Carter: In defense of the antagonists in 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer'

’Tis nothing sacred? This week, the stop-motion animated Christmas classic “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” aired on CBS, which spawned a slew of social media responses about themes of bullying and bigotry in the tale, and an article and video on the Huffington Post website calling it “seriously problematic.”

Donald Trump Jr. , conservative commentator Tomi Lahren and others were quick to seize on the moment as an opportunity to bash liberals on social media, adding nothing particularly meaningful to the chorus of “hot takes” spelled out in 280 characters or less on Twitter.


First, I think it’s important to point out that our country’s social mores have evolved quite a bit over the nearly 55 years since “Rudolph” first aired. Pick any media from five decades earlier — heck, pick any media from just 10 years ago — and you’ll likely find plenty of material that isn’t congruent with today’s attitudes but was far from controversial for its time.

As is tradition when Christmastime nears, the 1964 classic "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" returned to American television screens. But this time around, the

With that said, I don’t disagree with the notion that bullying and bigotry are bad and should be called out when celebrated. However, essential to any sort of storytelling medium are protagonists, antagonists and a central conflict.


For folks who slept through English class, protagonists are the main character, the one whom the story revolves around, and frequently, from whose point of view we are seeing things. Often, this person is the story’s hero, in this case, Rudolph. The antagonist is, essentially, the bad guy and is necessary to develop a central conflict in any story.

Depending on the story you are trying to tell, the antagonist may be inherently evil, like Hans Gruber in another classic Christmas tale, “Die Hard.” In others, like “Frosty the Snowman” for example, magician Professor Hinkle isn’t an inherently bad person, he’s just frustrated with work struggles and takes it out on some kids who get his magic hat to work when he couldn’t. He does some mean things, but isn’t an evil person.

Honestly, I think the reason the “Rudolph” TV special may strike a chord with so many people is because, despite the fact the movie was made back in 1964, the antagonists in the movie — Rudolph’s father Donner, the school coach Comet, and, yes, even Santa Claus, among them — reflect plenty of attitudes that people may still encounter regularly in 2018.

Scientists at Johns Hopkins University seek to explain why Rudolph's nose glow, the Grinch's heart expands and Scrooge's life flashes before him.

Are we to honestly believe there aren’t fathers (or mothers for that matter) who try to mold their children a certain way so they fit in, or maybe even do so not because the child cares, but because they think what their child says and does is a poor reflection on them as a parent the way Donner does? That doesn’t make them inherently bad people, but these attitudes certainly exist.

Do we think there aren’t sports coaches like Comet in 2018 who bully and ostracize players because they are different, or don’t fit the mold of what they expect in a player like Comet did to Rudolph? Of course there are. Countless numbers of them. In team sports especially, individuality is often shunned because the team is expected to work together to win. How many sports movies have we seen that deal with this theme of a group of people from different walks of life who come together to find success, even if they initially cannot get along because of their differences? It’s a tale as old as sport itself.

In Santa Claus, perhaps that character serves as a reminder that even the most saintly among us aren’t always perfect and are occasionally prone to judging others — missteps we may recognize and later come to regret.

The three titans of Christmas TV specials -- 'Rudolph,' 'Charlie Brown' and 'The Grinch' -- still resonate because they show us it's OK to feel blue for the holidays.

Typically, the antagonist in a story receives their comeuppance by the end. In the case of Hans Gruber, it’s plummeting 30 stories to his death in Nakatomi Plaza. In the case of Donner, Comet, Santa and others, they have to swallow their pride and ask Rudolph to save the day.

In doing so, they also give “Rudolph” a choice. As a few folks on Twitter suggested, Rudolph could’ve told Santa to — in less friendly terms — go pound sand. Instead, Rudolph decided to be the bigger person, er, reindeer, and make sure Santa was able to deliver Christmas to boys and girls across the world in the foggy night.

The lesson here of being the bigger person and of forgiveness, I think, is a good one that plenty of people could take to heart in 2018 and beyond.

The point here, though, is that being critical of flawed antagonistic characters in decades-old fictitious media being “bad” doesn’t make much sense, especially in an era when many of the most celebrated protagonists are deeply flawed with few redeeming qualities in an attempt to be “edgy” and “real.”

Personally, I like my heroes — particularly in media targeted toward kids — to be wholesome like Rudolph, and give us ideals to strive for. To do that, you need antagonists kids can relate to. In that regard, “Rudolph” hits the mark now as well as it did in 1964.

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