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.

4 comments:

  1. "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."

    Jebus, that is one of the most succint and devastating analyses I have ever read about how cultural stereotypes are used to keep the proletarians in their place. Attempting to organize to throw off one's chains is not leadership, but a betrayal of your ecomomic class I doff my hat in admiration. Fucking brilliant, and it's no wonder this country is such a mess when this is so true.

    What is your academic background, if I may be so bold as to ask?

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    1. Thanks! I had honestly forgotten writing that, and in hindsight it was pretty good!

      My academic background is a B.A. in English. I have three semesters of anthropology and one of film. Everything else is just reading a lot during college and in the almost-a-decade since.

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  2. Without having seen the episode (like Dr Sandifer, I'm enjoying this blog despite not actually watching MLP:FIM), I'm intrigued by the fact that later episodes revealed the class structure here wasn't what it appeared to be.

    So I started thinking about the retconned kyriarchy. If Rarity's place in the class structure shifts from upper-class to middle-class social climber, this doesn't really change much about how she acts and why. But if Applejack's upper class, then this does have an interesting effect. It's still not that she's rebelling against the kyriarchy, it's that she has a place in the kyriarchy which plays against Rarity's in a different way. She's the upper-class woman who damn well gets on with things, because worrying about what's "proper" is for, well, social climbers.

    (In Discworld terms, if you'll excuse the move to yet another fandom, Applejack is Lady Sybil and Rarity is Mrs Gaiter from Hogfather.)

    The downside of this interpretation is I'm not sure where it goes from here to the conclusion...

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    1. (In Discworld terms, if you'll excuse the move to yet another fandom, Applejack is Lady Sybil and Rarity is Mrs Gaiter from Hogfather.)

      This comparison is a thing of beauty and I love it.

      I think where it goes from here is that Applejack can ask for Rarity's help without loss of status because, as a member of the middle class, it is Rarity's "proper" role to cater to the upper class.

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