It’s bothered Bird and me for years. Every Christmas Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer comes on and every Christmas we wonder what on earth is wrong with the doll on the Island of Misfit Toys.
Turns out, according to producer Arthur Rankin, it’s psychological. In a 2007 NPR interview, he said that Dolly’s problem was low self-esteem and doubting herself. Depending on the backstory, it sounds like a similar situation to Jessie from Toy Story 2: after being rejected by her human owner, Dolly doesn’t trust her ability to be a good companion to another person. She’s hurt and depressed.
Some people dismiss this as inserting modern psychobabble into a cartoon from 50 years ago. This post claims that the alternative explanation is “as plain on the nose on your face” because the thing that actually makes Dolly a misfit is her lack of a nose.
I disagree. For one thing, plenty of cloth dolls in that style and time period didn’t have noses, or eyebrows, for that matter. And for another, the majority of the misfit toys are not simply missing something. Some fundamental part of them has been replaced with something different that interferes with their traditional function. The train has square wheels. The cowboy rides an ostrich. The bird swims but cannot fly. (OK, the elephant has the addition of polka dots, but he’s also a white elephant, which suggests being historically unwanted in the first place.) These toys are misfits because something in them has changed to the point that they no longer fit the mold, and something would have to change again for them to be considered “normal.” It’s not a one-step fix.
That’s why Dolly’s psychological misfit-ness rings true (for me, at least). She needs more than a few stitches or a new dress. There is something about her, as with the rest of the toys on the Island, that fits badly, that is not suited to her situation. The visibility or invisibility of her struggles does not alter their validity.
And even if the explanation was inserted later to cover up some forgetfulness on the writers’ part, I’ll take any opportunity to point to well-known characters in popular culture who can help me normalize mental health.