Growing up on the Island of Misfit Toys
Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer as a Queer Allegory
By Chase Dimock
(Note: This a reposted and edited version of this article originally published here in 2013)
The Misfit Narrative and Queer Youth
The narrative of the misfit character struggling to find his place in the world is a well-used trope for popular entertainment. It is universally identifiable and it lends itself to a light, yet redeeming moral at the end of the story. Everyone thinks of himself or herself as a misfit to some degree and everyone is accustomed to the simplistic and not controversial message of tolerance and treating everyone equally.
Yet, the story of Rudolph as a misfit takes on a different dimension for the 50 years worth of queer American children who grew up watching the holiday classic every year on television. While these stories about treating kindly those different from us and not being afraid to be different were commonplace in the American classroom with their examples of not being ashamed to wear glasses, have freckles, stutter, etc., the narrative of tolerating difference resonates differently for queer youth. Unlike the child with glasses who knows he is the same as other children beneath the glasses, queer youth often feel an intrinsic difference; they are often treated as though they inhabit a different kind of body and thus live as almost another species of being. The queer youth is looking for more than a little hope that they will be tolerated and accepted; they are also looking for a subject model to emulate, a guide on how to live as a misfit.
For most of the past 50 years, lgbt youth have had to look for subject models in the abstract. Until the past decade, there were few, if any, lgbt-identified characters in the media that their family consumed. Unlike today, where lgbt youth have a character on Glee or Modern Family to point to in order to navigate their lgbt subject position, children of previous generations (including myself) had to look elsewhere for characters and subject models who mirrored their queerness in non-explicitly gendered or sexual forms. Coming into one’s gay identity meant identifying across a variety of different kinds of queerness and cobbling together a sense of how to think and live in a marginalized subject position by observing and learning from other forms of outsider status, like racial minorities, the disabled, immigrants, the poor—pretty much any oppressed class of people who had some representation in the media.
In a certain way, maturing into my gay subjectivity by identifying through the similar outsider subject positions of others was beneficial because I saw my gayness as united with other disadvantaged segments of the population. It allowed me to see that some of the challenges facing the lgbt world come not simply from sexual or gender difference, but also from how society defines and polices otherness. In contrast, growing up today with gay visibility in the mainstream media sometimes cuts out some of the unique self-invention that the queer youth historically went through in understanding their sexual or gender identity. Now they are given preformed, and usually limited, definitions of what constitutes an lgbt person. We now tolerate same sex attraction insofar as it does not disrupt or challenge our cultural norms.
This is the legacy that the “be nice to those who are different” and “be proud to be different” morals have left modern LGBT youth now that movements like the It Gets Better Project and anti-bullying causes have updated this message for the 21st century. These are fine messages to begin with: on the very basic level, we should indeed be nice to those who are different and be proud of our differences. Yet, just like how the It Gets Better Project (in spite of itself) became a vehicle for press-seeking celebrities and corporations to dilute its specifically LGBT oriented message with vague assertions of “hang in there kids”, so too does this tolerance fable often miss the supposed point of its own message. It’s okay to be different, but more often than not, the happy ending of the story is that the misfit learns that their difference is their key to fitting in.
Rudolph’s red nose is accepted once it is discovered that society has a use for it and he can fit in at the front of Santa’s sleigh. When the misfit’s happy ending is finally finding a place to fit in within the same social system that had once rejected him, ultimately the moral of the story is to tolerate only minor, superficial differences. The moral of the story declares it is okay to be a misfit by showing how a misfit has a place in society—which renders him no longer a misfit. It is the story of social assimilation—difference is tolerable as long as it fits into the social hierarchy and structure and does not threaten it.
This is the same problem that lgbt youth face today as society has become more accepting of gay identity and more exposure has been granted to gay characters in the media. There is increasing support for coming out as gay, but because modern lgbt activism has stressed its “normality” as the key to gaining rights. One comes out to a specific idea of what gay sexuality constitutes, including a preconceived identity politics and culture. Now that there are “uses” for the gay man in society (largely stereotypes of the interior decorator, hair dresser, stage producer, though there is no shame in these vocations) he is encouraged to come out because there are non-threatening, economically viable uses for his labor in mainstream society. His misfit status isn’t accepted or defended, because ultimately society has a found a “fit” for him that serves the dominant culture. Essentially, you are allowed to be gay, but just not queer.
Rudolph also invents the possibility of a queer utopia: The Island of Misfit Toys, a place where being different, thus queer, is what makes one belong. It’s an alternative form of community that we arrive at near the end of the story after we have followed the journey of the aforementioned Rudolph and his unlikely fellow misfit, Hermey, the elf who leaves the drudgery of assembly line manufacturing to become a dentist. The film’s narrative gives us fascinating insight into how society determines and polices difference.Through Rudolph’s story, we can see how the queer individual is constituted through:
1. Sexism and the Patriarchal Family System (Donner’s fear that his son’s nose will prevent him from maturing into a proper, heterosexual patriarch)
2. Industry, Capitalism, and the Means of Production (How Santa’s system of production values certain traits amenable to his production of toys)
3. Through Class (and Possibly Racial) Identity (The Reindeer and Elves as permanent underclasses of laborers with essentialized identities that lock them into their drudgery)
Finally, when Rudolph and Hermey the elf band together as misfits, become “independent together”, and visit the Island of Misfit Toys, the film suggests an alternative kinship structure where difference within the social system is not defined against an internal norm, but as a virtue proper to itself. Yet, the Island of Misfit Toys is a paradise lost, a queer utopia that could have been. They present the possibility of a society based not on prefabricated social roles, but on mutual support of each other’s individuality.
1. Sexism and the Patriarchal Family System
A child is never born as a blank slate. Not only does he begin life with unique genetic traits that will influence his course of life he is also born into a subject position preconceived by his parents, and by association, their social position. As the son of one of Santa’s reindeer, Rudolph’s identity is already predetermined by his sex and social position. This is the legacy of patriarchy; his manhood, future vocation, place within the reindeer community, and concomitant beliefs and values are all formulated for him before he has the ability to understand any of it because he was conceived in his father’s image to become a patriarch himself. Continue reading