Phineas and Ferb, an animated children’s show where two step-brothers spend an eternal summer thinking of creative things to do, is one of the most secular children’s shows I know. For many adults that might not be too many, but I have a special love of animated television, no doubt spawned during my formative years in the 1980s watching G.I. Joe, Transformers, He-Man, and Thundercats.
The boys are constantly building amazing inventions with their friends such as roller coasters, haunted houses, monster truck rallies, time machines, and space ships. After enjoying these objects–often musically in cheeky takes on pop songs–the show inevitably ends with their older sister Candace trying to get the boys in trouble with their mother and failing as the inventions disappear just in the nick of time. (There’s also a sub-plot about their pet platypus Perry who is also a secret agent fighting an inept evil scientist named Dr. Doofenshmirtz.) One thing that is consistently missing, however, is any sense that the boys have a spiritual or religious element in their lives. With nearly 100 episodes in 3 seasons on the Disney channel, the show’s creators Dan Povenmire and Jeff Marsh, are clearly doing many things right to entertain their audience, but I continually wonder about the absence of religion in the show.
In contrast to, let’s say, The Simpsons, which frequently shows the family attending church or addressing religious issues, Phineas and Ferb live in a world brimming with scientific rationalism that demonstrates that little is impossible (in a single summer afternoon) with the application of effort and imagination. It’s an endearingly positive message, but it also explicitly avoids religious substance (architecturally, textually, ritually, etc.) Instead, serious and often substantial topics–including the existence of life beyond earth, the ethics of robotics, and technology’s magical realism–are dealt with healthy doses of reason, logic and, ultimately, scientific skepticism.
If that sounds quite a bit like the reveals in Scooby Doo where ghosts and supernatural entities are always revealed to be conniving humans, then you’re on the right track. Seemingly miraculous things happen all the time in Danville, the town where Phineas and Ferb live, but the explanations are always scientific. A human has inevitably invented a machine that circumvents physics. It’s a continuous trope that reveals a pervasive attitude to ignore religion in favor of other elements. I don’t dismiss the choice–I do feel myself agreeing with Richard Dawkins (see the introduction to The God Delusion) that there are (or shouldn’t be) any religious children. What we mean by religious children is inevitably that they are children of religious parents. The show would seem to bear that out. I’m tempted to blame the children’s British (scientist) father, but viewers know too little about both parents to make sound judgments.
Unlike some other items I’ve written about previously–Hereafter (2010) or Sherlock Holmes—supernaturalism and even the unexplained are undesireable. The exceptions, as in season 3’s “Phineas and Ferb and the Temple of Jutchadoon,” are often dreams or obvious movie satires. They are part of why I continue to enjoy the show, even though it earns me no little ribbing from my wife. The writers are keen cultural consumers, linking every episode in thousands of ways to popular film, fiction, and music. Reference hunting makes the show endlessly fascinating to me. I have become a serious proponent of Kirby Ferguson’s work, Everything is a Remix. While I’ll probably continue to wonder how Phineas and Ferb will deal with the bugaboo of religion, I’m sure not going to stop watching. In the meanwhile, perhaps you should get on board with our remix culture (as I’ve also argued before once or twice).