Now, I know what you’re thinking: Tony Bravo, you think everything is a gay allegory. In the past, I’ve pointed to the X-Men (mutant powers manifesting at puberty that require a coming out process and results in discrimination), Twilight‘s gym queen werewolf, Morrissey-looking vampire and sulky girl in flannel (technically, the books are a Mormon allegory for waiting until marriage, but the movies are totally a gay allegory), Maria von Trapp (the musical version, not the historical one), and even the Little Mermaid. But Rudolph is special. Not only is our red-nosed friend a seasonal gay allegory, but he’s one that generations of children have grown up with, through the song (gay) and the stop-motion Rank and Bass special that plays every year on an ABC Family loop (extremely gay). For our purposes, let’s dissect the 1964 television special; it is, after all, a classic.
– Folk Singer Burl Ives opens and closes Rudolph and occasionally interjects a song as narrator “Sam the Snowman.” Sam the Snowman wears a very Commes Des Garcons-looking plaid vest (hmmmm) and sounds exactly like Burl Ives as Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The fact that I can immediately tie this special to a Tennessee Williams masterwork already lets you know just how gay this is going to get.
– Reindeer Donner’s wife (she doesn’t get a name so we’ll just call her Mrs. Donner) starts the story properly by giving birth to a pretty, slightly feminine fawn (voiced by actress Billie Mae Richards) that the Donners name Rudolph. Mr. Donner struts proudly with the thought that his masculine legacy of pulling Santa’s sleigh will live on, when suddenly, little Rudolph’s nose starts to glow bright red. Donner recoils in horror like so many fathers when their sons first express an interest in fashion design or musical theater, but Mrs. Donner shrugs and says, “I guess we’ll just have to overlook it.” Not exactly a declaration of love and acceptance, but she’s one of the few members of Santa’s conformity village that are nice to the poor kid.
– Just when he could do the most good, Santa enters the scene and does the most harm. Observing that Rudolph is smart (he’s a newborn fawn that properly identifies everyone by name), Santa too recoils when Rudolph’s red nose starts to glow. “I’m sure he’ll grow out of it, Santa,” Donner immediately apologizes, ashamed that his fey and different little fawn embarrassed him in front of the boss. “He’ll have to, if he wants to join the sleigh team!” And with that, Santa goes on his merry way, now that he’s basically given Donner and all the other reindeer carte blanche to torment our little red-nosed LGBT youth allegory. Every time I watch the special, it occurs to me that Santa could have sent this story in an entirely different direction if he said, “Donner, don’t apologize for the kid. The nose is part of who he is” and then pulled a stop-motion Lady Gaga out of his sack to sing “Born This Way.”
– Deeply ashamed of his red-nosed son, Donner covers his nose with some convenient dirt so he can be “a normal little buck.” That’s sort of like when fathers of gay sons insist on giving them a football for Christmas instead of the One Direction calendar they asked for so they “will have something in common with the boys on the playground.” Rudolph’s shameful nose hidden, Donner can finally hug his son — but it’s a false love. When Mrs. Donner gives her son a kiss, his nose happily blinks bright red and you get the feeling things haven’t entirely been resolved.
– Welcome to Rudolph’s (and almost every little gay boy’s) worst nightmare: gym class. As if Rudolph isn’t nervous enough about the reindeer equivalent of the rope climb, Donner has made some kind of basic black nose condom for his son to wear. Rudolph senses his father’s shame. To make matters worse, said nose condom makes him talk like someone from Schenectady with a sinus infection. Rudolph meets future closet case Fireball (that tuft of red hair didn’t style itself) who, in his eagerness to prove how straight he is, befriends Rudolph at the Reindeer Games and tells him it’s “a great place to impress the does!” Right, Fireball, and the locker room is a great place to bond with other bros. Not surprisingly, the prettiest of all the does, a fashion forward chick with false eyelashes and a hair bow named Clarice, picks up the sensitive Rudolph right away, sensing he’s different (and somehow better) than the other reindeer. All right, Clarice; I know Rudolph listens to you and protects you from the unwanted glances of other bucks and gossips with you at the salt lick, but you’re barking up the wrong tree. Thrilled that someone is being nice to him, Rudolph flits and flies better than all the other Reindeer to the amazement of his peers and the coach. When Rudolph starts to playfully rut with Fireball after Clarice calls him “cute,” his nose starts to glow under its condom and is revealed. Self-hating Fireball tells him to get away, as if he might contract the gay gene through nasal contact. The other bucks start calling poor Rudolph names and just when the adults could make it better, they don’t.
Santa: Donner, you should be ashamed of yourself.
Reindeer Coach: Alright bucks, we won’t let Rudolph join in any of our reindeer games, isn’t that right?
– While Rudolph is struggling not to get gay bashed, a blond sprig of an elf (who looks and sounds like Carson Kressley) named Hermey is getting a verbal beat down from the head of the toy department because he wants to be a dentist. “You’re an elf, make toys!” Hermey decides to run away (it’s never exactly made clear if Santa owns the elves and the reindeer) and meets up with Rudolph and arctic prospector Yukon Cornelius. Together, the three escape the Abominable Snowman on an ice float that brings them to the Island of Misfit Toys. Where to begin… Basically, the Island of Misfit Toys is a gay bar where slightly “off” but totally cool-looking toys (stuffed elephants with polka dots, lions with wings, talking trains) all live together in exile hoping Santa will take them to good little girls and boys for Christmas one day. Best toy on the island? “Charlie-in-the-box” because “who wants a toy in a box if it isn’t Jack?” Fearing his red nose will attract the Abominable Snowman to Gay Bar Island (by the way, if I ever open a gay bar, I’m calling it “Island of Misfit Toys”), Rudolph leaves and wanders alone, eventually returning home to find out that his terrible, guilt-ridden parents and Clarice went missing looking for him.
– To conclude our allegory, Rudolph, dentist apprentice Hermey and Yukon Cornelius all rescue the Donner party (see what I did there?) plus Clarice from the Snowman’s icy cave. Once back at the North Pole, Donner and the other jerks sheepishly apologize to Rudolph because hey, he may be gay and have a red nose, but he was braver than all of them ever were. Suddenly, the nose that was his cause for scorn becomes his most celebrated feature. Santa changes his tune when he realizes that glowing beacon can lead his sleigh through a storm. That’s not really the kind of growth I was hoping for. Santa slightly redeems himself by sending the Misfit Toys to good homes, even though it means last call at Gay Bar Island. And, although this isn’t included in the actual film, I assume the Donners start a PFLAG chapter in the North Pole, Clarice and Rudolph get a condo on the Upper West Side together where they’ll have lots of zany, sitcom antics and Fireball eventually comes out to Rudolph on Chanukah and declares his long-held attraction to boys with ginger noses. Also, Rudolph and his finally out-and-proud red nose win at life: Can you think of another reindeer who has his own song?
Watch the 1964 classic with your new appreciation for Rudolph’s queer struggle: