Meet Molly McGee, a 13-year-old Thai American girl: She’s the latest animated character from Disney’s new series “The Ghost and Molly McGee.” After moving with her family to the town of Brighton, Molly is determined to make this new city home, even if the home she’s living in is already called home by a ghost. You heard that right! A grump ghost named Scratch is the first to greet Molly when she arrives, cursing her to be haunted by him forever.
But that doesn’t scare her. Molly is peppy and optimistic and turns even this supernaturally frightening situation into a positive one: “Best friends forever!” she exclaims after the curse is sealed.
Emmy Award-winning writer and actress Ashly Burch, the voice of Molly, describes her character as a “tween Leslie Knope.” What attracted Burch to Molly was the fact that despite being a go-getter and having a can-do attitude that Knope is known for, Molly isn’t perfect.
“What I love about her is that she has this tendency to go too far. There’s a trend in cartoons to make the protagonist just bubbly and perfect,” says Burch. “Although Molly is genuinely a very lovely, energetic spirit, the result of that might be that she pushes her introverted friends too hard or that she’s a bit too demanding about what she thinks is the right thing to do and steamrolls other people. She’s layered and multidimensional while still being a very aspirational character for kids to look up to.”
Molly’s attitude puts a neat spin on the paranormal: Typically ghosts are feared in American culture. Even “Casper the Friendly Ghost” gets a few frights in. But Molly doesn’t even bat an eyeball, which allows the show to touch upon trickier topics, even for an audience of children.
“[The show] has a really deep sense of heart and soul. It’s so lovely that the show doesn’t shy away from that and we are able to tackle topics that are trickier. By virtue that one of the characters is a ghost, we talk in a light and honest way about death and those sorts of things. It’s a special show for that reason,“ says Burch.
When asked if she would have the same reaction that Molly has when meeting Scratch, Burch shared, “I would hope so. Scratch is pretty cute; he’s mostly just grumpy. He’s not that scary. I have to say I would probably not be as excited as Molly. I would probably start scared and potentially work my way up to being friendly.”
Burch and Molly do, however, have something in common. Burch is also half Thai, which is no coincidence because the creative team based the character around Burch, including her Thai and Irish identity. And although the team didn’t know it at the time, Thai culture and its superstitions are the perfect backdrop for the McGee family.
At the conclusion of the first episode, Molly’s Thai grandma, Nin, encourages her to leave out a “San Phra Phum,” or a spirit house, for Scratch. Burch continues, “In Thai culture, there is a strong interaction between people who have passed on and the living. My mother would often go out and feed the spirits, which basically just meant that she would bring out a plate of food. After that, you would discard the food because the spirit of the food had been eaten by the spirits.”
Did Burch have a San Phra Phum in her house growing up? Unfortunately not, because her grandmother believed that the spirit house not only invited good spirits but malicious ones as well. She recalls, “Someone had broken into their house and [my grandmother] was like ‘I knew it! I got a bad spirit into the house.’ So it is interesting because [my] mom definitely wanted to interact with the spirit world but was also a bit suspicious of having a home for spirits inside our house.”
Thai culture as a whole has a cyclical understanding of life and death, notes Burch, who has been getting more in touch with her Thai identity through Buddhism. She notes that as the daughter of a Thai immigrant woman, her mother’s primary goal was to assimilate and learn English. Despite the occasional visit to the Thai Buddhist Temple growing up, Burch remarks that “I think she really wanted us to be ‘American.’ So I’ve had to do a lot of digging as an adult to understand where my mom came from — and thus, where I came from.”
That’s an experience that many Asian Americans can resonate with, which is why it is so delightful to see a girl like Molly be represented in an animated show for children. “The Ghost and Molly McGee” shines a light on the afterlife and the paranormal in a way that is uniquely Asian American, and we are dying to see more of it!
The Fall 2021 issue exists in the liminal space bounded by fear, superstition, and taboos in order to decolonize all that goes bump in the night. From taboos to tradition, check out Mochi’s latest issue here! And if you like what you are reading, please support us through our end-of-year Ko-Fi campaign.
“The Ghost and Molly McGee” follows tween optimist Molly, who lives to make the world a better place, and grumpy ghost Scratch, whose job is to spread misery. The first season welcomes guest stars from Kelsey Grammer (“Cheers”), Natasha Rothwell (“Insecure”), Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”), Yvette Nicole Brown (“Community”) to Jane Lynch (“Glee”). New episodes of “The Ghost and Molly McGee” premiere Saturdays (9:00 a.m. ET/PT) on Disney Channel. The first five episodes of the series will be available on Disney+ on Wednesday, Oct. 6.
Photo credits: Disney