The rumors are out there. Bert and Ernie. Tinky Winky. Waylon Smithers from “The Simpsons”.
I want them all to be gay. (Somewhere in a red state, an aide for a Republican Congressman is citing my blog as proof that the gays recruit. A clear distortion. I have no affinity for Teletubbies, but if one of them is gay, I welcome him/it.)
Young or old(er), we all like to have people/creatures with whom we can identify. Some celebrities are openly gay, but I cannot relate to this one or that one . (Heck, maybe it's just the name. I cannot relate to this guy or that guy either.) Sometimes I have to settle for making glorified sock puppets my role models.
And stop-motion animated Christmas characters.
Yes, Rudolph. To me, the Rankin/Bass television classic “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” has so much to say about being gay. I watch it every December and find myself referring to characters, scenes and songs even in August. Usually, I have the sense to think in my head rather than out loud. Seems it’s more socially acceptable to constantly quote from “The Wizard of Oz”. I am one of the friends of Dorothy, but there is room for a reindeer as well.
“Rudolph” is all about being different, feeling different and being misunderstood. And it’s not just our now-beloved reindeer. Early on, Hermey, the only elf at the Pole with thick wavy blond hair, knows the standard elfin life is not for him. (Hermey’s odd name could be a tribute to the ancient god Hermes or to the venerable Hermès fashion house.) He wants to be a dentist, but is told in no uncertain terms that such a path is unacceptable. Elves make toys. He must conform. No break for him. While the other elves presumably drink cocoa and eat Keebler cookies, Hermey is forced to suppress his true self and bang out more toy trains. Hermey can’t do it. Hermey won’t do it! Instead, he sings melodic lines penned by Johnny Marks: “Why am I such a misfit? I am not just a nitwit. You can’t fire me, I quit. Seems I don’t fit in.”
Oh, Hermey, I feel your pain. And, please, I have nothing against elves. Tangential confession: When I was in grade three, I planned to leave home. Nothing against my family (then, at least); I had a higher calling. I decided to stay awake on Christmas Eve until not a creature was stirring and then scurry over to the fireplace to wait for Santa. I had to make my plea for the jolly guy to take me back to the Pole. I wanted to be an elf. No joke. Making toys for nice kids seemed like a noble profession.
Okay, so back to “Rudolph”, Hermey in my mind is clearly gay...and strong enough to break free from conventional expectations. While others admired Superman, Ironman and Batman, Hermey the elf was my hero. I suppose Hermey may be part of the reason I travel sixty kilometers each way to see my gay dentist.
So we’ve got Hermey figured out. How about Rudolph? True, he crushes on that young doe, Clarice. And he becomes gay in the “happy” sense at the very least. Rudy may not be gay, but he would certainly join a gay-straight alliance if they had one at reindeer school. Accustomed to rejection and ridicule, Hermey and Rudy are initially tentative. “You don’t mind my nose?” asks Rudolph, to which the elf responds, “Not if you don’t mind that I’m a—“ wait for it—“dentist.” In a precious part of the script, Hermey and Rudy agree to become independent...together. Rudolph also represents being different and being shunned. He questions himself, singing the same tune as Hermey with a different final line: “Why don’t I fit in?”
Poor Rudolph. Growing up is tough when you don’t feel “normal”. The name calling. The shame that his own parents project. My gosh, they insist that he cover up the part of him that makes him different.
Intolerance comes to a head when Rudolph’s true nose is uncovered at the testosterone-heavy reindeer school, a place where Coach Comet states, “My job is to make bucks out of you.” The coach, in fact, takes the lead in shunning the different pupil, telling his other students, “We won’t let him play in our games.” Even the supposedly benevolent Santa condemns the red-nosed reindeer upon discovery of his uniqueness, saying to the father, “Donner, you should be ashamed of yourself.” As I watch the show now, the behaviors of the elf supervisor, Santa, Donner and Coach Comet are far scarier than those of The Abominable Snow Monster.
I so empathized with the rejected reindeer.
But writer Romeo Muller (adapting the short story by Robert May) drives the theme of being different home with more examples. As a team, Hermey and Rudy set off on their own. They encounter an eccentric by the name of Yukon Cornelius who seeks his fortune in silver and gold. Though rough around the edges, Cornelius does not hesitate to befriend and assist Rudy and Hermey. “Climb aboard, mateys.” Full acceptance. You are who you are.
And to drive home the point about differences, the trio drift onto The Island of Misfit Toys. They meet the unwanted, the unloved, the banished: Charlie-in-the-box, a spotted elephant, a “choo choo with square wheels”, a cowboy who rides an ostrich, and a water pistol that shoots jelly. Rudy and Hermey think they have found a refuge, but they cannot stay. The island is for toys, not living creatures (a seemingly technical distinction since the toys talk, sing, dance and express feelings). They do not even belong among other misfits.
Rudolph sets off on his own in the night, fearing his unique trait will continue to bring detection and danger from the fierce Abominable Snow Monster. Eventually Rudolph reunites with family but he fails to fend the monster from Clarice and Rudolph’s parents. Cornelius and Hermey (yes, my childhood hero!) save the day. Hermey’s dental skills prove essential in reforming the formerly beastly “bumble”.
And because this is one of those happily ever after tales, Rudolph, Hermey and even The Abominable Snow Monster are welcomed back at Christmastown. The adults finally show acceptance (though Coach Comet is silent). Hermey can be a dentist. Rudolph need not cover that distinct nose. The Not-So-Abominable creature can put the star atop the tree. Even the misfit toys are rounded up and delivered to homes where they will be welcomed and loved. Each is needed. Each is valued.
Produced forty-seven years ago, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was my annual dose of acceptance at a time when there were no openly gay role models. Am I being too egocentric in thinking that Hermey and Rudolph are all about the gays? Other minorities, others who feel they don’t fit in are most welcome to identify with the show and the characters. But I make no apologies for my own interpretation. “Rudolph” continues to entertain while also nudging society to be more open, more tolerant, more loving.
Watch it again. Sing along to the timeless tunes. Most importantly, think about the message.