As we find ourselves in the midst of the Holiday Season this year, we have noticed recent criticisms of some of the more timeless classic holiday television shows. Here, I will address specifically “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” (1973) and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1964).
I am not one of the people who will criticize these shows for the obvious problems associated with them because I am old enough to long ago have realized these things. You see, I was born in 1964, and I grew up watching these shows – along with many other shows – that either confronted these same issues or simply did not bring attention to them at all. I lived in the same society that struggled with these issues daily. Society was kind of in a tug-of-war with itself.
We like to think of the 1950s as very conservative and reserved, full of high moral values while the 1960s were breaking free of those restraints with drug experimentation, more liberal ideas around dress, music, sex and just about everything. The truth is that we still had a long way to go when it came to many things, and television shows like “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” pushed the envelope by reflecting back to us exactly what was wrong in our society. These were adult issues being disguised in happy little cartoons that adults and children could understand.
In “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving,” Peppermint Patty starts off the problems by inviting herself over to Thanksgiving dinner with Charlie Brown – even though he already has plans to spend the evening at his grandmother’s home. Charlie Brown finds himself “tongue tied” and unable to explain to her that he already has plans before she hangs up. Before he knows it, she has invited several more friends. Linus saves the day by suggesting Charlie Brown simply have everyone arrive earlier, which will allow him to spend time with his friends and still get him to his grandmother’s in time for dinner.
But poor Charlie Brown doesn’t know how to cook. No worries, they make buttered toast and popcorn and serve jelly beans, pretzels, and ice cream – all with Snoopy’s help! But, as dinner is served, Peppermint Patty gets indignant about the lack of traditional turkey, pie, and other items normally served during Thanksgiving. Poor Charlie Brown leaves the table. Marcie has to remind Peppermint Patty that this whole Thanksgiving affair was her idea in the first place, which makes her realize she was being too hard on her friend “Chuck.” Unfortunately, Peppermint Patty talks Marcie into apologizing to Charlie Brown on her behalf, which is accepted.
The criticism of the show comes mainly from the seating arrangements around the table. It has been noticed that not only are all the white kids and Snoopy sitting on all sides of the tables except the side on which Franklin – the only black kid – is sitting, but they are also sitting in normal chairs, while Franklin is sitting in a rickety lawn chair that apparently also tips over or breaks at some point. They claim that because of these two things, the show was being racist. I actually disagree with this assessment.
What people have forgotten about is the time period in which the show was written. It is true that racism in our country was still alive and well and civil rights were still being fought for. (Racism is still an issue we are dealing with even now – some 45 years later.) The creator of the Peanuts cartoon actually fought to include Franklin in his comic. I feel Charles Schultz was actually progressive, and I also feel that the show does a great job of reflecting back to us exactly what was wrong. We see in the show Charlie Brown welcoming Franklin into his home, and they even have a cool “bro” handshake. Obviously, Franklin is welcome and a friend. But what happens around the dinner table becomes telling of what happens even when we include our friends of color: they still manage to get left out. So the question becomes why? What happened between the front door and the dinner table? Why is he accepted on one level, but somehow left out on another level? Where did the disconnect happen? I think the show does a great job of showing us where we still need ask ourselves these questions.
Then we have the story of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which also came under similar criticism for some of the same kinds of reasons. Poor little Rudolph is born to proud parents, but immediately, his nose shines bright and red, to his father’s dismay. His father immediately tries to hide it from view when Santa comes to visit. But as things go, the disguise quickly fails, and Santa displays his dissatisfaction. The other reindeer – including the adult coach – also see his nose when he tries out for the reindeer games, and they make a point of making fun of him and excluding him from future practices. He has by this time fallen head over heels for a cute little fawn named Clarice, whose father has now called her home and forbidden them to see each other.
Rudolph then meets Hermey, who is an elf that hates making toys, and whose only desire is to become a dentist. Having been forced to comply to toy making, he has decided to run away. Rudolph joins him. They find themselves in great danger and eventually find the Island of Misfit Toys, where they want to stay because they are misfits and feel a kinship. But, they are not allowed to stay because even amongst misfits, they do not fit in since they are not toys. They end up going back home, where a happy ending is found by everyone. Namely, this comes from everyone realizing that there is a place for everyone, even if it wasn’t the place they all thought it should be. There also seems to be an underlying message of forgiveness.
The criticism for the show is multi-layered as it is full of discrimination, bullies, sexism, and a whole host of other biases. Again, what is forgotten is the time period in which the show came out. The original story of Rudolph was written in the 1930s, the enchanting song about this reindeer was written in the 1940s, and the show came out in the 1960s – all before civil rights and feminism movements hit full swing and long before we even considered making bullying a part of our school curriculum. And yet, what this story and television show expand upon is that there are a lot of social injustices evident in our modern civilized world; and in an animated production, these very issues are explored and reflected back at us in a way that children and adults can understand easily.
In both cases, these television shows dared show us the ugly aspects of our humanity and did so in a very subtle way – only because we had been socialized in a certain belief system. However, as we have evolved over the decades, becoming more sensitive to racism, feminism, bullying, and all types of biases and discrimination, it becomes more glaring to us and far less subtle. The shows themselves are not being racist, or whatever the accusation is, but showing us that WE are being that thing. They are showing us this behavior is wrong. They dare us to re-examine ourselves and our attitudes. When we can look at what is wrong in these shows, we need to stop blaming the show and truly look into ourselves and see what is wrong inside of us.
What I would be worried about in each of the shows instead is when Woodstock happily eats turkey at the end of “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving,” or when the misfit bird is thrown out of the sleigh without an umbrella at the end of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”