It seems as if every other year someone somewhere notices that the Rankin-Bass version of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer has some gay themes. The someone then feels the need to write a breathless article about the glittery gay subtext that no one in the world has ever noticed before. This week a bunch of people are linking to an article on Vulture: The Gay Subtext of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I think that Dan Savage said it best on twitter: “More of a gay domtext if you ask me.” Playing off of the kink slang of Dom/sub—in other words, the gay themes seem to be extremely overt, not hidden.
I much prefer some of the earlier pieces written on the topic: 2013’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: A Gay Christmas Allegory, for instance. Or 2012’s Coming Out In Christmastown. Then there’s 2011’s I’ll Never See Rudolph the Same Way Again Less involved is 2005’s Is Hermy Gay? Sixteen serious questions raised by the 1964 holiday classic Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. In Michael Salvatore’s novel Between Boyfriends there is an entire chapter in which his protagonist talks about recognizing at age 6 the gayness of Hermy and Rudolph (and specifically that he was like them).
I even wrote something about it once. I thought I had published it on my Sans Fig Leaf page, but a search of my old archives proved it was even longer ago than that. It must have been when I blogged on Geocities, which means it was sometime before April, 1998! And it also means I don’t have a copy of it any longer. Which might be a good thing.
One of the reasons I don’t think of Hermy and other aspects of the 1964 Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer as subtext is because every time my family watched it during my childhood, Dad would make jokes about the “fag elf.” In addition to the annual repeat of crude comments about Rudolph and Clarice when the narrator refers to Rudolph having grown up, at least one year he wondered aloud about the relationship between the “fag elf” and Yukon Cornelius in rather graphic terms.
I was four years old when the Rankin-Bass special first aired on NBC TV. I don’t have specific memories of that first broadcast, but because a few years later I have very distinct memories of being dismayed that one song and scene which I have very clear memories of weren’t in the show, I know that I had to have watched the original broadcast. In the original broadcast, Santa is never shown going to the Island of Misfit toys to deliver them to children. A scene showing that was added in 1965. They made room for it by replacing Rudolph and Hermy’s “We’re a Couple of Misfits” musical number with a shorter song, “Fame and Fortune” and by removing a scene at the end where Yukon Cornelius discovers a peppermint mine. Over the years other changes were made to the original show, including a re-edited and shortened version of “We’re a Couple of Misfits” being added back in. And other techniques to make room for more commercials resulted in the music that remained sometimes sounding warbling and distorted.
But to get back to the subtext question: I think you would have to be extremely naÏve not to recognize Hermy, at least, as gay. Certainly my dad thought it was obvious!
Years later, someone asked Arthur Rankin, Jr, whether there was a gay message to Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, and he denied it. However, while Rankin and Bass ran the studio and were intimately involved in directing and producing the many shows their company made over the years, the actual scripts were almost always the work of Romeo Muller, a gay Jewish man from the Bronx. Mullee, along with artist Jack Davis, and actors Paul Frees and Paul Kligman are usually credited with the many Jewish allusions and subtexts that are obvious in other Rankin-Bass Christmas specials, such as Santa Claus is Coming to Town (the Burgomeister Meisterburger had toys burnt in a town square in a scene that looks a lot like footage of historical Nazi book burnings, and his guards all wear actual Prussian uniforms, for goodness sake; and don’t tell me that the Winter Wizard isn’t supposed to sound like someone’s Jewish grandfather!) or The Little Drummer Boy. So it doesn’t seem that big of a stretch to imagine that Muller wrote Hermy as gay.
In 1964 and for a few decades before that, movies, television shows, and plays often featured a stock character referred to now as The Sissy. The Sissy was a closeted predecessor of the Sassy Gay Friend. Some people argue that Hermy is just another instance of the Sissy, but there’s one problem with that interpretation. The Sissy was never a hero or the sort of supporting character with his own subplot. He might be a friend and ally of the hero or the heroine (much more often the heroine), but he was merely there to deliver jokes or be the butt of jokes. Meanwhile, I think what made Hermy worthy of commentary by my dad (while he almost never made comments about the archetypical Sissy in other shows) is that Hermy in not comic relief. Hermy has his own subplot. He doesn’t just help Rudolph find acceptance, he realizes his dream. He escapes societal expectations of being a toymaker and becomes a dentist.
You can argue that this is just a parallel to Rudolph’s journey from ostracized freak to valued leader of Santa’s team of flying reindeer, but they wouldn’t have had to give Hermy those Paul Lynde speech patterns, bright pink lips, and that very twink-like swoosh of blond hair (when the only other elves who have hair are definitely women) to do that. Hermy was an obvious, if closeted, queer character. And instead of being the butt of other characters’ jokes, he was the secondary lead. He’s the one who defeats the Abominable Snowman, after all!
I won’t get into all the reasons that the actual villains of this story are Santa, Donner, and Comet. Other people have covered that pretty well. Just as many have argued that the lesson of this special (and the 1949 song, and the 1939 book) is that deviation from the norm will be punished unless it is exploitable. Yeah, there are some problematic aspects to a lot of these old stories.
I still love this version, though, and not the least of the reasons is because the “fag elf” gets a happy ending.