more overthinking: Rudolph the Geeky Reindeer

I loved the story and the song of Rudolph when I was a kid, and nowadays, the Kiddos love it too.

I went to college at Cornell, which has a significant geek population. Suddenly I fit right in. (No, really, don’t gasp with surprise. You knew I was a geek.) In my sophomore year, I moved off-campus to live with nine others; that’s a story in itself. For Christmas, we scrounged up a tape of Rankin & Bass’s Rudolph, and we scheduled a movie night.

And at the end, when we shut it off, the room was dead silent.

I don’t remember who spoke up first, but it finally came out we were all in agreement: the story was horrible.

There were ten of us (misfits ourselves, geeks who had never made the social cut) who now saw the dark side of the Rudolph story. All of us had dealt with the laughter and the names, being cut out of the schoolyard games. Maybe that’s even why we liked the story as kids, because it was the misfit made hero once everyone recognized what a wonderful person he was.

But as young adults, we all concluded that (in the animation, not so much in the song) he was acceptable to the other reindeer ONLY in as much as he proved useful to them. That one’s inner difference was tolerable only when one could leverage that to be useful to the folks at the top of the social food chain.

I still find that very disturbing. In the show, even Santa is nasty to Rudolph until the moment he realizes, hey, I can use him for something! at which point, Rudolph eeks his way into acceptability. Santa and the reindeer will let him solve their problem for them. And for this, Rudolph is thankful. He saves the day, and then all the reindeer love him.

Don’t get me wrong: contributing to the common good is not a bad thing. What’s bad is branding someone’s eccentricities as acceptable only inasmuch as they contribute.

Like me, my Patient Husband is a geek. The Kiddos are showing geeky tendencies already, and my best friends tend toward that end of the spectrum as well.

It’s hard enough knowing we don’t fit in without the added pressure of feeling we must save the day in order to win the acceptance everyone else gets for free. As if being born different is a crime we have to pay back to society.

We’re worth more than the work we do. We’re worth more than the problems we solve.

It’s still a kid’s story, and I don’t forbid it. But I do talk to the Kiddos about Rudolph and how he felt. I want them to “get it” from both sides of the equation, both when they’re the red-nosed ones and when they’re the black-nosed.


  1. Jason Block

    Well, it goes without saying that another story that bothers me from a “pop culture” perspective is the show Grease.

    I love the music, and I love the story…except for the ending. The moral of the story is…you can’t be yourself and the good girl to get the guy in the end…you have dress like a floozy and smoke and be a garden implement to get him. Sad.

  2. philangelus

    Ah, you’ve been speaking to my mother.

    Travolta’s character *also* changed at the end, but it’s not as dramatic as Olivia Newton-John’s transformation, so it gets overlooked. (Plus, he just takes off that cardigan sweater. She keeps the hooker look.)

  3. Diinzumo

    When did this show come out? 1969 or so? That was the age of the hippies, but the mainstream still had to Toe the Line. Back in those days, I think, you really had to conform and be useful to be valued. Nowadays, I think the message is mixed–it’s now okay to let your geek flag fly, but you’d better justify your existence in some way (“Hey, aren’t geeks creative? Do something creative like Bill Gates, geek”).

  4. Jason block

    If I haven’t said before…GEEKS RULE! 🙂 Geeks have gotten more “acceptabiility”. There is still the stereotype of the Star Trek loving, virgin till 35, living in the momma’s basement thing…but I can live. Geeks still rule.

  5. Diinzumo

    There’s a wonderful t-shirt design that has cartoons of 58 different types of geek: Band geek, sports geek, math geek, Trek geek… it was cute. I’ll have to look it up again.

    In high school I was an art geek. But that was cool because art geeks were somewhat admired: “Draw something in my yearbook!” 😉