Sunday, December 30, 2012

Just make the whole thing, you know, cooler. (Fall Weather Friends)

If Twilight's "42" means she knows the Ultimate Answer,
does this mean Carrot Top has a license to kill?
Identity Crisis and Transmutation

Two episodes after the shattering impact of "Swarm of the Century," My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is starting to recover. "Winter Wrap-Up" was a retreat from the new possibilities and dangers both represented by fully embracing the fanbase, but "Call of the Cutie" was a rebirth. It introduced a new stand-in for the brony contingent, the Cutie Mark Crusaders, and also suggested two possible ways forward: the safe, comforting, Generation 1 throwback represented by Applejack, or the hip, flashy, Cartoon Network-esque show represented by Rainbow Dash.

These two opposing visions of the future of the show cannot coexist; they must do battle as thesis and antithesis, so that a new vision of the show can fully emerge.

The great work continues....


The third stage of the magnum opus is "yellowing," the conversion of the base materials to gold. In this stage, the work is no longer devoid of identity, shining by reflected light, but beginning to glow with a light of its own. Powerful binaries unleashed in the previous stage, such as the male/female binary of anima and animus, here conflict until they at last unite. Xanthosis is the dawn, the moment at which something new begins.

It's January 28, 2011. In the three weeks since the last episode, Katy Perry's "Firework" has traded its top spot on the Billboard charts back and forth with Bruno Mars' "Grenade," so things have been explosive all around. Sadly, that terrible pun is still less terrible then the song, which consists primarily of the singer whining about getting dumped and taking pains to mention all the violence he'd happily have protected his significant other from, but now he can't because she dumped him. Love is a protection racket in Bruno Mars-land, apparently. How charming.

Meanwhile in film, the top movies are The Green Hornet, No Strings Attached, and The Rite, none of which I saw, and reviews of which suggest that I missed out on nothing whatsoever. In real news, a shooting rampage at a supermarket in Tucson, Arizona kills six and injures another 14, including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords. The usual desperate flailing ensues as everyone points at their favorite culprit du jour, because systemic change of the kind that could do something to fix a culture that fetishizes violence and loves bullies is hard and scary. More on that two seasons from now. NASA data shows that 2001-2010 was the warmest decade in history, and the government of Lebanon collapses. Protests and civil resistance in Tunisia, which have been building since last month, lead to the ousting of the ruling regime and democratization. Protests rapidly spread to Jordan, Yemen, and especially Egypt, which tries to restrict the social media protestors are using to organize. As this is the same social media people use to share cat pictures and organize after-work happy hours, the net result is to create more unrest. Egypt 0, Magic of Friendship 1.

On TV, we have the return of my nemesis, Amy Keating Rogers, with "Fall Weather Friends." Happily, it is an Applejack-centric episode, and we've already established Rogers writes her well. Unfortunately, it's Applejack engaged in a conflict Rainbow Dash, so we have to deal with moderately obnoxious levels of writer bias, but in the end it's still one of Rogers' more tolerable episodes--nothing particularly special, but watchable at least.

The main flaw in this episode is the way it depicts the conflict between Applejack and Rainbow Dash. From the start, Applejack is depicted as calmer and a better sport, willing to accept challenges and meet trash-talk with trash-talk, but also willing to accept whatever outcomes occur as long as the competition is fair. Rainbow Dash, on the other hand, uses every unfair move she can think of, staying within the rules of the competition but rejecting its spirit. Ultimately, Applejack only cheats when she believes Rainbow Dash is doing so, which is pretty forgivable, while Rainbow Dash cheats (at least in spirit) from the start. It's hardly a test of athleticism to use magic, after all, and pegasus flight is quite clearly magical--their wings aren't anywhere near large enough to support a creature that size, even given the evidence (see "Applebuck Season" and "The Cutie Mark Chronicles" for examples) that they weigh much less than their size suggests.

Of course, underlying their competition is the tension we've already noted in the last couple of articles: Applejack represents business as usual, a slow-paced, gentle, rather boring show in which Lessons Are Learned and everyone is always nice. Rainbow Dash is fast and cool and fun and utterly devoid of scruples or heart; she will play by the rules, but will try to get away with anything she can.

The two approaches cannot coexist peacefully; by sharing the same space, they undermine one another constantly. The existence of Rainbow Dash creates obstacles for Applejack and the existence of Applejack creates obstacles for Rainbow Dash, reminiscent of but more fundamental than the Applejack-Rarity conflict. The conflict between Rarity and Applejack is one of class roles and expectations; it is about conflict in the ways the two ponies construct their worlds, and thus can be resolved by a process of deconstruction and reconstruction. The conflict between Applejack and Rainbow Dash is not as simple, because it is a conflict of personalities and essential natures. A world which contains both of them is necessarily a world which contains conflict. It seems as if they cannot coexist.

And yet they can. At the end of the episode, Applejack and Rainbow Dash are still competing, still conflicting--but happily, and with useful results, namely the transformation of the seasons. This is the essence of the alchemical process of xanthosis (also called citrinitas, which sounds like an energy drink, while "xanthosis" has an "x" in it, so that's the term we'll be using), the combining of conflicting opposites to create energy and open the path to enlightenment.

So it is here. As the leaves yellow around them, Applejack and Rainbow Dash clash, Honesty against Loyalty, sincerity against catering to the growing geek fanbase. Throughout, Pinkie Pie and Spike mirror their conflict, Spike trying to announce the race honestly, albeit enthusiastically, while Pinkie Pie acts as the living incarnation of a fan-forum discussion thread, alternating between absurd over-specificity about trivia (What percentage of a nose is Applejack ahead by?) and bizarre, albeit amusing, tangents (fudge, hot dogs).

In the end, however, neither approach is workable. Applejack and Rainbow Dash tie for last, while Twilight Sparkle (continuing the role she spontaneously adopted last episode as the voice of reason) synthesizes their approaches with a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race approach that would not be out of character for Applejack, and a proud nerd-cool Hitchhiker's Guide reference on her flank. She comes in fifth, and she's happy with that.

My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is never going to be the most popular show on television. It's never even going to be the most popular show among nerds. It's also not content to be G1 My Little Pony; it's going to be exactly as cool as it wants to be. It's going to pace itself, be honest and sincere while also being fun and showing the occasional sly reference. It's not Applejack or Rainbow Dash, but rather the point of tension between them. Sometimes it may drift a little too far in the Applejack direction and become overly sentimental, sometimes a little too far in the Rainbow Dash direction and become cold and too cartoony, but always the opposing force is there to act as a balance and pull it back within an episode or two.

It seems like we have found our answer to what the show is becoming, a metastable balance between warm sincerity and knowing geek chic. That is often the case with xanthosis; the gold has been created, and so the work seems complete. But it isn't, because the mere creation of a bit of gold has never been the goal of true alchemy. The ultimate goal remains; the show is not a philosopher's stone yet. It has been transformed, but does not yet have the power to transform.

The final phase remains.

The great work concludes...

Next week: The power of creation, the voices of the fans, and cooperative transformation as we complete the final phase of the magnum opus, rubedo. Also, fancy dresses.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Those ponies over there are watchin' me! (Call of the Cutie)

Magical pony elementary-schoolers doing orbital
mechanics is like a dog walking on two legs: It's
impressive they're doing it at all, you can't
seriously expect them to do it right.
Identity Crisis and Transmutation 

My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic began as something compelling, something new. It promised to take the characters and concepts of the My Little Pony franchise and explore new ground with them. Specifically, its premier promised adventure in a magical girl vein, which while not particularly new for anime fans, is still relatively rare on American television and certainly new to My Little Pony.

It failed to deliver. Episode after episode gave us slice-of-life character-driven stories. Good slice-of-life character-driven stories, but after nine episodes without a transformation sequence or an evil creature in need of defeating (even the dragon proving to be more thoughtless than evil), it became clear that the show could only do slice-of-life character-driven stories.

Except a swarm of parasprites turned an entire episode into an extended Star Trek reference, and in so doing destroyed everything. The ruination of Ponyville was secondary to the threat of turning My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic into yet another cartoon about geek nostalgia, yet another fountain of memes to dominate Tumblr and Reddit for a few months and then fizzle out.

The following episode, "Winter Wrap-Up," retreated as far as it could from that possibility, but offered nothing else in its place. A mediocre episode at best, its failure to provide a path away from the collapse represented by the parasprites is a tacit admission that the show has no idea where to go next. It cannot say where it wants to go because it does not know where it is; it is not the show it promised in the premier, and the pressure of a large geek fanbase hungry for amusement means it cannot stay purely a show about cute ponies being cute.

Its identity is lost.

The great work continues...


The second phase of the magnum opus is "whitening," the purification of the unified material. This is the return to purity and the restoration of innocence. Albedo is the empty, still moment before the dawn, when anything is possible but nothing is happening. It is a time of infinite potential, and a moment for the emergence of opposing forces, which will be reunited in the next phase.

It's January 7, 2011. It's been a couple of weeks since our last episode, but Katy Perry's "Firework" continues to provide our theme music for this little alchemical arc. Little Fockers held its ill-deserved top spot over the New Years' holiday, but thankfully True Grit rises to the top this weekend.

In real news, it's a new year and a new beginning, so of course most of the news is the same old. Violence in Darfur and Nigeria, disputed elections in Cote d'Ivoire, and the American pursuit of land wars in central Asia. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman earns the title of World's Smartest Diplomat by suggesting the correct response to Wikileaks is for diplomats and governments to start telling the truth. Nobody listens, and the U.S. prepares to launch a Congressional inquiry. 10-year-old Kathryn Gray of Canada discovers a supernova. And, the day this episode airs, the Massachussetts Supreme Court upholds a lower court ruling that blocked banks from foreclosing on people who didn't, you know, actually have mortgages with the bank. Because bankers are seriously that fucking evil, that they need a court order to stop them.

Thankfully, we have the happy world of ponies to distract us. This week is Meghan McCarthy's second episode, "Call of the Cutie," and it's very nearly as good as her first.

Which is a somewhat divisive statement for me to make, because there is a noisy segment of the fanbase that hates the characters introduced in this episode, the Cutie Mark Crusaders. I, perhaps predictably, love them.

My love for the CMC comes from one simple fact: they are the audience. This is true on a trivial level; unlike the Mane Six, who are young adults with jobs, the Cutie Mark Crusaders are little girls of roughly the same age as the target audience of the show (perhaps slightly older, given the pubescent overtones surrounding getting one's cutie mark). Of course, we are less interested in the target audience than in the periphery demographic, the bronies, most of whom have difficulty identifying with the CMC.

I can understand that difficulty, to an extent. The Cutie Mark Crusaders take screen time away from the Mane Six. Their stories frequently require the Mane Six to be oddly useless so that the CMC can retain the focus, which makes sense as adults frequently are useless within a child's frame of reference, but nonetheless can feel like the series disrespecting its main characters in order to focus on one-time background characters.

However, I think the anti-CMC portion of the fandom misses an essential feature of the CMC: they are picked on and disliked by their peers. Later episodes show that they are easily swept up by their enthusiasms and gifted with mechanical and technical tasks. And most of all, they are seeking to establish their identity by exploring their interests.

The CMC, to put it bluntly, are geeks. I've argued before that Equestria is a nation of geeks, but the CMC are geeks among geeks. They are more given to absurd over-enthusiasm, more socially awkward, and more likely to suddenly whip out unexpected technical skills than any other characters in the show. They are creative, friendly, loving, and completely out to sea when it comes to tasks requiring social intelligence, and I recognize in them many of my oldest and deepest friends (not to mention geekiest). I love them to pieces, and I remain astonished that this is apparently a minority view.

Now, I say the Cutie Mark Crusaders were introduced here, but that's not entirely true. One of them, Apple Bloom, was introduced by name and had a small speaking part in the first episode, and the other two appeared cowering under a table with her when Nightmare Moon attacked. However, this is the first episode where Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle are named, and the episode where the trio become friends and name their group.

As I mentioned, this is tremendously appropriate timing to introduce them. The core theme of this episode, and of the CMC in general, is that of potential and the quest for identity. This is a very important quest for the show right now, but it is also an important quest for much of the adult audience. Young viewers, in general, aren't that worried about discovering their unique talents; they're too busy learning the things everyone needs to know. Generally, you need to learn to add before you can discover a gift for advanced mathematics, and you need to learn the alphabet before you can discover a gift for writing.

The majority of bronies, however, are of the Internet generation (the consensus term for this generation appears to be "Millennials," but I find that name stupid and try to avoid it). Like all generations, it is bounded (somewhat arbitrarily) by significant news events that either triggered or reflect a major cultural shift; in the U.S., the Internet generation begins with Reagan's election (reflecting the replacement of Eisenhower conservatism by Christofascism as the dominant force on the right of American politics) and ends with September 11, 2001 (triggering an apparently permanent war footing and the erosion of civil liberties). The older edge (such as myself) are thus just over thirty, while the youngest members are 11 and 12. The majority of this generation are thus in their teens and twenties, the primary range of ages in which young people explore potential identities, establish themselves, and embark on their careers.

Put another way, most bronies are at about the age where they begin trying to find their own cutie marks. Once again, the CMC are the audience. There is, I think, a whiff of self-loathing in the (occasionally quite vitriolic) criticism of CMC episodes; some fans, I think, are turned off precisely because the CMC are uncomfortably familiar. Their episodes are in some ways less of an escape than the adventures of the Mane Six.

Apple Bloom is a child on the cusp of adolescent. Like any adolescent, she exists in a tension between old and new, between the desire to grow up and establish her identity and the desire to stay a child and retreat to the comfort of family. As the show has done before, this conflict is externalized in the form of Apple Bloom's two main advisors, Applejack and Rainbow Dash.

Applejack urges Apple Bloom to take her time and discover her cutie mark naturally. She offers the comfort and safety of the familiar, but given how cutie marks work, it seems impossible for Apple Bloom to discover hers without trying new things. Applejack is trying to keep Apple Bloom a child for as long as she can, which makes sense given her quasi-parental role.

Rainbow Dash, on the other hand, urges Apple Bloom to try as many new things as possible as quickly as possible until she finds her cutie mark. She is pushing Apple Bloom to grow up, perhaps too fast, and with insufficient attention to Apple Bloom's self--the montage of attempts is full of physical activity and competition, which are Rainbow Dash's strengths, not Apple Blooms.

In the end, it is Twilight Sparkle who suggests a way out, which is an interesting evolution for her character. In the past she has usually either been the one to learn the lesson, or a passive observer while another pony learns the lesson; this is the beginning of an increasing tendency for her to be the one to deliver the lesson to another pony. Twilight's suggestion is that the Cutie Mark Crusaders revel in their potential, their freedom to choose their path, rather than obsessing over what path they will end up taking. It is a reminder that we hold our destinies in our own hands, one of the vital lessons of the albedo phase. As fans, geeks, and young people we should not be in too much of a rush to seek self-definition, because that closes off other possible selves and other possible lives.

But sooner or later, we must choose. Potential must eventually settle on an actuality, or it is wasted. The show itself cannot rest here; powerful forces are beginning to stir. In Jung's formulation of alchemy, the albedo phase is when the self unleashes its internal conflicts in the form of anima, the opposite-self that must be integrated in the next phase. Here we see those forces expressed in Applejack and Rainbow Dash.

Applejack represents continuity with older versions of My Little Pony; straightforward expressions of family values that are, perhaps, a bit on the boring side. She is safe, comforting, and sweet, without any edge to her. She is the Element of Honesty, and the greatest virtue of the show she represents is its sincerity. That show, however, is not something that can retain much appeal outside of the target demographic.

Rainbow Dash represents the new, the flashy, the cool. Her show is one of minimal plot and character development, but lots of cool and funny moments with lots of fan appeal and potential to create memes. She's edgy and hip and kind of shallow, the sort of thing that's increasingly dominating Cartoon Network here at the beginning of 2011. She is the Element of Loyalty, and the greatest virtue of the show she represents is that it gives the fans what they want. However, it's not a show that will be remembered once the memes and fads die down.

These two forces are diametrically opposed, and yet a victory by either is a disaster for the show. The only hope going forward is that their clash will create something new. In their battle lies the only hope for My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic to discover a way to shine on its own, as neither an iteration of My Little Pony nor a typical cartoon of its time, but something else. It must find its cutie mark, and there is only one way to do so.

Applejack and Rainbow Dash must fight.

Next week: Xanthosis, the first glimmers of inner light, and the hints of a new dawn born from the clash of two ponies and two principles. Applejack vs. Rainbow Dash--and for the show to survive, neither can win.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

We're doomed (Winter Wrap-Up)

From the day we arrive on the planet
And, blinking, step into the sun
There's more to see than can ever be seen
More to do than can ever be done
Identity Crisis and Transmutation

The show's creators have clearly never been content to create merely another iteration in the My Little Pony franchise. From the start, they have sought to create a show that can transform My Little Pony from base and blatant cash-grab to something greater, something enduring--something that has a whiff of the timeless about it.

For the first nine episodes, they slowly explored the space they had carved out for themselves, but ultimately they trod the same ground as My Little Pony always stuck to: friendship, rainbows, and fantasy fun. After the initial daring move to explore the eclipse myth for the premier, they largely retreated to slice-of-life episodes with higher production values, better jokes, and vastly superior characterization to previous iterations of My Little Pony, but ultimately nothing novel in their premises. The My Little Pony canon remained untouched, consisting of the same narrow pool of motifs and themes as always.

"Swarm of the Century" changed everything. The parasprites devoured not just Ponyville, but the show itself; the introduction of Star Trek to the canon violated every rule of how the show worked even as it delighted the growing brony contingent of the audience. Before "Swarm of the Century," My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic was unique among its contemporaries for its sincerity and near-total isolation from pop-culture. That isolation has been breached; it no longer is what it was. By airing an episode clearly designed for geeks, it threatens to become a show for geeks, which in 2010 means either a meme depot or a cult show.

A meme depot (Regular Show is a good animated example) is a show that trades almost entirely in memes. It is full of catchphrases and stock characters, and very heavy on references to pop culture, especially nostalgic pop culture. It's a show that's easy and fun to quote, but doesn't provoke much discussion. By its nature, a meme depot cannot take itself too deeply; it must maintain the ironic detachment needed to self-consciously generate its quotable gags.

A cult show (Adventure Time is a good animated example) , on the other hand, is a show that encourages speculation, discussion, and theorizing in its fanbase. It is heavy on internal references, foreshadowing and callbacks and background subtleties, and tends to have more story arcs and character development than is typical for the medium and genre. It seeks to evoke the existence of a world in which the events of the show takes place and a plan for how the events of the show will unfold. Much of the entertainment of a cult show comes in fan speculation and discussion, and thus if it is to last it must give out details and hints in dribs and drabs, without ever coming to the resolution it implicitly promises (or else start out with the entire series already planned, including the ending, beyond which it necessarily cannot last).

There is nothing inherently wrong with either type of show in itself, but the one relies on irony and the other on promising a payoff without ever delivering. Neither is compatible with My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic's greatest strengths, its unwavering sincerity and emotional openness. It cannot become either, but the floodgates are open; it cannot remain what it was. The only option is to create something truly new, something transformative.

The great work begins...


The first phase of the magnum opus is "blackening," the burning away of dross from the base materials and their reduction to a uniform mass. This is the black night of the soul, the emergence of melancholy that threatens the self. This is the phase for the expression of doubts, the asking of questions that make discovery and transformation possible. It is a time of disintegration, of clearing the old to make way for the new.

It's December 24, 2010. The top song is Katy Perry's "Firework," which is so absolutely perfect a metaphor for the next few episodes of the show I checked three times to make sure I wasn't misreading the charts. Also, it's actually kind of an okay song for pop. (If there's no article next week, it'll be because the Metal Police found me.)

In a travesty of all that is right and good in this world, Little Fockers is top at the box office this weekend, implying America likes Ben Stiller better than the Coen brothers. A long cold winter of film lies ahead: except for one brief week of True Grit, there won't be an actually good movie in the number-one spot until Rango in March.

In the news, Israel and Gaza are missiling each other again. The U.S. Senate passes the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and President Obama signs it, ending the policy once and for all. And it's Christmas Eve, celebrating the miracle that a child born in a stable in the wee hours of a late-December night 2,000 years ago survived until morning, or something like that. I'm not a Christian, I don't keep track of these things. More importantly, we are just past the solstice. The nights are still long and dark, but getting shorter every day; we are in the inevitable climb back up to spring.

The ponies are climbing back up to spring, too, with "Winter Wrap-Up" by Cindy Morrow. This is another solid but unspectacular effort by Morrow overall, though it does have one of the best songs all season, also titled "Winter Wrap-Up."

The episode primarily deals with Twilight Sparkle's uncertainty about her place in Ponyville, and in particular whether she has anything to offer other than her ability to use magic. It's also all about clearing the old to make way for the new, a fitting theme for what is much more of a solstice and New Year's episode than a traditional Christmas episode. As Rarity sings, the winter has been delightful but gone on too long, and her boots are getting old. It is time for something new, but first the old must be cleared away.

Twilight Sparkle tries on several different hats (or vests, rather) throughout the episode, and it is tempting to read those vests as signifiers of future paths the show could take, but ultimately disgards. "Waking the animals is a metaphor for a radical show that pursues social justice!" my inner over-reaching critic says. "Helping build nests is a metaphor for focusing on worldbuilding, and ice skating is... uh..."

That's going much too far, however. More important than the specific tasks Twilight undertakes is the fact that she undertakes them at all, that she wishes to help with clearing away the old. If there has been an arc thus far this season, it has been the evolution of the Mane Six from a group consisting of newcomer Twilight Sparkle and her five friends, to a group of six friends from Ponyville. Much of Twilight Sparkle's distress in "The Ticket Master," for example, comes from the fact that she is afraid that if she upsets any of her friends, she might lose them. That fear becomes less pronounced as she grows closer to them, and by "Bridle Gossip" she has no quams about criticizing them for their attitude toward Zecora.

Part of clearing away the old in this episode is thus clearing away Twilight's status as a newcomer; Twilight descends into despair as she realizes she has coasted on her laurels since the first episode, and not really demonstrated her usefulness to the people of Ponyville. It's unlikely that she'd lose her place outright, but she still feels uneasy and inadequate unless she can prove that she has something unique to offer. However, in the end she learns that she can be an organizing principle, a way of bringing together the community, and this itself is valuable. She herself does not complete any of the tasks required for Winter Wrap-Up, but can nonetheless serve as a catalyst to transform the community from one at odds with itself into one capable of cooperating and completing tasks that normally require magic.

Which, of course, this task does require. There is literally no way to turn winter into spring by manual labor, which is why Ponyville has always failed. Twilight Sparkle does use her magic, but not her unicorn spells; she uses her Element of Harmony, (Friendship Is) Magic. She creates a cooperative community where before was only the chaos of people working and living at cross purposes, and in so doing accomplishes the impossible.

At the same time, she has been fully accepted as part of Ponyville, and never again shows signs of fearing that she doesn't belong. Quite the opposite; her fear of being taken away from Ponyville, and the desire of her friends to keep her from being taken, is a significant plot point in episodes such as "Lesson Zero" and "Magic Duel."

The episode thus sweeps away one element of the plot so far, Twilight's uncertainty about whether her friends and the people of Ponyville truly accept her. She retains the underlying fear of rejection that partially defines her character, of course, but she focuses that fear on more distant figures instead, such as Princess Celestia or Shining Armor.

It clears away some subtler elements, too, such as the notion (introduced in the premier) that Pinkie Pie thinks she's in a musical and everybody else thinks she's weird for bursting into song. By giving a song to all of Ponyville, this episode makes it pretty clear, this is a musical, just one that can sometimes go several episodes without a song. It's a retreat away from a unique element of the show, which is always a bit sad, but ultimately I think the "only Pinkie Pie sings" rule that seemed to apply in past episodes (intentionally or otherwise) would have been much too limiting, and cost us several of the show's best songs.

The philosopher (I hesitate to call him a psychologist, since that implies some element of science in what he was doing) Carl Jung suggested that medieval alchemy, particularly the quest for the philosopher's stone, was actually the quest for self-realization and spiritual enlightenment. Each of the traditional stages in forging a philosopher's stone is actually a step in this process of self-transformation and maturation, which follows a pattern of descending into darkness, losing one's identity, then slowly restoring oneself with a newfound inner light 'cause there's a spark in you/You just gotta ignite the light/And let it shine...

Okay, enough Katy Perry, I can almost feel the Metal Police breathing down my neck.

The first step in the magnum opus of alchemy, nigredo or "blackening," is the burning down of the component ingredients into a uniform substance, which is of course what Twilight Sparkle does to Ponyville in this episode. In order to get there, however, she has to fail at all the other tasks first, and reach a nadir, the "dark night of the soul" I mentioned above. In the spiritual realm, the fire that burns away dross is failure, and at this point at the heart of winter 2010, the show is on the cusp of artistic failure.

What I mean is not that the show is no longer entertaining, or that it is no longer one of the best cartoons on the air. Rather, I mean that it is failing to live up to its promise. The premier by and large promised a magical girl show, which is to say something between a magical adventure series and a superhero team. Instead, ten episodes later we've only had two more adventures: "Dragonshy," which was a character episode in disguise, and last week's "Swarm of the Century," which has triggered a narrative collapse that appears to be pushing to show to either become a regurgitator of geek memes a la Regular Show, or retreat from its more intertextual and geeky elements and return to the standard My Little Pony canon.

Simply put, in its present state at the end of 2010, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic cannot fulfill the promise of its premier, either as a magical girl show or as a bearer of truth about the Internet generation; it is a slice-of-life cartoon for children, with sufficient humor and heart to appeal to adults, but nothing transcendent. It will flare in popularity for a while, produce some image macros on Tumblr and Reddit, and fade away into obscurity.

And its response to this challenge? A retreat into another slice-of-life episode with no antagonist. It is a decent enough episode, and it does bring together what has worked before: Twilight stressing out, the close ties between the ponies and nature (which have been in the background until now, except for the pegasi and weather), a musical number, Fluttershy starting out timid and then turning suddenly assertive when the animals she cares about are threatened, and so on.

Unfortunately, even as the ponies tear apart winter, the show itself is coming apart around them. This episode has nothing to say, and its friendship lesson is one of the weakest yet. The show knows it does not want to become nothing but endless references and recycled plots, but it does not know what it is anymore. It is certainly not the show it was in the premier.

Its identity is now gone; it is blank. The black night of despair gives way to the blank white of nothingness.

The great work continues...

Next week:  Albedo, blank flanks, new beginnings, and a new friendship, which is magic.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Does anypony have a toupee? (Swarm of the Century)

Pinkie's very glad that worked. Her Plan B was to
bounce a graviton beam off the main deflector dish,
and that always leaves a mess.
Sorry all for the late update. I ran out of buffer and I was sick a couple of days this week, so this ran right down to the wire and then an hour over it. Sorry.

It's December 17, 2010. Geeks rule the weekend: The top song is P!nk's "Raise Your Glass," which is both the least insipid song we've encountered to date in this blog, and the least terrible party anthem I've heard, a celebration of unpopular kids partying. Equally geeky, but in a bad way, the top movie is Tron: Legacy, which I have not seen on the grounds that I hate Tron and the "there is a world inside your computer where all the programs come alive" trope with a passion. (That I love Kid Radd and Wreck-It-Ralph anyway are testaments to just how excellent those two works are.)

In real news, archaeologists in China find a 2,400-year-old pot of soup. The U.S. appears to be about to file espionage charges against Julian Assange, but does not actually do so. Somalian pirates continue to be an issue, as is the presidential succession crisis in the Ivory Coast. A Federal District Court judge in Virginia overturns the insurance mandates in the Affordable Care Act, and the U.S. House of Representatives votes to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell.

In ponies, M.A. Larson writes his first episode, "Swarm of the Century." Larson is one of the show's better writers, especially in the first season; he has written some truly excellent episodes (most notably the two-part Season Two premier "The Return of Harmony" and last weekend's "Magic Duel"), but he has also written one of the worst episodes in the show's entire run (though not the absolute worst; that one's still a couple of years away). Thankfully, his first episode is pretty good.

In keeping with geeks ruling the weekend, Larson writes some of the most geek-friendly episodes of the show. What I mean by "geek-friendly" is that Larson's episodes tend to be less about developing the characters and more about expanding the continuity and canon of the show--two things geeks tend to love.

Before we continue, let's take a moment to define some terms, because I am using both in a more technical sense than is common on the Internet:

Continuity is diegetic truth. Put another way, the continuity of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is the set of statements established as true by and within the episodes, including the events depicted onscreen, character backstories, the history and geography of Equestria, the way magic works, and so on. When Twilight Sparkle implies that there are not normally adult dragons in Equestria in "Dragonshy," that indicates an element of continuity; continuity is thus identical to what the Internet usually calls "canon" and opposes to "fanon" or "non-canon."

In technical useage, however, canon is the nondiegetic reference pool available to the work. Put another way, the canon of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is the set of works to which the show can allude with the expectation that some or all of the audience will notice and understand the reference. When Pinkie Pie momentarily has the face of her Generation 1 counterpart in "Too Many Pinkie Pies," that indicates that the original My Little Pony is part of Friendship Is Magic's canon, even though it is most likely not part of the continuity.

"Swarm of the Century" establishes little in the way of continuity. It adds a new town, Fillydelphia, a new creature, the parasprites, and implies that Pinkie Pie previously encountered the parasprites. Unless I am much mistaken, it also marks the first time a character or location introduced after the premier returns; unfortunately, the character and location in question are Zecora and her hut.

In terms of canon, however, this is one of the most important episodes of the show, because the parasprites are a clear allusion to a work that previously was most definitely not part of any version of My Little Ponycanon. I refer, of course, to their obvious similarity to Star Trek's tribbles: cute, cuddly creatures that coo charmingly and continually, but whose voracious appetites and absurdly rapid asexual reproduction create a crisis.

By building an entire episode around an extended allusion to the original Star Trek TV series, Larson tacitly assumes that a significant portion of the audience is familiar with the show, which seems deeply unlikely for an audience of five-year-olds. It is not to much of a leap to regard this as the first episode that is in some sense created for bronies, as opposed to the previous episodes which bronies appropriated and made their own. Further, by opening up the canon to include a geek classic, it becomes a much smaller stretch to reference other geek classics; future references to Star Wars, Terminator, Indiana Jones, and The Big Lebowski all got their start with the parasprites. Even this episode contains at least one more addition to the canon, with a Gremlins reference: the parasprites multiply frantically from the start, but they don't start causing any actual problems until after Spike gives them a late-night snack.

Certainly there have been allusions and references here and there in past episodes, but this is where My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic begins to rely increasingly on intertextuality (that is, the tendency of viewers to perceive a work differently based on their familiarity with other works) as a way to communicate on multiple levels. The Star Trek and Gremlins allusions here shoot right over the heads of small children, but the episode works just fine for them without that knowledge. Without knowing Star Trek, it's a cute and funny episode with a serious-yet-silly menace and an absurd resolution.

Watching the episode with knowledge of Star Trek, however, and it becomes something else: a welcome mat. "Oh, you're a geek?" it says. "So are we. You know how you've been trying to convince your friends this isn't the My Little Pony your little sister watched when you were kids? Have some Star Trek."

Geeks, as I mentioned, love canon and continuity. One possible reason for this (though it's something of a chicken-and-egg situation) is that status in geek communities is frequently determined by knowledge, the more arcane the better. In a given geek community, the fastest and most reliable route to acquiring respect is to demonstrate knowledge of the community's focus, the more arcane the better. In-depth knowledge of a work's continuity and the ability to recognize obscure references are both excellent tools to accomplish this in media fandom. Being able to list every Doctor Who companion (in order by first appearance) or describe Batman's first encounter with the Joker are useful social skills in the right circles, serving as conversation starters or sources of social currency.

Intertextuality multiplies the opportunities for fans to demonstrate their knowledge exponentially, because they require knowledge of multiple works. Being able to refer to the time The Dude showed up in My Little Pony not only demonstrates arcane knowledge of MLP, but knowledge of The Big Lebowski, establishing social currency on two fronts.

(Incidentally, this is likely a significant reason why many geeks are uncomfortable with postmodernism even while they embrace its self-referential and intertextual elements with glee: naive constructions of postmodernism, including some influential constructions by prominent early postmodernists, tend to deny the existence of truth and thereby the possibility of knowledge. If knowledge does not exist, then the entire geek social hierarchy collapses.)

Of course the classic creation myth of geek culture is that the possession of arcane knowledge leads to outsider status, and that is definitely the case here. Pinkie Pie is rejected by her friends because she possesses knowledge they need but lacks the social skills to express it in a form they can understand. However, instead of the lesson of the episode being that Pinkie needs to work on her communication skills (which she very much does), it's the more geek-friendly lesson that you should listen to the knowledge of others (which is also true). This is another gesture of welcome to the bronies watching, many of whom (especially at this early stage in the evolution of the fandom) are themselves possessors of arcane knowledge (that My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is actually a good show) likely to be rejected by their friends if they try to share this knowledge.

This is probably not a calculated move. The rest of Larson's output suggests that he himself most likely identifies as a geek (indeed, I would be surprised if many people involved in the production of the show didn't identify as such). Larson is simply writing the kind of episode with which he himself is comfortable, and by extension naturally creates an episode which is geek-friendly.

The temptation would be to overdo the intertextuality, of course. To a degree, an intertextual  problem demands an equally intertextual solution. That's why none of the attempts by the other ponies could be reused after initial failure, even though at least Rainbow Dash and Applejack's only failed due to external interference and could have been retried. No matter how many times they attempted their solutions, these are solutions that arise organically from within the context of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, and therefore cannot work against a threat that originates outside that continuity. The only options are either an intertextual solution or a deus ex machina, but the Star Trek approach is not workable here. In the original Star Trek episode, the tribbles died to reveal a trap set by the real villain. Killing all the parasprites would be much too dark and the introduction of a villain behind them too complex for a 22-minute children's cartoon, so a different solution is needed.

The typical Star Trek solution would be to pull from science and science fiction (or to pretend it is, by way of technobabble), but that's not how My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic can or should solve problems. In its own way, that would be just as inappropriate as killing the parasprites. However, Star Trek does this because it is science fiction of a sort, while My Little Pony is children's fantasy. It has its own antecedents to draw upon, and does so, resolving the episode's dilemma by referencing the Pied Piper of Hamlin. This is the one major reference without which I'm not sure the story makes sense; for a viewer lacking the cultural context of that story, does it make any sense for her song to control the parasprites? But then, that's why it has to be Pinkie--not just because she's the pony most likely to be ignored by the others; not just because, as the Fool, she's the one most likely to possess the knowledge the others are too wise to see--because as the "random" pony, she's the one who can do something as ridiculous as assemble a one-pony band and have it work, and because as the one who comes closest to transcending the confines of the narrative, she is the one who recognizes the parasprites as alien to it and the one who can bring in the intertextual knowledge needed to stop them.

This is where the show fully embraces the bronies, and thus marks the end of the first leg of our journey. From here, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is on its way to being a geek icon, transforming the way in which many fans watch the show. There is a clear line from here to games of Spot Derpy, to elaborate Wikia sites that chronicle every background pony that appears to reference another work, and ultimately to fans dissecting thirty-second preview clips frame-by-frame to see which elaborate fan conspiracy theories will be supported and which will be rendered invalid by the next episode.

Of course like any change, something must be left behind. There is a certain innocence lost; with a growing tendency to intertextuality that will only become more pronounced as the series goes on, it becomes a little less unique, a little less different from other nostalgia- and reference-heavy shows like Adventure Time and Regular Show. The main advantage My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic has over those shows--indeed, over every other show on television--is its sincerity, its ability to connect with both children and with the children inside its adult viewers in a way that is honest and heartfelt without being cheesy. The challenge in the next stage of its evolution will be to find a way to explore the newly opened vistas of Everything Geeks Love without absorbing the cynicism and irony that so permeate adult culture.

Next Week: The identity crisis begins.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Doors are barred and shutters shut/Guess I should've stayed inside my hut (Bridle Gossip)

Pinkie dances while Twilight looks on in confusion.
Wirf die Gläser an die Wand...
It's December 10, 2010, and Rihanna wants to be the "Only Girl (In the World)." It's an extraordinarily forgettable song, but at least the video has some hilariously faux-profound imagery and costumes that do an excellent job of highlighting just how devoid of content the song is. In film, the top movie is Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which holds a special place in my heart as the book which made me realize I despise C.S. Lewis and everything he holds dear. Needless to say, I have not seen the movie.

In real news, assorted countries led by the U.S. continue to try to shut down Wikileaks in apparent total ignorance of the Streisand Effect, Somali piracy is making headlines, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange gets arrested for sexual misconduct (which he probably did, proving once again that good things can sometimes be created by horrible people, which anyone over the emotional age of seven already knew), and British students protest a massive tuition hike.

On TV, Amy Keating Rogers brings us "Bridle Gossip," which, if I want to be really, really charitable, is a well-meaning but wrongheaded complete failure of an episode. Less charitably? It's a steaming pile of racist horseshit. And now everybody's all upset, because calling something racist is the! Worst! Possible! Thing you can say, worse by far than actually being racist, and how dare I say anything against Rogers, who you met at that one con and she seemed like a really nice lady and...

Okay, look: This episode is not trying to incite hatred. I suspect it actually is well-meaning, an attempt to add the first hints of a non-Western culture to Equestria. The reason I suspect this is because I can easily believe that all the racist horribleness of this episode (and there is so much racist horribleness) comes from the same source as the sexist bullshit in "The Ticket Master," namely Rogers being kind of a crap writer of any character who doesn't have "Apple" in their name.

I have tried very, very hard to like this episode and this character. Zecora is one of my fiancee's favorite characters, and she dressed as her for both Halloween and Anime USA. She's argued for, and I can see, the good points here, most notably the attempt at inclusion. We live in a culture where white is treated as "default"--in other words, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, characters are assumed to be white. Do a Google Image Search on "humanized ponies"; how many of the resulting images include a person of color? Perhaps more damningly, how many include more than one?

The show itself has done nothing to cast doubt on the default viewer assumption that the characters are white. Quite the opposite: prior to this episode we know that Rarity's accent pegs her as a WASP from the start and Twilight Sparkle comes from a city modeled on Arthurian legend, i.e. WASP mythology. Later in the series we get confirmation that the rest of the Mane Six come from pony counterparts to white cultures as well: Pinkie Pie is Amish (so Swiss or German), Applejack descended from settlers in the American West (Anglo-Saxon, German, or possibly other Germanic countries, much slimmer chance of elsewhere in Western or Northern Europe), and Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash come from Mt. Olympus as depicted in Disney's Hercules.

So the introduction of a character obviously drawn from another culture could have been a much-needed breath of fresh air. Zebras could bring something very interesting to Equestria, a different set of traditions, different ways of doing magic, maybe even different languages. The premise of the episode fits right in with this potential: An outsider with different ways comes to Ponyville, and the sheltered ponies, who have never before encountered representatives of other cultures, are initially afraid of her. After a round of misunderstandings, they finally learn that Zecora's a good pony with different ways, as deserving as anyone else of respect and friendship, smiles, hugs, and a good lesson to the kiddies.

Of course, that would have required Rogers to create a convincing, believable, likeable character that isn't Applejack, and to do the bare minimum of research necessary to avoid making said character an appalling stereotype. As it turns out, either she can't be bothered or she just isn't sufficiently competent to do either.

We thus get a character who is built to be generically "African": named "zebra" in an East African language, wearing Southern African neck rings, and with a hut decorated in West African masks. This is a show that has taken pains to give pegasi, unicorns, and Earth ponies extremely distinct architecture (and, in later episodes, clothing both modern and traditional) that reflects their cultural origins--Classical Greco-Roman for the pegasi, fairy-tale Western European for the unicorns, and a blend of nineteenth-century Old West and medieval European thatch-roofed cottages for the Earth ponies. The one zebra, on the other hand, gets a blend of African elements separated by a greater distance, physically and culturally, than the distinct cultures used to make each of the three Equestrian tribes.

The only explanation for this is simple, old-fashioned, paternalistic imperialist Othering: everything from the entire continent of Africa goes into a pot labeled "African," while more familiar European cultures are seen as distinct. To make matters worse, Zecora has an Ojibwe (as in the Native American tribe) dreamcatcher over her door, making clear that she's not only the generic "African" but the generic "tribal" pony, too. The episode thus not only lumps all of Africa together, which is appalling enough, but all of humanity outside of a small circle of European-descended cultures. These Other cultures then get depicted as primitive and crude: Zecora's cutie mark is more abstract and less colorful than the others on the show, her masks have chunky outlines suggesting rough-hewn handmade carvings compared to the polished, manufactured look of most pony decorations, and she cooks over an open flame rather than on a stove.

Of course, as is often the case for "primitive" characters in fiction, Zecora gets to be wise--she is allowed knowledge about topics such as nature (but not in any sort of scientific way) and healing, can dispense good advice (but at the same time lacks social awareness, such as in her apparent belief that all the shops just "happen" to be closed each time she comes to town), and shows every sign of having a higher emotional intelligence than the rest of the cast. However, this only heightens the impression that she is a "closer to earth," "noble savage" type of character, which is to say paternalistic and imperialistic, as opposed to more actively hateful and violent, racism. Or to put it another way, the polite kind of racism that enslaves cultures and burns its way across continents in the name of Manifest Destiny or the White Man's Burden or "bringing civilization," as opposed to the rude kind that organizes lynch mobs.

And then (and what little documentation I've been able to find suggests that this, at the very least, was entirely Rogers' idea), to top it all off, Zecora speaks in rhyme. Because she wasn't Othered badly enough already, she needs to speak like she has some sort of bizarre compulsion or possibly brain damage. And after all, it's not like Rogers might think to consider whether there are any stereotypes dealing with people of African descent and facility with rhyme, perhaps deriving from a century of minstrel shows or three decades of media associating rap, urban African-Americans, and gang violence. That would require Rogers to care about what she's writing and think beyond the immediate next word on the page, which clearly isn't something she does very often. (This is still me being charitable, by the way. The uncharitable assumption would be that Rogers made Zecora rhyme because she's from Pony Africa and Rogers is a racist.)

Again, I really don't think Rogers hates black people or anything like that. But, well... there's a scene in the episode where Spike makes fun of the other pony's curses, even though at least a couple of them are potentially life-threatening (especially Rainbow Dash's and Applejack's), and Twilight's could doom the entire town (given that she saved it from destruction just an episode ago). All of their curses are at the least very hurtful for the pony suffering it. And yet Spike not only laughs at them, he lies to them; he tells them he's working on a cure, and instead spends his time coming up with more jokes at their expense.

All of this is played for laughs; we are supposed to join Spike in laughing at the ponies. In a sense, that's okay; the ponies are fictional characters, and have no actual feelings to be hurt. Laughing at them is certainly no worse than watching characters die for our entertainment in an action movie or suspense thriller. Also, this is an episodic comedy-adventure cartoon for small children; we know that, unless there's a "Part One" in the episode title, odds are very high the characters will all be perfectly fine by the time the credits roll. As I've said before, in an adventure the primary question is not "Will they get out of this one?" but rather "How will they get out of this one?"

However, within a diegetic context this scene is very much not okay. Spike is being a massive jerk here, and nothing ever comes of it. Further, I'm not sure it occurred to anyone involved in making this episode just how much of a jerk Spike is being, and no character calls him out on it. Rogers is failing utterly at basic empathy here, what the show itself will later term "Lesson Zero": the recognition that the feelings of others exist and are always legitimate, no matter what they are.

Sadly, the show itself fails at this lesson in one key respect. This episode is one of (to date) two that attempt to depict someone from a non-Western culture, and the other one is just as stereotype-laden. For all that it tries very hard (and usually succeeds) at being a feminist show, for all that it is clearly made with the best of intentions, Friendship Is Magic doesn't deal well with race. Zecora's later appearances are, thankfully, few and brief, but always painful to watch, because they represent a rot in the heart of the show. It is a show that celebrates community and bringing people together. It is a show that celebrates the "many ways of being a girl" and, since there is no statement true of all women that is not true of all humans, by extension the many ways of being human.

As long as your ways of being human fall within Western norms descended from European cultures, anyway. Otherwise, you're an Other, and the creators apparently expect you to count yourself lucky that you get one heavily stereotyped token to represent you.

Next week: Intertextuality! Cute things! Geekiness! Easily avoidable failures of communication! We're back to the show I love.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Honey, Rarity thinks everything's uncouth. (Look Before You Sleep)

Applejack's Princess crushed Rarity's "Purplemina" at the
Nightmare Night costume contest.

It's December 3, 2010, and "Like a G6" is back on the charts. But any fears that the U.S.  media-consuming public are entirely devoid of taste are unfounded, as the glorious Tangled manages one weekend of dominating the movie charts between a pair of overhyped adaptions of mediocre Bible fanfics.

In real news, Leslie Nielson, master of deadpan delivery of ridiculous lines and surely one of the greatest comedic actors of the 20th century, dies. He was 84, and don't call him Shirley. In better news, the U.S. Secretary of Defense endorses ending the ban on openly gay servicemembers in the military, and WikiLeaks releases another flood of classified documents, leading to governments scrambling hilariously in desperate and misguided attempts to preserve face.

On TV, Charlotte Fullerton has her pony-writing debut with "Look Before You Sleep," at first glance a fairly typical odd-couple story about two ponies from very different apparent social classes forced to share sleeping quarters for the night. Watching (or, indeed, writing) the episode back in 2010, Rarity is clearly a fussy pony with an upper-class accent and refined tastes, while Applejack is down-and-dirty, with a countrified accent and tastes to match. Watching with eyes that have seen the intervening almost-two seasons, we know it's more complicated than that--Rarity's accent and mannerisms are the conscious affectations of someone trying to rise above firmly middle-class beginnings, while Applejack's family is more George and Martha Bush than John and Martha Kent, and this could have added a lot of nuance to how annoying they find each other--but if we cast ourselves back to the broadcast date, we see only the class-based odd couple.

Except we don't only see that, because there is a third pony here, a representative of pony intelligentsia. In addition to serving as a representative of a third class, Twilight adds something very strange to the mix: a book that describes how slumber parties are "supposed" to go. Slumber parties are mostly coded feminine in Western media (on the rare occasion boys are depicted as having them, they usually occur outdoors so they can be considered camping), and the book starts with an activity that is strongly feminine-coded, makeovers; Twilight Sparkle thus can be read as trying to unite the three members of disparate classes by appealing to their common femininity, but her methods are deeply suspect, since they consist of declaring and enforcing a set of arbitrary rules that constrain femininity.

In other words, this episode is exploring the intersection of class and gender issues. This intersectionality--the notion that progressive causes necessarily intertwine and cannot be fully separated--is at the core of a critical concept for understanding our culture and media, My Little Pony included: the kyriarchy.

Kyriarchy, a term coined by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and now fairly common among feminist theorists and writers, is the name for a society comprised of multiple different groups arranged in hierarchical relationships, with each individual in the society belonging to multiple groups. A key feature of kyriarchy is that the groups are structural, rather than voluntary--in other words, each group has a definition, and if you meet the definition, you are part of the group whether you want to be or not. In addition, each group has assigned roles, which do not necessarily follow from the definition of the group.

An example may be clearer. We live in a kyriarchy, just like every other known human culture, so any of us can be used as an example. I, for instance, am a member of the male, white, cisgendered, lower middle class, Jewish, atheist, short, obese, and mostly heterosexual groups. Some of these groups are more dominant, and some less so, and thus depending on the precise circumstances I may be privileged compared to members of other groups, or underprivileged, and the degree to which that privilege varies could be colossal, trivial, or anything in between. For example, I can marry my fiancee in any state in the U.S. and have that marriage recognized in any other state. On the other hand, I can't afford a wedding. And even if I could, I'll have to rent a tux with pants that don't fit, because they don't make pants my size.

Now of course, each of these groups is a cultural construct. There is no "man" or "woman" except the ones our culture creates, as becomes swiftly obvious when one looks at how other cultures construct gender (for example, the hijra of India or bacha posh of Afghanistan) or how our own culture constructed gender in the past (watch Disney's Bambi for a good example of how differently our culture constructed masculinity only a couple of generations ago), and the same goes for all the other groups I listed. One interesting element of the kyriarchy is that groups intersect dynamically; in other words, "black woman" is not simply constructed as black + woman--you cannot compare how our culture constructs black womanhood to how our culture constructs white womanhood, subtract out the womanhood, and find the difference between how our culture constructs blackness and whiteness. Instead, there are cultural pressures and assumptions that are unique to black women, shared with neither black men nor white women.

So, for instance, we can see Rarity, Twilight, and Applejack as different constructions of femininity in different social classes. Rarity represents upper-class womanhood, Twilight Sparkle intellectual womanhood, and Applejack working-class womanhood.

Rarity, as a woman of the upper classes, has as her primary role in kyrarchical society the enforcement and maintenance of the status quo, which she does by applying social pressure to anyone who does not meet her (and society's) standards of proper behavior. By doing so, she enforces her dominant position in the class hierarchy, as when she chastises Applejack for getting her hooves dirty. At the same time, she also reinforces gender roles, as when she forces Applejack into the frilly princess dress.

In our kyriarchy, women were until very recently only rarely permitted into the intellectual classes, and some areas (the STEM fields in particular) are still extremely male-dominated. For much of our history, however, a major role for women was the passing of traditional knowledge from one generation to the next, which task Twilight Sparkle takes on in the form of her book of rules and procedures for slumber parties, passing the traditional knowledge from the older generation making the show to the younger generation watching it (referring here to the actual target demographic, not the bronies). As with Rarity, this role gives Twilight Sparkle great power as the keeper of the rules, but it also constrains her into particular kyriarchy-approved roles.

Applejack seems at first glance like she might be a rebel against the kyriarchy, rejecting Rarity's assigned roles in particular. However, if we situate ourselves in the time of broadcast, when there was still every reason to read Applejack as working-class, she is not rebelling at all. The role of the working class woman in the kyriarchy is to be the pragmatic, hard-working maintainer of a household, feeding and protecting her family and keeping a steady head in crises. She does not rebel against feminity, but rather rejects upper-class femininity as unsuitable for her working-class tastes.

This interaction between different groups is how the kyriarchy perpetuates itself. As in any hierarchy, one must work constantly to maintain one's status or else fall to a lower status. The obvious example, given the show we're talking about, is that an adult man who openly expresses a deep interest in a show coded as feminine and for children is likely to lose status in many people's eyes. We can see how the kyriarchy uses this phenomenon to perpetuate itself in Rarity's behavior throughout the episode: She tries to assert her status by continually criticizing Applejack's lower-status behavior, but in so doing she simultaneously traps both of them in gendered constraints: A lady does not get herself muddy except as part of a beauty ritual, and therefore ladies are not permitted to do anything that might get them muddy.

Applejack and Twilight do no better for most of the episode. The only difference between Applejack and Rarity here is that Applejack is trying to knock Rarity out of her socially dominant position, while Rarity is trying to force Applejack to obey rules that only apply in a socially dominant position. Twilight, meanwhile, simply wants both of them to conform to the rules in her book. All three are seeking to enforce conformity; the only source of conflict is that they come from different positions in the kyriarchy and therefore want conformity to different standards. None of them question the kyriarchy until the very end, when external forces intercede to bring about a crisis.

It may seem strange that, given how much more oppressive Rarity has been throughout the episode, it is Applejack who is forced to apologize in order to get help resolving the crisis. However, it's actually pretty typical if understood as a moment of a rebellion against the kyriarchy.

When the tree crashes through the window, each of the ponies present assumes their stereotyped roles: Upper-class Rarity gives a show of helping in a way that keeps her hooves clean and doesn't require too much work (in a real-world crisis, she'd be writing checks and maybe, if she were particularly dedicated, organizing fundraisers); intellectual Twilight Sparkle looks for solutions in the assembled wisdoms available to her, and Applejack puts her head down and gets to work, neither asking for nor receiving help. That "can-do frontier spirit" is one of the most pernicious myths of our culture, helping to ensure that the working class (which has some of the most potential to disrupt the kyriarchical structures that define our culture of any group) can never unite and start tearing down hierarchies, because that act of uniting, of seeking help, represents a loss of status for members of an already low-status group.

However, the crisis is great enough for Applejack to actually be willing to risk the loss of status and break the rules of her group, by asking for Rarity's help. This isn't uncommon at all; as a member of a low-status group, Applejack has less to lose and more to gain from disrupting the kyriarchy than a member of a higher-status group. Once she opens the door, however, and Rarity is able to see the advantages of momentarily breaking her kyriarchical bonds, Rarity is able to join in and get herself dirty; the two work together and resolve the crisis.

After the tree is removed, we get a brief glimpse of what a future without kyriarchy might look like: ponies of different groups, laughing and enjoying themselves together, as equals. Unfortunately, the episode ends with a reminder that it's not necessarily that simple, as Rarity and Applejack very nearly create a new hierarchy in which to compete, in which status is defined by who is more sorry--possibly a ponified version of Oppression Olympics, in which attempts by members of different underprivileged groups to work together against the kyriarchy get derailed by debates over which group is more oppressed.

However, this is Equestria, so that moment quickly passes and the ponies return to playing together as equals. Each of them will still continue to possess their personal tastes, but they will no longer seek to enforce conformity to a particular set of standards on one another; they are open to embracing their differences.

Next week: Amy Keating Rogers returns, and it's worse. Oh so very much worse.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

I'm the monster. (Dragonshy)

Not a level-appropriate encounter... for the dragon.
It's November 26, 2010, and the top song on the Billboard charts is Rihanna featuring Drake autotuning her way through "What's My Name." The nicest thing I can say about it is that it's less bad than the last two top songs we've suffered through. No change at the box office, with Harry Potter still running the show. In non-entertainment news, NATO agrees to start pulling out of Afghanistan, which I'm sure has nothing at all to do with Wikileaks' revelations last month about the war crimes NATO forces committed there, North and South Korea play at nuclear brinksmanship, and the wedding of Prince William is announced (which will matter for ponies in about one and two-thirds seasons). To prove that not all news is war or trivia, the U.S. also creates a polar bear preserve twice the size of the U.K, which is pretty awesome.

Meanwhile in the world of candy-colored magic equines, we have "Dragonshy," the first episode by Meghan McCarthy and, as I mentioned last week, the best episode we've looked at yet.

The big temptation, of course, is to make this post entirely about Fluttershy. She is best pony, after all, at least if we ignore fanworks and fanon, and it would be easy to fill a couple thousand words just talking about how completely awesome she is in this episode. That, however, would be the job of a fan blog, not an analysis blog. A fan I may be, but a fan blog this is not, and so we shall have to reluctantly force ourselves to consider something other than the awesomeness that is Fluttershy. I'll try to keep the post to just being mostly about her.

Let us instead discuss, at least to start with, the awesomeness that is Meghan McCarthy. By coincidence, I happen to be writing this article just a few days after the premier of her first season as story editor, and it's interesting to compare. Two years ago, she was very nearly unknown, having worked on only three shows prior, at least as far as IMDB is aware: Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, Class of 3000, and Fish Hooks. Of those, Foster's is the only one I've seen or even heard of prior to writing this article. Now she's The Good Pony Writer, responsible for such stellar scripts as "Party of One," "Lesson Zero," and "A Canterlot Wedding."

Had I written this article a week earlier (note: I write the articles anywhere from several days to a week before posting), we could have left it there. Until a week ago, we lived in a universe where "Call of the Cutie" and "Hearts and Hooves Day" were Meghan McCarthy's weakest episodes, and by my count there were at least ten episodes worse than either. But unfortunately, we no longer live in that universe; we live in a universe where "The Crystal Empire" exists, and (especially mere days after the premiere) there is no way to watch "Dragonshy" untainted by the knowledge of what is to come.

It's too bad, really. The reason I list top songs and movies and news stories at the beginning of each post is to try to locate these episodes in the time of broadcast, in the hopes of approaching them as the viewers would have at the time. This is really, really hard with a show as recent as this, because the differences between 2010 and 2012 aren't that great. It gets really hard when we have an excellent episode by an excellent writer to talk about, and yet the episode fresh in my mind is one that has the fandom calling for her head.

This is particularly an issue with "Dragonshy," because unlike most of McCarthy's episodes, "Dragonshy" and "The Crystal Empire" follow a standard adventure template: The mane six travel somewhere, encounter a monster, and have to defeat it or drive it off. Further, the dragon is extremely similar to King Sombra: both speak very little, have very little actual screen-time, are associated with clouds of darkness, and have their threat primarily demonstrated by means of Celestia describing it to Twilight.

The big difference, however, is that the dragon is an effective villain. We will most likely talk about how and why Sombra fails to be effective when we get to season 3; for now, let's talk about what makes the dragon a good villain.

It's important for an adventure story to have a good villain. A character story doesn't need one; a character story is about getting into a protagonist, learning who they are as you watch them grow or change. The question a character story most needs to answer is who, as in "Who is this character?" and "Who are they becoming?" An adventure story, on the other hand, is about watching a protagonist overcome an obstacle or weather a threat; it's not about who but how, as in "How will they get out of this one?" (Not "Will they get out of this one?" That's a thriller or horror story or maybe a tragedy, not an adventure.)

To answer a question effectively, a work must get its audience to ask the question, so that they care about the answer. If the question is "Who is this character?" then it follows that a character story depends on having an interesting protagonist who provokes the audience to want to know more about them. If the question is "How will they get out of this one?" then it follows that an adventure story must have interesting obstacles that provoke the audience to ask the question; usually, that means an effective villain.

Several elements make the dragon effective. First, we see his threat right from the start, when smoke covers the sky. This immediately has Fluttershy in a panic, and soon after Twilight reads out a letter from Celestia and confirms the threat. It's important that the episode does both; if only Fluttershy panicked, then (given her usual timidity) we wouldn't know that the dragon is a serious threat. On the other hand, if we had only the letter from Celestia, who is a remote character both physically and emotionally, we wouldn't have the immediate connection that a pony we care about is afraid. The two together combine to make the dragon genuinely menacing.

Once the dragon is established to be a real threat, he stays off-screen for most of the episode. This enhances the threat he poses, because the viewer is forced to imagine a being capable of snoring so much smoke it blots out the sky, or roaring so loud it shakes an entire mountain. The danger of this technique, of course, is that he'll be disappointing once we actually get to see him, but this is easily enough averted by having him face and defeat five of the Mane Six in rapid sequence.

Finally, enraged by Rainbow Dash's straight-up attack, he emerges from his cave. However, the dragon does not actually attack; he does something far more interesting, and subtle enough that I didn't catch it until the excellent Samdamandias pointed it out to me on the Lunaverse forum. I've embedded a vlog where I lay it out, but basically the next scene is something straight out of a nature film: the dragon engages in a threat display in an attempt to dominate and drive off the ponies, Fluttershy counters with a threat display of her own, and as her threat display is more effective, the dragon is immediately reduced to a submissive posture.

This is an incredibly significant moment. First, it's the establishing moment for Fluttershy's character: in the words of the inimitable Douglas Adams, "You would have to push through a lot of soft squidgy bits in order to find a bit that didn’t give when you pushed it. That was the bit that all the soft squidgy bits were there to protect." Second, it shows us why McCarthy is able to write the dragon (or Crysalis, for that matter) as an effective villain.

Looking at McCarthy's episodes, it becomes clear that she is more comfortable writing character episodes than adventures. Why, then, would she write an adventure as her first episode for the show?

Let's go back to the distinction we started with: Character episodes are about characters encountering and overcoming or being overcome by elements of themselves. Adventures are about characters encountering and overcoming external threats.

But what happens when the external threat is an element of the character? This is an approach that's gained a lot of traction in televised fantasy in recent years, largely because one show took that idea and ran with it all the way to becoming one of the most popular and most influential cult hits of the 1990s: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In Buffy, classic monsters function simultaneously as villains in their own right and metaphors for typical teen problems; in one of the most obvious examples, the main villain of the second season is a nice-seeming boyfriend who has sex with the female protagonist and turns evil immediately on getting what he wants.

As Twilight points out in "Dragonshy," it makes no sense for Fluttershy to be afraid of the dragon. Fluttershy has shown no fear for monsters before, having walked up to the manticore quite confidently in "Elements of Harmony," and she shows no particular fear of monsters after this episode. She claims to be specifically afraid of dragons, but shows no fear of Spike. True, she explains this away by saying that Spike's a baby dragon and therefore nonthreatening, but it's still a bit of a stretch, since in general Fluttershy isn't afraid of physical threats; Fluttershy is afraid of social threats.

Consider what Fluttershy says about herself in this and later episodes, and how she behaves toward others. She is extremely cautious about new people, and instinctively assumes a submissive posture upon encountering them (as in "Mare in the Moon"). She is so afraid of provoking the disapproval or anger of others, and so sensitive to that anger upon encountering it, that it dominates her life entirely; just as Rainbow Dash almost never touches the ground, Fluttershy almost always positions herself below whatever pony she's talking to. Her experience of others is thus as frightening entities that loom over her and must be conciliated, just as the initial appearance of the dragon is as a vast cloud of smoke, and then later a mountain, both looming presences that hang over the tiny ponies.

The dragon, in other words, is Fluttershy; it is her fear and her imagination of what will happen if she upsets another pony. This is why it is so much fun to watch her finally stand up to it: In an inversion of Applejack's discovery that her greatest strength is a weakness, Fluttershy discovers strength in her weakness. The same hypersensitivity to the attitudes and stances of others that makes her afraid to provoke anger and judgment (and, incidentally, the same hypersensitivity that makes her good with animals, as again note her encounter with the manticore) enables her to instinctively realize the dragon is posturing, not attacking, and that she can posture back and force him to back down.

Put another way, the entire episode consists of Fluttershy holding Fluttershy back. By defeating the dragon, Fluttershy overcomes those parts of herself that are holding her back; she defeats herself, and by doing so achieves victory.

Unlike "Boast Busters," which played with the adventure structure but left the content largely intact, "Dragonshy" sticks to a typical adventure structure, the purest since the series premiere. However, it uses that structure to tell what is ultimately a character story, and manages thereby to become unquestionably the best story we've looked at yet. McCarthy is up to a delicious start--and from our vantage point, just past watching what is probably her worst episode, it's worth remembering just how good she was out of the gate.

Next week: A classic odd couple and a heavy storm; it must be time for a slumber party at Twilight's house!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

These two ponies have a bit of a grudge match they're trying to settle. (Boast Busters)

Equestria: Even our terrifying marauding space bears are cute.
You know, I feel like my last couple of posts have been good, but for a site called My Little Po-Mo, I actually haven't looked at postmodern elements of the show much. Let's change that!

It's November 19, 2010. The big movie this weekend is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One, so magical conflicts are clearly in the air. In music, Ke$ha finally knocks Far*East Movement out of the number one spot with "We R Who We R," which while obviously made by a group of people utterly devoid of anything to say or any emotional investment in their work, is at least recognizable as an attempt to be something vaguely resembling music, albeit really bad music.

In marginally more depressing news than the top two songs being Ke$ha and dubstep, the death toll of the Haitian cholera epidemic passes 1,000, the U.S. continues to fire missiles at civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan, killing a few dozen more this week, and rabid bats attack Los Angeles. At least the last is morbidly funny?

In Equestrian news, Chris Savino writes the first of his two episodes of MLP, "Boast Busters." It's really too bad that he only ever wrote the two; they're both pretty good, and they both do an excellent job of exploding the adventure/character study binary I described a couple of weeks ago, while also finding ways to pull familiar stories out of their usual contexts and do something new with them. In other words, Savino is one of the more postmodern writers on the show, and a quick glance at his resume shows that this isn't a fluke of these two episodes--he's worked on some of the great postmodern cartoons of the 90s, like Ren and Stimpy, I Am Weasel, and Rocko's Modern Life. He's also the only recurring writer other than Lauren Faust to have significant experience as an animator, and it shows; this is a very visual episode, in the sense that the visuals are not simply following the dialogue but adding nuances that aren't apparent from dialogue alone.

For example, while Trixie's dialogue points to a stage magician, she does not wear the traditional black cape and top hat we associate with that archetype. Instead, her low-saturation color scheme of almost-gray blues and purples, peaked hat, cloak, and penchant for fireworks point to one of the defining archetypes of the modern conception of a "real" wizard, Tolkien's Gandalf the Grey. By putting the behavior of a stage magician in the trappings of a real wizard, we recognize Trixie as a fraud immediately; a stage magician is an entertainer, but a stage magician pretending to be Gandalf is a liar.

Except the episode does something very interesting here, because of course Trixie is using real magic to perform her stage act. Her fireworks are genuine magical illusions, her rope tricks real telekinesis, and so forth. She may not be anywhere near Twilight's caliber, let alone Gandalf's, but nonetheless underneath the fraud there is something real. (Which, incidentally, is why the entire Lunaverse can happen, but that's way outside the scope of this blog.) The episode doesn't do much with this underlying reality--in the end, Trixie is the big-talking out-of-towner who gets shown up by a local and chased out on a rail--but I suspect it has more than a little to do with Trixie's status as one of the fan-favorite ponies-of-the-week.

Another major factor in making Trixie a fan favorite is that she is an excellent foil for Twilight Sparkle. She is confident and confrontational where Twilight is neurotic and avoidant; a dominance-seeker where Twilight seeks approval; a liar where Twilight is honest. There's a reason fans keep wanting her to turn up in a later season as Princess Luna's apprentice!

So it's an interesting choice that, in an episode where the main antagonist is an excellent foil for the closest thing the show has to a singular main character, our point-of-view character for most of the episode isn't Twilight Sparkle, but rather Spike. From this distance, we're able to detach from her actions and interrogate her character as she interacts with Trixie; instead of sharing Twilight's fear that the other ponies will reject her if she stands up to Trixie, we share Spike's frustration at her refusal to do so. At the same time, since we can hear Twilight's conversations that Spike either doesn't hear or tunes out, we understand the source of her concern, keeping her sympathetic even as we recognize it's a baseless concern. It's a clever way for the episode to encourage a relatively complex response from its audience while keeping the complexity of the actual story at an appropriate level for the five-year-olds it is ostensibly written for.

Keeping the focus on Spike also serves to keep the focus off of Twilight's crippling self-esteem issues, which is good because this is not the story for exploring them--that's better done in a comedic character collapse episode, of which we'll get a couple for Twilight later. In this story, it would be far too depressing. But rest assured, Twilight has serious self-esteem problems, between her conviction that she must be the best of the best to impress Celestia while simultaneously never giving any hint that she's better than the other ponies. In other words, she has accepted that ponies can be ranked from best to worst in an absolute way (which is messed up to begin with), and her worth comes from being best, but no one will love her if she's best. To address this directly would bog the entire episode down into Twilight Has Issues, which would be no fun for anyone, least of all the viewers, so yet more reason to locate our point of view outside Twilight.

The detachment from Twilight also means Savino is free to bring in elements of stories with different main characters. This episode could easily have been a Brave Little Tailor variant: Trixie (the tailor) brags about beating an Ursa Minor (the giant) and then has to face one. The scenes of her alone with Snips and Snails--unless I am much mistaken, the first scenes in which ponies talk to each other without any of the Mane Six around--help support the notion that it's this type of story. Add in that, as we mentioned above, underneath her showmanship and braggadocio is real magic, and you have a real possibility for Trixie to be the hero of this episode. If this were The Trixie Show, she would be forced to find a way to use her abilities to beat the Ursa Minor and thus learn a valuable lesson both about bragging and about valuing the abilities she has instead of claiming abilities she doesn't have.

This isn't The Trixie Show, but right up until the moment that she refuses to admit wrongdoing and flees, it remains possible that she will be the one to learn the friendship lesson this week. This dangling possibility, I think, is a major factor in Trixie's popularity in requests for characters to return: she is not redeemed (and cannot be, as she says bad things about all of Ponyville, which includes Fluttershy--that's close enough to the Unforgivable Sin that she cannot be redeemed now, though she is still not utterly beyond the possibility of future redemption), but we feel the possibility that she could be. Certainly, she is presented more sympathetically than Gilda, despite being in many ways the same character--a newly arrived dominance-seeker and show-off who looks down on everyone in Ponyville.

However, this isn't The Trixie Show. It's My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, which for much of the first season is The Twilight Sparkle Show. Thus, this episode spends a lot of time on Twilight Sparkle and her fears of becoming victim to Tall Poppy Syndrome. On the face of it, this concern should be absurd; ponies are a species comprised entirely of savants, after all: Every pony has one talent at which they are effectively genius-level natural prodigies, and vary in their other talents. It makes no sense for ponies to even have Tall Poppy Syndrome, since there is no such thing as a merely average pony (assuming, of course, that all ponies eventually discover their cutie mark, which seems likely.)

Additionally, ponies are very much not a society in which status is zero-sum. Their country is founded based on the discovery that being nice to each other prevents monsters from freezing them all, and overflows with so much love that the Changelings see it as a continent-spanning buffet. Ponies do not have the sorts of small, rigid hierarchies (such as cut-throat noble courts or gangs of teenage delinquents) that lead to Tall Poppy Syndrome--places where the only way to gain status is to reduce someone else's--and they haven't for thousands of years. Ponies consumed by envy either learn a friendship lesson or get eaten by Windigos. And as we discussed last week, if every pony has a singular gift that is both their obsession and their unique talent, then there is never any reason to envy another's abilities--after all, no matter who you are, you're better than them at what really matters to you.

The ponies do comment negatively about Trixie's bragging, but it makes sense for ponies to generally disapprove of bragging. If every pony has something they are uniquely good at, and every pony knows not only their own gift but, by looking at other ponies' cutie marks, everyone else's gift as well, then there is no reason to ever brag. Trixie knows she's good at stage magic, anyone looking at her cutie mark knows she's good at stage magic, so bragging about it just proves that she's deeply insecure, a jerk, or both.

Despite this, and despite growing up in Equestria, Twilight has somehow never absorbed that ponies dislike bragging but have no problem with displays of talent. There's a reason for this, of course, namely that Twilight Sparkle is quite possible the worst-socialized pony in Equestria, and certainly the worst-socialized pony among the Mane Six. (Now, at least. By the end of second season she has passed Pinkie Pie to become second-worst-socialized.)

In a culture that values friendship above all else, Twilight starts the series with no friends. She values no relationships other than family and her mentor; she doesn't even acknowledge friendly overtures from other ponies. It takes being smacked in the face with the fact that friendship is somewhat necessary to live a good life, and also incidentally gives you vast magical power if your name is Twilight Sparkle, to break her out of that and get her to actually try to make friends, and at the start she's terrible at it. This is consistent across several episodes: Twilight can't make up her mind about the gala tickets, worsens Applejack's character collapse, gives Pinkie terrible advice about Gilda, and now can't tell the difference between empty boasts and actually demonstrating a skill when it's needed.

Bless her, Twilight tries, but she's really bad at dealing with other ponies at the start, and easily dissuaded by her fears of how they will respond, because for all intents and purposes Twilight's social and emotional development is that of a five-year-old. Of course, this makes a lot of sense non-diegetically, because the point of the show is for Twilight to learn lessons that would matter to her five-year-old viewers, but it also makes diegetic sense: Her development is stunted by her lack of relationships with pony peers.

Every episode thus far has been a fairly conventional plot: Ancient evil returns, and heroes rise to defeat it; friends find themselves competing for a limited resource all want; a character faces a challenge they can't handle and crumbles in the face of it until they accept the help they need; old friends clash with new friends. "Boast Busters," on the surface, is another fairly simple story, as we've discussed (stranger comes to town and challenges local), but by drawing in elements of other stories it permits us to get a surprising amount of character depth from such a seemingly simple plot.

By combining the two stories and ensuring that the camera does not center on Twilight until the climax, Savino is able to simultaneously explore the rather sad existence that is early Twilight Sparkle and keep it from dampening the fun. Along the way, we're able to get in a little exploration of the implications of a society in which every pony knows their own and others' true gifts, get to know a pony-of-the-week compelling enough to merit calls for a return, see how Spike supports Twilight, and cap it all off with a cool monster attack that ends in a very fun, non-violent resolution.

In short, this episode is a tour-de-force, and for the first time since the first episode I can declare this easily the best episode we've looked at so far.

Next week: Easily the best episode we've looked at so far.