Monthly Archives: June 2016

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist; A Tangled Web

This episode opens with Connie making plans with her friend to sneak away and see a concert. In classic “as you know, Bob,” style, she reveals to us that her mother wouldn’t approve of her going, which is why it needs to be a secret. Dun dun dunnnnnn!

She asks Whit if she can leave work early, and he says he’s fine with it, but asks for her help sorting through some books. Some are ones he bought, and others he wrote himself. He picks up one and laughs, saying it’s a particular favorite of his. He isn’t really clear on why; the main adjective he uses is “cute.” Connie is curious, and despite Whit is happy to let her take a break done and read it.

The story is about a kid who is described as good, but going through a stage where he wants more independence. He wants to go to Whit’s End to check out some new displays, but his parents tell him to pick up some flour. His dad needs to use to car for work, and his mom needs to stay home and watch the baby, so he’s the only one who can do it. Instead of going straight to the store, he decides he can do both. Naturally, he ends up both losing track of time, and losing the money.

When he arrives home, he tells his mom that some bigger kids stole the money from him. In standard morality tale style, the lie escalates until he’s receiving an award from the mayor for… reasons? Anyway, he ends up in front of a big audience, being given honors he knows he doesn’t deserve. He takes a deep breath, and accepts it. He lives out the rest of his life without ever being found out.

Connie is startled by this ending. Narrative convention dictates that he be found out, and learn that you can’t get away with lying. Whit asks her if he really did get away with it. For the rest of his life, he has to remember that one time he deceived his mother, and it weighs on him long after everyone else has forgotten the whole incident. It shouldn’t surprise any of you to know that Whit figured out long ago that Connie was going to this concert and lying to her mother. He tells her she still has the afternoon off, if she wants it, but she should think hard about what she’s doing.

The episode ends with Connie calling up her mother.

I have complicated feelings about this episode. Complicated here means, “I essentially agree with their point, but details of the execution bother me, and I’m honestly unsure whether the pros outweigh the cons.” Lies can occasionally be justified, such as when you’re protecting yourself or someone else from abuse, but in most cases they just trade a little temporary inconvenience for an emotional cage. Whit’s story illustrated this very well.

On the other hand, his methods were manipulative. There’s something ironic about telling a lie to convince someone to not lie. My approach, if I were in Whit’s place, would be to ask her why she doesn’t think her mother would approve. Sometimes, when you make someone spell their reasoning out, they realize on their own that it’s a bad idea. Other times, you learn that you have been misjudging them, and that they have better reasons for their actions than you thought. Maybe her mother is manipulative and stifling, and Connie just needs to get away and be herself for a bit. I’ve been there. If that’s the case, and I think the concert is not a good place, maybe I could offer her a safer means of escape.

Speaking of which, it isn’t clear why this concert is so bad. In Adventures in Odyssey, the word “concert” is automatically suspect, unless modified by “classical” or “Christian.” Also, parents are always right, unless they are non-Christian, in which case they are always wrong. In my world, though, there are a number of factors that affect whether this is a little bad or extremely bad. Will Connie be exposed to drugs and alcohol and do I trust her to be responsible about that? How far away is the concert? What kind of people will she be with? Does somebody know exactly where she’s going and when she’ll be back? Does she have someone she plans to check in with at any point? The writers of the show and I have very different values. They worry that about the state of her soul, which is best protected by controlling her tastes, influences and sexuality. I mostly just care about her safety; if she’s sneaking off to see the Grateful Dead in the park I don’t see what the problem is.

An open, honest conversation about his misgivings would have run the risk of Connie going ahead with her plans, but you know what? When you genuinely respect someone, you take that risk. You try to minimize the damage they can do to themselves and prevent them from hurting others, but other than that, you respect their right to learn from their own mistakes.

And in a way he did, in that he gave her the afternoon off, but I actually feel like it would have been less manipulative to simply say, “no you can’t have the afternoon off.” He would be perfectly within his rights; she made a commitment and chose to ask at the last minute. Instead he does her a favor, which makes her feel indebted to him, and then guilt-trips her.

So in the end, I think I’m coming down on this episode having more negatives than positives. I still think it’s better than some of the previous episodes I’ve reviewed, as there is a genuinely good point in here, but the execution is manipulative and hypocritical.

Activist Audiences

I really enjoyed this video on whitewashing. It’s by Philip Wang, one of the geniuses behind Wong Fu Productions, a company that publishes comic and romantic short films on Youtube. All of the owners are Asian, as are most of the actors they work with. I highly recommend them.

Philip Wang makes the point that there have been many good conversations about whitewashing, what it is and why it is bad, but not enough done to actually correct it. It’s not just about complaining. We also need to create, and support creators. He talks largely about the fomer, but I’ve also been thinking a lot about the latter.

These days activists talk a lot about paying attention to where our money is going. Are we supporting fair trade, ecologically sustainable practices, humane treatment of animals, human rights? Or are we inadvertently telling companies that child labor is awesome? Sometimes, because of our budgets and time, we can’t help but buy something that’s a little less ethical than we would like, but being aware at least lets us maximize the choices we have. When we choose to watch all of the Avengers canon movies, and then complain about Black Widow, our money means a lot more to the executives than our articles. When we choose to spend money on quality stories with diverse casts, like the new Star Wars films, the recent Jungle Book adaptation, and Dope, we tell those who are financially motivated that such things are worth their time to support.

Who we pay attention to also matters. Nowadays our eyeballs are practically money. Views determine who gets ad revenue, as well as who moves up the ranks of the publishing business. I follow a number of artists (musicians, comedians, short film creators etc) on Youtube. Many of them have stories about gigs and deals they got largely because of their internet followings.

None of that is revolutionary. I also think reinforcing creators can be complicated, because creators themselves are imperfect. I can’t think of many who are flawless social justice masters. I’m not even sure such a thing can exist. The conversation about what social justice is and how we can best create it is, itself, an ever evolving discussion. For me, supporting diversity is less about trying to find someone who is perfectly attuned to the current consensus on Tumblr, but about supporting creators who want to participate in the conversation. Whose work evolves over time? Whose portrayals of women are getting more nuanced, and who is still writing one token sexy action chick? Who is apologizing and actually trying to do better? Who is making promises and carrying them out?

In a way, this is an umbrella introduction to a number of posts I have in the pipeline. I want to write more about how I make decisions on what to read, watch and spend money on. And I want to hear about how you make those decisions, as well as your recommendations of works for me to check out and review.

Until next time, thanks, as always, for reading.

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist; Nothing to Fear

Revisiting these episodes is reminding me of what a pedestal they were on. In my family, Adventures in Odyssey episodes were imbued with a kind of mystical reverence. I believed they held keys to existence and that taking their advice seriously was the secret to good Christian living. Not as much as the Bible, of course, but they were awfully Biblical and, frankly, easier to understand.

I’ve briefly worried that this is biasing my reviews. Am I blaming them too much for screwing with people’s heads, just because the status they held in my family helped them screw with mine? Then I realized that no, it can’t just be me, because they weren’t passively placed up on that pedestal. They actively campaign for the position. I mentioned in my first review that an annoying lady named Chris gives us a preview of the moral, and a summary of it, just in case we haven’t had the point thoroughly hammered into our head yet. She also makes promises that the upcoming episode will answer our questions, interpret the Bible and make our lives generally perfect.

For example, in this episode she says we will learn a way to make our fears go away, and never come back. Those are her exact words, “go away and never come back.”

The protagonist, Shirley , opens our story with a nice scream, because her friend Jake is showing off his pet mouse, Luther. And by friend I mean “asshole who occasionally associates with her.” After deliberately shoving a phobia of hers in her face, he laughs, and Whit comes over to see what the trouble is. He learns that Shirley is scared of mice, as well as heights, fire, crowds, being alone, turtles, the merry-go-round, toy guns, stuffed animals, the street, the woods, bikes, the dark, loud noises… he actually fails to find something she’s unafraid of. He even asks if she’s afraid of him, and she says, “no, except when you wear your big jacket. It’s kind of creepy.”

Whit gets her to gently hold Luther, which seems to be helping her realize there’s no danger, until it bites her. She drops it and the mouse runs off. This isn’t the part I have a problem with. Gradual, controlled exposure to sources of anxiety can help people overcome fears, both ordinarily and ones that are parts of mental illness. I’ve sometimes used a kind of self-guided immersion therapy to deal with my anxiety disorder. It’s just bad luck that Luther the mouse doesn’t cooperate.

Unfortunately, supportive, gradual exposure to triggering stimuli is not the actual theme of this episode. The actual theme is what Whit tells her.

“There are fears we need to overcome, not just because they are harmful to us, but because they show a lack of faith in God. The Bible says that perfect love casts out all fear.”

To make his point extra clear, he compares God’s love to a light switch in a dark room. You don’t have to move the darkness out to make room for the light. One is there, or the other is. The light casts out the darkness instantaneously.

This is incredibly harmful, because it won’t always work, and when it doesn’t, it creates feelings of shame and inadequacy on top of the existing fear. To be clear, I’m not just saying it won’t work because I don’t believe in God. Many people of different and mutually contradictory beliefs find comfort in their beliefs. A religion doesn’t have to be true to be consoling. I even rather liked the Veggie Tales episode on being scared. But Veggie Tales also affirms that fear is normal and okay. Whit makes any lingering nervousness a direct measurement of your lack of faith.

Shirley goes home to get the bite looked at, and has an intense nightmare about a giant mouse eating her alive. She wakes up to her Mom using the vacuum cleaner, which is also a source of anxiety for her. As she sobs in her mother’s arms, she asks why she has to be afraid all the time, and her Mom is unable to calm her down.

So, for the record, the official stance of this episode is that Shirley is a “scaredy-cat.” Chris actually uses the dictionary definition of scaredy-cat to introduce her. Shirley’s also called a coward by Jake. Whit protests that but seems to object more to the name-calling than the accuracy of the statement. The one label he doesn’t want to put on her is “crazy,” which disturbs me. I wouldn’t call Shirley crazy either, but I would say she shows every symptom of having an anxiety disorder like me.

  • Time. Shirley talks like a seven-to-ten year old, in terms of both voice and vocabulary. Everyone acts as if she’s been this fearful all her life. It’s normal for children to go through phases where they are a bit shy or anxious, but typically they get over them. Longstanding anxiety like this is a sign that something’s chemically imbalanced.
  • Intensity. Look at that list. Look at the severity of her reaction. Look at how pants-wetting panic is her default mode. That’s not normal.
  • Lack of a cause. A child who is experiencing stress at home or has been through a traumatic event will probably have some heightened anxiety for a while. Shirley’s home life seems to be happy and stable.
  • Irrational fears. A few of the things that scare Shirley are rational, like fire, but most are completely harmless. She can intellectually acknowledge that she’s not in danger, but is still afraid.
  • Quality of life. This is the most important one. It’s the ultimate divider between mentally healthy and in need of help. Do the symptoms interfere with your ability to go about your everyday life? Do they take something away from you? Shirley is miserable. She is driven away from places that are supposed to be happy and safe, because she can’t control her fear. She cries over her inability to stop being afraid. She has an anxiety disorder, and she should see a doctor.

For the record, I’m not saying she needs meds. Maybe she does and maybe she doesn’t. I’ve known people who rushed to medicate themselves or their children when some patience and therapy would have done the trick. I’ve known people who put off much-needed medication because of nebulous stigmas, and I include myself in that category. What Shirley needs is between her and her hypothetical doctor, but what she doesn’t need is to be taught that if she can’t control her fear it’s because she’s a bad Christian.

Meanwhile, Jake decides to punish her for losing Luther by luring her into the basement of Whit’s End and exposing her to darkness and generally scary noises. He even rigs boxes to fall over and such, just to maximize the creepiness. Did I mention he’s an asshole? His plan backfires and he falls into his own booby trap. His ankle is twisted and he can’t go get help, so Shirley has to make her way through the dark to find someone. She does this, because people with anxiety disorders are often quite brave in a crisis, because they’re used to being scared so suddenly being in a scary situation doesn’t faze them she sings Bible songs and is filled with the love of Jesus and is magically fearless.

Afterward, she gets some ice cream at Whit’s End and talks to Whit about how Jake will be okay, although he’s grounded for pretty much eternity. Shirley explains, for the benefit of the audience members who haven’t gotten the point yet, that loving Jesus is magical fear-repellent. She declares that she might never be afraid again. Connie then comes in with a cool bug she found, which causes Shirley to shriek in terror.

Whit and Connie laugh. Because it’s funny that her lifelong battle with irrational terror isn’t over yet. Because it’s funny that either she doesn’t love Jesus enough or vice versa. Because somewhere in the development, they decided to end every goddamn episode with Whit laughing, and who gives a shit whether this undermines the whole point of the story.

I have emphasized the medical because, the way Shirley is written, it’s easy for a person with actual mental health issues to identify with her. I remember I did. And the sad truth is that this kind of message isn’t even uncommon in religious circles. I’ve known many Christians who are supportive and knowledgeable about mental health, but I’ve also known Christian communities that stigmatize it and treat it as pure lack of faith. Because of this, I’ve known people who have suffered silently and attempted suicide, rather than seek treatment. When you heap guilt and threats of divine condemnation on top of a chemically fragile mind, the cost can include a human life.

And what really bothers me is that, with that final scene, there seems to be some inadvertent admission that this magic bullet isn’t quite so flawless as they make it out to be. There’s no other indication that this whole “love Jesus and stop being afraid” thing might not be that simple. Remember how Chris opened the episode? Yet, it makes sense that on some level they know it’s an exaggeration. I mean, they must have felt how their own worship never makes the fear go away completely and permanently. Brains just don’t work like light switches. Despite this, they are comfortable telling impressionable, inexperienced children that if they experience fear, it’s because they lack adequate faith and love in Jesus.

Thankfully, I didn’t actually listen to this episode that often. It scared the crap out of me.

Mulan and Masculinity

I’m at the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference, and I’ve got that song from Mulan running through my head. You know the one. On the surface, the lyrics of this song reinforce many of our most problematic ideas about masculinity, including;

  • A person’s ability to perform masculine ideals define their gender identity
  • Masculine ideals are so lofty as to be nigh superhuman (“you must be swift as a coursing river, with all the force of a great typhoon, with all the strength of a raging fire, mysterious as the dark side of the moon.”)
  • Being womanly and being weak are practically synonymous, which is why the most humiliating thing is to be defeated by a woman

Yet everyone who hears this song knows it is from a movie where the protagonist is a woman.* We know the joke is on the singer, even before we see the film, but one of my favorite things about this movie is that it goes a step further than the standard gender-bending woman power stories. All too often, those stories challenge the first idea, by having a woman successfully perform masculinity, but leave the second untouched and sort of whistle awkwardly past the third. Sometimes the men are the butt of the joke for being outdone by a woman, and very often the only person worthy of her affection is the one man who really can best her. In Mulan, on the other hand, everything is taken a step further.

Li Shang and Ping

First, Mulan is, initially, terrible at fulfilling Li-Shang’s expectations… and so is everyone else. The cisgender men are all overwhelmed and struggling. The film has introduced Mulan as someone who struggles with femininity, which makes her feel inadequate, but then it dares suggest that people of all genders can struggle to live up to the idealized expectations of masculinity and femininity. When Mulan succeeds, it is celebrated because it marks a turning point for all of them. They ultimately live up to Li-Shang’s standards, not because of the inherent gifts of testosterone, but because of teamwork, persistence and loads of practice. It’s like the “masculine” ideals of strength and bravado can be fulfilled by anyone sufficiently dedicated to master them, regardless of their hormones or chromosomes. What a novel concept.

Speaking of which, I love the three soldiers who become her friends. Initially, they bully her. This is… honest. Brutally honest. In my experience, the worst gender bullies are always the ones who are insecure about their own presentation. From the Republican senator who bemoans gay rights only to be caught with a rentboy, to the scrawny nerd who trolls anyone who dares identify as both geek and woman, hypocrisy is the classic defense of the man who can neither live up to standards of masculinity, nor work up the courage to rebel against it. Because toxic masculinity is so hierarchical, it’s easy for them to decide that, if they can’t climb the ranks, at least they can make sure everyone below them stays down.

This is what her friends initially do. They are failing Li-Shang’s tests, so they make sure those around them won’t succeed and make them look bad. But Mulan refuses to play this game. Instead, she persists and, through her success, inspires them to work on themselves rather than keep putting down anyone weaker. I love that this is addressed. I love that children get to see how shitty that bullying is, and cheer for the discovery of a better way. I love the reminder that masculinity doesn’t have to be about being better than everyone else. It can be about collaborating and being better together.

Yao Ling Chien-Po

Second, the love story isn’t about Mulan finally finding a man who can defeat her, or some such sexist bullshit. In fact, Mulan never fixates on or pursues him. It’s Li-Shang’s character arc that drives the romance. He learns that his rigid concepts of gender roles are stopping him from finding true love with someone whose best traits are best recognized outside of the gender binary. Mulan is not the “Girl Worth Fighting For” they sing about (another song where sexist lyrics are deftly skewered by the context). She doesn’t need to be. Everything she is is wonderful enough.

Finally, and here’s my favorite part, Mulan never comes to perfectly embody masculinity, or femininity. She does become a much, much better warrior, but so does everyone else, and throughout the story she is more likely to use creativity and intellect to solve her problems than brute force. In the end, she returns to feminine clothing, albeit in a more subdued, gender neutral way.** The story isn’t about how she’s awesome because she’s masculine, unlike all those awful feminine women. It’s about how she’s brave, smart, resourceful and loyal; heroic traits that can go with any gender presentation.

Mulan

I want to do many more reviews of stories that explore gender, and especially explore how we tell stories about masculinity; how we spread toxic messages, and how we can do better. But for now, I’m off to hang out with awesome trans-spectrum type folk. If you have any requests for gender-centric stories that you want me to review, please leave a comment. Films are preferred, because it’s easier for me to find the time to watch and rewatch them, but if there are books or TV shows or anything else I’ll do my best. As always, thanks for reading!

*Her portrayal is consistent with just about any gender identity, including trans male and nonbinary. That is to say, she never says anything about who she feels she is, but rather about her sense of duty to her family, so you can read into the story what you want. I’ll refer to her with female pronouns, because that’s what she uses in-story, but I support all headcanons.

**Okay, okay, my personal headcanon is that today she would label herself genderfluid or a gender non-conforming woman. This is largely because she seems clearly uncomfortable with her initial attempts at performing extreme femininity, but not at the end when she is presenting as a woman again. I don’t think she would have looked as happy if she didn’t feel that “woman” was at least partially true to who she was. But that’s just my interpretation.