Disney’s Mulan came out when I was 12, and you’d better believe I was excited about it. I was the girl who reacted to dresses and stockings with outrage and got big heart eyes at the sight of swords, so a girl dressing up as a guy and going to war was exactly my jam. Shortly after watching it, I remember climbing on a playground after church with a friend, while my brothers and I quoted the funny parts at each other. I asked her if she’d seen it yet.
“No…” she replied. “I heard it promotes ancestor worship and stuff.”
This caught me up. Yes, in the movie Mulan prays to her ancestors for help and protection, and in true Disney fashion, the ghostly ancestors are seen discussing her plight. 12-year-old-me wasn’t sure how to respond. It did…but it hadn’t occurred to me that it did.
“I guess…” I said. “Kind of.”
I found myself thinking about this exchange recently, while my husband and I watched through Avatar: The Last Airbender on Netflix. I realize we are WAY behind the times, but wow did we enjoy it, despite neither of us really being anime fans. It was such a great story, with excellent characters, and it was deeply refreshing to see a fantasy series that wasn’t set in pseudo-medieval or pseudo-viking times. The show also depicts a variety of ethnicities and cultures, most of which are based on eastern civilizations. It’s great.
Of course, there are references to various elements of eastern spiritualities… reincarnation, qi energy, a spirit world, and – featuring heavily in one episode of season two and recurrently through season three – chakras.
During that chakra-heavy episode, I couldn’t help but hear my friend’s voice “No… I heard it promotes eastern mysticism.”
If this kind of exchange sounds weird to you, you’re not alone. There’s a whole (very right-wing) Christian industrial complex around promoting fear of “the Other,” and it takes a little unpacking to make sense of. In case you’re doubting me, here’s what Plugged In, Focus on the Family’s media review arm, has to say about Avatar:
“More disturbing is Avatar’s mendacious spiritualism—explained, demonstrated and attractively packaged for young viewers.”
From this point of view, the depiction of any non-Christian worldview or spirituality is an insidious attempt at swaying young minds. Even if it’s presented as fantasy. They don’t delineate between depiction and promotion.
Obviously the two are different. Depicting something is very straightforward, while promoting something has – by definition – an ulterior motive. You promote something because you want buy-in: you’re selling a product, a movement, a project… something that requires a person to invest something of themselves, their time, their vote, or their cash. So how can you mix these two up?
The answer is that far-right Christians are so used to promoting an ideology that it’s hard to imagine any other way of doing things.
Look at nearly all of Kirk Cameron’s filmography. Look at companies like Sherwood Pictures. These are all universally terrible and un-entertaining movies for a reason: they’re sermons in disguise. They do more than depict Christianity, they promote it. It’s part of a larger sentiment that you are constantly “on” in an evangelical sense: You are supposed to be making converts at all times.
This fails for obvious reasons. Terrible movies like Fireproof don’t have a sliver of appeal for anyone who isn’t already a Christian. It’s called “preaching to the choir.” Indeed, the only appeal of such (terrible) movies is their Christian message.
And it gets worse than that. If you can’t depict other spiritualities – even in a fantasy setting – you’d better be using Christianity, right? Well, unless you’re doing that in order to evangelize, then you’re doing it wrong. Plugged In refers to Supernatural – which trades largely in angels and demons – as too full of “spiritual gunk” to get a passing grade. If you’ve seen Gordon’s post on the upcoming “Lucifer” you know the drill.
That’s the problem with an ulterior motive becoming the only thing that drives you: you forget that not everyone is like that.
Did the writers behind Mulan want to convert kids to ancestor worship? It’s pretty unlikely. Did the creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender want to convince as many kids as possible to try and unlock their chakras? I doubt it. But did the people behind Veggietales want to spread a message of Christian values to kids? You bet they did.
At least they had the good grace to include some silly songs while they’re at it.
Of course the real problem is bigger than kids cartoons. It’s exactly this kind of thinking that created the notion of “The Gay Agenda.” The notion that “the Gays” are out to convert people into homosexuality is ludicrous for obvious reasons, but when you live your life as an effort to convert people to your beliefs, it’s easy to see a movement pushing acceptance as something similar.
I really suspect that this feeds into the larger paranoia that the world is out to get them, and is partially why the particularly zealous among the far-right get that weird gleam in their eye when you start talking about martyrs. Add that to a completely thorough misunderstanding of the situation (and some seriously unscrupulous lawyers) and you get Kim Davis being hailed as a hero.
Every time something starts gaining momentum in pop culture, far-right Christians seem to have to take a stand against it. I remember reading a critique of Pokemon that suggested that characters like Victreebel could be referencing the ancient Babylonian god “Bel”. In fairness, they followed that by admitting that it could be just because it’s shaped like a bell. But when this is so obviously the answer, why would you even mention pagan gods if you weren’t trying to stoke the fears of Christian parents?
Similarly, the previously mentioned Plugged In review of Avatar compares the show’s violence to that of the Matrix. Having recently caught the Matrix Reloaded on TV, I can assure you that the two don’t compare. They might both draw on eastern martial arts… but I promise you that’s not what a concerned Christian parent will take away. Instead, using the Matrix as a comparison implies bloody and graphic violence.
The thing about this – about all of this – is that manufacturing fear among your congregation is good for business. Not only butts in seats, but also some decent coin for Kirk and his aforementioned terrible movies.
Look: we could all use some decent critical thinking skills when it comes to the media we consume. It’s just a good practice to have. But it’s extra important when groups are manufacturing paranoia for profit. Not only do you deprive yourself of some great stuff, but you risk escalating it into something far more serious and ultimately self-defeating.
EMILY was born and raised in British Columbia, and finished her BA at Thompson Rivers University. She currently works full time in Design and Marketing while drawing, painting and writing instead of sleeping. She wants you to know you’re all very lucky there’s only one Zuko gif in this whole thing because the exiled prince trope is also exactly her jam. Follow her on twitter if that’s what you’re into.