Seeing is Believing: Phineas and Ferb and False Dichotomies
By Kevin Rigdon (@pralix1138)
Good people of the intertubes, we live in a muggle-ized world of self-imposed dichotomies: Faith versus Reason, Science versus Magic, Fantasy versus Reality, Mythic versus Logic, Cartoon versus Live-Action, Coke versus Pepsi, Cats versus Dogs, Right versus Left, Child versus Adult, and on and on. It’s almost as if everything we believe, and everything we do, is predicated upon an opposition to the “other,” whatever that “other” may be. Well, I’m grateful for the opportunity to introduce you to thirty minutes of non-dichotomized storytelling, and share a few lessons we can learn from Disney’s Phineas and Ferb.
There is no Us and Them
This one was hard for an old nerd-grog like myself to learn. Back in the day when various forms of nerdism were ridiculed and persecuted (well, there were no beheadings and burnings at the stake; more like swirlies, noogies, wedgies, and beat-downs), we were an insular lot, jealously protecting our proclaimed territory. As a natural product of this nerd protectionism, there invariably rose a distrust of things, and people, who were not “us.”
In the episode entitled “Nerds of a Feather,” Phineas and Ferb go to a sci-fi/fantasy convention which is primarily made up of “Finkies” and “Speckies.” The conflicting factions are named after their favorite movie franchises, “Stumbleberry Finkbat” and “Space Adventure,” both of which involve the special effects genius, Clive Addison, a hero to Phineas and Ferb. Now the Finkies and Speckies are very protective of their respective genres of entertainment, which then produces an epic marching of the armies into battle, complete with an awesome song:
Of course we know that Speckies and Finkies, awash in a world of “comedies, romance, and thought-provoking docu-dramas,” would eventually bond together, all being somewhat outcast by the society at large, but this also says something to us on a broader scale: underneath, we’re all pretty much the same. We geek-out over various things. We’re all stupid at some point in our lives. We’re all searching for peace, companionship, and so on. We’re all human, sharing the same human substance; there is nothing essentially different about any of us.
This axiom notwithstanding, we are marketed to and preached to as though there is an “us versus them.” There are people and systems which exist based on the presupposition of dividing society into segments, breaking those segments up, catering to those segments of the population by comparing and contrasting them with the others, and ultimately dehumanizing the “other.” In other words, pitting the Finkies against the Speckies. So, these people make money, and/or get elected, and maintain various power structures by dividing us against each other. What would happen if we were to band together and defeat the colossal imaginary beast as the Finkies and Speckies did at the end of the episode? What kind of world would we have if we refused to judge and fight each other? Something to think about.
Children Are People, Too
Professor Tolkien, in his essay entitled “On Fairy Stories,” talks about the false dichotomy we impose between adults and children in terms of storytelling and the use of imagination. His point was essentially that we’ve relegated fairy tales to the nursery, to the realm of children, and refuse to let them participate in the stories that are only suitable for adults. For Tolkien, the idea of children’s stories versus adult stories is a tragedy. As storytelling is such an integral part of the human experience, why would we wish to segregate into separate audiences to participate in this seminal activity?
Phineas and Ferb is a show that presupposes that children and adults are of equal value as an audience. The creators of the show approach storytelling holistically with plots, characters, allusions, and dialogue that are smart and understandable by everyone. Unlike other cartoons, Phineas and Ferb does not talk down to children in the name of silliness and cheap laughs…or (the horror!) “edutainment.” Oh, there are laughs, and lots of them, but the dialogue isn’t nonsensical or dumbed down.
This show brings everything together. Among experiments of reverse engineering, building portals to Mars, and creating giant robot superheroes are classic flatulence jokes, and “floating around in bubbles like little woodland fairies…I mean, like men.” It’s all here: pop culture references that parents will get, especially if one came of age in the 1980s, existentialist trading cards, universal moustache translators, traveling through time and space, and finding things that don’t exist. Phineas and Ferb really does have something for everybody regardless of sex, age, or even political affiliation.
Seeing is Believing
Wait! Does that look backwards? Indeed it does, and it’s intentional. It takes a great amount of faith to be imaginative and creative, and the folks behind Phineas and Ferb understand this like very few others. The basic plot of almost every episode is that these children, with their innate faith in endless possibilities, build and create anything and everything they can imagine all while their lovably overbearing, and unimaginative, sister attempts to get them in trouble for it. And all this is happening while their pet platypus, Perry, being a semi-aquatic, egg-laying mammal of action (not to mention super-spy) secretly battles his arch-nemesis, Heinz Doofenschmirtz.
This faith, enforced and carried out through reasoned action, permeates everything the kids do in this show. They build the flying car of the future… today! They build a rollercoaster as a musical, because Phineas believes that if he and Ferb burst out into spontaneous song with no discernible music source, then others will, too. And you know what? They do. In the Christmas episode, these children believe in Santa, without ever having seen him. They have faith that the evidence supports Santa’s existence and they build him a clubhouse/sauna for his biggest night of the year. After being ridiculed by the adult-wannabe, Candace, they are proven right when Santa turns up.
And one need not look any further than the theme song to find this faith in the impossible. They plan on “building a rocket, or fighting a mummy, or climbing up the Eiffel Tower; discovering something that doesn’t exist, or giving a monkey a shower; surfing tidal waves, creating nanobots, or looking for Frankenstein’s brain…finding a dodo bird, painting a continent, driving your sister insane…”
So, there is this little show, this little bit of non-dichotomized, holistic, storytelling that not only makes us laugh, but it teaches us that we are all equally valuable. It reintegrates the familial storytelling experience, instead of being something just for kids. It actually shows us the fallacious nature of our insistence upon dichotomizing our culture, and separating ourselves into various categories. For half an hour a week (more, if you watch the reruns, and why wouldn’t you?), we are treated as a whole community, a whole family, a whole essence (i.e. human), and this comes to us not from our religious, political, scientific, or philosophical leaders. It comes to us in the form of a fun, little cartoon.