Trigger Warning: There is mention of suicide and filicide and some things that prompt it in the post below. Yes, in a post about a Christmas Carol for children.
So, I was listening to Christmas Carols on the radio (as one does in December, whether one wishes to or not), and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” came on.
Now, I’m pretty sure that almost everyone in Canada and the US, and possibly in other English speaking, Christmas celebrating countries knows that particular song.
“You know Dasher and Dancer,
And Prancer and Vixen,
Comet and Cupid,
And Donner and Blitzen.
But do you recall
The most famous reindeer of all?
“Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,
Had a very shiny nose,
And if you ever saw it,
You would even say it glows.
All of the other reindeer,
Used to laugh and call him names,
They never let poor Rudolph,
Join in any reindeer games.
“Then one foggy Christmas Eve,—Words by Robert L. May, 1947, music by Johnny Marks
Santa came to say,
‘Rudolph with your nose so bright,
won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?’
Then all the reindeer loved him,
And they shouted out with glee,
‘Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer,
You’ll go down in history!’”
As a child, I loved this Christmas Carol (and the TV movie based on it – The Island of Misfit Toys, I think it was). The idea that even if someone was different, they should be accepted for who they were and the talents/gifts they had was an ideal for me. After all, even if we didn’t know then that I was autistic, I did know I was different. Not only because I was “gifted”, but because I was.
[Edited on tangent re the protagonist of my current passion (going on 2+ years now), Modao Zushi.]
Looking at the carol with different, more mature eyes, however, there’s more to the message it’s sending than just that.
We’re told that Rudolph is bullied because he’s different – which is very true to life; a lot of people, not just children, do bully anyone who is different.
And then, it’s a foggy Christmas night, and Santa Claus needs the very thing that makes Rudolph different, his glowing nose, to help guide him and make sure that they don’t crash into anything. (And I won’t go into the bit about how the whole world won’t be foggy, etc.; this is still a song for children, after all.) And that suddenly, Rudolph become popular because of that difference.
Because that difference was suddenly useful.
And this is where we start to have a problem. Because if you’re only respected (and popular) because you’re useful, then what happens when you’re no longer useful? What happens if the situation changes back to the way it was (AKA no more foggy Christmas Eves), and so suddenly your difference isn’t of use any more?
Here’s the actual ideal as it should be: A person’s intrinsic worth has nothing to do with how “useful” they or their abilities/talents/gifts are. Unfortunately, far too often, the Real Life version is: As long as you are useful in some way, you have worth. AKA your worth as a person depends on your usefulness.
And this is something that can hit the disability community very strongly, because far too often we end up with limitations that reduce our perceived ability to be of use to our community, whether that community involve matters of employment, or be a social community.
And as much as the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” tries to convince people that they should not bully others for being different, we have to work to make sure that the other, unintentional message it provides – that one is only worthy of love and positive attention when one has a use – is not one that’s internalized by anyone. Because while society as a whole appears to believe that, it seems, it shouldn’t be that way.
Basing one’s self-esteem and self-worth on one’s ability to be useful to others can be extremely damaging. All you have to do to confirm that is run a basic internet search, looking at psychological sites, about basing one’s self-worth on external forms of validation, and you’ll find numerous reputable sites saying just how damaging it can be, to mental, emotional, and even physical health.
So while I don’t want to ruin your enjoyment of this (or any other) song by addressing some issues with the messages that it can give people, especially children… we need to be aware that they exist. We need to make sure that people who hear this song realize that it’s not just being useful that makes you worth something, that everyone has an intrinsic worth whether they can do things the wider society perceives as “useful” or not.
Because (and I’m sorry to bring down the mood, but it has to been acknowledged): this kind of thinking is part of what leads to issues like suicide and filicide, both in the disability community and in the wider human community as well.
So, do enjoy your favourite songs… but be aware of what unintentional messages they may be sending. And do your best to prevent those unintentional messages from gaining a foothold in people’s lives.