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.
Rudolph’s nose frightens his father because it jeopardizes his and his son’s position in the social hierarchy of the North Pole. Homosexuality or queerness is denigrated in the classic patriarchal system because it assumes that with the homosexual’s refusal to sexually reproduce, (though this is not always the case now) that the homosexual will then refuse to reproduce the social relations of patriarchy. Rudolph, the queer child, understands early in his life what the expectations are for his life, and while he cannot quite understand what they mean in the broader picture of society, he can already sense he is failing to meet them because of his difference. Queerness is always constructed as a failure to maintain an unquestioned norm, and that this queerness is some how unnatural.
The film shows us how the patriarchal system that mandates heterosexuality is far from normal or natural, but rather, how it is a product of learning to become a man and performing manhood in a fashion legible to the social definition held by peers and elders. We see this clearly in the reindeer games scene, where Rudolph, with his nose concealed behind a black prosthesis, begins his lessons in learning how to fly (and impress the does in the process) through the tutelage of a gym teacher charged with “making bucks out of [them]”. Masculinity is revealed to be not a completely natural attribute, but instead something that one learns. The process of becoming a man is thus contingent upon performing manhood convincingly in front of others.
Although it is presumed that the point of exhibiting masculinity is the end goal of attaining a woman, the woman is revealed to be only the signifier of one’s masculinity in the eyes of other males. Rudolph demonstrates his superior talent in flying, bolstered by his confidence after Clarice tells him she finds him cute, but when his prosthesis falls off and his nose is revealed, the other young deer, the coach, and Santa himself recoil in horror and then mock him as unfit to be a future member of the sleigh team. Despite the ridicule, Clarice comes to comfort Rudolph and restate her interest in him. However, her approval alone does not console Rudolph and he decides to run away. If the true objective of heterosexuality was to simply develop a coupling with a woman, then Clarice’s approval would be sufficient. However, what the scene of ridicule and shame reveals is that normative heterosexuality is not about the mere coupling of man and woman, but about being able to signify one’s normality and agency to the rest of the world through the woman. Rudolph is queer even though he has won the affections of a female because in this classic patriarchal structure, the female is a mere signifier of normality, an object that does not have the power to recognize and validate the man in of herself. Rather, the man is validated through other men who evaluate him through his possession of a woman as an element of his manhood.
2. Industry, Capitalism, and the Means of Production
There is a telling exchange between Rudolph and his father that hints at the origins of his father’s judgments of conformity when he first imposes the prosthetic black nose on his son. Rudolph complains that the prosthesis is uncomfortable and Donner retorts, “There are more important things than comfort, self respect! Santa can’t object to you now!” Although Donner reacts to Rudolph’s nose in personal horror and disgust, the true origin of that sentiment is product of the norms set down by a higher authority. As the factory owner, controller of the means of production, and resident 1%er of the North Pole, Santa has the power to shape the culture and ideology of the inhabitants of the land who are dependent on his near monopoly on local industry in order to make a living. It is never clear why Santa at first disapproves of Rudolph’s nose, but of course, once he realizes during the storm that his nose can guide his sleigh and save his industry, he convinces everyone that something he once treated as a deformity is now a virtue.
When Rudolph is given the lead position in front of the sleigh at the end of the film, Donner states that he knew Rudolph’s nose would be a good thing all along, thus changing his personal set of values based on the opinions of the man who controls the means of production, for whom virtues and values revolve around what is good for his industry. Thus, in a Marxist way, the story illustrates the power that those who control the means of production have in manufacturing public ideology, with the power to change cultural norms based on what is expedient for production. What was once denigrated as queer and shunned can be ingratiated back into society as a virtue based on its profitability.
3. Policing Class (and possibly racial) Identity
Are the reindeer people? Are the elves people? They seem to possess conscious, self-aware minds, the symbolic capacity of language, and the ability to socially organize in a civilization, but they both seem, as well, to occupy a permanent underclass status at the North Pole. The entirety of the Reindeer community revolves around pulling Santa’s sleigh. They are animals living in caves, yet they possess the capacity to reason and communicate like a human. We see the same situation with the elves. They clearly possess human qualities, yet all elves are expected to work mindless assembly line jobs with the exception of Hermey who pursues a desire to perform intellectually satisfying labor as a dentist. Even Rudolph, with his cruel treatment as a misfit, upholds the status quo that he become the member of Santa’s team that all reindeer are predestined by the culture to become. Only Hermey questions the unexamined norm that a certain racial (if we can think of elves as a race) or species identity biologically predisposes the individual to the subservient and oppressed status of their people.
Rudolph’s non-conformity is biological. Hermey’s non-conformity is a product of intellect, but he is treated as if there is something constitutionally wrong with him when he declares he does not like making toys and would rather become a dentist. The essentialism instilled in the proletarian class of elves by the dominant culture makes them feel as though their place at the bottom of the chain of production is somehow written into their genes. Instead of raging against the system of production that ensures their subservient status, they berate and bully Hermey for aspiring to perform non-mechanized labor and pursue scientific knowledge as a dentist Hermey is a misfit simply because he possesses class-consciousness and defies the essentialist construction of the elves as a permanent class identity.
The bullying that both Hermey and Rudolph endure illustrates how often the bully is himself in a position of oppression and limited power. Bullying then comes from an individual or group that represses thoughts of their limited agency by taking it out on a weaker individual. The bully hates the misfit because the misfit is a living, breathing symbol of his own limited power on the grand scale of society.
In both Donner’s treatment of Rudolph and the fellow elves’ treatment of Hermey, the film illuminates the role that industry and capitalism play in creating cultural norms and values, constructing essentialisms of identity, and leaving those in the oppressed position to police each other. Queerness as a degraded quality is set by those who realize (perhaps unconsciously) that a figure that does not fit into the norms of production has the capacity to question its logic. By marginalizing and subjugating the queer, those who produce culture eliminate voices of dissent through the policing power of the very group that shares that misfit’s struggle.
The Island of Misfit Toys as a Lost Queer Utopia
When Hermey and Rudolph meet one another as they both run away from the oppressive conditions of life in the North Pole, their bond based on mutual outsider status suggests the possibility of an alternative model of social relations not based on essentialized gender, class, or racial identity and status. Hermey and Rudolph agree to be “independent together,” based on the fact that Hermey does not mind Rudolph’s nose and that Rudolph does not mind that Hermey is a dentist, although he has no concept of what a dentist is. The idea of difference in their relationship is not monstrous or threatening. Rudolph is not phased by Hermey outing himself as an identity that Rudolph does not comprehend because he recognizes the more important ways in which they are similar..
Yet, the independent together, dentist and red-nosed reindeer relationship suggests that queerness and difference need not be threatening to a sense of community and mutually beneficial personal relationships. Rather, it illustrates that part of the basic unhappiness of the individual in civilization is in his attempt to find meaningful relationships within traditional systems of kinship, labor, and culture that require him to repress certain parts of his self and contort his identity to fit the paradigm of the role through which he can gain recognition. With Rudolph and Hermey, there is no predetermined relationship schema, no essentialized roles, just mutual recognition of the other’s right to individuality and the desire to create a relationship that supports each others’ desire. Their pairing implies the possibility of an alternate form of kinship and community and the right of the individual to seek and define their own form of community and define relationships outside of tradition.
This is where I come to the Island of Misfit Toys. At first, when Rudolph and Hermey arrive, they have a sense that perhaps they have finally found a place where they can truly belong. If an entire community equally shares the concept of being a misfit, then perhaps everyone can live together equally. Without a norm with which to fit into, the idea of being a misfit could be erased entirely from the culture. Yet, nobody on the Island of Misfit Toys is happy with their misfit status. They possess community, a common identity and desire, a support network, yet this functional culture makes none of them happy.
As it is explained to Rudolph, Hermey, and the audience, this base unhappiness is due to the fact that “a toy is never happy until it is loved by a child.” Once again, we come back to the psychological problem of recognition—specifically that individuals seek happiness, fulfillment, and love by being recognized by certain authorities that they grant the power to recognize them on those terms. Just as Clarice’s affection is not enough to keep Rudolph at home because he seeks the recognition of other men, so too is the community among other misfit toys not enough to make them happy because they seek the recognition of a child. Toys are literally fabricated for the specific amusement of a child, engineered to be useful based on whether or not the child finds the toy engaging. The same can be said for the psyche of the individual who does not question the cultural ideologies that have inculcated in him as a child, the need to find recognition in certain forms of authority.
The child instinctively seeks the recognition of a parent, and as they emerge into society, that desire to find recognition from a paternal or maternal figure is projected onto social institutions such as the government, industry, the church, etc. Patriarchy is not just the rule of one’s father, but the way in which institutions operate paternalistically. The inhabitants of the Island of Misfit Toys never question the source of their need for recognition, much like how many queer individuals continue to seek recognition and approval from institutions that want little to do with them.
The misfit toys miss the opportunity to find mutual recognition in each other and to appreciate how their community can rectify the kinds of ideology that resulted in their degraded status as misfits. In this allegory, there is a message for the modern lgbt community—that if it questions the basis of the oppressive norms of a society that calls them outcasts instead of desiring to fit in at the cost of assimilation, it can build the forms of recognition and “independence together” to create forms of relationships that avoid the oppression of traditional social roles.
Yet, the moral of Rudolph stops short of this possibility. Non-conformity is presented as the root of unhappiness, and the moral of the story is ultimately that normal people should work to be accepting of the abnormal so long as they don’t disrupt the status quo of gender, class, and race too much. Rudolph, Hermey, and even the Abominable Snow Monster eventually find a place in the society of the North Pole once the powers that be realize that their abnormalities can be put to productive use for Santa’s industry.
Even misfits have a place in society. I can agree with this sentiment, but not as the film intends. Misfits do have a place in society, and that is to critique its abuses, to agitate for the reformation of oppressive social and political institutions, and to think creatively about alternatives. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer points at the possibilities of using the figure of the misfit to examine to roots of the abuses people face in modern society, and it is for this reason that it can be used to teach about the production of otherness and the experience of queer identity.
About the Author:
Chase Dimock is the Managing Editor of As It Ought To Be. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Illinois and his scholarship has appeared in College Literature, Western American Literature, and numerous edited anthologies. His works of literary criticism have appeared in Mayday Magazine, The Lambda Literary Review, Modern American Poetry, and Dissertation Reviews.