This is a guest post written by Richard D. Deverell. He is a cultural historian and teacher.
I give the Disney Channel’s Girl Meets World a lot of credit. While the first season of the Boy Meets World spinoff was a bit weak, the second has already addressed serious issues such as Asperger’s syndrome, family relationships, abandonment, identity, and bullying.
That’s what upsets me about this past Friday’s episode. While the show has done a decent job of handling serious issues other sitcoms may have just glossed over, the latest episode (titled “Girl Meets Belief”) did an awful job addressing religious belief.
If you’re not familiar with the show, you can still make sense of this. Here’s what you need to know: Riley Matthews and her crush Lucas Friar believe in God. Riley’s best friend, Maya Hart, is more of an Agnostic, continually deflecting conversations about belief since she doesn’t want to argue with her friend. Another character, Farkle Minkus, values evidence-based thinking.
When their teacher (who is also Riley’s father) gives them an assignment based on Joan of Arc and Thomas Jefferson, it’s a chance for the kids to work with each other and examine their beliefs.
Lucas: What if [Joan of Arc] wasn’t crazy, Farkle? What if she just deeply believed in something?
Farkle: Well, why believe in anything you can’t prove?
Mr. Matthews: You’ve all walked through life long enough with your blissfully empty heads, but what do you guys really believe in? Some of our greatest thinkers believed in something so strongly that they gave their lives to change the world…
Mr. Matthews: Farkle, you’re a man of science.
Farkle: I needs me my proof.
Mr. Matthews: And Lucas.
Lucas: I have beliefs that work for me, sir.
Mr. Matthews: Well, this is gonna be fun. You guys are gonna report on Joan of Arc.
Lucas: She’s a saint!
Farkle: Yeah, Saint Woo-woo!
It’s a strange way to teach character building. At times during the episode, it feels like the teacher, his daughter, and her crush are bullying their non-believing friends. There’s an implication from Mr. Matthews that students who don’t believe in anything (like Joan of Arc, who heard the voice of God) have “blissfully empty heads.”
Most of the episode’s drama results from the religious differences between the characters:
Riley: You need to believe in things!
Maya: I might if my life was as hunky-dory as yours.
Riley: Oh, so you’re saying it’s easier to believe when things are going well.
Farkle: How can you go through life so blind, so trusting?
Lucas: I do trust in certain things.
Farkle: Why? What is that? I don’t understand that.
Lucas: I don’t know. I just feel like I have a better life because of it.
Farkle: You have a better life because of — look at you! Your freak face is just a collection of cells and bone structure that was randomly and somehow so perfectly put together that if there is a force that did that for you, I’ll tell you right now, he hates me!
In both exchanges, the non-believing students are portrayed as bitter, as if they reject religion due to a grudge against God stemming to personal misfortune (a common argument made by believers against atheists and non-believers).
At one point, everyone switches partners, claiming they can’t work with people who don’t share their beliefs, only to switch back because they miss their friends (cue all the “awws“). You would think this presents a good opportunity for everyone to learn to accept each other whether or not they believe in a Higher Power. A final conversation in Riley’s room makes it look like this is going to happen.
Instead, Riley’s father questions Farkle about his beliefs and suggests he’s not a true scientist for not being open to the possibility of God:
Mr. Matthews: Farkle, I thought men of science were open to new discoveries.
Farkle: Look people, it’s simple: seeing is believing.
Mr. Matthews: So you don’t believe that Joan of Arc heard the voice of–
Farkle: God? First you’ll have to prove God to me.
Mr. Matthews: Okay.
Farkle: Okay, I’m right? Or, okay, you’re actually gonna–
Mr. Matthews: Take a deep breath, Farkle. Now that air that you just breathed in, that air that’s between you and me, what color is it?
Farkle: It’s clear, Mr. Matthews. That’s why I can see you. I believe in you because I can see you.
Mr. Matthews: That’s your position?
Mr. Matthews: ROY-G-BIV.
Mr. Matthews claims to be able to prove God with a metaphor of refracting light through a prism, showing that light contains all the colors even though we can’t normally see them. He continues the metaphor, saying,
Mr. Matthews: All of it. Every person, every child, everything out there; everything we see and don’t see; all these shining elements of a force that bond us together; I like to think of that as a part of God refracted. Aspects of God that I can see. What’s the secret of life, Riley?
Riley: People change people.
Mr. Matthews: We’re here to discover what it is we want to believe in. And different people believe in different things, but it doesn’t hurt to listen to people we love before we decide for ourselves.
Mr. Matthews could have ended it at “different people believe in different things,” and the episode could have been salvaged. Unfortunately, he pressured his daughter’s friends to listen to the believers. Worse, listening to people we love can be harmful depending on what they pressure us to believe in.
The episode ends with Maya praying and Farkle admitting he doesn’t know everything.
So, what’s the problem with this? It’s just a show to amuse tweens, right?
The problem is that it shows a clear bias toward belief over non-belief. The characters that believe continually pressure their friends to share their beliefs, and this is supposedly a good thing. Faith isn’t the virtue this show’s writers seem to think it is.
Given the show’s track record, I was hoping to see a fair portrayal of belief compared to non-belief, ending with the characters respecting each other for their individual choices. It’s a disappointing turn from a series that has done so well with other sensitive issues.
(via Less Than Reality)