CW: TALK OF CHILD ABUSE
Welcome and welcome back, dearly beloved. If anyone is here for the first time, please raise your hand so the rest of you can turn around and stare you. Thank you. Today we will be continuing our Lent season journey through the 2005-2008 Adult Swim series “Moral Orel.” This week, we are continuing our journey through season 2 — specifically “Praying” through “Courtship.” In its infinite wisdom, all episodes are available on Hulu. When there is a question about viewing order, we follow the Correct Doctrine of production order as listed here.
THIS WEEK’S TEXT
Orel is a lonely child, and uses his relationship with God as a substitute for having people who care about him. Wow I relate to that. So when he suddenly finds talking to God hard, he’s understandably distressed. Fortunately, he gets help from Stephanie, who is still my the coolest character. He learns what a lot of westerners learn: sprinkling a little Buddhism on your fundamentally Christian background can freshen things up like putting a little cardamon in your pancakes. Later, Orel learns that authority figures are above the law and should get away with everything, but if people are weaker than you don’t let them get away with anything. ever. Orel then learns about the theory of evolution and his friend Doughy finds out what it is like to be wanted.
So this is where the show stops being polite and starts getting real! Ok, not really. It was never polite. And it’s been steadily inching deeper and deeper into complex areas. But it is in the second half of the second season where Moral Orel lays all its cards on the table and shows us where it is going. Season 3 is a work of art, but these last ten episodes of season 2 are special in and of themselves.
“Turn the other cheek” deals with some of the most toxic results that come from control-based religion: teaching people that it is good to be victimized and, at the same time, propagating physical aggression. Children are beat to stay in line. The lowly should accept punishment, no matter how vile. And the corollary is that if you are the one giving the blows instead of receiving them, you are an adult and a leader. Violence is the sigil of authority, and authority is from God. It’s subtle, but even when Orel comes home with a bloody nose, the fact that his mom cares more about him making her life harder than about his own wellbeing is another form of the hierarchy of power determining the importance of the person. And even though a smokescreen of humor and ambivalence is cast over it, the fact that Orel isn’t punished for being violent speaks volumes (interesting foreshadowing to season 3 when Clay says that if you give up on disciplining your son then you aren’t a real father.) By the way, Orel’s ludicrous smiles while being beaten seems like an exaggeration of religious teachings, but it is absolutely in line with depictions of early martyrs.
I felt it was important to talk about that, but I’m going to be ignoring most of the other episodes in order to give proper space for meditating on what to me is one of the most brilliant episodes of the entire series: “Courtship.” But I would love it if you all would pick up and discuss the episodes I’m leaving out.
If you are aware of me and my opinions concerning rape humor, I think you could easily guess that I would have a lot of problems with this show, especially the episode “Courtship.” And quite frankly, the first time I watched that episode I was expecting to completely hate it. Another cartoon, I assumed, that would try to be edgy and end up laughing at the victim as some dumb fool who couldn’t just use a little common sense.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
“Courtship,” in fact, is one of the most authentic depictions I’ve ever seen about how and why children end up willingly entering into abusive relationships. We have a hard time in our society dealing with children being both agents and victims, so we talk about grooming as if they are completely inert. And predators and apologists claim the slightest pro-active action on the part of the child as an indicator of consent. Children who are interested in intimacy at all are called “precocious,” and that word takes on a weird unspoken secondary meaning of “asking for it.”
Assholes like Louis CK, even before he was exposed as a creep himself, would joke that children who allowed themselves to be abused were not the brightest of the bunch. That it was the dumb kids who didn’t have the same survival skills as the rest of the neighborhood. Other assholes, like Bill Maher, have suggested that kids aren’t really harmed from getting “gently masturbated by a pop star” (his words). Neither of them get it. Most depictions of child abuse from ostensibly comedy sources don’t. Child abuse is not about physical pleasure. Child abuse is not about being dumb. The set of children who are likely to fall prey to predators are the children who are emotionally or physically isolated. Child abuse is about vulnerable children coping the best they can with a world too big for them.
To everyone but especially to children, love is like water. If there is clean water available and there is no psychological pressure not to choose it, most people are going to drink clean water over dirty water. But if the choices are dirty water or no water, dehydrated children aren’t just going to allow themselves to be given dirty water, they are going to seek it out. Survival 101. They are going to be active in wanting to find someone who they can belong to. Later, any little movement they made that wasn’t 100% resistant is going to haunt them for the rest of their life and make them think they were complicit. But they weren’t, all they were doing was trying to survive.
“Courtship” understands this. Doughty can’t connect with his parents, so he goes looking for surrogates. When he fails to find anyone willing to take him under his wing in a healthy manner, he turns to the one person who has ever shown interest in him: Mr. Creepler. Never does the show mock Doughty for wanting to be loved but rather eviscerates all the adults around him who force him to follow the path he takes. His parents dress and act like high schoolers, the show as bluntly as possible screaming “grow up already!” His teacher is just the absolute worst, as so many teachers are, but even well meaning teachers often can’t overcome in a few hours a day the isolation these children feel.
I relate to Orel really strongly most of the time: a well-meaning kid who wants to see good in people and whose zeal for doing right isn’t yet tempered by an understanding of complexity and nuance. It’s clear that, despite putting him through a lot of suffering in the upcoming episodes, the show’s sympathy is with the kid. But the show increasingly has sympathy for a wide range of characters, and in this episode you can see its heart aching for Doughty. And so in this episode I relate to Doughty, a boy unsure of his own worth and desperate for love. When Creepler finally does get him into the back of the truck and reveals himself, Doughty immediately bolts and that avenue is never explored again. That’s probably for the best narratively speaking — if there was ongoing sexual abuse in the show from this point out, it’d be very hard to care about anything else. Though a sympathetic depiction of a child being molested and just kind of living through and beyond that is something we’ve never really seen on television. Shows where the topic is addressed, like SVU, focus on revenge and justice. Which is all very important, but allows the audience to gaze in anger at the perp rather than keep the focus on the child. Moral Orel isn’t a show about cathartic justice. Its about people, especially kids, trying to survive in a world that over and over cuts them off from getting the love they need. As I talked about last time, Orel’s dog and his girlfriend were both taken from him by a wrongheaded perversion of what it means to love. Doughty is also confused about the nature of love and while its not as directly tied to religion as the culprit, it is still a story about quiet desperation. Doughty is given no avenue to express this desperation and no permission to be mad at the people who should be giving him love (it’s no wonder that Doughty will next season try to come between Orel and Clay). Instead, every time Doughty is neglected or even attacked, the implicit command he is given is too just bear it. Turn the other cheek.
I’m only giving nods to certain episodes, not because they aren’t worthy but because I felt that trying to be exhaustive would be, um, exhausting and I’d rather pick a few gems. Of the episodes I haven’t talked about, which is your favorite?