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...

Albedo

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.

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