Last Year I wrote this on the psychology of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for Psychology Today. I thought it might be fun to pull it out of storage and repost it. I hope you enjoy!
When you think about how you want to spend your holidays, I imagine that activities like shopping, cocoa drinking, gift exchanging or ice skating come to mind. It is not my hunch that watching others be judged, shamed, publicly ridiculed and kicked out of their families for birth defects or job preferences signify happy holiday activities to you.
However, there is a part of my Christmas tradition that is a must: watching an innocent be tormented for what one might consider a birth defect. That is, watching Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. I have watched it ever since I was a child and never gave it up (even when I figured out that this is a highly abusive story line; however, less than the unwatchable Christmas Story. I know many people love that movie. I hate it. It is the therapist in me that cannot stand to watch actual children being emotionally abused. Young puppet reindeer abuse I can watch more easily as I know that no real reindeers were harmed in the making of this Christmas special). The emotional abuse of a tiny reindeer continues to be part of my annual Christmas tradition.
Let’s go through the entire show and look at all of the psychological issues that occur in its 52 minutes:
1. Santa has an eating disorder. He starts the show thin and balloons up by the end, fitting in his fat Santa suit in time for Christmas.
2. Mrs. Santa has a need for her husband to be fat. She shames him by saying, “Who ever heard of a skinny Santa? Eat, eat!” It seems that to find him lovable, he needs to look a certain way. Very often those with eating issues want to control others’ food. I think, at the very least, Mrs. Santa is codependent.
3. Rudolph is born with a “shiny nose.” Mother says, “We’ll simply have to overlook it.” Father is unable to see past his son’s faults. Ah, the joy of Christmas.
4. Santa comes to see the new baby, sees Rudolph’s nose and is equally aghast. Then, in front of the new mother and her baby, Santa decides to break into song about how he is the “King of jingling.” Methinks Santa might be a tad narcissistic. Santa is not on the nice list.
5. Rudolph isn’t an hour old and his father already has turned him into a bad object: “He’ll never make the sleigh team.” It seems Rudolph was born to live out his father’s dreams. Donner has issues. He needed this tiny reindeer to be a perfect reflection of him. Now that Donner sees that his son has some physical challenges he is angry and anxious.
6. Donner, in an act of desperation, decides to compromise his son’s breathing by taking a clomp of dirt and placing it on his baby son’s nose so as to hide his birth defect. Anyone have the number for child protective services in the North Pole? Donner is relieved, Rudolph’s nose is hidden, “Now he’ll be a chip off the old antlers.” Narcissism is rampant in the North Pole.
7. The first time Donner shows any affection to Rudolph is when he is wearing what Winnicott might call, “The False Self” or “The False Nose.”
8. Mother kisses her son. He grows giddy from the affection and praise, which causes the false self/nose to fall off, and once again is met with parental disappointment for his “non-conformity.”
9. Rudolph grows older and Donner got Rudolph a prosthetic nose. Rudolph objects and explains that it isn’t comfortable. Donner says, “There are more important things than comfort, self-respect.” I guess Donner believes that self-respect can come through prosthetics. Mrs. Donner stands by silently and does nothing to intervene on her son’s behalf. It is possible that she too is a victim of Donner’s emotional abuse.
10. Now Rudolph is depressed. He takes to singing songs about how he is a misfit. This would be a good place for a commercial for Zoloft.
11. Comet, the coach of the Reindeer boys, is trying to initiate the bucks. Rudolph gets some positive attention from a girl, which makes him fly higher than all the other bucks, and his false nose/self falls off. All of the kids in flying class call Rudolph names and he gets cut from the team. Sensitivity training in North Pole? I think not. Then Santa flies off the handle and shames Donner for having such a freak for a son.
12. Happily, Rudolph has one person in his life that likes him as he is, a lovely doe named Clarice. But her parents are mortified to learn she is dating a red nose and they insist they break things off. Uh, is all the red nose stuff via the McCarthy era?
13. Rudolph grows increasingly depressed. He joins an alienated elf and they decide to run away. Neither of them need anyone, or so they say. Actually, Rudolph needs accepting parents, peers and community support. Hermey, if he wants to be a dentist, needs clients.
14. Rudolph is feeling so alienated that he runs away and get involved with ne’er-do-wells and other loners. He grows up alone and with no friends and family and when his antlers get heavy on his head, he stops thinking clearly and decides he needs to go back home to the place he received all the early emotional abuse. Doesn’t this just warm your heart like a Yule log burning brightly in the hearth?
15. He gets home to discover that his parents finally developed some guilt and had hit the road looking for him. Narcissistic Santa, true to character, sees Rudolph and tells him that what he is worried about is how all this is impacting them. Santa, at least in this tale, is not capable of empathy.
16. After a tragedy (the seemingly untimely death of Yukon Cornelius) the narrator, a snowman prone to understatement, tells us that they were “a little hard on the misfits”. Even Santa admits he was wrong. Donner apologizes. That is all well and good, but it would be a much better story if Santa, Rudolph’s parents, the coaches, the bucks and all the members of the community openly and publicly made amends to the poor reindeer. It would also be great if they could all undergo some sensitivity training and promise not to torment others based on the color of their nose. Rudolph also needs some therapy.
17. Only when there is a horrible storm that threatens Christmas does narcissistic Santa see how the traumatized reindeer could be of use to him. Rudolph, completely lacking in self-esteem and needing to please the men (his father and Santa) who shamed him, agrees to meet Santa’s needs. His father, also a reindeer with some serious narcissistic wounding, then takes pride in his son’s nose and claims that all along he knew that Rudolph’s nose would come in handy some day. Something about seeing him gloat makes me hungry for reindeer meat.
Beyond Rudolph’s tale of abuse, neglect, depression, alienation, there are also other story lines of abuse in this brief but traumatic tale. However, if I analyze the elves and the island of misfit toys this session will go way over. And anyways, Rudolph is the identified patient of the story.
Bruno Bettelheim, the acclaimed psychoanalyst, in his book, The Uses of Enchantment, makes an eloquent case why it is so important for children to read fairy tales. Bettelheim believes these Grimm stories prepare children for the harsh realities of life. And I suppose one could argue that watching Rudolph prepares one for the difficulties of the Christmas season. Surely there will be family members who will make us feel like misfits. Some of us might have narcissists that are unable to see our light, our true selves or are not able to see us in any way but in how we reflect them. Maybe that is why this story endures as it has.
I would, for the sake of truth in caroling, like to rewrite the Christmas carol classic that celebrates poor Rudolph. Come on everyone, sing along!
Rudolph, the emotionally abused reindeer, had a very narcissist father. And if you ever saw him you would even say he blows.
All of the members of his community laughed and called him names, inflicted shame and excluded him from their reindeer games.
Then one eating-disordered narcissistic man came to say, Rudolph I need you and your disability to help me achieve my narcissistic need. Then all the reindeers loved him, as they shouted out with glee, Rudolph-the-traumatized and depressed reindeer, you need a lot of therapy.