Last night Lisa and I finally had the chance to sit together and watch Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. It’s fun, actually, as a middle-aged adult to sit and watch a television special from one’s childhood.
Last night, however, nostalgia was overwhelmed by my ongoing dialogue with the show. Lisa kept looking at me, chuckling, finally saying, “You’re on a roll tonight,” and, “I know what you’ll be blogging about tomorrow”. Since she is always right, here I am! My dialogue concerned the portrayal not only of Santa Claus, but of pretty much every character (with the exception of Clarice, Hermie, and Yukon Cornelius) who has a relationship with Rudolph. Now, obviously, I knew how the show works. I mean, it’s kind of the whole point of the show. Considering the time it was produced, the characters react to Rudolph in ways that would have been accepted as pretty normal. How else do people respond to those who are different? In a society dominated by white supremacy, socially conformist, traditional in its social mores and practices, difference would be more than mere difference; it would be error, something freakish either to be hidden away or dismissed with ridicule to hide the fear difference stirs.
Half a century on, however, our reactions to the characters’ reactions had better be a bit less accepting. These are not adults who are trying their best to help Rudolph. On the contrary, they are verbally and physically abusive, denying him acceptance in a community of his fellows. Cast out, Rudolph leaves, where he and another self-exiled Other – Hermie, the elfin dentist – discover an island filled with “misfit” toys. Yet again, we encounter a group cast out because they were poorly manufactured. Victims of poor decisions and actions on the part of their makers, they have been denied the singular joy any toy has – to be loved by a child. Yet, we have already been told that the elves make the toys. So the train, for example, with the caboose with square wheels. A simple fix could make that toy acceptable. Rather than admit error, however, the elves exile the toy, blaming the train for their own error, covering up their culpability in what is emotional abuse.
I know all this sounds a tad overdetermined. It would be were I completely serious. This is one of those half-jesting exercises in which I’m trying to make a larger point. Not about what a bigoted jerk Santa Claus and the rest of the characters are; more that this is what happens when a story originally embedded in one time and place finds itself in a completely different time and place. Rather than a “change of heart” with honest apologies from Santa, we have a power-structure designed to repress non-conformity however it presents itself. It blames the victims of verbal and physical abuse for their treatment. It denies any culpability in systemic evil, rather seeking only interpersonal apologies for specific instances of structural abuse. Moving from 1964 to 2015, we can see the changes in interpretive strategies, reflecting changed social and cultural circumstances. For something as innocuous as a children’s animated story, the results are more amusing.
What about for reading the Bible, say, or the Constitution? Is it even possible to argue for fixed meanings for texts over large stretches of time when even half a century renders a reading of a television show far differently than “the original intent”?