Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: Defining Abnormality and Mental Illness

Image of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer with white text that reads: “Deviation from the norm will be punished unless it’s exploitable”

Ever since I took my first ‘abnormal psychology’ class, I have found the field of clinical psychology concerning. Until I took “Abnormal Psychology,” I had, for the most part, trusted the authoritative, sterile, impersonal tone of my psychology textbooks.

(In hindsight, the pairing of ‘impersonal tone’ with ‘psychology’ should have been a red flag. But the deeply entrenched issues within psychology really only hit me full-force in this “Abnormal Psychology” course, in which I learned how very little the ‘official scientific literature’ on clinical psychology understands mental ‘disorders’ and ideas of psychological “normalcy” and “health.”)

Just the fact that we conflate ‘abnormality’ and ‘illness’ in the first place is concerning to me — true, schizophrenia is statistically ‘abnormal,’ but so is exceptional musical ability. On the flip side, we were told in that class that about half of Americans will experience some type of diagnosable mental disorder in their lifetime, so by definition, mental illness as a whole doesn’t seem that abnormal after all. Therefore, whether or not someone is “abnormal” in some way doesn’t really say much about whether or not that person is ‘ill.’

Functional Impairment

So if the concept of “abnormality” isn’t exactly clear-cut, how else can we define mental illness? Mental health professionals in the United States use the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition) for defining and diagnosing mental disorders. The DSM-5 generally describes mental disorders as clusters of symptoms associated with impaired functioning and/or subjective personal distress.

I find the concept of “functional impairment” particularly concerning. It basically just refers to whether your symptoms are making it hard for you to function, for example, in your social life, job, hobbies, or basic day-to-day chores. For example, to be diagnosed with clinical depression, you must have a significant level of functional impairment and subjective distress, in addition to certain symptoms (sadness, energy loss, etc.) that last for a certain amount of time.

I’m most bothered by the definitions and assumptions surrounding “functioning.” The word ‘functioning’ makes me think of the ‘functioning’ of machinery, and how I am a cog in the Rube Goldberg machine of human suffering that is our globalized economy. If I become depressed and therefore I slow down the societal machine, ‘clinical psychology’ labels me as broken, as something to be fixed, because I am not at my maximum output level. This makes me wonder:

  • Who defines what proper, unimpaired “functioning” is?
  • Who and what are we supposed to be “functioning” for?
  • How efficiently am I supposed to be “functioning?” If I’m functioning at anything less than my maximum productivity level, am I “functionally impaired,” and therefore “ill” to some degree?”
  • How do we define “productivity?“ Is ‘productivity’ inherently based on the assumption that certain human activities are worth more than others?

In the following sections, I’m going to explore the idea of “proper functioning” using the example of the beloved Christmas character, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I think it’s a fun analogy for how culture, power hierarchies, and ideas of majority/minority tie into othering people experiencing mental illness.

Rudolph and the Exploitation of “Atypical” Traits

“Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is a Christmas song about one of the flying reindeer that pulls Santa’s sleigh. In the following sections, I will retell parts of Rudolph’s story (in italics), accompanied by reflections on how his story relates to biases in abnormal psychology and science in general.

Rudolph has a red nose, and therefore is perceived as ‘unusual’ from a dark-nose-centric reindeer worldview (None of Santa’s other reindeer have shining red noses. The other reindeer therefore say shiny red noses are “abnormal.”)

Like the dark-nosed reindeer, who control the narrative of “normality” in reindeer society, psychology researchers [especially the most advantaged, white, wealthy researchers] are the ones who have theorized and influenced most of the “official” academic knowledge about psychology, based on studies of people mostly like them. Many WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) researchers studying WEIRD subjects have been in an echo-chamber in which they think being WEIRD is the norm.

From their perspective, people who do not share the familiar WEIRD values (such as the pursuit of individual wealth, fame, power, and ‘productivity’) within their echo-chamber are “abnormal.” Too often, the creators of scientific theories about human nature have been blind to their own biases and assumptions around what is normal. In theories of human nature, assumptions of what is “normal” for all of humanity often didn’t originate in any true statistical average — it just referred to what the people in power defined as “normal.”

This is part of what gives ideas of “normality” their power. In other words, when you define your in-group as the normal majority, you exclude and dismiss everyone else as ‘abnormal.’ People who visibly “deviate” from the “norms” have been labelled ‘abnormal’ by those in power, and have been harmed as a result…

Other reindeer feel uncomfortable or even threatened by the unfamiliarity of Rudolph’s red nose and therefore they bond with each other by belittling and excluding Rudolph. The reindeer who don’t actively make fun of him might still avoid Rudolph because they are afraid of what the other reindeer think and/or because they assume he must be too different from them to be able to form a relatable, rewarding friendship.

Like the dark-nosed reindeer who belittled and excluded Rudolph, some powerful [social science reindeer/white psychologists] have belittled others, in their case, using science to make up “proof” that they are superior to all other people (e.g. using concepts like social Darwinism, female hysteria, and biological determinism). This was used to justify the exclusion of other groups of people from power and opportunity.

Even for academics who don’t consciously work to exclude other people from opportunities and resources, part of their privilege is that they don’t have to be aware of such issues (perhaps because it makes them too “‘uncomfortable’” to reflect on themselves and their own harmful contributions to this system).

Related to this idea of unconscious but harmful exclusion, the research topics that have gone unstudied are just as telling of bias in psychology research as the overt biases present the existing literature. For example, there is much less research regarding autism in girls than in boys, and because therefore there is less understanding and awareness of girls with autism, there is a gender gap in how autism goes unnoticed and unaddressed. These issues of who gets support and accommodations (as opposed to punishment, neglect, and/or disdain) for taking up space in society are interwoven with who goes on to gain ‘official’ power and influence within academia, politics, and society at large.

One foggy Christmas Eve, Santa realizes that he can take advantage of Rudolph (with his nose so bright), in order to guide the sleigh through the foggy darkness. The very same ‘abnormal’ nose that the other reindeer had ostracized Rudolph for having, turned out to be useful to all of them under the dark, foggy conditions of that one particular Christmas Eve. After Santa realized that Rudolph’s glowing red nose could be used, the other reindeer all suddenly seemed to accept Rudolph and a few actually appreciate him for who he is.

Rudolph’s story is a nice analogy for the commodification of ‘diversity’ that can happen when privileged groups realize they have something to gain from tokenizing other groups of people that they have historically excluded. For instance, although there is still stigma and discrimination against people with mental disorders in the corporate world, buzzwords like “mental health” and “self-care” seem to be proliferating in marketing campaigns recently, as companies encourage consumers to “treat themselves.”

These buzzwords remind me of our consumer culture and the very American pursuit of happiness — we Americans grow up being taught that we live in a meritocracy, in which if we work hard enough, we can become rich and successful, and therefore happy. One implication of this is that if you are unhappy, it’s your own fault, and you’re not trying hard enough. Maybe if you tried harder, improved your self-care routine, and bought yourself some costly therapy and ‘healthy lifestyle’ products you’d feel better.

All this to say, perhaps the commodification of mental illness is indeed helping us make some progress as a society in “normalizing” discussions of mental health. However, there is so much further to go in order to truly challenge us to rethink our values and goals, and to rethink the role of corporate American culture in maintaining and manufacturing a society of inequality, depression, exploitation, loneliness, and addiction.

Conclusion: Culture and Defining “Normality”

This has become a long, rambling reflection on (ab)normality, haphazardly touching on all sorts of things, including power structures, the defining of “majorities” and “minorities,” privilege, and consumerism. It still feels incomplete though, without some discussion of the construction of culture in general. Things like social roles, fashion, traditions, and concepts of morality, all have meaning because they are collectively created, followed, and shaped by people in the context of a society. Culture plays an important role in making sense of what is “normal” versus “unusual,” and culture can change over time — for instance, homosexuality was considered a mental illness up until 2013, when it was removed from the DSM. Because culture is always changing, what we view as “sick” is also always changing.

Identities tied to mental disorders are interesting to me, especially in thinking about “permanent” mental conditions like being on the autism spectrum, as opposed to mental disorders with symptoms that can be temporary, like depression. If someone is autistic, or is experiencing gender dysphoria as a result of being transgender, that’s viewed as a ‘permanent’ part of one’s identity (at least, in the eyes of much of the Body Shame Profit Complex [re: The Body is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor]). A person with autism can benefit from accommodations when diagnosed, and a transgender person can get therapy and physically transition so that they’re less likely to be targeted and misgendered by mainstream society. However, saying “you have a mental illness” to a person with autism or to a trans person seems to me to be like saying “you, as a person, are sick — there’s something wrong with a part of your identity.”

Along these lines, I imagine if we had a more open-minded, inclusive society, gender dysphoria, for example, would be a much smaller issue, since transgender people wouldn’t be ostracized and wouldn’t be targets of hate crimes. I don’t want to minimize the real suffering that results from issues like anxiety, eating disorders, and suicidal ideation, or to write off all interventions after the fact. However, I think we need to do our best at every level of society to create a more inclusive environment, so that people who are currently being dehumanized and targeted for being different (due to race, sexual orientation, gender identity, neurodivergence, etc.) are able to thrive.

In short, socially constructed diagnoses and ways of labelling and understanding mental illnesses have very real consequences. It’s important to think more deeply about what we mean when we say someone is not “neurotypical,” and about the consequences of the language we use in talking about mental health.

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