My brother Steve turned me on to the best general-knowledge podcast I’ve yet come across: In Our Time hosted by Melvyn Bragg. The topics range from the obvious (The Moon) to the arcane (Neoplatonism), but they’re always bizarrely compelling, and they’ve made Los Angeles traffic bearable for me. Each episode features three experts on any given subject. You’ll come for the learnin’, but stay for the accents: Northumberland shut-ins, Liverpudlian quark theorists with Asperger’s, German scientists who learned English in rural Scotland… I love them all.
If I had my own esoteric thinking-man’s podcast, I’d jack up the bass on my voice like an NPR poetry reviewer, settle into a comfy Eames chair, and call it “Let’s Dive Deeper Into… With Ian Williams”.
Today, Let’s Dive Deeper Into… Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Yes, the outcast that finds redemption in his most-maligned feature has been a staple of holiday lore since his introduction in a 1939 Montgomery Ward flyer. But is his story safe for kids?
At first blush, his tale is classic underdog-achieves-victory, roughly analogous to the “geeks” and “nerds” of yesteryear who have found social success in a new world reliant on technology. But while a modern meritocracy rewards good ideas and hard work, Rudolph is merely rewarded for a genetic quirk he had no control over.
Worse yet, the trait is physical, the way a woman would receive undue attention because of her chest. In essence, the nose was a solution waiting for a problem, one that inevitably came on “one foggy Christmas Eve”; surely it was only a matter of time before a light source like Rudolph’s was put to good use.
(As a side note, red would literally be the last color Santa would want to guide his sleigh; used in photographic darkrooms for a century due to its long wavelength and low energy, St. Nicholas’ team might be seen by other passing aircraft, but almost none of their forward progress would be illuminated.)
Study after study has shown that children who are praised for their hard work do better in school, and in fact, continue striving for excellence later in life. Those who are praised for being “smart”, or given kudos for a trait they supposedly possess, however, routinely struggle with academics and have higher rates of depression later on.
The key here is choice: one can always choose to work harder and more intelligently; but when a child is labeled and/or defined as “intelligent”, they start at a deficit. They’d rather give up than be rebranded a failure, or worse yet, a fraud.
This is the ultimate fate of Rudolph, who knows his worth lasts only as long as his nose does. He may already begin to suspect his fame will not “go down in history” as the song implies, but rather it will dim with time. After all, the lyrics do not mention Santa saying “Rudolph with your nose so weakly illuminated, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?”
And what of these other fair-weather reindeer friends? The Rudolph song is a study in swift plot movement; our protagonist finds mockery, a test, and victory all within a verse, a bridge, and a verse. It’s all too easy, the court of public opinion suddenly reversing itself to “then all the reindeer loved him”.
Life to Rudolph, as it may seem to most kids in the thrall of this carol, is a pretty fickle beast. How long will it be until they are all denied the reindeer games once more? One can hope that kids across the globe will join a better-integrated Rudolph, when they paraphrase the legions of women who deal with the lingering male gaze on a chest-high eyeline: “When will you, at long last, see past my parts – and see me?