providing teeth for some dolls, he misses elf practice and suffers another confrontation with the Head Elf, which concludes with the Head Elf's vicious assertion, "You'll NEVER fit in!" Miserable, Hermey jumps out the window in self-imposed exile, his only option to be true to himself.
Rudolph's situation is parallel. Born with the disgusting congenital deformity of a red glowing nose, his parents are horrified (even his own mother can only weakly offer, "we'll have to overlook it," while his father goes so far as to actually hide it by daubing mud on his son's face.) Later, at the "reindeer games," Rudolph outshines the other reindeer in skill, but when his prosthesis falls off, everyone gasps and his erstwhile playmates mock and shun. The authority figures echo this attitude: the Coach gathers everyone up and leads them away, saying loudly, "From now on, we won't let Rudolph join in any of our reindeer games!"
Santa's role throughout most of the cartoon is to legitimize the prejudices against the misfits already evident in lesser members of the Christmastown community. When Santa visits the newly birthed Rudolph, his unthinking prejudice becomes plain when he comments that Rudoplh had better grow out of it if he ever wants to be on his team of flying reindeer. Santa's behavior at the scene of the reindeer games is even more disturbing; like his pronouncement at Rudolph's birth, he says, "What a pity; he had a nice takeoff, too." For Santa, Rudolph's skill is less important than his nose, an arbitrary physical attribute. A distant and authoritarian figure, Santa is unaware of Hermey's plight (apparently the welfare of elves is beneath his notice) and condemning of Rudolph's gall in considering himself a reindeer of the same worth and dignity as the others.
Rudolph and Hermey get together, and a few lines of their "misfit theme song" are revealing:
"We're a couple of misfits, we're a couple of misfits--
What's the matter with misfits?
That's where we fit in.
We may be different from the rest...
But who decides the test
of what is really best?"
In "Christmastown," those who decide "the test of what is really best" seem to be the tyrannical and thoughtless majority, reinforced by authoritarian sanction by Santa, the pseudo-benevolent despot. Those who question the status quo--those who are already marginalized--are mocked, punished, and driven out of the community.
Over the years it's become apparent to me that this simple children's cartoon contains some real subversive elements: Hermey's misfit-ness is the result of apparent "choice," but the kind of choice where the alternatives are to be true or false to oneself. Rudolph's misfit-ness is the result of birth rather than choice. Change "dentist" to "gay" and "red nose" to "black skin." Now the subversive message is clear: Santa is racist, the Head Elf and the elf community is homophobic, and "Christmastown" is really "Whiteytown."
Given this subtext, the change of heart on the parts of Santa and the Head Elf at the end are more than just the formulaic ending to a well-known Christmas fable. Although it takes a prodigious feat of community service on both Hermey's and Rudolph's parts (each requiring skills peculiar to their misfit-ness) to bring the authorities and the community to repentance, repentance is indeed the note sounded in the conclusion. Everyone, including Santa, apologizes to the misfits. And in the end, difference is valorized rather than exiled.