Category Archives: television

Wait, you thought that was subtext?

This Gay Rudolph Shirt can be purchased at PrettyPinkPearl.co.uk.
This Gay Rudolph Shirt can be purchased at PrettyPinkPearl.co.uk.
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.

Hermy and Rudolph sing about being misfits. Photo from the NBC special, much of which is in the public domain, though the original character of Rudolph from the poem is a trademark of The Rudolph Company L.P., while the song has a separate copyright.
Hermy and Rudolph sing about being misfits. Photo from the NBC special, much of which is in the public domain, though the original character of Rudolph from the poem is a trademark of The Rudolph Company L.P., while the song has a separate copyright.
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.

Farewell to Camden County

MV5BMTc2MzQxNDIxMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTk1MDU1MQ@@._V1_UY1200_CR111,0,630,1200_AL_So years ago I was a faithful viewer of the comedy series “My Name Is Earl,” the story of a not terribly bright petty criminal who became convinced that because of all of the awful things he’d done in his life, he was destined to try to make up for them or karma was going to keep punishing him. So he made a list of all the bad things he’d done, and with the assistance of his brother, Randy, and Randy’s sometimes girlfriend Catalina set out to make amends. Earl and Randy are also frequently both helped and hindered in their quest by Earl’s ex-wife, Joy. Everyone is frequently helped and oddly rescued from various situations by Joy’s current husband, Darnell aka “the Crabman.”

The series was a silly look at life in the fictitious Camden County, which was inhabited by a strange assortment of characters. It wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, though I was always amused by the fact that the one person I knew who most disliked it said he hated it because it was completely unbelievable, yet he himself is always telling stories about his ridiculous in-laws and the unbelievably stupid problems they got themselves into. Which made me decide that either a) he had a really big blind spot, or b) all those stories he liked to regale people with of his supposed true family misadventures might have been more than slightly exaggerated.

Regardless, I really enjoyed the not-cynical way that “My Name Is Earl” demonstrated in its storylines again and again that most humans are muddling along as best as they can, seldom realizing just how much our lives are interconnected, and how much we contribute (in both good and bad ways) to the lives of others.

Then one spring we learned that it wasn’t going to be renewed for a fifth seasonContinue reading Farewell to Camden County

Saving the world once a week

© and ™ Turner Entertainment Network, Inc.
© and ™ Turner Entertainment Network, Inc.
A lot of TV shows could be summed up (jokingly or not) as being about Saving the world every week. Some of my favorite shows of all time (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for instance), could be described that way. One such show this winter was The Librarians, where they embraced the idea so much that there was a running gag of different characters sometimes making a reference to saving the world every week.

A few weeks back my husband came into the room while I was in the middle of an episode, and after watching less than a minute, he asked if it was a Warehouse 13 knock-off. I had to point out that the series was a continuation of a set of movies which pre-dated Warehouse 13 by several years. The first movie, The Librarian: Quest for the Spear was broadcast in 2004, five years before Warehouse 13 (the entire trilogy of Librarian movies were made and released before the first episode of Warehouse 13). Both the Librarian and Warehouse stories owed a big debt to Raiders of the Lost Ark and the other Indiana Jones properties, of course… Continue reading Saving the world once a week

Sarcasm and sardonic detachment

I took a break from writing one night and went into the other room to see what my husband was doing. He was watching an animated show I’d never seen before, and I wound up watching the rest of the episode with him. Since the show was more than half over, I didn’t completely follow all the ins and outs of the plot, but it made me laugh a couple of times.

Another night I was channel surfing on my own, and happened across the same show. The episode was more than half over, again, but I enjoyed it. This happened several times; I never saw a complete episode, always catching it midway through. Also, as often happens, though I saw the show seven or eight times, I had only seen parts of maybe three episodes, because I kept happening across re-runs of episodes I’d already seen parts of.

This obviously happened back before I owned a TiVo, because what I would do now when I happen across a show like that is set the TiVo to record some episodes for me so I can watch more and see if I really like the show.

But back then I would have had to remember when the show was broadcast and make an effort to be free when it was one, or manually set a VCR to record it. Which I never did.

For several years after it went off the air, there were no re-runs…

Continue reading Sarcasm and sardonic detachment

Mirror, mirror…

Can with a TV remote.
Obviously not actually me, as there is only one remote in the picture…
Several years ago I was reading about the new shows coming out the next season, and one, The Big Bang Theory, sounded like exactly the sort of show that I would hate. So I didn’t make any attempt to watch any episodes. Not very long after the season started, I heard from a few different acquaintances that it was not a good show. The specific comments were that it made fun of nerds by portraying them in completely exaggerated, stereotypical, and unrealistic ways. So I continued to ignore it for all of the first season.

And then another nerdy/geek/fannish friend happened to mention, midway through the second season, that he was strangely addicted to the show. I mentioned the reasons I had assumed I wouldn’t like it, and he said, “Oh, me too!” Then he explained how his wife (a person who has been even more immersed in fannish culture than either her hubby or me) had watched the first season on Netflix. “I tried to ignore, and work on stuff on my computer. But it kept making me laugh… and it usually made me laugh because the characters acted exactly like some of our friends.”

Continue reading Mirror, mirror…

Nightmare Theatre!

When I was a kid, just about every metropolitan area in the U.S. had at least one local TV station showing some sort of monster/mystery/sci-fi/horror movie program every week. Many of them ran on Friday nights, after the local evening news ended. A few ran on Saturday evenings, and fewer still on Saturday afternoons. And something that a lot of those shows had in common is that there was a host: a person who usually was dressed up as some sort of monster or other stock character, who would introduce the show, possibly banter with a sidekick, or otherwise provide a bit of color commentary to the proceedings.

Some people operate under the impression that the first horror host was Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (no, she didn’t begin hosting until 1981). Slightly more informed people point to Bob Wilkins, who hosted Creature Features on a couple of different Bay Area channels from 1971 to 1984.

Well-informed people aware that all of them were preceded by some years by Vampira (1954-56), who later tried to sue Elvira for stealing her schtick. [Given that the actress who played Vampira had been working with the station in ’81 and was to be an executive producer of the show that became Elvira’s show, and she left in a dispute over the casting of the host, you can understand.]

A few years after Vampira’s show went off the air (it was aired live, and virtually no footage remains), Screen Gems put together a package of 52 horror films and made them available for syndication. Stations all over the country began showing their own weekly horror shows under titles such as Shock Theatre, Nightmare Theatre, Sinister Cinema, Saturday Chiller, and so on. The shows were usually broadcast on either Friday or Saturday night, after the evening news.

One reason that every station that carried the show had its own host was simply technological. In the late 50s (and for some time after), the way non-network syndication worked involved physically shipping cannisters of film (and later videotape) back and forth. It worked a lot like the non-streaming version of Netflix. A station would subscribe to the show, the syndicator would ship movies out to the subscribing stations. After the station showed the film(s), they would ship them back to the syndicator, who would ship them to another station.

My understanding is that they shipped out four or five movies at a time, and that as long as the station paid their subscription fees, they didn’t wait until the last set had been shipped back before sending the next.

In this case, Screen Gems just provided the movies themselves. Some location stations just ran them with, at most, a voice-over announcer. Other stations came up with their own shows, inspired originally by Vampira.

During the years I was old enough to be allowed to stay up and watch such things, we were living in various small towns in Utah and northwestern Colorado, and one of the stations we got was KCPX channel 4 out of Salt Lake City, where each Friday night brought us Nightmare Theatre.

For a few years it went by the name of The 10:20 Double Nightmare, because it was a double feature and it started at 10:20pm as soon as the evening news ended. I remember that phase only because sometimes my parents would let me stay up late enough to watch the first movie, but I wasn’t supposed to watch the second. By the time I was allowed to stay up as late as I wanted on Fridays, the local evening news went all the way until 10:30, and the show had reverted by to a single movie.

Nightmare Theatre was hosted, during that period, by Dr. Volapuk. Which is to say that a man wearing a vaguely Dracula-like suit and cape, and a really awful rubber ghoul mask, would come out of the shadows, introduce the movie, and make a lot of bad jokes. He would make more bad jokes at the commercial breaks. Occasionally he would impart a bit of trivia related to the movies. At the end of the show, he would give a preview of the next week’s movie, and then end with his traditional sign-off, “I, Dr. Volapuk, have been happy to be your host tonight. Remember, Volapuk spelled backwards is cup-of-love. So in your nightmares tonight, dream of me…” and then he would laugh maniacally.

No, I have no idea what all that cup-of-love business was supposed to mean.

I didn’t know, at the time, that the actor in the mask was also the guy who dressed up as Fireman Frank every morning to host the cartoon show on the same station.

Nightmare Theatre showed a lot of the old Universal Monster movies (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Son of Dracula, Werewolf of London, The Mummy’s Hand, and so on), but also a lot of the Japanese kaiju genre of moves (Mothra, Godzilla Raids Again, War of the Gargantuas).

A lot of the nerdy interest in such shows got re-focused on newer things when Star Wars came out and kicked off a bunch of higher quality films of the fantastic. Relatively cheap high quality satellite feeds and other cable television technologies replaced the old model of shipping film around, so shows such as Elvira’s Movie Macabre, Mystery Science Theater 3000, or Cinema Insomnia could be produced in one place and seen in the niche of each market. Which has put stake through the heart of most of the local horror hosts.

All those Friday nights that I stayed up to watch those movies is probably why I often still get a hankering on Fridays for some cheesy sci fi or similar films.

Wanna join me?

Why ponies?

I’m a fan of lots of things, and I’m used to most people not quite understanding my obsessions. Many of the other kids watched Lost In Space, for instance, while it was running in prime time during first and second grades, but didn’t understand why I still liked to watch the reruns in sixth grade. And none of them seemed to be watching Star Trek when it was on prime time, so I got a lot of blank looks if I talked about it, until years later when it became a big hit in syndication. Similarly, all the kids knew who Superman and Batman were, but thought I was weird for reading the Avengers and Doctor Strange.

Once we finally moved to a town big enough to have a significant sci fi contingent (10th grade), I started feeling a little less like a freak. And when, that summer, the original Star Wars came out, it seemed for a while as if everyone was at least a bit of a freak. Though I still got some funny looks and rolled eyes when people found out that I had driven to a large screen theatre in another state 13 times just to see Star Wars on the highest quality screen and sound system I could find.

And so for the last couple of years I’ve found myself having to explain the appeal of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, a show originally intended for little girls.

The truth is, I resisted watching it. When I first heard about the Brony phenomenon, I thought it was mildly amusing, but more because other people were making such a big deal out of young adult men watching a kid’s cartoon. Then one of my friends started showing episodes to my husband while we were all at a comics con together, and though I tried not to watch, I couldn’t resist.

The answer to “why ponies?” is simply that the scripts were well written. Yes, Lauren Faust, the producer for this relaunch of My Little Pony, had wanted to create a show for little girls, but specifically she wanted to get away from the sexist assumptions of most toys and shows aimed at little girls. She wanted a story that treated girls as humans, not little princesses who are only interested in dolls. So the six main characters, all female, are written as six young adults with diverse interests and occupations. We have an athlete, a baker, an animal caretaker, a farmer, a designer/seamstress, and a librarian. The emphasis, in the first season, at least, was less on outlandish mystical villains (though, yes, there are a couple of those) and more on personality conflicts, misunderstandings, and mundane misadventures.

More importantly, the writers don’t generally talk down to the audience. Instead of writing stories that will appeal only to children (or what some adults think would appeal to children), they write character-driven stories.

It reminds me of a theme I read again and again back in the days when I regularly read Writers Digest and The Writer magazine: a good children’s story was a good story, period. Every established children’s author or editor of children’s publications has tons of stories of meeting aspiring writers who have the mistaken notion that writing for children is a good place to start, because children’s writing is easier, because children are simple, right?

Children are people, they just don’t have as much experience as adults. Yes, there are areas of the brain that don’t reach full development until mid-to-late twenties, there are topics that children may not have the emotional maturity or context to handle easily, and there are topics that society generally agrees aren’t appropriate to share with children. Their priorities and perspectives are different, but they aren’t stupid and they aren’t simple-minded. Their stories, therefore, shouldn’t be dumbed-down versions of adult stories.

And that was certainly the case in the first couple seasons of the show.

Another thing I like about the show is the utter lack of cynicism within the stories and so far as I can tell in the execution of the series. It’s just a fun, often joyful experience.

I understand why some people don’t like the show. I understand why some people think it is strange that adults follow the show, organize conventions to talk about it, and so forth. But then, I also think that more people should ask just what the appeal is to so many otherwise intelligent adults of the by-the-numbers, totally unchallenging, practically sleep-written Law & Order franchises.

Come on! What’s with that?