Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Viva la Difference

It’s probably not surprising, given that this is a product of Focus on the Family, that politics and social issues is not one of the topics I think they handled particularly well. I not only have come to disagree on them when it comes to most issues, but disagree in a way that creates an impasse. It’s one thing to disagree with someone, but be willing to be convinced, and have them return the sentiment. It’s another thing to have your core assumptions and values so diametrically opposed that neither of you could persuade the other without also fundamentally rocking your worldview. On most issues, AIO and I disagree in the latter sense, and in this way I think we unfortunately mirror our society as a whole.

Yet, I do like to start my topical sections out on a positive note, and there’s one particular episode that debunks a serious misconception about conservative Christianity. I’m going to temporarily put aside my politically outraged liberal hat, so I can talk about one political lesson that was incredibly positive. I don’t just bring this up because I want cookies for being fair minded, but also because I think that if you’re going to fight a toxic mentality, you need to fully understand it. I think that sometimes we waste our time fighting something that isn’t actually a problem, and that gets in the way of the bigger, more uncomfortable problems.

So without further ado, I would like to introduce you to the Mulligans. Mike and Tracy are the parents, Lisa is their daughter, and they also take care of their cousin Nick. Nick has a good heart, but is so preoccupied with being cool that he usually ends up being the biggest dork around. Lisa is blind, spunky and an ardent animal lover. To her delight, the family lives on a farm where they’ve rehomed various exotic animals from a closed zoo. They took in the animals because they have made an agreement to “always say yes to God.” In other words, when somebody comes to them needing help, they will find a way to do it.

Have I mentioned I really, really like the Mulligans?

On the Mulligan zoo-farm, they all have their own assigned critters. Nick and Lisa have very different techniques for wrangling them, and they are getting on each other’s nerves. For example, as they are unloading some new animals, Lisa’s sweet talk approach with her ostriches gets them into their pen at approximately the rate of sloth. Meanwhile, Nick’s baby elephant, Gus, isn’t eating. Nick’s main ideas have been, A. try to somehow pry Gus’s mouth open and shovel some food in or B. explain to him the error of his ways. These have not been particularly effective. Lisa thinks Gus is probably scared and would cooperate better after some TLC; Nick thinks that if she would stop serenading the birds and just shoo them they might possibly stop being in his way all the time.

Whit comes in the middle of this chaos with a request. There’s a single mother he knows who is going into the hospital for a long stay, and her daughters need a place to stay. Mike and Tracy say they want to pray about it, but it’s pretty clear where this is going. Even they joke about the farm turning into a city.

The next day, Lisa and Nick get into a fight over lunch. She makes a lot of the meals and has gone full blown vegetarian lately. Nick is not adapting well to the rabbit lifestyle. Tracy tries to settle this argument by convincing him to take a turn cooking. At first he insists he’s too macho for that, but she points out that some of the best chefs in the world are men.

For AIO, this is some mind blowing gender subversion.

Anyway, he’s convinced, and while he goes off, Lisa rants about his macho attitude towards everything. Tracy uses diversity in the animal kingdom to talk about how different gender expressions can both be good. Lisa has never had a brother, nor has Nick had a sister. When Nick does things a different way, and Lisa automatically assumes. But when it comes to animals, she doesn’t like one animal more for travelling in herds instead of living solo, or having feathers instead of fur. They’re all different, and she loves them all for what they are. Tracy encourages her to see her own femininity and Nick’s masculinity like fur and feathers; not better or worse, just different.

Once the speech is over, they go to check in on what Nick’s doing for lunch, or as Lisa says, what he’s doing to it. He presents them with, hot dog and sausage sandwiches, sprinkled with bacon, wrapped in bologna, topped with spam. That is mostly a direct quote, but I’ve left out Lisa’s agonized gagging.

I guess lunch meat withdrawal is a thing.

Lisa gets physically sick and Tracy goes to help her out, while Mike does his best to enjoy the… meal?

A bit later, as Nick is taking another shot at feeding Gus, Mike goes in to broach the topic of the girls Whit wanted them to look after. He starts by checking in with how Nick’s adjusting to having a sister. Nick talks about girls being weird, and Mike gives his own talk about how boring the world would be if men and women were exactly alike. He also takes it a little further, bringing up how all the other differences between us can make us  better; how being around people who aren’t exactly like us can enrich us as people, and challenge us to grow in ways that we never would if everybody was exactly the same. It’s a great speech, but unfortunately it’s interrupted by escaping ostriches.

Aaaaah, life on a zoo.

So there’s four ostriches and four people. They figure that if they each take a bird, they can bring them all back before any of the birds get to the highway. Tracy, Mike and Nick all bring their animals in pretty quickly, but Lisa has some trouble with her bird. Her approach, lovey-dovey as always, instead makes the ostrich think, “yeah, I can take this bitch,” and it starts pecking her.

Ostriches can be fucking vicious, and Lisa, being blind, can’t dodge. She quickly becomes utterly panicked. Nick charges in and scares the ostrich back into the herd. Lisa’s shaken, but recovers quickly, and wonders what went wrong. Nick answers that sometimes you just have to cut the sweet talk and show them who’s boss. She admits he has a point, which Nick makes sure to milk for all it’s worth until her gratitude turns into exasperation.

Awww, he’s learning how to be a brother!

So point one to the macho method, but Lisa’s back up for the next round. After she is bandaged up, she finds Nick once against wrestling unsuccessfully with Gus. She starts sweet talking and cuddling the little guy, and suddenly Gus opens his mouth for the bottle. After a little experimentation, they realize that when they lean on his trunk, he feels like his mother is above him and he’s ready to eat. Go team gender diversity!

Just as Nick is talking about them having solved their gender related issues, Whit shows up, bringing Jessica and Janelle, the twin girls. Nick is taken aback, as Mike didn’t actually get to the “fyi, we got more kids coming on board” part of the talk. There was a little crisis with some escaped dinosaurs, remember?

Well, this is inconvenient, as Jessica and Janelle are Black, and at first they worry that he’s reacting to that. Of course it’s just that he’s surprised by new people, plus now he’s outnumbered by girls three to one. These two kids, already stressed by their mother’s health crisis and being taken in by strangers, had to also experience a moment of worry that they were going to be stuck with a massive racist, only to learn that he’s just a slight misogynist. What a hilarious misunderstanding!

So… yeah. That ending was awkward as hell. I’d love to go into a whole rant about the problems with introducing someone’s marginalized identity by having an It’s-Not-Bigotry-It’s-Just-A-Misunderstanding Scene (TM), but I really don’t have space for it, so I’ll just acknowledge that it is a problem, and save the why for another time. While I’m acknowledging issues, there’s some cisheteronormativity in both Tracy and Mike’s speeches; as in “of course Nick acts that way, he’s a guy. We can predict the exact ways you two are different based on your genders.” You have to wonder if they would be as supportive of Nick and Lisa’s different personalities if they were both boys, or both girls.

But as far as the episode goes with the moral, their point is awesome. They do have a firm grasp of the heart of inclusion and diversity; different can be good. Different is what makes life interesting and beautiful, and often our differences enable us to help each other. Our talents and strengths can balance each other out, and the benefits of diversity are well worth the work it can sometimes take to get along. AIO and I actually totally agree on this basic principle.

I know all too many liberals who think conservatives don’t get this principle, but I think many of them do, in an abstract sense. I was pretty deeply entrenched in conservative Christian fundamentalism, and I constantly got the message that differences were gifts from God. It wasn’t about a difference of basic principles, but a list of exceptions to that principle; this one doesn’t count as a good difference, nor does this one, nor that, nor that. In my next reviews, I’ll try to not only show how some identities were marginalized, but also try to explain why this happens, and hopefully explore some ideas on how to better address bigotry in our political culture.

Final Ratings

Best Part: I love so many moments, but the scene where Lisa and Nick finally co-operate to help Gus is so fulfilling and heartwarming. And it has a happy baby elephant! It’s tough to compete with that.

Worst Part: Jessica and Janelle’s awkward introduction.

Morality Rating: This is an important idea, well illustrated by the story. A+

Story Rating: Funny, well paced and brings the main idea up in a way that feels natural. A+

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