Sunday, November 15, 2015

Girl Meets Freedom of Religion and Responsibility in Storytelling

Girl Meets World tackles religious freedom and openmindedness, but its personal biases get in the way of real inclusivity.

If you've ever taken a look at the Girl Meets World writers' Twitter (I trust this is something tons of people have done), you'll see right away that they pride themselves on creating a show that deals with real, complicated issues, and doesn't necessarily come to easy solutions. They want to create a world where questions can have multiple right answers, and where numerous viewpoints have validity. They're not entirely wrong about this. Girl Meets World is the furthest thing in the world from subtle, but subtle and nuanced are not synonymous; sometimes, Girl Meets World is just very in-your-face about how unresolved its questions are.

Other times, though, Girl Meets World fails on both counts. This past Friday's episode, "Girl Meets Belief," was one of those. Here's the gist of the episode: Riley discovers Maya doesn't believe in God, and wages a low-key campaign to convert her to Team Religious. Maya, getting tired of having her beliefs constantly questioned, decides to take a break from Riley. Then she realizes that only talking to the similarly nonbelieving Farkle is boring, and that she misses Riley, so they become friends again. This happens at about the halfway point; the rest of the episode is basically a really, really long conversation about theology and freedom of religion. Farkle talks about not believing in things he can't see. Riley talks about Thomas Jefferson's views on religion as a personal choice. Everyone wraps things up by giving a speech, as is Girl Meets World's wont. Farkle says he doesn't know what force it was that brought him and his friends together. Maya tells Riley she prayed.

The moral, as explicitly stated out loud by several characters, is: 1. Religion is a personal choice that everyone makes for themselves, and 2. You should open your mind and listen to others before making that choice.

Here's the problem. Girl Meets World doesn't make everyone play by the same rules. The religious characters (Riley, Lucas) learn the first lesson. The nonreligious characters (Maya, Farkle) learn the second. The end result? The nonreligious characters learn to be a little more religious, and the religious characters learn to leave them alone while they're doing it.

For all that the show prides itself on openmindedness and inclusivity, for all this episode prides itself on openmindedness and inclusivity, 13-year-old me would not have felt very included by this episode. She wouldn't have felt very respected by it, either. To me, at 13, this episode would have seemed to be saying, "You're wrong--but you're allowed to be wrong."

The adult me understands that that probably wasn't the intended message. I think the Girl Meets World writers thought they were giving both sides of the argument a fair shake. Farkle argues that he doesn't believe in things he can't see; Cory points out all the very real things, like light through a prism, that are invisible at first glance. Question and answer! People exchanging ideas! How is that not fair?

Of course, Cory is Farkle's teacher, and he gets the final word in the argument, and nobody is ever convinced or even all that interested in what Farkle says.

 Girl Meets World is engaging with two questions here. The first is, "Does God exist?" The second is, "How should we treat people whose religious beliefs differ from ours?" The latter question is potentially ripe material for a half-hour comedy on the Disney Channel. The former question is decidedly not. For one thing, the writers clearly think they know the answer. For another, millennia of theology, philosophy, logic, and science are pretty hard to distill into a half-hour comedy, let alone one that can't assume its viewers even know the word "atheist."

And the failure of the first question interferes with the second. Because if you're telling a story about religious freedom, but the world of the story is weighted on the side of "religious people are right," well, that's what you get: "You're wrong, but you're allowed to be wrong."

Maybe it's too much to ask that a Disney Channel show present a nuanced picture of religion and religious freedom. Maybe it's too tall an order. But I don't have much sympathy for them. The writers are the ones who chose this topic, and as the writers of a show for children, they have a responsibility to do it justice. All the more so because the show is so pointedly moraled. All the more so because the writers take pride in the openness of their show.

I know from experience that being an atheist child in America can be extraordinarily alienating. Your peers often don't understand your beliefs. Worse, they don't respect your beliefs. They think of them as wrong, yes, but they also think of them as weird. They try to talk you out of it. They expect you to change your mind. Atheist kids hear these things from their peers, at a time when the opinions of their peers is of more importance than it ever will be for the rest of their lives.

Maybe they shouldn't have to hear the same things from TV shows that claim to be about openmindedness.

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