Saturday, April 19, 2014

MLP Liveblog Chat Thingy: "Trade Ya"

How to participate in the liveblog chat:

Option 1: Whenever you watch the episode, comment on this post as you watch with whatever responses you feel like posting!

Option 2: Go to http://webchat.freenode.net/. Enter a nickname, then for the Channels field enter ##rabbitcube, and finally fill in the Captcha and hit Connect! We'll be watching the episode and commenting there starting at 3:00 p.m. EST. And I'm actually going to be here for this one! (Assuming everything works from the Library of Congress, which initial testing suggests will work.) Afterwards, I will update this post with the chatlog.

Chatlog below the cut!


Friday, April 18, 2014

Felda 2.0

I have decided to rather massively alter the setting of the story from which the first two Fiction Friday installments derived. This is what Felda's first scene has become as a consequence of that change.

It took three sentences for Felda to decide she didn't like the woman from the Guild. The first was when Felda, responding to her mother's call, came downstairs to the kitchen to see her parents, tired, worried, older than she'd ever seen them, sitting at the table with a tall, elegantly dressed woman with unsettlingly clean nails.

"Hello, Felda," she said brightly. That was the first sentence. Felda didn't like this complete stranger knowing her name. It made her wonder what was written in the sheaf of papers on the table in front of the woman. 

The second sentence was the one the woman didn't say: "Pleased to meet you," perhaps, or something that started "My name is."

"Ms. Ansfel is from the Guild," Felda's mother said. 

"I already talked to the Guild recruiter," Felda answered. "I said no."

Ms. Ansfel laughed. That didn't count as a sentence, but nonetheless it contributed. People who laughed at things that weren't jokes were, in Felda's opinion, nearly as bad as people who didn't laugh at all. 

"Oh, I'm not a recruiter," said Ms. Ansfel. That was the third sentence, and it was the way she said "recruiter" that did it. Felda could easily imagine her saying "farmer" in the same way. "I'm a field contract specialist in our agricultural services and land management division. I'm here to talk to your parents about joining us."

If Felda hadn't already decided she disliked the woman, that last sentence alone would have done it. "We won't sell," she said firmly. "This land's been ours since--"

"Since it was granted to your great-grandfather by the Feudal Reparations Act, yes," the woman interrupted. "Your father told me. Though I suppose that would make it your great-great-grandfather. And before that your family worked these very fields as vassals of the  Carl of Whatever for umpteen centuries, I'm sure. We're not interested in taking you from your land, believe me. The Crafters' Guild has always been strongly in favor of local businesses staying under local management."

"Then what are you here for?" asked Felda. She glanced at her parents. They were being unusually quiet. Felda was 16, an adult for a full three weeks now, so she appreciated them including her in whatever decision this was, but why weren't they saying anything?

"I'm here to offer you an opportunity," Ms. Ansfel explained. "You recently performed your coming-of-age examinations, I believe. According to the Academy's records, you scored a 3.4 for Earth affinity on the Antonella scale. That's borderline mage-level, did you know that? Do sit down, girl, you're putting a crick in my neck."

"Yes, the recruiter told me." Felda sat, though privately she minded not in the least if the Guildswoman got a crick. "I don't want to be a mage."

"No, I can see that from the recruiter's report." Ms. Anfeld winked in what, Felda assumed, she probably thought was a conspiratorial manner. Felda's dislike advanced rapidly in the direction of hate. "And I can't blame you. Between you and me, the folk in the magic division are a stodgy bunch of old men. Plus it's years of training before you start casting the simplest spells."

"Are you ever going to answer the question?" asked Felda's mother. 

Ms. Ansfel simpered. "Of course, my dear." She inserted one gloves hand into a satchel slung over the back of her chair and smoothly removed something, which she set lightly on the table. "Don't touch, please," she warned. 

Felda stared. The object was shaped like an egg, but far bigger than any chicken or goose egg she'd ever seen. It was about eight inches long, five wide at the widest, and the pale orange-brown of fired, unglazed pottery. 

"Is that what I think it is?" she asked. 

"Indeed," said the Guildswoman. "A dragon egg. We are prepared to offer it to you, Felda."

Felda put a hand to her mouth. "--to me?"  A dragon's egg. A dragon's egg! She could be a bondswoman, a performer of miracles--

"Benefits are greatest with threes and fours, of course. On average, someone like Felda should expect an effective combined Antonella score of five and a half, though of course that would cover direct manipulation only..."

As the woman chattered on, Felda glanced at her parents and was relieved to see that, at least to judge by their glazed eyes, they understood as muh as she did. 

"What do you want from us in return?" her father finally asked. 

"Well, first, let me ask you a question, Herr Landsman. Do you know who the largest agricultural producer and distributer in the world is?"

Felda's father's eyes narrowed. "You're about to tell me it's the Crafters' Guild, I suppose."

The woman shook her head. "No! It's the Healers, of all people! Even though we make most of the tools, they grow more than us by a huge margin. Honestly, Healers growing food, can you imagine?"
She smiled broadly at Felda's family. Seeing no response, she continued, "Obviously, the Guild would like to be more competitive in this sector, and while we've had some success leveraging our vertical advantage, we've also been developing techniques for Earth-affiliated farming. That is what we want--for you, your family, your farm to join us as a test bed for the efficacy of our new techniques."

Felda's mother frowned. "It sounds like you want to... experiment here."

Ms. Ansfel laughed yet again. "Oh, don't worry. We're not talking about... legless cows or vampire squash or whatever you're imagining. We're talking about the things Felda here could do, post-augmentation--and the augmentation itself is of course time-honored and tested, lifebonding is as old as time, as I'm sure you know."

"What... I would be able to do?" asked Felda. Despite herself, and despite Ms.Ansfel, she couldn't help but imagine the new abilities she might gain. Floating great boulders with a gesture? Shattering mighty city walls with a glance? Bending rods like they were made of licorice?

"Imagine, if you will," Ms. Anselm intoned, turning slowly back and forth between Felda's pareants, "an entire field plowed in a day. Imagine never needing to rotate crops, because your daughter can turn the tired old soil young and new in a matter of days. Plus a lifetime guarantee that you--whichever of you you decide--will always be manager of every aspect of this farm, that the other, Felda, and all your other children will have guaranteed employment at competitive rates of pay, though of course the children's hours will be limited until they turn 16..." she looked down at her papers. "Ah yes, and a quite sizeable discount on all equipment, seed, and feed purchased from us." 

"And in return you get our farm," Felda's father said coldly. 

"Well, perhaps in an abstract, paperwork sense. We're more interested in seeing how well it works, and of course in making money. But you will all receive good salaries, and continue to live and work where your ancestors did, without needing to fear a bad harvest wiping you out or a greedy banker foreclosing." Ms Ansfel consulted the papers again. 

"No deal," Felda's father said firmly. 

"But papa--" Felda began. 

"He's right," said Felda's mother. "It's our farm. Doesn't matter what they offer, it ain't worth giving 'em our farm." She gazed sternly at Ms. Ansfel and lowered her voice to a murmur so only Felda could hear. "Don't be fooled by her pretty talk. This woman's a snake."

Felda started to answer that of course she could tell what Ms. Ansfel was, but dragon's egg, but the woman spoke before she could. 

"Ah, here we are!" she said brightly, pulling out a sheet from the middle of the stack. She shook her head at it and tsked gently. "Twelve hundred gil in debt, I see." 

"How do you know that?" demanded Felda's father, looking slightly purple. 

"And you've missed your payments for the last four months." Ms. Ansfel shook her head sadly. 

"Old Greta would never--"

"Apologies, Frau Landsman. I suppose it is quite rude of me to interrupt, but I am afraid Ms. Hofstedter does not actually have a say. It's quite hard out there for an indepent local bank these days, I'm afraid, and the Bank of Frogshackle found itself in dire need of funds. So when we approached them seeking to purchase certain securities, well..."

"I don't understand," said Felda's father. "Our loan is with them, how--"

Ms. Ansfel smiled genuinely for the first time, and Felda, who had been torn between rising hatred for the woman and fantasies of being able to walk through stone found she suddenly had a new factor to consider: fear.

"As of last week, I'm afraid the Bank of Frogshackle merely administers your loan. We own it. So I'm afraid the choice isn't actually a matter of whether you want to keep your farm or share it with us. It's a matter of losing your farm or sharing it with us." At the horrified stare of all the Landsmans, her smile widened slightly. "Snakelike of me, perhaps, but business is business, and we do very much want to expand our farming operations. Come now!" She slid a clipped-together set of papers out of the pile in front of her and across the table toward them. "It's not a bad deal at all. You'll be more productive and make more money than you ever did as a tichy little mama-and-papa farm. You'll be on the cutting edge!"

There was much more debate, and reading of the contract, and demands to know what certain passages meant, but Felda knew her family had no choice, and soon her parents came to admit it, too. Even the horror of being trapped by this snake of a woman, however, could not entirely dampen her excitement. She knew that by the end of the evening she would be a bondswoman, a somebody, a force to be reckoned with. The snake kept talking about revolutionizing farming, but Felda could see so much more than that. She saw adventures in high mountains and deep deserts, great battles with wicked sorcerers, most of whom looked quite a bit like Ms. Ansfel, the bustle of the great cities and the cries of dragons. She'd never dared seriously imagine being anything other than a farmer, and other than farming, the only other thing she'd ever been good at was reading--and who wanted to be a scholar, shut indoors all day? Being a weak mage would be no better--she knew what kind of work that would mean, sitting at the end of some factory line and casting the same spell of sharpening or strengthening a hundred and fifty times a day.

She wanted that egg like she'd never wanted anything, more than the temporary farmhand she'd spent half of last year lusting after, more than the one volume of Tales of the Nine Realms she didn't have. So Ms. Ansfel was a hateful, malicious woman--all Felda needed was that egg, and she could squash her! She'd like to see anyone try to take her home once she had power like that.

"Very well," said Ms. Ansfel at last, putting away the finally signed papers and standing. "This is yours, child."

Felda held out both hands, vibrating slightly, and the woman put the clay egg in her hands. It was cool, and prickled slightly.

No, more than slightly. It prickled a lot. Stung, actually, and it was growing hotter by the moment. With a shout, Felda dropped the burning egg, or tried to, but it was stuck fast to her hands. Felda fell to her knees, unable to take her eyes off the glowing egg as agony spread up her arms. Cracks began to spread across the surface of the egg, which shone so brightly it hurt, but not nearly as much as the twin columns of fire marching up her arms. The pain reached her shoulders, spread in and downward, swirled together in her heart, before it exploded outwards to encompass everything, her entire being. Dimly she knew she was lying on her side, but it was hard to tell, because the room kept jerking wildly about.

"Stop," she whispered, to the room, to the pain, to the wild pounding of her heart, but it went on and on. The egg was breaking apart, crumbling, seeping into her hands. She couldn't see through the red-fire haze that filled the universe, but she could feel it, chunks of dull throbbing agony passing up her arms to punctuate the fire. Was someone screaming?

The lumps were nearly to her heart. She knew she was dying, and welcomed it. What was death but the end of pain? But of course that was absurd, there had always been pain, would always be pain, and death would bring no relief--and then they were in her heart, and she felt it skip one beat, then two, an entirely new kind of agony, a squeezing...

Felda woke.

She was lying on the kitchen floor, and every part of her hurt. From where she lay she could see her parents, their eyes filled with concern and fear, but for some reason they were keeping back. "Mama?" she asked, her voice dry and cracked and weak. "Papa?"

"Baby," her mother whispered, tears in her eyes. "You're awake! It's been nearly an hour..." But she came no closer.

Felda took a deep, shuddering breath.

Something large above and behind her did as well.

Felda let her breath out. So did it, warm and wet across her shoulders. It had been there the whole time, she realized. She just hadn't noticed its breathing before because--she gasped. It whuffed.

Because it was breathing in perfect synchronicity with her.

Slowly, painfully, she rolled over. A great black nose came into view first, then a proud head, great curving horns and enormous eyes, the same brown as Felda's own. A massive body, short fur the color of rich black soil, powerful legs, strong gray hooves as sharp and hard as flints.

The great bull--her bondling!--lowered its head and nuzzled her. Its nose was warm and cold all at once, like a dog's but bigger. Gratefully, Felda wrapped her arms around its neck and pulled herself to her feet. "Mama, papa, there's no need to be afraid," she said, smiling. "I want you to meet Varick."

It was good, she thought. They had been caught by the Guild and that woman, yes, but this was worth it. They would still work the farm, sell their crops, buy seed and tools. Her brothers and sisters would go to school and do their chores. The only changes would be no more worrying about money, and Varick. Her Varick. She dug her fingers into his hide and inhaled his smell of sweat and clean, rich earth and growing things. It was more than worth it, she decided, and eventually the rest of the family would understand that as well.

And she was right; within a year even her mother had to admit that they were better off as Guild farmers.

It would be another four years after that before they all came to understand exactly how they had been swindled.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The End Is Nigh

So, it looks like I'm finishing Season 3 the first weekend in May. Unfortunately, that means Derivative Works Month will be out of sync with the calendar month, but there's not much I can do to shift it around. I have two things I definitely want to do, and two I am strongly leaning toward doing, so my card for the month is basically full, but feel free to suggest things anyway. It may be that I like your suggestion than either of my two probablies.

I do like the balance I have right now, though: each of the things I'm reviewing is a different medium, two officially licensed and two fan-made.

And I'm not going to say what they are, I like keeping you on your toes. =P

After that, Season 4 reviews start in June. Some time in early 2015 I finish the season, at which point this project ends. It's possible I'll return to go through Season 5 after it ends, but no guarantees.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

That nourishes human hope (My Very Best Friend)

My friend and co-panelist on Latin Latin Madoka More Latin 3, Kit, is going to be doing a panel on the Utena and Madoka movies at Otakon! If you're at the con, you should go, she is way smarter than me and actually trained in this stuff. Also, she could use some help getting to grad school. (I am eyeing some of those rewards greedily, biding my time until I get my tax refund...)

Yep. None whatsoever.
In the final episode of Madoka Magica, failure is victory is loss is triumph.

We open with the same tableau that ended the previous episode. Four figures remain, the key players in this apocalypse, for apocalypse it is: Every timeline we have seen has ended with a fight against Walpurgisnacht. There is nothing beyond the fight with her, because Homura keeps resetting the universe before the future can occur. Homura is the first figure, broken and bleeding, the sad clown who is endlessly victimized by her desperate attempts to find meaning in an absurd and uncaring universe. Laughing at her mockingly is the instrument of her defeat, Walpirgisnacht, the harlequin who signifies that absurdity. Between them is Kyubey, the director, author, orchestrator, the master manipulator who choreographs their dance to please his unseen audience and thus derive power and sustenance from their emotional arcs.

But then there is Madoka. She has been inert, the prize the others fight over, but now at last she makes her choice. And what a choice it is: death. She will become death, the destroyer of worlds, slaying all witches at the moment of their birth, until ultimately there are none left but she herself, and then she will kill herself. 

But Madoka is not Sayaka. This is not suicide; this is the transcendent death, the death of the ego that gives access to eternity and unity. There is no more Madoka; she is an existence without beginning or end, and within her all things are one. 

First, however, a long-promised cake. That was the agreement between he and Mami, after all: that if Madoka could find nothing to wish for, they would share a cake. But Madoka just made her wish; why cake with Mami?

Because Madoka has solved the paradox. To become enlightened, to escape the karmic cycle of hope and despair in which the magical girls are trapped, one must shed all desire. But if one sheds all desire, including the desire to transcend, why would anyone transcend? Madoka has found the answer: the death of ego, the erasure of the self-other distinction, which eliminates desire because the subject doing the desiring and the object of the desire are one and the same. "If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him." Though she made the wish only moments ago (insofar as that concept can mean anything now that she exists equally throughout all of time), she no longer has any wishes, so she receives enlightenment and cake. 

There is more to this scene than cake, however. Madoka is handed back her notebook of costume designs by Mami, the protector and signifier of the traditional magical girl show. When Mami died, Madoka stopped talking about becoming a magical girl as a way to find purpose; instead, it became a sacrifice she repeatedly considered making for the good of others. By returning the notebook, Mami is symbolically passing the role of guardian of the magical girl tradition to Madoka, while at the same time restoring the idea that being a magical girl can be a calling rather than a sacrifice. 

Because one thing Madoka most definitely is not, is a martyr. She is not a Christ-figure, suffering and dying as a way of absorbing the sins of others; she explicitly destroys the witch-aspect of herself which carries that suffering. She is egoless and transcendent, and thus cannot suffer. Her role in this Faustian take is that of Gretchen, and as such she is more of a Marian figure, pure and unsullied, interceding to obtain a state of grace for others. Except even that is not quite accurate, because Madoka doesn't intercede or plead mercy for the magical girls. They still become witches and die; the only change is that their witch-forms do not exist in this world, because Madoka erases them at the moment of creation. They still suffer and still despair, still die--but such is the nature of living in this world. Madoka's role is as guide and teacher, a psychopomp who carries the magical girls out of the world before they can become a problem for it. With her in her pure land, they learn, and perhaps someday transcend as she has. Meanwhile, on Earth, things are imperfect, but better. 

"Daijobu." "It will be all right." This is what Madoka tells Homura just before she appears in the final form variously dubbed Madokami or Godoka by fans (though Madokannon would be more appropriate, as she is more Bodshisattva than divinity). It is a powerful phrase in the iconographic roots of the show; in.Cardcaptor Sakura it was the ultimate spell the hroine created at the end of the series, an expression of hope of nigh-limitless power. Madoka is already carrying out her duties as the warden and guardian and magical girls past. At the same time, however, her transformation sequence is brief, unsexualized, and strongly implies her costume to be made from an Anthony--the familiars that dominated the witch's labyrinth in the first episode, the first instance of the strange and wild new aesthetic the show introduced.

Madoka is becoming a bridge between the old genre and the new. She speaks the assurances of the old genre to the representative of the new one. She gives her ribbons--chosen for her by Junko, who has repeatedly been paralleled to Mami--to Homura as well. It is not a complete restoration of the magical girl tradition--the new world is still dark, and being a magical girl is fraught with dangers and likely to end with death--but a partial restoration, acknowledging that there were good stories, good characters, and true themes to be found among magical girl shows past.

Chief among those themes is hope. Na├»ve hope, the optimistic belief that things will get better, is a trap, yes. Anyone sitting around and waiting for a savior or a lucky break is doomed to disappointment. It is the nature of an entropic universe that if things can get worse, they will, and things can always get worse. But there is another form of hope, the hope embraced in the end by Homura: if things can and will get worse, that necessarily means that at this moment, the universe is not at maximum awfulness; there must be something good in the world right now. That good can be sought out. It can be fought for, preserved for a little while. Entropy can be reversed locally.

Madoka has attained enlightenment and divorced herself from this decaying world. But she has not abandoned it; the world she creates is better. Not perfect, because a perfect world is a world devoid of story, but better. The magical girls still inevitably die, but so does everyone else; what's important is that they now have a far better idea of how the system works and a much better relationship with each other and the Incubators--notably, the fact that wraiths drop a number of little magic-restoratives rather than one big one encourages the magical girls to work together. Teams are likely the norm in this new world, rather than solitary girls as in the old world, and since the Incubators can no longer derive energy from the despair of the witches, they have no incentive to make the girls suffer or hide from them how the system works.

Even Junko is shown in a new environment. We have seen her driven and determined before, concerned, caring, but this final sequence is the first time that we see her being happy. Some have interpreted this scene as Junko being a very different person in the new timeline, less driven and more nostalgic, but there's little reason to believe this is the case. It seems highly unlikely Madoka would replace her mother with a different woman, and far more likely that this is what Junko is like when she's relaxing and having a day out with her family. Her dynamic with Madoka's father is unchanged--he cares for Tetsuya while Junko deals with the outside world, in this case talking to Homura--and so it is likely that she is still the primary earner, the driven executive. It is simply that we can now see that she also contains within herself nostalgia and serenity and wistfulness; she contains contradictions, just as the magical girls/witches contain both curses and blessings, as this ending is both happy and sad, a win and a loss.

Seeing Junko and Tetsuya helps Homura to understand that there can be good things in what for her is a dark, Madoka-less world. She continues on, affirmed in her knowledge that Madoka is all around her, even if she cannot see her. She does not fight for hope in the normal sense, but out of love, and duty, and hope in the Havelian sense that whether or not she succeeds, her life makes sense as long as she fights. And so she fails to save Madoka, and in her failure succeeds in empowering Madoka to save herself. Madoka saves herself by sacrificing herself, and Homura loses her--but someday, when Homura expends the last of her energy and loses her last battle as a magical girl, she will be together with Madoka again.

But this is not for Homura alone. Someone else has been working, trying to stave off decay, but increasingly concerned that their efforts are doomed. "I am full of hatred toward men's so-called happiness," Urobuchi wrote in the afterward to Fate/Zero volume 1, "and had to push characters I poured my heart out to create into the abyss of tragedy... In order to write a perfect ending for a story you have to twist the laws of cause and effect, reverse black and white, and even possess a power to move in the opposite direction from the rule of the universe." The implied author of that note and this series is a deeply depressed individual, spiraling into a creative abyss brought on by despair.

"Only a heavenly and chaste soul that can sing carols of praise towards humanity can save the story." And now, in Madoka, all things are one. This is fiction, a creation within the mind of an author (even the gestalt implied author of a collaboration);  the author is that one. Madoka loved something in the world enough to deem it worth saving, and she is part of that author. Homura will accept that love as reason enough to keep moving and working, and she is part of that author. Just as Homura is not suddenly all smiles and laughs in the new world, this is not a panacea--but it is enough to keep going for a while longer.

--Don't forget. Always, somewhere, someone is fighting for you.
--As long as you remember her, you are not alone.

The projector winds to a stop.

There will be a brief hiatus, followed by the first of several posts on Rebellion.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Because I was (never) a slave in Egypt

This is an article I originally posted on The Slacktiverse on October 19, 2012. It has been lightly edited for typos and is otherwise identical to that post, because this is still everything I have to say on the subject.

I skipped Passover this year. There was a lot going on–Anime Boston was that weekend, and my food processor was broken so I couldn’t make the sauce for the lamb, and so on–and I didn’t think I would miss it. After all, it’s an empty, meaningless ritual dedicated to the worship of a being that doesn’t exist, commemorating events that never happened. Except, of course, that it’s an empty, meaningless ritual I’ve participated in every year of my life except this one.

Oh, and except that it’s not empty or meaningless at all.

Passover is the only time I say prayers. Sometimes in Hebrew, sometimes in English–depends on who I’m celebrating with–every year, I ask call God the King of the Universe and ask hir to bless the matzo and the wine. I sing about how any one of the miracles God performed in the course of freeing the Jews from Egyptian bondage would have been enough, but zie kept on performing more.
The rest of the year, if I find myself somewhere that people are praying (a religious wedding or funeral, say), I keep my head down and my mouth shut. I don’t join in, because that would be dishonest. But on Passover I say the prayers and sing the songs, because that is what you do on Passover.

The prayers and songs, considered in isolation, are meaningless. But they are part of the package of Passover for me, and that package is deeply meaningful, because of its central theme, which as far as I am concerned is the central theme of Judaism: Because I was a slave in Egypt.

I wasn’t, of course. No Jews ever were; the story is just that–a story, not history.

But when I was a kid, my parents used to tell me about their participation in the civil rights movement. Stories of my mother fighting apartheid in her native South Africa, my father hitchhiking thousands of miles from Arizona to join the March on Washington. They did this, they told me, because “never again” means “never again to anyone.” They taught me that, because of the Holocaust, because of pogroms, because of the Inquisition–because of all the times and places in which Jews were persecuted–Jews have a special responsibility to aid other persecuted peoples.
This is a pretty problematic attitude, of course. Everyone has a responsibility to help the victims of persecution, especially if you yourself are among the privileged. But still, there’s something worth pursuing there.

You see, I’ve never been persecuted for being Jewish. Oh, there was apparently some time in elementary school when I came home crying because some other kids accused me of killing Jesus, and there was a nasty kid a few years later who broke one of our windows, but these are isolated incidents. There was no pervasive pattern of intolerance; I’ve never felt less-than because of being Jewish, or missed out on a job opportunity, and I’ve certainly never been put in a labor camp or chased out of my home. Why, then, should I feel any sort of kinship with the victims of persecution?

Because I was a slave in Egypt…

You see, every year at Passover, we recite the story of Passover. There’s a bit in there where it says you are supposed to tell the story as if it happened to us–not our ancestors, fictional or otherwise, but to us. It doesn’t matter that the Egyptian bondage never happened to me–I am still to take the lessons of it to heart. I am still to open my doors to any in need.

“Never again” means never again to anyone.

I don’t recall my parents ever explicitly drawing the connection, but it’s clear to me. So the Exodus never happened? Well, the Holocaust didn’t happen to me, either. My family left Europe decades before the Holocaust began. As far as my own experience is concerned, both events are equally just stories.

But not meaningless. Because I was a slave in Egypt, I support gay marriage and immigration amnesty. Because “never again” means never again to anyone, I oppose the mistreatment of the Palestinian people by the Israeli government.

Of course there are excellent secular reasons to do those things. I like to think that, if I weren’t Jewish, I would still do those things for the secular reasons. But as it is, I do them for the Jewish reasons: Because I was (never) a slave in Egypt.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Got cable, started watching Cosmos...

It's pretty basic, but then it's supposed to be. First episode annoyed me with a couple of inaccuracies (its depiction of the asteroid belt is VASTLY too crowded, and it's not true that the Sun powers all life on Earth--there's a handful of organisms that ultimately derive their energy from geothermal sources), but on the other hand I really liked the animated segment on Giordano Bruno. It could have been slightly clearer on this, but it still got across that he was a mystic and a fanatic, who by coincidence happened to be right. The early history of science is littered with such; it's as close as I've seen a popular science work come to admitting that there's a reason so many of the founders of science were monks, alchemists, and astrologers.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sometimes it can be hard for a shy pony like me to stand up for myself (Keep Calm and Flutter On)

The Mad Hatter and the March Hare... which
of course makes Fluttershy the doormatmouse.
It's January 19, 2013. The top song has not changed since last year, while the top movie has changed three times, consecutively Texas Chainsaw 3D, Zero Dark Thirty, and Mama. I've only heard of the first two, and none of what I've heard gives me any desire to see them. In the news since last episode, schoolgirl, blogger, and international cause celebre Malala Yousafzai is released from the hospital following her shooting, British authorities confirm over 200 sexual offenses committed by deceased children's television presenter Jimmy Savile over a fifty-year period, and on the day this episode airs, Al Jazeera reports that the number of children killed in the Syrian civil war is over 3,500, out of more than 60,000 dead so far.

You may have noticed that there's a pattern in the news stories I chose for this article. There's a reason for that, but first let's discuss "Keep Calm and Flutter On," story by Teddy Antonio, teleplay by Dave Polsky, and directed by Jayson Thiessen.

There is a read in which this episode is completely innocent. In that read, Fluttershy is a patient parent or teacher dealing with a recalcitrant child. She is patient and kind while the lonely, undisciplined child acts out, until his growing attachment to her brings his behavior more or less under control.

The advantage of this reading is twofold. First, it's relatively non-problematic. It's consistent with Fluttershy's characterization as a caretaker, and explains why Celestial thought Fluttershy was the mare for the job. Second, it's a relationship familiar to the primary audience. A four- or six-year-old hasn't had much opportunity to experience friendship, but parents, tantrums, and possibly teachers are familiar concepts by that age. 

Unfortunately, that reading has the slight snag that there is no textual support for it whatsoever. Fluttershy positions herself as a friend to Discord, treats him as a houseguest rather than a family member, and, most importantly, is by far the younger and less powerful of the two. She is definitely not Discord's mother-figure. While she does chide him for his misbehavior, it is no different from the way she chides Rainbow Dash at the dinner party in the episode, which is to say, she's treating Discord as an equal. 

This is deeply troubling, because Discord spends the entire episode acting like a controlling, abusive boyfriend. He starts by asserting dominance over and marginalizing Angel, who, depending on which episodes you go by, is either Fluttershy's caretaker or her prior abuser (or, of course, both). He then begins pushing Fluttershy's boundaries, using her kindness and hospitality against her. He continually tests how far she will let him go, trashing her home and property, and when she objects, he acts like the aggrieved victim. This is classic abuser behavior, calculated to make his victim start doubting her own feelings and beliefs, thus making her easier to control. For similar reasons, he tears down her friends and acts out at the dinner party to force her to take his side against her friends, isolating her.

Discord's motive is perhaps not that of the typical abuser. He is more interested in isolating and controlling Fluttershy because it takes all of the Mane Six working together to use the Elements of Harmony against him, and thus so long as Fluttershy is kept away from her friends and under his thumb, he can wreak havoc as he pleases. On the other hand, it is an entirely selfish motivation, in which any possible affection he feels for Fluttershy (which affection he does seem to feel, if the end of the episode is anything to go by) is secondary to his desire to wield power. In that sense, this is a fairly typical abusive relationship.

In that sense, the show does a good job of showing how our sexist culture encourages and supports man-on-woman abuse in a way that other forms are not quite as supported. Our culture constructs the gender binary in large part by contrasting hegemonic masculinity with emphasize femininity. Hegemonic masculinity constructs masculinity as being about the possession and expression of power and dominant status. Put another way, expression of masculinity are expressions of power and vice versa, hence masculine associations for activities such as hunting, fishing, war, community leadership, business, and so on--activities where a man can assert his power and dominant status through status in a hierarchy, killing enemies, or providing meat for the tribe. Note that, for instance, preparing food for one's family is not seen as particularly masculine, but running a restaurant kitchen is an almost exclusively masculine occupation--the former is not a position of social dominance, but the latter is. By contrast, emphasized femininity encourages women not necessarily to embrace a submissive role (though that element is certainly present) but to exaggerate gender differences and play to men's desire for power. To quote R.W. Connell's Gender and Power, which introduced both concepts, this emphasis can be seen in "the display of sociability rather than technical competence, fragility in mating scenes [e.g., in popular entertainment or as an adopted posture in courtship and sex--note that much of our culture's concept of flirtatious body language for a woman involves making herself look smaller, weaker, or more childlike], compliance with men’s desires for titillation and ego-stroking in office relationships, acceptance of marriage and child care as a response to labor-market discrimination against women."

This plays out in Discord and Fluttershy's relationship in this episode (which is, of course, non-romantic, but they are living together for the duration of the episode, so many of the same concepts apply). Discord spends the entire episode trying to assert his power and dominance. He deliberately usurps Angel's role in the home, taunts and torments him, just to demonstrate his power, while also trying to manipulate and isolate Fluttershy so that he can dominate her as well--and the end goal for all of this is to eliminate the one thing that limits his power, the combined power of all six Elements of Harmony. Fluttershy, meanwhile, is deliberately exaggerating her (traditionally feminine) traits of kindness, meekness, and nurturing, playing along with Discord's hegemonic posturing in an attempt to get him to become dependent on her friendship.

The rest of the Mane Six, especially Rainbow Dash and to a lesser extent Twilight Sparkle, are horrified by this arrangement. Equestrian gender roles do not generally work like ours, and so in-character this is probably their first encounter with such toxic gender norms. They can see that the practical upshot is that Discord is taking more and more power and control, which forces Fluttershy to go to greater lengths to appease him, all the while convinced that she is in control even when it is plainly obvious to an outsider that Discord is using her. Fluttershy's determination to reform Discord puts her in the position of trying to figure out what she can do to make him behave, which has the effect of absolving him of responsibility for his behavior--there is little difference between Fluttershy's "I'm sure I can reach him if I keep treating him nicely" and "If I didn't burn the pot roast, he wouldn't have needed to hit me." She is being abused, and like many abuse victims, resisting her friends' efforts to get her out--which isolates her still further and makes her easy to control.

So far, so good, but this is where the episode runs afoul of the existing norms and rules of the show. The best ending is for Fluttershy to realize that her relationship with Discord is toxic, get her friends, and turn him back into stone, but within the show that ending cannot occur, because it closes off future plot lines with a popular villain and suggests that there are things friendship cannot do. Instead, when Fluttershy threatens to terminate their relationship, Discord spontaneously reforms and everyone becomes friends. So remember, little girls, if fifteen years from now your abusive boyfriend feeds you the "please, baby, don't go, I promise I'll change" line, you should definitely stay, because he's totally going to actually change and isn't just desperately saying anything that will keep you in his power.

And as disgusting as the ending is in that respect, it is toxic in more immediate ways as well. There is enormous pressure on young children, especially girls, to be "friends" with everyone. This episode suggests that there is a responsibility to be friendly even with people who are horrible to you and your friends, that Fluttershy's approach of suppressing her aggressive feelings and allowing people to walk all over her to maintain their friendship will actually get them to like her enough that she can then shift the relationship to a more genuine and equal friendship. This is precisely the nonsense that forces girls into the "alternative aggressions" documented by Rachel Simmons in her Odd Girl Out, creating the toxic culture of overt "niceness" and covert nastiness, rumor-mongering, and ostracizing that explodes among girls around puberty and ruins the latter portion of the school experience for so many.

Later episodes temper this somewhat by making clear that Discord is still colossally self-centered, manipulative, and sadistic, albeit more of a morally ambiguous trickster than the outright villain he was in his first appearance. In the fourth season, he is still devoted to testing the boundaries, going as far as he can without quite losing the support of Fluttershy, but at least it appears his contact with her is rather more limited.

Even in a purely narrative view, deliberately ignoring the toxic implications about gender, friendships, and abuse, this is still part of Season Three's flailing desperation, in this case the standard desperate-TV show trick of bringing back a popular villain--yet it reduces the most powerful, dangerous, and effective villain in the show to an abusive boyfriend.

And yet this is not the nadir of the flail.

Next week: Quite possibly the worst thing Spike has ever done. And that's still not the nadir either!