Santa and Moral Judgment

by John Holbo on December 22, 2009

Watched the classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer X-Mas special with the kids last night. I wonder: was such a message of tolerance, across color lines, considered faintly radical in 1964? (Did anyone object to this X-Mas special when it came out?) Well, anyway, Zoë (the 8-year old) was disturbed by the fact that Santa was morally in the wrong for most of the show, incapable of distinguishing naughty from nice. She expressed concern about the integrity of the system by which she is to receive her due. If Santa thinks it’s ‘nice’ not to let Rudolph join in any reindeer games, etc., until he needs the guy, he might “give all her presents to some racist.”

On the other hand, Rudolph may be one of those rare examples of a clearly color-coded ‘other’ who “switches sides at the last minute, assimilating into the alien culture and becoming its savior” – only this time its the Great White Father, Santa himself, who is led by the tactically-acute, colorful alien.

Ideally speaking, what should Santa’s theory of naughty/nice be, do you think?

I’ll get the rest of the Dickens scans up a bit later.



Ken Lovell 12.22.09 at 8:34 am

Don’t get me started on the appalling ideology of Christmas carols … King Wenceslas manages to leave his plush bloody palace just once to feed a poor man – sorry, make that order his servant to feed a poor man – and he’s a saint? Talk about vaildating the class system.


mollymooly 12.22.09 at 9:11 am

Never mind liberal democracy; “I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In” isn’t even consistent with the rest of Christian myth.


rea 12.22.09 at 12:16 pm

what should Santa’s theory of naughty/nice be, do you think?>

Party registration?


kid bitzer 12.22.09 at 12:21 pm

magic negreindeer?


kid bitzer 12.22.09 at 1:21 pm

my thought being:
isn’t there another trope, not evidently less pernicious, according to which an inferior other acts as a willing and subservient guide or cicerone for the master race? sacajewa, pocahantas?

i really liked newitz’s piece, but i’m sure she didn’t think that white-leader-leads-darkies-to-victory is the only racist trope out there.

so my guess is that rudolph is sacajewa.


Maurice Meilleur 12.22.09 at 1:34 pm

Newitz’s piece makes a perfectly reasonable (if obvious) point, but including Dune was a mistake. Can’t say I ever read the books, but the movie was what Newitz referenced, and Max von Sydow is about as white as you can get. Don’t recall that the Fremen were of any particular hue at all, other than ‘grimy’. (Because they lived in underground caves where there wasn’t much water, you see.) The idea that David Lynch made a movie (or Frank Herbert wrote a book) that was about ‘white guilt’ in the manner of Dances with Wolves is just silly.


roac 12.22.09 at 3:03 pm

Assume for the sake of argument that the makers of movies like Avatar and Dances With Wolves have other objectives in addition to making piles of money. Assume that one of them is to ameliorate the way in which the dominant culture treats the “other,” whomever that may be.

Given those assumptions, there is an obvious defense for the converted-white-leader trope, which I didn’t see anybody making in the comments to the Newitz piece. Namely, that if you put Kevin Costner at the center of your movie, millions of millions of people will come to see it, and maybe a fraction of them will change their thinking about the despised other, and maybe their behavior. Whereas if you make your movie with members of the outgroup at the center, you will very likely make a much better movie, which will be seen by Newitz and however many like-minded individuals — sometimes including me — as will fit into a little box in Greenwich Village or Dupont Circle or whatever refuge for the already-enlightened they inhabit.

If you are skeptical as to whether Dances With Wolves and its ilk do any actual good, well, so am I. But if there are going to be movies about Whites v. Indians, would you rather have people watching that one, or the one with John Wayne?

(As for Avatar, I haven’t seen it, though I probably will just for the eye candy, which is apparently of a genuinely new and superior kind. Is there anybody out there who has seen it and is also familiar with LeGuin’s The Word for World is Forest? Google shows that I am not the only one who suspects a ripoff.)


Chuchundra 12.22.09 at 3:57 pm

The comparison between Avatar and Dances With Wolves seems to be the popular one, but it’s pretty superficial. In DWW, John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) doesn’t become the leader of the Sioux and certainly doesn’t lead them on to victory. In fact, it’s pretty clear from some of Kicking Bird’s dialogue with his wife that, while they like him and consider him a friend, Dunbar is still just a white guy and not really a member of the tribe.


Walt 12.22.09 at 7:14 pm

While the whole narrative is obviously worthy of mockery, the answer to the question in the linked post is pretty obviously “never”.


Billikin 12.22.09 at 7:33 pm

Children who manage to be both naughty and nice at the same time should get a special present.

As for Rudolph, we can do something about rosacea now.


Aaron Baker 12.22.09 at 8:07 pm

I’m interested in Prof. Holbo’s question re the reception of Rudolph’s anti-racist message in 1964 and thereafter. I was disappointed to see that Wikipedia says nothing on this topic.

Does anybody in this erudite group know anything about this?


Aaron Baker 12.22.09 at 8:20 pm

I think the above observation about Dances With Wolves and other white-guy-centric movies that address the Other is pretty much spot on. It may reflect a lingering colonial arrogance; but it’s hard to see how else you make the Other sell in Capitalist America. Even movies that go out of their way to hit you over the head with their high-minded seriousness typically fall into this trope. I’m reminded of The Constant Gardener, which (uncontroversially, I should hope) wanted us to abhore the use of Africans as lab animals by Western pharmaceutical companies, but in which Africans were principally there to be (in addition to victims) exotic and decorative.

I should add that I was pleasantly surprised by the TV series, The Ladies’ No. 1 Detective Agency (based, I know, on characters created by a white author), which seems to me to present Africans on their terms, rather than as picturesque mobile scenery. Or am I wrong here? Some of the humor of the series could be construed as patronizing. Would it strike someone far more knowledgeable than I about Africa as such?


Russell Arben Fox 12.22.09 at 9:00 pm

With all due respect, I think the Rankin-Bass Rudolph is a complete narrative and artistic mess. On the other hand the Rankin-Bass Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, the one narrated by Fred Astaire, is, by contrast, pretty darn compelling, a creative mixing of religious and secular accounts of Santa in the best tradition of hermeneutical interpretation. True, it fails to provide any cultural or theological explanation as to where those elves who adopted the baby Santa came from in the first place, but you can’t expect everything in 40 minutes.


roac 12.22.09 at 9:59 pm

Pondering the underlying question in light of its reiteration at 11: In the absence of extrinsic evidence, I see no reason to believe the anti-racist message was intended. (Compare and contrast Star-Bellied Sneetches/Sneeches with none upon thars.) Racism, in those segregated days, was something from which a lot of white kids were insulated. Whereas pretty much every schoolyard had its scapegoat, which is why the story resonates.


Ebenezer Scrooge 12.23.09 at 2:34 am

I think that you might be forgetting Hermie the [gay] dentist elf. Far more radical than Rudolph.


John Holbo 12.23.09 at 11:45 am

Yeah, I was going to mention Hermie’s obviousness. But while we’re on the subject, there has long been a split within the audience between those who think (correctly) that he is Hermie, and that who are deluded and think he is Herbie. Watching the show again I realized that, oddly, some of the characters call him Hermie and some call him Herbie. Suggesting that, perhaps, the writers weren’t sure what they wanted his name to be. (But I am still sure that the correct answer is: Hermie. Or Hermey, if you prefer.)


Mario Diana 12.23.09 at 12:42 pm

Roac @ 7

Which John Wayne movie? The Searchers?


Ginger Yellow 12.23.09 at 1:09 pm

“The idea that David Lynch made a movie (or Frank Herbert wrote a book) that was about ‘white guilt’ in the manner of Dances with Wolves is just silly.”

I don’t think it’s so silly for the book. White guilt might not be quite the right tone, but there are a lot of parallels. The Fremen are archetypal noble savages, in touch with the land and living in harmony with its creatures all that. They are deeply spiritual warrior types. The Atreides and other Houses have been pillaging the natural resources using their ostensibly superior technology, but are confined to outposts by the hostility of the environment. Indeed, there’s a blatant environmentalist streak running through all of Dune (the book), in the best “white guilt” tradition. Paul Atreides forsakes his imperial heritage, leads the Fremen to victory and even assumes a native name.

It’s hardly a stretch.


kid bitzer 12.23.09 at 1:22 pm

i’m going to pretend that the topic here is “hidden justifications of empire in pop culture”, so that i can say the following.

the bit in life of brian about “what have the romans done for us?”.

it’s hilarious, and also useful (cf. paul krugman’s recent invocation).

but, you know, it really and truly is an apologia for aggressive empire. having a lot of sons of oxbridge sit around saying this, only thirty years after the uk finally released india from its clutches, is not as charming as it might at first seem.


Matt McIrvin 12.23.09 at 4:35 pm

“The Sneetches” is indeed a pretty obvious anti-racist parable, but it manages to pack a lot of layers into a remarkably short story. He gets in digs at fashion, the cycle of pop-cultural backlash, the way that bigotry makes you a sucker for various forms of hucksterism, and the futility of trying to fix bigotry by getting rid of the underlying differences people are bigoted about.

I’ve always admired what Dr. Seuss did with didacticism: many of his stories were fables as blatant as Aesop’s, but they didn’t come across as patronizing to kids, in part because he was usually criticizing adult failings rather than telling kids to obey their elders.


Doctor Slack 12.23.09 at 9:19 pm

Dune: The Fremen are basically meant to be futuristic (and romantic) Arabs. Herbert was pretty clear about this point. They didn’t necessarily look like Arabs, but they served the same narrative function and fit the same tropes.


LFC 12.24.09 at 12:44 am

May I suggest that Prof. Holbo, having posted about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, turn his attention now to that imperishable holiday-season classic, the 1986 (made-for-TV) version of Babes in Toyland, starring Drew Barrymore and with a supporting cast which includes — drumroll, please — Keanu Reeves. Here the standard moral about the reality and goodness of Santa is replaced by the injunction to believe in the reality of toys. I would be surprised if some nuggets of philosophical or political significance could not be found in this work of cinematic genius and unsurpassed showcase for the art of acting.


Maurice Meilleur 12.24.09 at 1:39 pm

DoctorSlack, GingerYellow: My bad. It’s been too long (or not long enough?) since I saw Dune for me to be running my mouth about it, so I had a gander. Paul Atreides really is basically T.E. Lawrence in a stillsuit. I will say in my partial defense that ‘environmentalist’ is not the same as ‘guilt-stricken white man’, and Atreides ends up leading the Fremen, not against his own house (in the manner of Dances with Wolves), but against the enemies of his house, Harkonnens and the Emperor (in the manner of Lawrence of Arabia). But still, you’re right.


roac 12.24.09 at 3:31 pm

It’s been too long (or not long enough?) since I saw Dune for me to be running my mouth about it

Which raises the deep and interesting question as to whether a visual adaptation of a widely-known book can displace the book as the Primary Text. A decade ago, I and my fellow Tolkienists spilled uncounted bazillions of electrons over this issue in (prospectively) debating the legitimacy of the Lord of the Rings movies online. The fundamental cleavage was between “Purists” and “Revisionists”; as a leading revisionist, I took the negative in the debate, but I am no longer utterly sold on that position.

The practical argument for it is that a book is presumptively the work of a single individual with more-or-less complete control over the product, whereas a movie, or at least a “commercial” one, is inevitably a collaboration between a number of people who may be fundamentally at odds with one another, so that the final product will likely be more contingent than coherent, making the question of “intent” unanswerable.

In this instance, I guess we started out talking about the visual medium, so fair enough. (As for myself, I read Dune, once and long ago, but never saw the movie.)


Gene O'Grady 12.25.09 at 8:38 am

I’m not familiar with most of the popular culture references in this discussion, but I was 16 years old in 1964 and can say with assurance (1) most white kids were not insulated from racism in those “highly segregated?” days and (2) the sort of anti-racist message that seems to be imputed was pretty standard fare in popular TV.

By the way, John Wayne had many nasty characteristics (and some nice ones), took a repugnant stance during the VietNam War era (although not during the Panama Canal transfer), and could be a real SOB, but he really wasn’t a racist.


roac 12.25.09 at 1:25 pm

Rudolph dates to 1939.


Mario Diana 12.25.09 at 3:15 pm

Gene O’Grady @ 25

I just want to add a little more to the John Wayne movie criticism.

When I referenced The Searchers above, my point was that it’s a little too cliche to point to John Wayne — or cowboys and indians movies in general. The better part of the genre, John Wayne movies included, is a little more nuanced than what some people make it out to be.

In many movies, because even semi-decent drama demands such things, it wasn’t simply a matter of cowboys good, indians bad. There are usually corrupt white men and noble savages characters. Wayne’s roles often were sympathetic to the indians. (Admittedly, he also made his share of schlock movies.)

Now, my 1970’s childhood was in part heir to these movies. I always find it intriguing that as children, my friends and I would at times fight over who got to be the indians when playing cowboys and indians. It wasn’t that cowboys were uncool; but the indians seemed pretty cool, too.

The U.S. government may have had it in for the indians, but I don’t think it’s fair to say the same for Hollywood.


Jamey 12.28.09 at 5:43 am

Watched the classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer X-Mas special with the kids last night. I wonder: was such a message of tolerance, across color lines, considered faintly radical in 1964?”

I doubt if racists perceived Rudolf the Red Nose reindeer as having some sort of anti-racism message. Racists don’t generally think of themselves as racists (or if they explicitly adopt that label, then they don’t see it in pejorative terms) and that’s why they are pretty much immune to either perceiving or taking to heart stories with anti-racist messages. They see themselves as people who just see things the way they are and everybody else refuses to admit to reality becuase of “political correctness”. What normal people view as stereotypes, they view as just an accurate description of reality.

Basically, racism belongs more in the psychological category of delusion, not run of the mill error. If someone makes an error, I might be able to just demonstrate where they are wrong and bring them about to the correct view by demonstrating where they went wrong. The delusional are much more difficult to persuade. There is a certain willfulness involved (see also global warming deniers who recoil from the label of denier). Or if I were to put it in religious terms, convincing a racist almost takes a conversion experience in which they see things in a completely different light. Not “Oh, I see I was wrong, that sociological study shows that X belief is wrong, I’ll abandon that belief”.


lemmy caution 12.28.09 at 11:47 pm

This page has the original TV guide listing:

Rudolf, not to be outdone by humans, develops a complex about his incongruity and this is heightened when other reindeer ban him from their social gatherings- until a blizzard threatens to cancel Christmas.

Apparently, they added the part where Santa came back to pick up to the misfit toys in 1965 in response to viewer letters.

The presumed psychological effects of exclusion were part of the rationale for Brown v. Board of education:

“To separate them [children in grade and high schools] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone…”

It isn’t clear that this rationale is or was true.

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