Friday, October 31, 2014

Fiction Friday: Four Stories, Roughly Two and a Half of Them True

Happy Halloween! Here's some scary stories. All of them are true, especially the parts that aren't.

And check out My Little Po-Mo vol. 2 for some coverage of bronies being scary! Purchase links on the Books page!

This is the story of why I don't believe in ghosts. Because I don't; not anymore.

As a child I believed in basically everything. Not religion, obviously; that sort of nonsense was fine for Christians but not sensible and level-headed Jews like us. But I understood the language of television well enough at six, seven, eight years old to understand that cartoons and live action shows like Alien Nation or Dallas were just stories, while things like the news and documentaries were true. And since they used the televisual language of documentaries and news magazines, I naturally believed shows like Unsolved Mysteries and Sightings were true, too. So I believed in aliens, psychic powers, Atlantis, and so on the same way that I believed in Congress or California or distant stars--without fervor, matter-of-factly.

My room became mine when I was six. My youngest sister was big enough to no longer sleep in the same room as my parents, so she moved into the room I had shared with my other sister; I therefore moved into spare room, which my mother had used as a study. I can still see the wallpaper in that room, a swirl of purple waves and pale-blue clouds interpenetrating in chaotic whirls. At the seams, it had yellowed a bit, turning those blues and purples into sickly greens, but other than that it was, I suppose, fairly pretty wallpaper. I was content; it made a good backdrop for whatever games my Lego spaceships-- because no matter what the Kit was suppose to be, it became a spaceship in my hands--and I engaged in. 

Months passed, circled back, passed again. Six became seven became eight. Until one night I woke up and couldn't move. 

It was dark. Impossibly dark, as pitch black as I had ever seen anything. There was a window directly behind my head, just above my pillows, but not a scrap of light came through it. 

And I couldn't move. I had succeeded in opening heavy eyes, I could look around the room, but I couldn't turn my head, couldn't speak, couldn't make my limbs move or even twitch a finger. A heavy weight lay across me, like a thick quilt but without the heat. It was heaviest on my chest, and I struggled to breathe as my eyes flicked around the barely visible room. Something was wrong. Besides being unable to move, besides the darkness, besides the pressure on my chest--there was another fear, beyond all of that, something instinctive and inchoate. I wanted to scream, and couldn't.

Then the green began to glow. Thin lines of green along the seams of the wallpaper detached themselves into sickly glowing globs, drifting slowly toward my bed. I strained desperately in panic. If I could just open my mouth, just scream for my parents--but I couldn't do anything as the light assembled itself into the vague form of a human, head too big, limbs too long, body too small, and made of independent smears of sickly yellow-green light, but still recognizably a person, watching me, bending over my bed. Considering me with great dark eyes, reaching one long hideous finger toward my face, closer and closer, until my eyes crossed trying to follow it and it blurred. Any second it could touch me, and this entire time the only sound was my rough panicked breathing, and I still couldn't move, couldn't struggle, couldn't fight the weight pinning down my chest and my arms and my legs, couldn't get my mouth open to scream.

Maybe there were clouds and they parted. Maybe it was timing and the moon happened to rise over the house across the street just then. I don't know. All I know is that suddenly a shaft of silver light stabbed in through the window and struck the green, and it scattered. Dozens of little motes of light flowed away from it and back into the walls.

I found I could move one finger. Twitching it back and forth shook my arm free, and then suddenly I could move, and I screamed and screamed until my parents woke.

I refused to sleep in that room until they took down the wallpaper. I slept on the sofa in the living room for perhaps a week while they painted the room a nice blue with white trim and no green anywhere, and then I consented to sleep there again. In the years since I have, from time to time, woken in the night in terror, unable to move, but I read up on it. It's just sleep paralysis, and sometimes it causes hallucinations.

So I don't believe in ghosts, or alien visitors, or fairies, or anything else that comes in the night to steal children away. Because if I believed what I saw... well, then I'd be crazy, wouldn't I?

***

In my second semester of college, I became a copy editor on the student newspaper. The next year, I moved up to copy chief. One of the new reporters that year, K, was small and energetic and cosplayed a quite accurate Yui Ikari, and I was definitely interested. Plus her friend kept hinting rather heavily that if I were to make a move, K would reciprocate. This was not a circumstance with which I had much experience, and I was rather at a loss regarding what to do about it.

Come October of that year, an assignment came down the pipe: a group of students were planning an overnight Halloween camping trip at Point Lookout State Park, which claims to be the most haunted park in America.

The park lies at the point where the Potomac River flows into the Chesapeake Bay, and is mostly woods, with a little bit of beach where it meets the bay. It was the site of a minor battle in the War of 1812 between a small local militia and an overwhelming British force, and in the Civil War it housed a POW camp and military hospital. They say that the dead of both camp and hospital were buried by the sea, but the sea has eaten away at the land, so most of the graves are now under the waters of the bay.

There's a small house on the parkland where the rangers live. They say they've had objects go missing only to be found stacked in pyramids in the bathroom. They say that people who spend the night there often feel someone tugging at their toes, that that's how the doctors in the field hospital used to check if their patients had died in the night.

They say a lot of things, and I was happy to go along and witness none of them happening, because I'd always wanted to get to debunk something. I'm not sure why K decided she wanted to go. Whatever her reasons, we were handed a camera--this was 2002, when trusting a digital camera to a student was a pretty big deal--and told to go along, talk to the others, write about anything unusual that happened, and take lots of spooky pictures.

We arrived in the early afternoon, were told a bunch of stories about the history of the park by a ranger, and then free to explore. I remember emerging from the woods into the sudden shock of bright sunlight off the bay, a few hundred feet from a decaying old shack on the water's edge. When we looked inside, there was nothing there but a tall, narrow table set into the floor, like a kitchen island. A large carving knife stuck blade-first into the table, next to a pile of dead fish. As we watched, one of the fish slowly, deliberately bent upwards, staring at us out of one black, round eye.

We fled back into the woods, laughing. Obviously, I told her when I had my breath, it was recently caught and flopping randomly as it gasped for air. That we were the only people along the entire beach, that they were no boats to be seen, that the smell and bugs suggested those fish had been there quite a while--well, neither of us elected to comment on any of that.

We explored the woods further as it started to get dark. We found another broken down old shack and tried to take pictures. The shack was empty and very dark inside, but when we checked the pictures there was a ball of light hovering in the middle of the room. A bit creepy, but just some trick of the flash and the window glass, right?

We returned to the campsite and laid out our sleeping bags a little ways away from the rest of the group. It was a clear, crisp night, unusually warm for Halloween. We chatted for a little while about nothing consequential.

"What's that?" asked K suddenly.

"What's what?" I asked.

"You don't hear that?"

We were quiet a moment. I strained but could hear nothing. It was too late in the year for crickets, and there was no wind to speak of. "No," I said. "What did you hear?"

"A voice," she answered. "But it stopped." She sounded scared. I wasn't, of course. Everything that had happened that day had a perfectly rational explanation and there was nothing to fear at all.

"Maybe we should hold hands," I suggested.

We did. Her hand was ice-cold, but it was still nice. We lay there in quiet for a while, looking up at the stars, or at least I was.

"I'm cold," K said after a while. She scooted closer to me in her bag, and I let go of her hand and put an arm around her.

"You are!" I said in surprise. Her whole body was nearly as cold as her hand. But then, like I said, she was pretty small, so it made sense she'd get cold easily.

I held her, and we cuddled, which eventually led to other things, and we forgot about any strangeness until morning, by which time we were a couple. K talked to some of the other campers, none of whom noticed anything particularly strange, and most of whom were also in pairs. We returned to school and wrote the story, which was dutifully published in the next issue's Features section.

The next few weeks were among the most intense of my life. K was, it turned out, an incredibly passionate woman, not just in the usual sense but in everything. No matter what we did, she flung herself into it with abandon, relishing every experience, from the taste of food to the textures of fabrics. There was little talking with K, and a great deal of doing, touching, tasting.

And she was always, always cold. I liked that; I hate being too hot, and she was always deliciously cool to the touch. Late nights at the newspaper, when everyone was a little punch-drunk and we just wanted to wrap up whatever the crisis of the day was and put the damn thing to bed, I would sit on the floor with my arms around her, cool and soft while we waited for whichever editor was holding things up to get their fixes done so I could check them.

It was an intense time, and like most intense experiences, it is longer in my memory than it was to live it. After a few weeks at most, things began to change. She became suspicious--not jealous, but concerned whether people were who they said they were, whether I was really me and she was really she. She would scream sometimes, a short sharp yelp for no reason she could explain afterwards--and the one time I pushed about it was our first real fight.

By the end of the year, it was over. She accused me of being a spy, of trying to make her crazy so that she wouldn't realize what I was up to, of being in league with the forces arrayed against her. She was both furious and terrified in that last fight, pale and bug-eyed as she shouted that she wasn't going to let them get to her, wasn't going to fall for my tricks.

And then she was gone, from my life, from the newspaper--I think she even dropped out of school.

She had some kind of a breakdown, I guess. Stress of school, or some other issue, who knows? I wish I'd understood better at the time, been able to help, but who knows what if anything I could have done? Anyway it was a long time ago.

And like I said, I don't believe in ghosts, or curses, or anything silly like that. Everything has a rational explanation, even if we don't always know what it is--and everything here is explained by known issues with the human brain.

Except the way her hair would sometimes smell like the sea. That's a bit odd, I guess.

***

Even though I was the oldest, I was the last of my mom's kids to move out. Once I finally went off to college, she sold the place we'd lived when I was in high school. She lived in an apartment for a little while, but eventually bought a little house with her wife, M. When I came home from school, I lived there for a while, in a bedroom that had once been the attic.

The stairs up were by the kitchen, long and narrow. At the top you emerged at the front left corner of the little room, which sloped down from there in both directions. There was a wall to the left, where the original house ended, and a sort of cross between a skylight and a window, since by that point the ceiling was practically a wall. The back right corner was the lowest point of the ceiling, maybe two feet off the floor, while the back left corner was closer to three feet. 

The odd thing about that corner was the door. It was a perfectly ordinary door in miniature, about a foot high and painted white, with a little doorknob and a deadbolt. Beyond its size, the strangest thing about the door was that it was there at all; the attic ended at that wall, since the extension was only on the ground floor, so there couldn't have been more than a few inches of space between the door and the exterior wall.

But hey, compared to the sorts of people I had as my first couple of college roommates, a weird door barely registered. I assure you it is entirely a coincidence that my bed was in the farthest possible corner of the room from the door.

Door or no, I liked that little room, with its oddly shaped corners and low ceilings and bookshelves filling every available bit of wall except the one with the door. I particularly liked it on stormy nights, which are pretty common in Maryland summer; I would lay in my bed and watch the rain drumming against the skylight, an endless ratatat that could lull me to sleep easily.

One night, I was lying there, watching a particularly energetic storm, when I heard something odd. It was quiet, but it sounded like a quiet scratching noise. Scritchscritchscritch pause, it went, scritchscritchscritch pause. But it was quiet, and the rain was drumming away, so I assumed I'd imagined it.

But then it came again. Scritchscritchscritch pause. Louder and a little faster, scritchscritchscritch pause. Now I was quite sure I could hear it, and as it became more insistent (scritchscritchscritchpause scritchscritchscritchpause) I was able to pinpoint where it was coming from: the little door, of course.

The scratching grew louder, and began to be accompanied by something else, a sound I couldn't quite pin down. Scritchscritchscritch scritchscritchscritch, faster and louder. The other sound was getting louder too, but I still couldn't quite make it out over the drumming of the rain and the scratching at the tiny little door in the corner.

The scratching was non-stop now, a furious and desperate scrabbling, and as the other sound grew louder with it I recognized it, wordless, panicked sobbing. I realized something else at that moment, too, there in the dim room in the wee hours of the morning: the deadbolt was on this side of the door, meaning the keyhole was on the other. That door wasn't made to lock me out.

It was made to lock something else in.

At that moment there was a flash of lightning and a crack of thunder, almost simultaneous with each other, and the sobbing rose to a shriek. After that... silence. Nothing but the drumming of the rain.

I never heard anything from behind that door again. Eventually, I graduated from school, got a place of my own, stopped spending my summers there. Not long after that, mom and M sold the house and moved away. I never quite got around to opening that door.

***

Elise was frightened. Maybe that's why she had the dream; maybe that alone was enough.

She'd come to the hospital that morning for a standard check-up, here at the start of what in her mind she capitalized as Pregnancy Week 48. Chuck was with her this time. No particular reason; he'd come to some of her regular check-ups and not others, as work allowed, more at the beginning and recently, less in the middle.

She was glad he was there; he'd known to hold her hand the moment the doctor had trouble finding the heartbeat.

That was one reason she was afraid: scared for the child she might never get to meet.

They decided to keep her overnight for observation. They'd try again in the morning, the doctor assured her, and maybe it would be different.

She didn't believe him, because she was pretty sure he didn't believe himself. That led to a second reason she was afraid: scared because of things she'd read about that might go wrong if there was no heartbeat, what had to be done if those things went wrong, and the very real possibility that St. Mary's Hospital was not a place which permitted doing it.

So there was more than enough fear to explain the dream, because of course it had to be a dream:

Elise woke in the middle of the night. The room was incredibly dark; the only light a very dim green glow from the monitors that illuminated approximately nothing, and a thin yellow-white sliver through the slightly open door of the room, a slice of brightness that angled across her lap and off into the corner of the room.

Something was wrong, very very wrong, but she was groggy enough that it took a moment for her to realize what. The blankets were tangled and shoved to the side, and beneath them the flimsy paper hospital gown made it extremely obvious: her belly was flat, completely flat, as if she'd never been pregnant at all.

Worse, there was an extra tube, beside the one coming out of her arm: long and gray, wrinkled and glistening, it extended out from under her gown, between her legs, and off the end of the bed. She could just make it out in the gloom, extending out through the gap in the door, into the hallway.

The door creaked and opened slightly. There was a very small shadow pushing its way through the door, right down at the floor. It was hunched, crawling, stubby-limbed and large-headed. It lifted its head to look at her, and she saw bright red lips in a pale, round face. Her brown eyes met big, bright green ones.

And then it was morning, and she was heavily pregnant, and the covers were where they belonged. No strange gray tubes stretched across the floor, and the door was wide open as the nurse gently woke her.

The doctor found the heartbeat without difficulty, and it was healthy and strong and everything checked out perfectly normal for thirty-eight weeks, and she could go home with Chuck. Everything was right with the world, and not even the screams and sobs from the couple whose son had been in the room next to hers could damp her relief.

A couple of months later she gave birth to a healthy baby boy, and everything was fine, continued to be fine, would always be fine.

Still and all, for the rest of her life, she was very, very glad he had not been born with green eyes.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Commissioned Essay: Princesses as Celebrities in Equestria

Commissioned Essays are a series in which I write on MLP-related topics requested by Kickstarter backers. This is the last of the backer rewards for Volume 2. Which is on sale now! See the Books page for details.

There is a tendency among Friendship Is Magic fans--progressively less pronounced as the number of princesses increases--to treat alicorns as gods. There is some support for this: Nightmare Moon is clearly operating in a mythic register in the series premiere, specifically an eclipse myth, and so by extension Luna and Celestia also function as mythic beings. Celestia's arrivals at the end of "Feeling Pinkie Keen" and especially "Lesson Zero" have the feeling of the divine descending to bestow blessings or, in the latter case, deliver judgment upon mortals. And of course Twilight's transformation in "Magical Mystery Cure" is, as I have discussed previously, an apotheosis, with all the theological implications thereof.

But there is nonetheless quite a bit mitigating against this reading. First, there is the problem of Cadance and, apotheosis aside, Twilight: they simply are not treated with the awe and respect of the two sisters, nor are they mentioned in ancient legends of the ponies as the two sisters are. Second, they are materially present in a way gods generally are not. They are not spiritual entities, nor do they live on some distant mountaintop, a transcendent plane, or otherwise outside the normal physical space of Equestria. They are not merely imminent, but immediately available; they can touch and be touched at any time, without need to manifest themselves or be sought out. Third and perhaps most importantly, none of the princesses are treated as gods by the other ponies. There is no worship directed toward them, no one seeking blessings before a venture or making offerings. They are accorded the type of respect shown toward royalty, not the awe with which one approaches the gods.

But on the other hand, we see little actual political rule by them. Certainly Celestia and Luna have made occasional decrees with the expectation of being obeyed, such as when the former assigned Twilight to live in Ponyville or the latter first canceled and then reinstated Nightmare Night. But the day-to-day governance of Equestria seems largely to be handled on a much more local scale, if at all.

A third option is that the princesses are viewed as celebrities within the culture of Equestria, and that may well be the best fit. In our own world, though there were precursors centuries prior, celebrity as we understand first really emerges in Europe in the 18th century. As the system of patronage, in which individual artists received financial support for their work from individual wealthy or noble backers, broke down, artists increasingly had to rely on popular support, which in turn meant they needed to maintain a reputation with the general public. The rise of newspaper gossip columns, "hot spot" clubs, and similar accoutrements of celebrity soon followed, as artists (particularly within the Romantic movement) deliberately cultivated fame and notoriety as a means of attracting the audience necessary for their work. The simultaneous rise of the film industry and organized marketing and advertising campaigns in the early 20th century proved the perfect environment for the full development of the celebrity, as early movie stars became walking advertisements for their films, and in turn loaned that capacity to other products, cementing the celebrity as a keystone of marketing.

This form of celebrity is definitely present in Equestria, as we see in two episodes in particular. In "Green Isn't Your Color," Fluttershy is swept up in exactly the same kind of celebrity as supermodels in our world, with her face plastering magazine covers and billboards, expected to endorse products and pose for pictures and generally play the role which Photo Finish wants the public to assign her, a deliberate attempt to construct a persona for her which the public can enjoy. Something similar, but less organized, happens to Twilight Sparkle in "Twilight Time." Here, there is no publicist involved, no deliberate marketing campaign. but the same forces are at work. Twilight is a mysterious and awesome figure to the young ponies, a Princess, not the ordinary pony they are used to seeing around town. The fact that she does ordinary things like eat at the local burger dive imbues those places with an echo of her status; rather than humanizing her, it elevates the burger bar.

Like a celebrity, and unlike a ruler, Twilight's power in "Twilight Time" is contagious; the Cutie Mark Crusaders become popular just because they know her, much as the families and close associates of celebrities frequently acquire a degree of celebrity status as well. And most importantly, like a celebrity, it is constructed around her rather than created by her; while celebrities frequently do actively participate in creating their own status, ultimately it is bestowed upon them by gossip columnists, publicists, marketers, and the willingness of the general public to play along. This is where the phenomenon of "famous for being famous" arises: individuals who have done nothing of public interest, but who are frequently featured in the gossip columns, gradually become celebrities as the audience starts to follow their gossip-created personae, which in turn leads publicists and marketers to begin working with them to further craft and profit from these personae, which in turn makes them more famous.

The constructed nature of the celebrity persona is reflected in the dualism that seems pervasive to the established princesses (that is, all but Twilight). Celestia's public persona is of a wise and caring, yet frequently stern, ruler, but in more private settings we often see signs of other traits. She shows a mischievous streak in "A Bird in the Hoof," while in "Best Night Ever" she admits to finding the Grand Galloping Gala boring, and the flashbacks in "Princess Twilight Sparkle" show her sorrow and grief at having to banish her sister. These feelings, however, are not part of her public persona, and so she hides them most of the time. Similarly, Luna in "Nightmare Night" shows that she is actually fairly lonely and anxious, but by the end of the episode agrees to play into the public perception of her as monstrous and terrifying as a form of entertainment. For her part, Cadance is not particularly well know, but also shows signs of finding her role as a Princess constraining; in "Three's a Crowd" she admits to finding going on an adventure with Twilight a relief from her role in running the Crystal Empire.

The Princesses are not perfect matches for celebrity. While they are famous for constructed roles, these roles do not seem to be the product of deliberate campaigns, but rather of the assumptions of the public. Of course, it's possible that there are gossip columnists writing about the doings of the Princesses, but it seems unlikely. Still, they are subject to what might be called the paradox of celebrity, that everyone knows who they are but relatively few actually know them. It seems like a rather lonely existence; no wonder that Twilight struggles so strongly against being subject to it in "Twilight Time"! Hopefully, as the fifth season explores her new role as Princess of Friendship, she will continue to be able to be herself.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Babylon 5 that (thankfully) never was: Season 3

Continuing my series attempting to reconstruct how Babylon 5 was originally (for certain values of original) "supposed to" go. More detailed explanation and Season 1 are here, although note that since that post I have acquired a copy of the treatment itself from an exceedingly gracious reader.

Known: The existence of a mole on the station is revealed. This is a point of divergence between the treatment (which takes into account the cast changes between pilot and series, but not any changes in the series itself) and JMS' comments on what would have happened if there were no cast changes.

If there were no cast changes, Laurel Takashima would have been revealed as "Control," the sleeper agent that Talia was revealed to be in Season 2. She would have departed much like Talia, and been replaced by Ivanova as second-in-command of the station. The treatment, however, is ambiguous about the identity of the mole, just that they are discovered. It also indicates that Catherine Sakai would have been "mind-raped" and lose all memory of Sinclair, devastating him and ending their relationship. This is stated to occur during the "third/fourth season bridge," along with Delenn and Sinclair starting to date.

Psy-Corps emerges as an increasingly powerful and shadowy organization, but there is still no mention of Psy-Cops.

The Shadows would attack the Narn homeworld during this season, appearing out of nowhere en masse to wipe out its defenses and then vanish, opening up an opportunity for the Centauri to come in behind them and take over. After some time trying to rally support on the station, G'Kar would go home to join the Narn Resistance, and be demoted from main cast to recurring character for the remainder of the third season and part of the fourth.

Finally, it would be revealed that the Vorlons have been manipulating the younger races throughout their history, but the Shadows' motivations are not yet addressed.

Speculation: Given the similarity of the "mind rape" to both the Talia and Anna Sheridan plotlines, it seems likely that Catherine Sakai would have turned out to be Control (like Talia) and the commander's loved one stolen and twisted into someone else by the Shadows and their allies (like Anna). However, had there been no cast changes, Laurel would have been the mole, while perhaps Carolyn Sykes would have disappeared on an expedition like Anna, only to return as a minion of the Shadows. Catherine as the mole is actually one of the few places where the ideas in the treatment seem likely to be better than what we got in the show.

The loss of G'Kar, on the other hand, seems like a clear case where the treatment depicts a notably worse show. There is no trace of his religious epiphany or slow turning away from his initial presentation as a pure warrior, no sign of his character's growth throughout the show, and that is a very sad loss.

Another loss: there is no sign of Earth's growing corruption or fascist turn, no Nightwatch, and no declaration of Babylon 5's independence; Psy-Corps is more of a shadowy puppeteer than a participant in what amounts to a fascist coup, and so there is no trace at this stage of the human characters have to weigh their loyalties against their principles. There is also no trace of "War Without End"--there was no past conflict with the Shadows and Sinclair is not the "reincarnation" of Valen, so no theft of B4 into the past. ("Babylon Squared" is not even mentioned until a lengthy parenthetical after the discussion of the end of season 3 and beginning of season 4--it's described as a season 1 episode, but not mentioned in the treatment of season 1.)

The willingness of the Shadows to openly attack the Narn in force is interesting. Admittedly, by Season 3 the Shadows were capable of fielding such fleets and had emerged into the open, but that was well after the fall of Narn. Their willingness to do it sooner suggests that they have greater resources and are less afraid of being exposed, which makes sense if the cycle of past wars never happened and the Shadows are therefore a long-standing and active enemy of the Vorlons, rather than just coming out of a long hibernation.

Continued in two weeks...

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Commissioned Essay: From a feminist perspective, has MLP:FIM changed the world?

Commissioned Essays are similar to the Elements of Harmony series in that they are commissioned by backers of my Kickstarter campaigns. However, they can be about any FIM-related topic, not just character studies. This essay was commissioned by a backer of My Little Po-Mo volume 2. Which is now on sale! See the Books page for details.

Sometimes, I look back at some of the things I wrote last year, when this project was new and my interaction with the fandom still in the honeymoon phase, and I cringe. There was a time when I believed that bronies actually might take to heart the principles presented in the show, might actually work toward building a more tolerant and caring world, and most importantly might actually accept that women are human beings.

I was so young and naive when I was only 32.

Hardly a week has gone by this year in which I do not see some example of misogyny, transphobia, or homophobia in the brony Facebook groups to which I belong. Anti-feminist and anti-"social justice warrior" sentiments are common. I have seen rape apologia and anti-abortion screeds, free and flippant use of derogatory terms for LGBT people, jokes about rape, defenses of people who joke about rape, defenses of the wage gap--the list goes on.

Today, as I write this, the most prominent intersection of feminist issues and pop culture at the moment is probably GamerGate, a campaign of harassment against women in and associated with the video game industry which has failed to convince anyone other than some of its own members that it has anything to do with journalistic ethics. Earlier today, feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian, one of the people targeted most by GamerGate harassment, tweeted about a death threat she received:

An October 25, 2014 tweet by Anita Sarkeesian.
Note the username of the person who sent the death threat. He's clearly a brony. Of course the instinctive response of many bronies on having this pointed out will almost certainly be the same as with the convention molestation accusations: simply deny that it happened, because bronies have, as a group, a pathological inability to accept criticism or self-police. "Oh, he's just pretending to be a brony because people think bronies are misogynists."

Leave aside for the moment that that explanation makes no sense, he is making death threats against a woman he calls a "feminazi whore," and therefore quite clearly doesn't think being seen as a misogynist is a problem. Consider instead why bronies have a reputation for misogyny. The reason is the same as why GamerGate has that reputation: because a large enough number of bronies engage in misogynistic activity, and a small enough number try to stop or criticize them, to make it clear to outsiders that most bronies are either misogynistic or don't care enough to oppose the misogynists.

And yet it isn't true that Friendship Is Magic has failed to change the world, because the bronies are and have always been a sideshow, a demographically interesting distraction from the real spell the show is casting.

The Friendship Is Magic my little niece has been watching since she was two years old has storytelling, characterization, comedy, action, animation, design, and acting as good as or better than any other cartoon on the air, and from that she's learning to expect that shows made for her will be as good as shows made for boys. In turn, from that she's learning that she deserves as good as boys get.

The Friendship Is Magic my niece has been watching since she was two show women filling every role in society, from positions of political power to assistant bakers. It shows them in traditionally feminine roles like animal care and fashion, and traditionally masculine roles like stunt flying and research, and without making a big deal about it--without suggestion that there is a big deal to be made--gladly accepts all of them as normal. It depicts a wide variety of women with varied interests, goals, behavioral quirks, and personalities, and never suggests that any of them are more or less feminine than any other. It depicts a world in which people perform their gender in whatever manner they choose, and no one ever questions it or tries to apply restrictive norms about what is or isn't "feminine" or "masculine."

And because she is so very young, and because her family tries not to display or normalize the opposing, sexist attitude, she is very likely to internalize this view of the world. It will be challenged greatly as she gets older. Other girls will police her if she doesn't conform to their standards of femininity. Boys will objectify her. Marketers will try to make her a sex object the moment she's old enough to start dressing herself. But, critically, she will know, because brightly colored cartoon ponies taught her, that this is wrong.

She and hundreds of thousands of girls like her. Just statistically, some will fight back.

So yes, Friendship Is Magic has changed the world. We're just going to have to wait a couple of decades before the change becomes visible.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Elements of Harmony 5: Big McIntosh is Best Pony

The Elements of Harmony series are commissioned essays in which I examine a character selected by the Kickstarter backer who commissioned the essay, and construct an argument on why that character is best pony.

Speaking of, My Little Po-Mo vol. 2 is on sale, and contains among other things the first three Elements of Harmony essays, on Rarity, Applejack, and Zecora! Check the Books page for details! 

One of the oft-overlooked aspects of Friendship Is Magic is the way it approaches masculinity. It is, of course, not the focus of the show, which is as it has always been about showcasing and celebrating myriad ways of being feminine. But nonetheless it also depicts a variety of male characters, and many of them are presented in a way to suggest they are performing a similar function of showing varied, positive expressions of masculinity.

By far, the member of this group with the most screen time is Big McIntosh.

Big Mac is a fascinating figure to look at in terms of gender, because he very subtly undermines hegemonic masculinity--that is, the way in which our culture equates masculinity with power. At first glance he appears to be an expression of this concept. In particular, he is physically very strong, carries great burdens and responsibility, and speaks little, in most of his episodes saying little other than "Yup" or "Nope." Nonetheless, he has hidden depths. He pounces lovingly on Twilight's doll even after the spell of desire laid on it in "Lesson Zero" wears off. He is able to eloquently express his anger and disappointment to the Cutie Mark Crusaders in "Ponyville Confidential," and he has an artistic side, singing as a member of the Pony Tones in "Filli Vanilli."

He thus appears to be an instant of the Warrior Poet type, a man whose taciturn and violent exterior hides a sensitivity and creativity underneath. Rather than appearing weak or unmasculine as artists and performers are often depicted, he is doubly powerful, since he is able to express his power both through destruction, as violence, and creation, as art or nurturing.

But to read Big Mac in this way is an error, but within Friendship Is Magic masculinity is not hegemonic, and this reading depends on misunderstanding his strength as a form of power, when that's not how he employs it. Power, remember, is always over someone or something; it is the ability to impose one's will outside oneself. Strength can be used as power, but Big Mac is never shown employing it that way: he is never violent or destructive (except twice, in "Lesson Zero" and "Hearts and Hooves Day," both cases where he was under the influence of behavior-altering magic), never uses his strength or size to intimidate, and most notably never tries to dominate others.

Key here is his relationship with Applejack. She very clearly is in charge of Sweet Apple Acres, but at the same time this is not so much a matter of dominance--there are times at which Granny takes the lead, and more rarely Big Mac, as in "Ponyville Confidential"--as it is each member of the family doing what they are good at. Applejack is more gregarious, so she does most of the work involving dealing with ponies, managing the farm and representing it to outsiders, while Big Mac is content to provide muscle and do repairs because that's what he's good at. He does not feel the need to be part of a hierarchy, does not need either to be pushed around or given orders, or to try to dominate or assert himself as being able to control his surroundings; he can simply be who he is and do what he does.

That is strength. He does not shirk his tasks, but neither does he feel the need--as made clear in his conversation with Applejack at the beginning of "Applebucking Season"--to prove himself by pushing past his limits. He does what needs to be done. He is not quiet because of some macho suppression of feelings, but because he speaks only when it is necessary to speak. As we see with his singing in "Filli Vanilli" and lecture in "Ponyville Confidential," or for that matter his and Cheerilee's bizarre love-talk in "Hearts and Hooves Day," he is perfectly capable of expressing himself when he wishes to; he just usually doesn't see the need.

And, importantly, he is nurturing. He does much of the farm work at Sweet Valley Acres, and so is as responsible for the health of its plant life as Applejack is. The way he plays with Twilight's old doll in "Lesson Zero" and "Ponyville Confidential" also shows this side of him, but it is most clear in "Filli Vanilli," where, with body language alone, he is shown becoming increasingly tense, uncomfortable, and sweaty during the repeated lip-synching performances, but calms down when he glimpses Fluttershy. The strong implication is that he is deeply uncomfortable with the deception inherent in lip-synching, but is willing to do it to help make his friend comfortable with singing and enjoying. In other words, he is putting himself through the risk of being caught in order to help her grow.

He is far from flawless, of course. He takes part in the family spat in "Pinkie Apple Pie" just as much as any of the Apples, and the way in which he tries to hide his doll in "Ponyville Confidential" suggests that he has some anxiety about being seen with it. However, the general lack of gender norms in pony society suggests that it's not that he's anxious about his masculinity, but about being perceived as childish.

More importantly, the doll represents the most important way in which he differs from the "quiet, but strong" type, the frontier farmer manly man who never makes a fuss and demonstrates his strength by adhering closely to (and enforcing) social norms: Big McIntosh does not deny his feelings. He enjoys what he enjoys, and while he may sometimes fear the humiliation of being caught playing with a doll or lip-synching, that won't stop him from doing what he feels is right to do. Because unlike power, strength is not inherently anxious, does not have victims and therefore does not require vigilance against counterattack.

Big Mac is hardly the only positive model of masculinity in the series. Shining Armor, Mr. Cake, Cheese Sandwich, and Fancy Pants all come easily to mind as constructions of masculinity who vary almost as widely as the Mane Six do in their construction of femininity. But of all the models, he is the one who most clearly takes the essential defining element of toxic masculinity in our culture, anxious power, and gently subverts it into calm, quiet strength. He is, in other words, the easiest character for a male viewer trying to break free of our culture's toxic gender roles to accept as an alternate model, yet still able to guide them away from that toxicity.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

At least the other ponies tried to be subtle about the ticket (Twilight Time)

My Little Po-Mo vol. 2 is now available for purchase! See the Books page for details!

Twilight demonstrates the correct reaction to Diamond Tiara.
Any formula can become tiresome after a while.

Even in a relatively varied show, if it runs long enough, patterns develop. If a Friendship Is Magic episode focuses on Spike, we can expect a fairly high probability that he will spend most of it being a jerk, then learn at the end not to be a jerk. There are exceptions, of course--"Dragon Quest" and "Power Ponies" come immediately to mind--but nonetheless a significant number of his episodes follow that pattern, with the result that episodes which don't are something of a relief.

Increasingly, the same is true of the Cutie Mark Crusaders. Quite a few of their episodes involve them innocently pursuing their goals of the week until unintended consequences snowball into a disaster and they get into trouble. Examples include "Stare Master," "The Cutie Pox," "Hearts and Hooves Day," "Ponyville Confidential," and "One Bad Apple," though their innocence in that last is debatable. Regardless, the pattern is well-established, and so when "Twilight Time" (penned by Dave Polsky) opens with the Crusaders trying to parlay their friendship with Twilight into increased social status, we can guess where this is going.

Interestingly, however, so can the Crusaders. Multiple times throughout the episode, as Twilight encounters her mob of young fans, the Crusaders brace themselves for her to be angry. This is not, after all, the first time something like this has happened in Ponyville: a small group of Twilight's friends trying to use her for their own purposes, resulting in a mob pursuit through the streets of Ponyville, goes right back to the show's beginnings and "Ticket Master," while Twilight herself is the queen (or perhaps princess) of getting carried away and unintentionally creating chaos, as witness episodes like "Lesson Zero" and "It's About Time."

But Twilight does not become angry the first few times, demonstrating how different she is from Celestia. Twilight is not a distant figure sending messages, descending only in the splendor of an official visit or wrathful judgment; she is fully present, as much or more interested in her relationships with other ponies--including what she gets out of those relationships--as she is in guiding them.

After several times repeating this inversion of the usual Crusader plot, the episode finally has Twilight understand that she's being used, and she rebukes the Crusaders. However, by this point the episode has already differed enough from the norm to accomplish the real function of a deviation from formula: it's shown something new the characters can do. Specifically, the Cutie Mark Crusaders are outsiders, close enough to the Mane Six to interact with them frequently, yet distant enough to cut off from their inner lives. In other words, they are ideal characters through which we can see our usual main characters as others see them, a very different perspective from the norm.

Usually, in an episode this much about Twilight we would be focused on her concerns. We would see her conversing with Spike or one of the others of the Mane Six, discussing her motivations and anxieties. Instead, we see Twilight as the world sees her, and in so doing get a new perspective on fears she expressed back in the season premiere. There, Twilight was concerned with not trying to appear as if she considered herself "better" than the other ponies, asserting that being a princess did not make her superior. Here, we see part of why she might feel that way, with a demonstration of why real friendship cannot function across a hierarchical divide.

The foals treat Twilight as a celebrity, which is to say as a superior and therefore distant figure, someone who lives on a higher plane than them. They are so overjoyed by simply seeing and interacting with her that they fail to engage with her as a person, and the more the Crusaders buy in to this view of Twilight, the more they start using her, too. To be on a pedestal is to be an object, not a real person who exists here among we real people. Regardless of whether it is the quietly and distantly respectful sort of worship that ponies exhibit toward Celestia, kneeling before her and deferring to her in all things, or the exuberant and eager worship of the autograph-seeking children, worship is inherently objectifying. It dehumanizes the worshiper by entailing putting aside one's own judgment in favor of others, as when the children regard the burger joint as somehow being better because Twilight has eaten there, but equally it dehumanizes the object of worship by valuing them as signifiers rather than as people, as Twilight suggests the Crusaders are doing when she accuses them of studying with her so they can become popular instead of in order to learn. In other words, Twilight's concern is that they are using her and not really her friends, which of course is the case in most fan-celebrity "relationships," given that most times the celebrity is unaware the particular fan exists.

But, paradoxically, it is only by positioning the episode well outside of Twilight that we can truly understand this. Told from Twilight's point of view, this would be no different than the sequence in the premiere in which Twilight's friends tell her she's non-expendable and they must face danger without her, which is to say it would be about Twilight feeling lonely at the top and having to assure others she is still the same Twilight. By showing the story from the point of view of the Crusaders, however, the episode makes it clear that it is their decision to treat Twilight as a superior being, which is to say not a person, which is to say an object, is the problem. That, in other words, the issue is not that it is lonely at the top, but rather that there is a top at all.

At the same time, that position outside of Twilight is why this subverts yet another formula: Twilight teaches someone else a lesson about her Element of Harmony (in both senses: she teaches Sweetie Belle about magic and about friendship), and receives a gift from them in the end, but this is nonetheless not her "key" episode. The reason is simple: this isn't a Twilight episode. It is about her being objectified, and thus the episode itself objectifies her, denying us the monologues or conversations with Spike that usually give us access to her inner life, so that we can learn along with the Crusaders.

This is not the last time the Crusaders will serve as a way to look at how one of the Mane Six might appear from the outside--"Somepony to Watch Over Me" and its unique take on Applejack is only a couple of episodes away, and arguably this approach was in play, if not dominant, in past episodes such as "Sleepless in Ponyville." It's a handy way of getting around the core issue of the characters, that they take the spotlight away from the Mane Six, and allows for episodes that simultaneously take the perspective of peers of the target audience, while also maintaining a focus on the show's actual main characters.

But for now, the top song and movie are the same as last week, Jimmy Fallon takes over Jay Leno's former role as opening monologue-provider and celebrity-interviewer on The Tonight Show, Venezuelan beauty queen Genesis Carmona is killed while participating in a student protest, and on the day this episode airs, months of protest and social upheaval culminate in the ouster of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in either a coup or a revolution, depending on who you ask. It's February 22, 2014, and we're trying something that isn't quite different enough from the normal formula to qualify as experimental, but still noticeably a change.

Next week: Cute, fragile creatures that can be blown away by the slightest breeze. But enough about Fluttershy...

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Kill la Kill Episode 20 Liveblog Chat Thingy

My Little Po-Mo vol. 2 is now on sale! See my books page for details.

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 Episode and commenting there starting at 2:00 p.m. EST today.


Chatlog below the cut!