"Oh, god, really?"
Those three words were spoken by my wife one evening last week as I watched for the first time in several years a show on television that in my youth served as the absolutely official beginning of my Christmas season: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Frosty the Snowman? A distant second, at best. A Charlie Brown Christmas? Not even on the radar.
Things have changed since I became an adult. The insanely good Bill Murray in "Scrooged" is a must-watch Christmas season classic for me, and "Elf" starring Will Ferrell has possibly become my go-to holiday season flick in recent years.
But when I was a child, Rudolph was the end all, be all. But I'd gotten away from it as a grownup, far away from it, so much so that I couldn't recall the last time I'd watched Rudolph.
I can thank Twitter for steering me back toward Rudolph this year. Someone tweeted that he would be unavailable, even in the event of an emergency, from 7 to 8 p.m. one evening last week because he would be deeply entrenched in watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
So at 7 that evening, I grabbed the remote and changed the channel to CBS. As the legendary Burl Ives started to narrate the tale being told by the iconic, talking snowman, “Sam,” my wife perked up immediately on the couch. "Rudolph!" she said. She was a childhood devotee as well.
But maybe halfway or so into the show, her enthusiasm had diminished, and she found herself saying the trio of words that opened this column. It was the scene in Rudolph's family's cave home (Reindeer live in caves? Oh, I suppose that's beside the point. Moving on...) when it's clear that Rudolph has run away after being shunned by everyone after the unintended public unveiling of his glowing red nose. His dad, Donner, is going to head out into the raging winter storm to search for his son, and he makes it clear that Rudolph’s mother and the young doe, Clarice, who has a crush on Rudolph, have to stay behind because they're female and, therefore, according to societal and family norms of that time, apparently not tough enough to cut it in the nasty weather.
My wife expressed similar, albeit somewhat muted exasperation later in the show, when Rudolph has been found, the abominable snow beast has been rendered toothless and harmless, and there's a reference to the males needing to "get the women home" – they’d sneaked out to search for Rudolph, too, against Donner’s and Santa’s orders to stay behind – because the storm was still raging and it wasn't safe outside.
I indicated, in polite, semi-joking manner, that my wife needed to lighten up a bit. The show is around 50 years old, I told her, as I pressed the "Info" button on the remote and learned that it was actually made 54 years ago, in 1964. Our youngest son who'd wandered into the living room by this point expressed amazement at that factoid. "You guys weren't even born yet," he said, adding, “But...almost.”
Thanks for pointing that out, son.
The next day, while scrolling through my Twitter feed, I soon realized that my wife wasn't alone in deriding some of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer's dated takes on certain aspects of family life and society in general. Add the fact that so many people these days seem to just sit around every day waiting to be triggered by the latest faux pas or misstep by this celebrity or that public figure so they can hop on social media and tear people apart, and Rudolph suddenly seemed downright ancient when tossed into the sausage grinder that is life on this planet today.
Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was being ripped!
While my wife was merely irked slightly by the notion put forth in Rudolph that women are soft and need extra protection from dangerous things that only men can endure, the outraged masses occupying the Twittersphere were enraged by the apparent gender-role propaganda. And, oh, how they went after Donner for not accepting his son's amazing, unique nose as something that made him extra special, and not some kind of freak. They put Santa’s head in the vice, too, for his cruelty toward Rudolph, who was simply “different.” The coach of the “Reindeer Games” who publicly ridiculed Rudolph and sent him home in disgrace? He was a vile creature, too.
It was bullying, as we all know by now, in these enlightened times. Sure, there were bullies in 1964, as well as in the 1970s, 80s, 90s and right up to the present day. But it wasn’t until several years ago that we decided that bullies no longer are guilty of teasing or picking on people in order to hide their own insecurities and weakness, they are guilty of bullying. And Rudolph, the triggered tweeters said, is nothing but a show full of bullies bullying.
Maybe so, but ask anyone who was a kid in 1964 if they’d prefer being a kid then, or in 2018. We may be ultra-sensitive to bullies and their bullying today, but that doesn’t mean fewer people are being bullied by bullies. It’s hard as hell out there for kids today.
It’s incredibly easy to watch Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer today and then lazily pick it apart.
Let us not forget, it has a happy ending. The bullies do see the light...the error of their ways. Donner, who feels terrible about how he’s treated his firstborn son, apologizes profusely to him. Santa feels no less guilty, and when he realizes that Rudolph’s glowing red nose will help him deliver toys on time at Christmas, he jumps at the chance to ask Rudolph for help.
And where does the famous flying sleigh stop first? None other than the “Island of Misfit Toys” to pick up toys that had been previously banished because of their apparent flaws or quirky characteristics.
Yes, watching in 2018, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer shows its age. But its lessons never grow old.