This episode opens with Chris, the annoying bookend morals woman, telling us all how we can experience the joy of Christmas even after we have gotten bored with our toys. Okay, place your bets now. Is it A. going to church a lot B. taking all of Whit’s advice all the time or C. giving to others?
Well, actually it’s C. Yay!
The problem with Adventures in Odyssey isn’t that a hundred percent of the official morals are terrible message. In fact, most of the time, I do agree with them. What has bothered me about AIO, as I’ve been revisiting the episodes, isn’t the message as much as the execution. The best message in the world can be spoiled by the way you convey it.
It opens with a kid named Annie hanging out at Whit’s End. She has been told to get out of the house by her parents, who are sick of her whining about being bored. Which is really their fault; after all, they only gave her a doll, and a moving teddy bear, and new shoes and a coat, and jewelry, and some kind of combination.
Yeah, she’s kind of a brat. Whit listens to her spoiled tirade, with admirable patience, and then invites her on his yearly trip to bring Christmas to a church Foster Creek, a place that has never before been mentioned and never will be again.
Annie: Isn’t that like a, well, you know?
Whit: A ghetto?
Whit: Well, some people call it that.
Uh, no Whit. You just called it that. If you don’t like the word, come up with another one, otherwise fucking own it.
As they drive through Foster Creek, Annie squeals over the dirt and the houses that Whit confirms are made of literal cardboard. In the church, we meet Reverend Pike, who gushes over Whit’s arrival and everything he has brought. He’s clearly coded as Black by his voice, but he isn’t using AAVE. Frankly, he’s using a voice I usually associate with the Uncle Tom-ish butler in a movie made around 1930. We also meet Tommy, a troubled boy who Reverend Pike is trying to look after.
Tommy also doesn’t speak with AAVE, but rather speaks exactly like Whit and Annie. I remember specifically noting this as a kid. Normally, Odyssey uses accents constantly, both to establish character and to disguise the fact that they are re-using voice actors. The accents they use are usually for minor, one-off characters, and they usually correspond to stereotypes. Characters will be given Italian accents because they are passionate, Scottish accents because they are brusque, New York Jewish accents because they are stingy and quarrelsome, New Jersey mafia accents because they are delinquents, all in a small town that is otherwise portrayed as culturally homogenous. Now they are going out of their way to portray this as a place where you would expect, going by stereotypes, to hear AAVE, but it’s conspicuously absent. Instead, to signal that Reverend Pike is nice, he is given a voice that screams “Uncle Tom,” and Tommy has a standard Midwestern voice.
I could argue here that it’s entirely possible that Tommy just speaks that way, or is code switching around Annie, but that wasn’t the interpretation that honestly came to mind when I was a kid. Nor do I think it was the interpretation AIO intended. When I was a kid, I knew Tommy would speak AAVE in the real world, but they were making him speak “normally” as a sort of kindness. I was surrounded by people who treated AAVE as, not an English dialect like any other, but a sign of incredible ignorance at best and actual moral decay at worst. AIO was bestowing some dignity on him that his natural accent would strip him of. The pastor’s accent though, one that is associated with submissiveness to whites, was perfectly acceptable, and in fact established him as a “good one.”
I didn’t grow up with anyone who expressed active hatred towards Black people, but a different kind of racism was ubiquitous. It was primarily expressed in a “we won’t mention that Black culture exists, because it’s such a horrible thing” approach. And let me be clear; it’s still very damaging. It enables the more violent kind of racism, but even on it’s own, it sends a constant message that Black people are inferior, while patting itself on the back for not mentioning it.
Now, thanks to others speaking out, I’ve unlearned that message. I now understand that AAVE is just like Bostonian and Cockney and Irish English, and that Odyssey’s omission wasn’t “PC.” It was erasure.
Anyway, Whit apparently wanted to bring Annie to the nursing home to meet some of his friends, but he is reminded by the pastor that they won’t let children in at this time. So he’s forced to leave her behind, with Tommy. Naturally, being the official bad kid of the episode, he drags her off to ogle a crazy cat lady. On the way, though, they are harassed by a gang called The Locos. The Locos definitely have accents. I don’t honestly know what kind of accent it is. It doesn’t sound like even a reasonable approximation of how any real people talk. It’s just kind of generically offensive.
Tommy abandons Annie, who is rescued by Mrs. Rossini, the crazy old cat lady. Annie learns that Mrs. Rossini is lonely and unsure who to trust in this neighborhood, and has developed a tough exterior to drive away the Locos, but otherwise is rather sweet. They drink cocoa and talk about her cats, Christmas, and Mrs. Rossini’s life before her husband died and the neighborhood turned bad.
Mrs. Rossini is a nuanced and interesting character, and seeing Annie open up and learn about the perspective of someone less privileged was actually very interesting. But it’s also maddening that, of all the characters in this ghetto, the only one who gets any development is the only one who could easily be interpreted as white. She, like Tommy and Annie has a standard Midwestern accent. Her Italian surname, while conceivable on an African-American, is more likely to belong to a white person. She mentions living in this neighborhood when it was nicer. Your average white conservative child is utterly ignorant about redlining. There is almost no chance they would interpret this as “this area was nice before banks began discriminatory lending practices, and city planners cut us off from all resources with a superhighway and deliberately neglected our infrastructure in favor of taking care of predominantly white neighborhoods, therefore creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of racial inequality.” When I was a kid, I interpreted “it was nice once,” as “it was white once.”
Anyway, the police catch the Locos and Annie is safely returned to Whit, and they all have a nice Christmas party together at the church. Annie is now excited to return and help Mrs. Rossini out, and Chris spells out for all of us that the Official Moral of this episode is to experience Christmas joy by helping others.
As I’ve mentioned before, Odyssey is very selective about how you are supposed to reach out to. Anyone who would cause you to question your ordinary way of thinking is treated as foolish at best, dangerous at worst. The neighborhood Whit takes Annie to is one where her values and norms might be questioned, but the only person she connects with is someone who is exactly like her aside from being older and poorer. Whit, too, doesn’t seem really connected to these people. In contrast with Mrs. Rossini, Reverend Pike is flat, and your classic recipient of the white savior trope. Annie bonds with Mrs. Rossini and plans to return regularly to bring her cat food and check up on her. Everything that Whit and Reverend Pike say suggests that Whit only comes to Foster Creek once a year, to play Santa Claus and receive their gratitude. Whites are characters. Blacks are background.
This is especially disturbing because I feel like the audience of AIO is primed to absorb toxic messages about race. It’s an overwhelmingly white subculture. It’s also an isolated kind of white. I was lucky. I grew up on the coast in an incredibly diverse county, and had many friends to educate me. I’m not sure your average AIO listener has it. Mostly they are kids in white towns who grow up hearing lots of angry rants about immigrants stealing our jobs. Plus, they are raised to treat AIO episodes as practically gospel, not to analyze and criticize them, and the show overall discourages it’s listeners from listening to those dangerous liberals who might educate them about race.
Best Part: Mrs. Rossini. I wish she had been Black, but that doesn’t change the fact that I liked her.
Worst Part: Seeing how long I ranted about them, I’m gonna have to say all the accents.
Story/Moral: Normally I separate these, but this time it feels right to consider them together. This episode has good bones. The basic structure is both an interesting story and a valuable lesson. Then it animates it almost entirely with a very subtle and insidious kind of racism.
This episode isn’t about race. This episode is about charity. But what is charity when you don’t bother to see the recipients as human? When you don’t listen to their real needs? When you show up for accolades on Christmas and don’t look at the issues impacting their everyday life? What is charity when the only people worthy of real understanding and help throughout the year are the ones who are just like you?
It’s an exercise in self-congratulation. This episode preaches charity, but it doesn’t really teach it.