Monthly Archives: March 2015

Reviewing VeggieTales as an Atheist; Madame Blueberry

This episode opens with Larry showing off his new toy car… which he can actually get in and drive, so I guess it’s basically a car. Then again, they do make toy cars with little motors so kids can actually get in and drive at about 0.5 mph, so maybe that’s what it’s supposed to be. Anyway, Bob is very happy for Larry, until Larry starts explaining that he won’t be really happy with his new toy until he gets the camper that goes with it. And then there’s the dirt bike, the jet ski, the hang glider…

The French Peas then decide it’s time to hijack the show and tell a French classic tale; Madame Blueberry. Yes, that’s a Madame Bovary reference. Yes, the Christian children’s TV show co-opted a novel that has two adulterous affairs and a suicide. I mean, they don’t include those elements, obviously. I’m actually not sure if there are any connections beyond the title, as I’ve never read the book, but yeah, that happened.

We are introduced to Madame Blueberry, who is the first female veggie to be a protagonist, and the fourth female veggie character, period. She lives in a treehouse with her butlers, Bob and Larry, who she does dishes with, for some reason. Her whole existence boils down to “whine about things that other people have that I don’t.” Instead of pictures of her friends, she has pictures of her friend’s stuff, which I’m guessing means she doesn’t actually have friends. One of the thingsĀ  that amused me about this as a kid is that all the stuff she wants is boring grown-up stuff, like crock pots and sofas and pajamas. Kid me thought, “wow, not only is she ruining her life wanting stuff, but the stuff she wants isn’t even that great!” Current me, for the record, is thinking, “man, I could really use a crock pot.”

After the song introducing us to this situation, the evil scallions show up. This time, they are door-to-door salesmen. Shudder. They tell her about the new store that opened down the street, Stuff-Mart, and how it has everything she needs to be happy. Bob does his voice of reason thing and tells her that more stuff doesn’t necessarily equal more happiness, so of course Madame Blueberry listens and the story ends twelve minutes in.

Yeah, no, she goes shopping. In classical narrative format, Madame Blueberry gets two warnings she ignores before she gets one she actually listens to. After Bob’s protests, her second one is a little girl who she passes on the road to Stuff-Mart. She lives on the ground, not in a tree, which is apparently a class marker in this universe, and she is celebrating her birthday with nothing but a piece of pie, but the girl sings a happy little song about thankfulness. Madame Blueberry is bewildered. Again, because this is a children’s morality play, Madame Blueberry can’t figure out that the reason the girl is happy is because a thankful heart is a happy heart, even while the girl literally sings “because a thankful heart is a happy heart. I’m glad for what I have, that’s an easy way to start.” Although, outside of a children’s morality play, that’s not unrealistic. It can take time for new ideas to sink in.

thankful equals happy, thankful equals happy, nope, does not compute.
thankful equals happy, thankful equals happy, nope, does not compute.

Madame Blueberry goes on buying stuff, not feeling any happier even as she acquires more stuff and also probably racking up a helluva credit card debt. I mean, the woman helps her own servants wash dishes. She can’t exactly be rolling in it. The evil scallions make it as easy as possible for her to go through this thoughtlessly. She fills up one cart, and they just suggest that she take advantage of their complimentary delivery service so she can keep on racking up their commission buying the things she desperately needs.

She takes a break to have a slushie with Bob and Larry (it’s thirsty work, saying, “I want that, and that, and one of those, and two of those” while other people scurry around doing your bidding), and notices Jr. Asparagus ogling a train set. He begs his Dad to get it, but unfortunately it’s out of their budget. His Dad suggests that they get a ball instead, and Jr. Asparagus is disappointed at first, but says okay, and then starts getting excited about going to play with his father in the park. Madame Blueberry finally gets it, and decides to ditch the salesmen and learn to be happy with what she has.

Wait, you mean the people profiting from my never-ending desire for more didn't have my best interests at heart? Woah
Wait, you mean the people profiting from my never-ending desire for more didn’t have my best interests at heart? Woah

However, that’s about become a harder proposition than she thought. It turns out, she has loaded her treehouse up with so much stuff, it’s suddenly fallen victim to kid’s show physics. It sways and buckles and finally slingshots everything that is not actual tree into a pond. Madame Blueberry is sad, until she remembers that she still has Bob and Larry and the way stylish clothes on her back, and also there was a sweet little girl around here who can probably be suckered into sharing her pie.

In all seriousness, the ending is quite sweet, with all the non-evil scallion characters sharing pie and becoming friends. An unstated but recurring theme in the show is that when characters become thankful for what they have, their focus shifts from objects to people. The little girl is thankful for her parents, Jr. Asparagus wants to play with his Dad, and Madame Blueberry starts appreciating Bob and Larry as people instead of treating them as almost another possession. Another unstated shift is that they go from being passive to active. I poked a little fun at Madame Blueberry’s privileged, inactive shopping earlier, and how she’s leaving the heavy lifting to everybody else. Madame Blueberry has so many things, but she doesn’t actually do stuff with them. The little girl only has pie, but she eats it. She enjoys it. Jr. Asparagus only has a ball, but right away he starts playing with it. It reminded me of how, as a kid, I would pour over toy catalogs, imagining myself playing with them… and then when I actually got the damn things half the time I never touched them. When it came to actually playing, I was as happy with a stick in the woods as with any actual toy (sticks were awesome. They could be spears, or swords, or walking sticks, or wizards staffs, or you could just stick them in the pond and get slimy green goo all over them.) Possessing things is passive and unsatisfying. Using things, even inferior things, is active and satisfying.

In my last review, I noted how King George doesn’t change his ways because of sticks and carrots, but because of the realization of empathy. This episode does use them, but in an interesting way. There is an external, contrived retribution for Madame Blueberry’s greed, but it is not the primary focus of the episode. In fact, it is played so much for laughs it almost feels like another case where Veggie Tales mocks its own formulas, urging us to not take the artificial karma of fiction seriously. The real punishment for Madame Blueberry is internal, and she had the power to free herself from it all along.

Reviewing Veggie Tales as an Atheist; King George and the Ducky

Today’s episode begins with Jerry and Jimmy Gourd hijacking the show with the aid of Bob and Larry masks. They’re caught in the act by Bob and Larry, but after the pair begs to be allowed to do a show on selfishness, Bob and Larry decide to give them a shot. It’s a good message, after all, and they’d hate to demonstrate selfishness in the middle of a lesson on selfishness.

They begin a short film that the Gourds made by themselves, entitled The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down With All the Bananas. One of my favorite things about Veggie Tales is how comfortable they are making fun of the whole concept of children’s morality tales. They are themselves a children’s morality tale series, but they don’t take themselves too seriously. Jimmy and Jerry’s short film hits all of the classic blunders of this kind of story; bland story, characters bluntly stating that they are acting selfish while narrators also declare, in case we somehow missed it, that they are being selfish, and an extremely contrived punishment to drive the point home. Luckily Bob and Larry burst in, retake the show and start us off on King George and the Ducky.

King George and the Ducky is actually based on a Bible story, albeit one you are probably not familiar with, and if you are, you would probably never expect Veggie Tales to do it. The story is found in Second Samuel, chapter eleven. In it King David goes home from a war and spies from his roof a woman bathing. He brings the woman, Bathsheba, to his home, where they sleep together and he impregnates her. When he finds out she’s pregnant, he calls her husband Uriah home from the war for a vacation, hoping he will sleep with his wife and assume that baby is his. Uriah, however, is in a very noble mood and won’t enjoy himself while there are still people fighting and dying. Since that means no sex, David sends him back to the front and gives orders for him to be abandoned in the thick of the battle, so he will die. This plan works perfectly, and David marries Bathsheba. God sends the prophet Nathan to David, to tell him a story about two men, one rich with massive herds, one poor with only a single ewe whom he loves very much. When the rich man decides to throw a party for some guests, instead of taking meat from his own flock, steals and slaughters the lamb of the poor man. David is outraged and says that the man must be punished, and Nathan explains that no, this was a metaphor, in which David himself plays the role of “rich man.” David repents, and God forgives him, but takes the life of his son by Bathsheba as punishment.

So, how does Veggie Tales make that child appropriate? First they change the vicious blood and death war into a vicious pie war, which the characters still take seriously but the kids can laugh at, and they change Bathsheba and wives into rubber duckies, and they change “having sex” into “taking a bubble bath.” This works much better than it sounds. It’s still recognizably David and Bathsheba. King George spies Jr. Asparagus taking a bath with the rubber ducky on his rooftop. He sends Jr. off to war so he can steal his ducky, and gives the same order to put him into the most dangerous part of the battle, and withdraw support. At the end Pa Grape shows up (as “Melvin, that slightly odd wise man who shows up every so often to tell you things”) with the exact same story that Nathan tells King David. King George even has a cabinet full of duckies, to match King David’s harem.

The ending is slightly altered. Jr. is still alive, but traumatized by the war, constantly hallucinating incoming pies. King George gives him a bath, his old duckie back and a sincere apology, which brings him some healing. This scene could have been done in a way that felt cheap, but it actually works very well. King George is very sensitive and genuinely sorrowful. Jr. recovers, but he comes out of it in a hazy, shaky way that keeps the healing from feeling too cheap. In an adult’s story it would feel too easy, but when you factor in that its viewership includes preschoolers, you can forgive them for not going into all the complex nuances of PTSD recovery.

One of the things I really like about this take on selfishness is that it doesn’t use any sticks and carrots to tell the kids that selfishness is wrong. The impact of the moral relies solely on developing the viewer’s sense of empathy, just as King George learns that what he did was wrong by empathizing with the characters in Nathan Melvin’s story. He changes his ways for no other reason than “I realized I was wrong.”

This episode also has a lot of nice Veggie Tales touches. The songs in this one, in my opinion, are some of Veggie Tales’ best, Bob is terrific as King George’s snarky manservant Louis (in a shocking twist, he’s also the ignored voice of reason), Pa Grape uses a felt board of all things as a visual aid during his song, and so on. In short, I loved this one.

Reviewing Veggie Tales as an Atheist; Are You My Neighbor?

This episode covers loving your neighbor. “Neighbor” is Christianese for “everyone under the sun and possibly aliens.” I talk a lot about messages I received during my upbringing that I later had to unlearn, or edit, or heavily amend. This, however, is one of the cases where my Christian background did a great job preparing me for my life as a godless liberal social justice obsessed queer freak. “Love all the people,” is nicely transitive.

“Love thy neighbor” is also the origin of the famous Good Samaritan story. When Jesus declared this the second greatest commandment (the greatest was that God was like, the coolest shit ever, everything else can be at most moderately cool) somebody came up and said, “so… are we talking next door neighbors? People across the street? Three blocks over?” Jesus came back with the Good Samaritan story, which was cryptic religious leader speak for “neighbor includes those people you hate literally worse than the people who just invaded you.” To which the smartass said, “Oh. Well. Fuck.”

When Veggie Tales decided to tackle the issue, they figured if it was good enough for their Lord and Savior, it was probably good enough for them, so they start the episode off with the Good Samaritan. Except its Veggie Tales, so it’s a story about two rival vegetable towns who hate each other because in Flibber-o-loo they wear shoes on their heads, and in Jibberty-lot they wear pots.

For the record, my ten minutes of internet research revealed that the big difference between the Samaritans and the Jews was that the Samaritans had their big temple on Mount Gerazim and the Jews had theirs on Mount Zion, so the shoe/pot thing isn’t a bad translation. I mean, there were layers of historical racial tension and culturally significant symbolism inherent in these two places of worship, but I’m sure that in the town of Flibber-o-loo, the shoe demonstrates their humility before the great leader Uggs McStrappy, while Jibberty-lot contains those descendants of Uggs McStrappy who also intermarried with the descendants of his ancient enemy, Kettie Crocker, and the pots on their heads are symbols of their merging traditions from both lines, which to the people of Flibber-o-loo is an abomination. But you know, it was a ten minute short, so they didn’t have time for all that backstory.

The story is a pretty straight retelling. Larry the Cucumber, from Flibber-o-loo, gets assaulted and left for dead by bandits. He gets passed by two prominent other shoe-headed veggies before Jr. Asparagus, playing our Good Jibberty-lotian (doesn’t quite flow as well, does it?) rescues him.

And then he sings the moral, self-righteously and a little out of tune.
And then he sings the moral, self-righteously and a little out of tune.

Afterwards the two towns make up, unlike in the real world, where the Samaritans still got picked on for no good reason.

The second story opens with Dad Asparagus tucking Jr. Asparagus into bed, and taking the moment to talk about his upcoming birthday party. As Jr. lists off the friends he wants to invite, Dad asks him about Fernando. Jr. isn’t sure about Fernando, because, in Jr’s words, he talks funny and is kinda weird. Dad tries to explain that Fernando is actually just from another country and that different isn’t bad, but he can’t quite make the message stick, so heĀ  leaves the room in hopes that something bizarre will happen to teach Jr. the lesson of the evening.

No sooner has the door closed than Bob and Larry show up to cart him away to a Star Trek parody. The USS Applepies is in danger of being smashed by a giant popcorn ball. All seems lost until Jr. notices the two weird new kids, Jimmy Gourd and Jerry Gourd, who do nothing but eat and sing. Jr. realizes that, when the ship’s main threat is edible, a couple of big eaters might be exactly what the situation requires. He launches the brothers at the popcorn ball, and they eat the whole thing in just enough time to wrap up the episode with a song about embracing our differences.

Hey, it’s an unconventional parenting strategy, but it hasn’t let Dad Asparagus down yet.

Dad Asparagus takes the time to clarify that, in the real world, the differences that bind us together are less likely to be “can eat a giant ball of popcorn in less than a minute thereby saving a spaceship,” and more likely to be “can introduce you to foods and things from their culture that you might like if you give them a try.” Then its time for Bob and Larry to wrap up the episode by clarifying, just in case any of us missed it, that its really important to be kind to people who are different than you. Its in the Bible and everything.

There are two arguments presented for loving your neighbor. Well, three, if you count the many times we hear “love each other because God loves us,” but that’s an argument we are told, not shown. In the second story, we are given a pragmatic reason. Different can be good. Diversity can bring things like fun new experiences, novel solutions to problems, and diversified strengths in case of unexpected obstacles, like popcorn balls in space. The first one gives us a more subtle, empathetic reason. It tears down the artificial sense of separateness that lifestyle and cultural differences give us. It reminds us of our shared humanity, and our desire for others to be kind to us. It says that our words and our external traits do not always predict our actions, and we shouldn’t be too quick to judge by what we see on the outside.

Both arguments are good, although I think the empathetic one cuts more to the heart of why loving each other is important. We should all value each other because we all share in the condition known as humanity. Many Christians assume that, without belief in God, atheists cannot understand love. This is completely false. You don’t need God to love. Love does not require the stamp of divine approval to be valuable. Like wisdom and happiness, it is a thing that is valuable for its own sake, without any outside justification needed.

"Love is a many splendored thing. Love lifts us up where we belong. All you need is love!"
“Love is a many splendored thing. Love lifts us up where we belong. All you need is love!”

So yes, in conclusion, great message, great episode, good times.

How Subjective is a Story’s Meaning?

When talking about a story’s meaning, many people come to the conclusion that the meaning of a story is variable and personal, subject to individual interpretation. I myself have favored that in some of my previous posts. However, every time I say or hear this, it feels like a half-truth. I do think that interpretations can be more or less valid, on something of a double axis sliding scale.

The first axis is based on whether an interpretation rests on what is actually in the canonical work. I’ve seen interpretations that rely heavily on something that isn’t in the canonical work, or on ignoring something that is there. If someone can easily refute your interpretation by pointing to contradictory events in the story, that isn’t a good sign.

Because these interpretations are so easy to refute, it’s actually pretty rare for me to find one that I take issue with on that ground. I do recall, quite a long time ago, there was someone ranting on the internet about how sexist Firefly was. The author wrote that Zoe calls Mal “sir” and concludes that the show was saying something negative about black women. Nevermind that Zoe is intelligent, competent, outranks every male on the ship except Mal and is in no way subservient to her husband. Nevermind that she disobeys Mal and teases him as an equal. Nevermind that, in a time when women in the military is still controversial, she is a soldier even more competent than Mal, and that the way she calls Mal “sir” seems to have more to do with their shared military backstory and her identity as a soldier than any sense that she, as a person, is inferior to anybody. I could easily turn this into a very long rant about how poor that author’s reasoning was, but I’m going to resist, because it’s not the point of this blog. I was just hunting for an easy illustration of my point.

The other axis is based on how well a story lines up with reality. If these events played out in the real world, how would they be perceived? The question of whether Fifty Shades of Grey portrays romance or abuse hinges on this aspect of interpretation. Both sides are in agreement about the content of the novel, some simply claim that in real life it would not be abuse because “its this thing called BDSM, and things work differently there, I guess” and the other side says, “Yeah, no, all those things he does are absolutely considered abusive, especially in BDSM.” At this point I should confess (brag?) that I haven’t personally read the book, so I’m not going to argue a side, just say that those who have argued that it is abusive have done a better job of inclining me towards their point of view.

That second criteria is much more tricky to measure.

First, there are any number of stories where the events portrayed are improbable or impossible in the real world. This can be because the genre is science fiction or fantasy, because sloppy writing lead to plot holes and poor fact checking, or because the book was written back when people thought spontaneous human combustion was a thing. I could do a whole blog on those issues alone, so now that I’ve acknowledged them, I’m going to ignore them to keep this post simple.

Second, humans are not particularly well suited to figuring what reality actually is. There are vast swathes of the spectrum of light that we cannot see, as well as sounds we can’t hear, scents we can’t smell, and things we cannot taste or touch without physical damage. We cannot experience events before our births or after our death, and within our lives we can only visit a limited number of places in the universe. On top of that, our memories are flawed, reports from others can be biased, and any inferences we make must ultimately be based on one or more of those limited, flawed sources of knowledge. As a result, our own ideas about reality evolve constantly and will always disagree with the ideas of someone else.

This is why it is useful to debate and compare our different interpretations of a story. Stories are little models of reality; pretty, self-contained dioramas of what the author thinks real life is like. This gives the rest of us something tidy and consistent and to look at together. We then compare it to our images of reality, we all share the results, and we have a new means to figure out where we disagree and why.

There is still plenty of room for subjective interpretations. For example, in the beginning of Frozen, Elsa’s parents try to teach her to control her powers, while isolating her from the rest of the kingdom. I saw parents whose intentions were good, but who ultimately did more damage by encouraging her to feel ashamed, isolated and repressed. Then I watched Confused Matthew’s review, and he saw a plan to give her the space to figure herself out in private, and step two would be teaching her to reintegrate into society. To him, the tragedy is that, if they had been able to continue, things might have turned out just fine.

Neither of our interpretations are more rooted in the film than others. They rely on assumptions about alternate futures and the parent’s knowledge and intentions, which we can only guess at, based on a short song montage. I don’t think either one is more realistic, either. The real world contains both parents who might handle that kind of problem well, and ones who might handle it terribly, despite the best of intentions. If Confused Matthew and I sat down together and compared our views, we would learn something interesting about each other, about our biases and experiences, but neither of us would walk away feeling that our own interpretation was wrong, or that the other’s was right.

I am not a relativist. I think that there is an objective reality out there, and the history of human science and philosophy is the history of a tiny, fragile little race fumbling out to grasp hold of it. I like thinking about what stories mean because I think they are part of that history, and I wish we had a better common language to help us discuss them on the same terms. So I offer up these basic rules of thumb as a candidate.

What do you think? Am I making sense? How objective or subjective do you think stories are?