Blog #3: Rudolph

Throughout the 1964 TV special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” many of the main characters are classified as “misfits,” including Heremy, the elf who wants to be a dentist, and Rudolph, whose nose and lack of reindeer abilities other him. In one of the early songs in the work they sing:

We’re a coupIe of misfits, what’s the matter with misfits?

Seems to us kind of siIIy, that we don’t fit in.

We may be different from the rest

Who decides the test of what is reaIIy best?

Here they directly question what qualifies someone as a “misfit.” But it isn’t until Heremy, Rudolph, and their pal Yukon enter the Island of Misfit Toys that they realize the true plight of being other and/or excluded. The island and its inhabitants are introduced in a catchy song that is sweet, comedic, and festive, celebrating how Christmas is “the most wonderful day of the year.” However, at its core the song is a narrative about how these “defective” toys have been banished by Santa Claus to this island of manufacturing rejects, since no child would ever want to play with them.

In the song, the misfit toys describe the world they are excluded from:

Toys gaIore, scattered on the fIoor

There’s no room for more

And it’s aII because of Santa CIaus

A scooter for Jimmy, a doIIy for Sue

The kind that wiII even say ”How do you do?”

Here the happy world of regular children and perfect toys is glorified and characterized as something all the misfits wish they could be a part of. They then go on to describe their misfit-ness and the rhetoric that makes them undesirable to children:

How wouId you Iike to be a spotted eIephant?

Or a choo-choo with square wheeIs on your caboose?

Or a water pistoI that shoots jeIIy?

WouId you Iike to be a bird that doesn’t fIy? I swim!

Or a cowboy who rides an ostrich?

Or a boat that can’t stay afIoat?

We’re aII misfits!

If we’re on the IsIand of Unwanted Toys

We’II miss aII the fun With the girIs and the boys

When Christmas day is here, the most wonderful day of the year!

Although this is a TV special meant for children, I find it hard to ignore the disability politics of the situation. The toys are all marked as “misfits,” as defective and undesirable because of their irregular bodies. Many of the toys are functional still, but just not in traditionally way (train with square wheels). Some simply have different aesthetic elements (spotted element). This song/scene is an amazing example of the social model of disability: although the toys are still functional (have no “medical” conditions), they are stigmatized by society for being different. So this song creates comedy for children by mocking the unexpected manufacturing errors in the toys, but also has a potential deep satire about hierarchies of ability.

In exchange for temporary housing on the island, the toys make Rudolph promise to make Santa help them. All the misfits know that children would still like to play with them. Although they ave been stimgatized, they know that Santa “could find children who would be happy with [us].” In the 1964 Santa later promises to help the toys but does nothing. However, in the 1965 version the animators added a scene of Santa saving the misfit toys, and that version has been the one televised ever since. Rudolph’s bodily variation (red nose) saves the day and the misfit toys are finally given the chance to be played with by children.

In McGillis’ article he uses many terms from Gothic theory to describe the bodily reaction to bodily irregularity, such as Lacan’s the Real, Burkean sublime, and Freudian uncanny. In all three situations, an audience members recognizes something both familiar and unfamiliar about something, in this case, an irregular body. The result is a mix of captivation and fear. All of these terms from Gothic criticism are directly applicable to disability and to the Island of Misfit Toys, whose inhabitants are very familiar yet somehow off, making them relatable but distant, fun but startling, comedic yet sad. Because of all these contrapuntal emotions, the misfits toys are fascinating and captivating, so much so that we keep coming back to them year after year in one of the most beloved and memorable Christmas TV specials (often accepting their comedy and cute irregularities without questioning the politics of the scene).

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