Righting America

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Encountering the (Dys)Functional Family | Righting America

by Mary McLoughlin

Today’s post is from Mary McLoughlin, a sophomore at the University of Dayton studying English and Human Rights. She is particularly interested in the ethics of storytelling and how language and literature is used to mobilize the voices of marginalized groups. At UD, Mary writes for FlyerNews as the opinions section editor and is staff member on Orpheus Art and Literary Magazine and is excited to continue exploring the ways words make meaning within this world. 

Ark Encounter is advertised on its website as “an attraction the whole family will enjoy” and offers a faith rooted in providing answers rather than raising questions. Ark Encounter uses a heteronormative family to situate the viewer within the argument it makes about salvation. In order to make sense of AIG’s line of merchandise in the gift shop urging its consumer to join in “Taking Back the Rainbow” this analysis seeks to uncover why AIG takes threats to heteronormativity so seriously. Understanding AIG’s relationship to heterosexuality is important because it allows us insight into why images of the family are so prominent within fundamentalism. I will argue that because Ark Encounter uses paternalistic heterosexuality as the organizing and ordering system for the familial and theological relationships that lead to salvation, threats to heteronormativity challenge the demand for obedience at the center of Ark Encounter’s theology.

Ark Encounter sets up a system of reasoning rooted in binaries in order to argue implicitly against homosexuality through its explicit depictions of fruitful heterosexuality. Ark Encounter flirts with the notion of debate, but ultimately the binaries it sets up through its discussion of truth versus fallacy prevents the constructive interaction of ideas and enables the rigid dualism it upholds around sexuality and gender that creates a clear but narrow path for visitors to take toward salvation. Since heteronormativity requires clear, distinct, relational, and opposite roles for men and women, a binary system of reasoning is the world view most conducive to the paternalistic heterosexual relationships at the center of Ark Encounter’s argument for salvation. Ark Encounter’s binary system allows it to make certain arguments implicitly without risking the controversy that certain explicit arguments (such as the outright condemnation of homosexuals) would invite. This binary system is rooted in the rigid dualism seen in a series of exhibits united by the title “One World Two Views” that contrast the “naturalistic evolutionary model” (that is, the view of mainstream science) with the “Biblical Creation Model.” The repeated juxtaposition of mainstream science and Ark Encounter’s preferred biblical understanding of science legitimizes the creationist account of the world by placing both views in the same context. This pairing invites the viewer to see them as comparable and of the same caliber. Simplifying the discourses that challenge Ark Encounter’s ideologies allows Ark Encounter to present complex criticisms of their creation science into singular and opposing conceptions of the world that they can simply dismiss.

Ark Encounter constructs its heteronormativity within this binary system by presenting men and women together in highly rigid and relational roles. From its prelapsarian portrayal of Adam and Eve to its depiction of contemporary relationships, men are portrayed as moral agents and disseminators of morality while women are cast as the converted followers. The first example of this is in the panel illustrating original sin. Though Eve is the primary actor in the choice to eat the forbidden fruit, her actions are framed as reflective of the male influences she experienced and male figures are held morally accountable. In one placard, the male serpent tempts Eve and she acts as a result of his guidance. Though Eve prompts Adam to eat the fruit, Adam is the one who (the placard makes clear) “brought sin” because Adam is the moral agent. For this reason, Adam’s transgression is described actively with the word “chose” while Eve is merely “tempted”. This portrayal of morality relies on heteronormativity, because Adam and Eve’s respective actions are assigned moral value in accordance to their relational gender roles.

Noah and his wife serve as a foil to Adam and Eve because they operate within their heteronormative gender roles in accordance with God’s will. Noah is a moral agent since he follows God’s will by building the ark. Even within Ark Encounter he continues to disseminate God’s moral teachings through videos and animatronics that portray him speaking, guiding, and providing answers. Noah’s wife serves as his complementary moral counterpart by asking for guidance when she needs it (without actually speaking) and assisting Noah in the work he was chosen to do. This relationship is heteronormative and paternalistic because the rigid gender roles prescribed for men and women are respectively dominant/subordinate and active/passive.

This paternalistic ordering of marriage is not just an unfortunate side effect of the times; it is the crux of what marriage should be. It is no coincidence that a discussion of “marriage” appears right next to a discussion of “dominion” according to which “God said that all of the animals were placed under man’s authority, reflecting His directive to man in the Garden of Eden.” Ark Encounter intentionally frames heterosexual relationships as paternalistic to make sure that visitors understand their specific path to salvation. An exhibit that centers around a graphic novel set in contemporary times continues this heterosexually-based salvation narrative when the college-aged girl converts to Christianity under the influence of her male friend. In order to be saved, men must follow God’s will, and women must follow men’s example. This relationality is key to the functioning of Ark Encounter because it creates a path to salvation where women are forced to rely on men to find answers that could ostensibly be found in the Bible.

To return, then, to the question posed at the outset of this post, we now have the answer. Why is it so important for Ark Encounter to safeguard its heteronormative conception of relationships? The answer is that such paternalism within heteronormativity creates a space receptive to Ark Encounter’s ministry that requires obedience and submission.