Friday, November 23, 2007

Rudolph The Red-Nosed Passive Object

This song has always bothered me.

As I've mentioned before, it starts off by throwing out an inane question, in that little spoken-sung prologue:
You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen
Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen
But do you recall
The most famous reindeer of all?
This is kind of like starting a song about a famous comedy team thusly:
You know Chico and Harpo
And you even know Zeppo
But do you recall
The most famous Marx Brother of all?
Yes! Yes, I recall him. He's the most famous of all! You've answered your own question.

But what really bothers me about this song is that it completely denies Rudolph, the nominal main character of this particular tale, any active role in the narrative. For a story purporting to be about him, he's oddly denied any actual personhood. Reindeerhood. Whatever.

Check it out:
Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer
Had a very shiny nose
And if you ever saw it
You would even say it glows.
Right off the bat, the story is not about Rudolph, or his thoughts about his unfortunate condition. Instead, an omniscient narrator identifies that condition as the defining trait of not just Rudolph's physical being, but ultimately of his character. Rudolph himself is completely passive, an object to which a red, shiny nose, which apparently even glows, happens to be attached. The narrator then moves on to engage in conjecture about how you, dear listener, would react should you ever actually encounter this poor creature.
All of the other reindeer
Used to laugh and call him names.
They never let poor Rudolph
Join in any reindeer games.
Compare this, for instance, to Frosty the Snowman, who is an active agent in the song bearing his name.

The next verse considers the reaction of another group interacting with Rudolph, i.e., all of the other reindeer. There's a brief, fleeting recognition of Rudolph's status within -- or rather without -- the group, but again, it's from the point of view of the group regarding him as Other. The story is Rudolph's forced exclusion from the community, rather than his response to his exclusion. All of the action is given to other actors, never to Rudolph.
Then one foggy Christmas eve
Santa came to say
"Rudolph with your nose so bright
Won't you guide my sleigh tonight?"
Here another character is introduced, Rudolph's employer/protector, who has presumably been turning a blind eye to his mistreatment at the hands hooves of all of the other reindeer. Seeing an actual use to which Rudolph's malady can be put, in the service of the agenda of the employer-turned-exploiter, Santa springs. Notice also that Rudolph is now prized for his constituent parts, rather than his talents as a whole, fulfilled being, much like any farm-raised animal is slaughtered and its corpse picked apart for its useful properties.

Next comes the most telling part of the whole song. Rather than a verse featuring Rudolph's response to Santa's plea, the song skips straight to the reaction of those around him:
Then how the reindeer loved him
As they shouted out with glee
"Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer
you'll go down in history!"
It's far from clear that Rudolph has even assented to Santa's request. In fact, a logical, if vengeful, response would have been for Rudolph to tell Santa to get stuffed:
Santa and you other reindeer
Mrs. Claus and all you elves
You're a bunch of selfish assholes
Why don't you go and fuck yourselves?
The actual outcome of Santa's proposal is a little unclear. The reindeer who now love him may be jumping the gun, in that the way the song is constructed, it's not clear whether Rudolph has responded at all, but they assume he'll help dear old Santa, or whether he has responded, and his response simply hasn't been included.

If the former, notice what this says about Rudolph, and by extension, workers the world over: after silently suffering years of mistreatment from his peers, with no consequence from his and their master, after being systematically excluded from their games, and presumably from any substantive interaction with the group, Rudolph is now supposed -- in fact, expected -- to be grateful for the opportunity to (finally) contribute to the goals set by the group and its leader (which, incidentally, he had no part in setting, and in which it is not clear that he has any tangible interest). Meanwhile, how he feels about this is deemed so unimportant as to not be worthy of mention.

If the latter, notice again that this is the final, and most telling, instance in which Rudolph is not even granted an active role in his own tale. Either way, the emotion here belongs to the other reindeer, who now love him and shout out with glee. Rudolph's reaction is not recorded. His reward is to be lauded by future generations -- to "go down in history." Again, he does not act; he is acted upon. The present-day joy and glee are experiences that belong to the other reindeer. They, not he, have undergone a journey of self-discovery in which important lessons have been learned. Rudolph's status as an outsider is cemented. Ironically, he'll go down in history, presumably in story and song -- a song which doesn't even grant him an active role in his own story, or acknowledge his individuated experience. Some reward.


anne said...

The only thing I can add here is that Santa's work ethic and his actions as an employer lead me to believe he might be partly Pennsylvania Dutch.

Like my boss.

Not that I'm bitter.

Jozet at Halushki said...

omg...I can't believe I didn't give you the Geek of the Week award.

Kath said...

I always knew there was something seriously dysfunctional about that song...

As for Satan, a.k.a. Santa, I vote we boycott him and his entire operation until he straightens up.