Thursday, January 31, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Sea Sparkle

What if everything we've been told is a lie, and the big twist in the season finale is that Twilight becomes a Sea Pony?

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Spike is a Jerk

My main takeaway from this past weekend's episode: Spike is a big ol' jerk. He sells a service with no intention of performing, then tries to sucker others into doing it for him, endangering three small kids and six pets in the process.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Fluttershy's Tail

Even though Fluttershy flies less than any other pegasus, she's the only one we've seen whose tail drags on the ground when she walks.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Not at all! I *am* weak and helpless, and I appreciate their understanding. (Stare Master)

Fluttershy's rock-hard... chicken.
What? What did you think I was going to say?
Apologies for the lateness of this post. This past week has been a series of nasty RL events I won't get into, but things will hopefully be better from here out.

It's February 25, 2011. The top song this week is Wiz Khalifa's "Black and Yellow," a painfully repetitive rap song about a car painted in Packers colors and great Ghu I care not a whit about any of those things. The top movie is Hall Pass, a comedy involving Owen Wilson and the Farrelly brothers, and is by all accounts precisely as good as you'd expect from that combination (hint: it's terrible). Over in consensus reality, the worldwide wave of Internet-organized protests and civil unrest continues in Libya (where the government continues to respond with bloody violence), Bahrain, Yemen, Iran, China, and Wisconsin, among others, while the new Prime Minister of Egypt announces the release of hundreds of political prisoners. Matteo Renzi, the young and popular mayor of Florence, Italy, calls for the retirement of the Baby Boomer-equivalent generation of politicians on the grounds that they're really, really old. Lastly, the Space Shuttle Discovery launches for its final mission.

In Equestreality, Chris Savino's second episode, "Stare Master," airs. Structurally, it's an interesting episode: It starts as a typical sitcom plot: Fluttershy takes on a sitting job without fully understanding the challenge, is overwhelmed, but then finds a way to earn the respect and cooperation of her temporary charges. It's a plot that the show will use again (and, frankly, use better) in season two's "Baby Cakes" and three's "Just for Sidekicks." "Stare Master" mixes it up with a fun genre collision in the last act, however: after the Cutie Mark Crusaders run out into the forest, the genre shifts suddenly into horror movie, with an initially oblivious CMC and frightened Fluttershy stalked by a monster and stumbling onto the (stone, rather than dead, because this is still a kid's show) bodies of its victims. Again, "Baby Cakes" blends genres more skillfully; instead of replacing the third act with horror tropes, the latter episode uses horror-move angles, musical cues, and cliches for the titular babies themselves, using horror elements to add more humor to the rather tired sitcom plot.

What "Stare Master" does do well, however, is how it resolves its two plot strands. It establishes Fluttershy's power of "the Stare," an intense gaze that causes the misbehaving target to sheepishly back down and submit to her will. The name is a reference to another sitcom cliche, in which a wife/mother (the two roles are generally interchangeable in sitcom plots) has a silent glare that terrifies her husband/child (again, generally interchangeable in sitcoms) into obedience. Savino, knowing the audience is familiar with Chekhov's gun, thus sets up the viewer to expect Fluttershy to eventually cow the CMC with the Stare, earning their obedience, fear, and eventually respect.

Savino does something rather more clever with the episode, however. First, instead of an angry mom-glare rooted in sexist sitcom stereotypes, Fluttershy's Stare functions as an expansion of her skill at using body language and knowledge of animal behavior demonstrated in "Dragonshy": many animals react to direct eye contact as a threat, so Fluttershy makes eye contact (with her eyes as wide as possible, both to maximize the threat and make herself seem bigger) and holds it, refusing to back down no matter how the animal responds. Faced with a creature that maintains a threatening posture and is unfazed by the animal's own responses, the animal concludes it is dealing with an overwhelming threat and caves. It's a trick that probably wouldn't work on a human or pony, since they'd be able to reason out what she's doing, but on the other hand it probably would be pretty creepy to have someone just stare like that, right in your face, no matter what you did to try to get away or make them back down.

Second, although the sitcom-horror transition is rather too clean, occurring more or less on an act break, the end of the episode uses the two genres to resolve one another, which is a neat and (dare I say it) rather postmodern little trick. Specifically, Fluttershy's Stare, which we expect to be used to resolve the sitcom plot, is instead used to defeat the cockatrice and rescue its victims. By defeating the monster and resolving the horror plot, Fluttershy earns the respect and obedience of the CMC, which in turn resolves the sitcom plot. In other words, the two genres solve each other; horror is overcome by sitcom cliche, and sitcom cliche is resolved by the defeat of the monster.

What's possibly most interesting in this episode, at least for this Fluttershy fanboy, is the insight the combination of the two plots gives into Fluttershy's character. The monster represents barely a challenge to her at all; once she confronts it, she defeats it in seconds. People, however--in this case, the CMC--are an overwhelming obstacle. There seems to be a contradiction, here, and to resolve it, I'm going to take a page from Savino's book and introduce a third-act genre shift, from overly analytical fan blog to TMI-laden personal blog.

I suffer from an uncommon (about 1 percent of the population) psychological condition called Avoidant Personality Disorder, which is characterized by feelings of shyness and social inadequacy. Sufferers of AvPD tend to be easily hurt by criticism or the disapproval of others; fear rejection; hold back in intimate relationships; avoid jobs or other activities that force contact with others; be extremely shy in social situations because they fear doing something wrong or making a mistake; hold the view that they are not "good" socially, inferior to others, or unappealing. Left untreated, sufferers often end up in total or near-total social isolation, and may develop mood disorders or substance abuse problems as a result. Happily (and unlike most personality disorders), it is generally highly responsive to talk therapy.

While the cause is unknown, sufferers of AvPD tend to monitor their own behavior and the behavior of others around them consistently, maintaining a state of hyper-vigilance as they watch body language and other nonverbal cues for the slightest hint of disapproval or dislike. It's a bit of a chicken-egg question: do AvPD sufferers monitor so intensely because they're afraid of causing anger or disapproval, or are they hypersensitive to disapproval because they monitor so intensely?

I know in my own case I am frequently terrified at the prospect that someone might get angry at me or disapprove of what I'm doing, so I (partially consciously, but mostly automatically) try to keep my own behavior as mollifying and conciliatory as possible, and fine-tuning continually as the other person responds. As you might imagine, this occupies a lot of brainspace and energy, so I tend to speak hesitantly; sometimes I even get "stuck" in the middle of a sentence, because my brain is devoting so much of my resources to processing nonverbal stimuli that I briefly lose my capacity for speech. My symptoms are most pronounced when meeting strangers (because I don't have any prior knowledge to fall back on, and need to fine-tune constantly) and when dealing with multiple people at once (because I can't fine-tune my responses to any one person, and have to try to avoid anything that any of them would have a problem with). A party, even a small one attended by people I know well and love, can leave me drained and unable to cope with people for days.

However, like most people, my inhibitions are reduced when I'm tired, so my symptoms are less pronounced if I'm up late. Also like most people, my inhibitions are reduced when I'm wearing a mask (literally or metaphorically), so I have little trouble at work (where I'm playing the role of employee, not being myself), presenting panels at anime, gaming, and SF conventions (where I'm playing the role of panelist and also generally extremely short on sleep), or playing role-playing games. Finally, since it's the nonverbal elements of anger and disapproval that trigger me, I have no problem with written communication.

I identify very strongly with Fluttershy; more, I think, than with any other fictional character I've encountered. She even shares my near-total inability to get angry on my own account, even though I can (on rare occasions, when pushed very hard), become very, very fierce in defense of of the people I care about. It's not even that I suppress the anger; I just don't feel it.

Understanding Fluttershy as being basically like myself, I can recognize that she feels deeply inadequate and shy around others. Even though she knows her friends like her, she has difficulty understanding why, because she monitors them intensely enough to know when they're less than enthused with her but hiding it for her sake, and can't understand why she bothers. Like me, she prefers the company of blunt or very open people to people who are good at hiding their feelings or socially adept, because blunt and open people take less effort to monitor--note that her only friends prior to the first episode appear to be the very blunt Rainbow Dash and the completely unfiltered Pinkie Pie. Years of constant, intense conscious and subconscious monitoring of nonverbal cues are also the source of her expertise with animals, and in turn they provide her companionship without fear of messing up and receiving a pony's disapproval. (I myself am not as fond of animals, but I basically use the Internet for the same purpose).

Understanding Fluttershy as a fictionalization of a real disorder also makes sense of the contradiction which started us down the TMI path. Fluttershy is aware and afraid of physical danger, yes, but not in a pathological way. As such, she is usually able to overcome her fears and use her skills to defeat (or, in the case of the first episode, befriend) monsters. Her fears of social and emotional dangers, however, are pathological. She cannot overcome them, only learn to live with their constant presence, and as such she cannot establish dominance over a pony the way she does animals. Her own fears make that kind of direct challenge impossible for her.

Happily, in both real life and Ponyville, there are ways. Fluttershy, with the support of her friends, is able to slowly inch out of her shell, engage in social activies she feels comfortable with, and escape isolation. I've got friends, the convention scene, the Internet, and most recently, the friendliest and most welcoming fandom I've ever encountered, bronies. Things could be a heck of a lot worse.

Next week: More CMC, more 80s pop-culture references, and more Morrow.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Pony thought of the day: Why bronies bother people

The next My Little Po-Mo post will be a few hours late due to circumstances I will never reveal. However, I'd like to debut a new feature of the blog: Pony thought of the day! These are just pony=related thoughts of mine. Sometimes they'll be serious comments about the show or fandom, sometimes they'll be things that I'm curious about, and sometimes they'll just be silly, but the plan is to have one up every day that I don't have a new episode deconstruction.

Today's thought: Bronies produce a strong reaction from many people outside the fandom, from the incredulous tone of media articles to the sometimes intense antipathy one encounters in YouTube and blog comments. It's not just that adults are watching a children's show--large adult followings for Avatar: The Last Airbender, the D.C. Animated Universe, and Pokémon never attracted this much attention. Nor is it that the show has cross-gender appeal--again, not much media response to the popularity of AtLA among girls in addition to its intended boys, though it was enough to prompt the creation of the character Toph to appeal to young female fans (who, ironically, was then more popular with boys).

If you read the articles, it's more specific than that: it's that adult men are enjoying a show for young girls. We live in a society that constantly sexualizes women, especially young women, while also suggesting that some things are inherently for women, others are inherently for men, and the latter are always better: Men will sometimes be gently mocked for being too enthusiastic about football, but football itself is still usually presented as worthwhile and entertaining; a woman who likes ballet or musicals is nearly always represented as dragging her male companions to something boring and incomprehensible. We also live in a society that implicitly regards sex as something men do to women, instead of something people do together; the assumption is that men want, and women are wanted.

Thus, for a woman to like something intended for boys is assumed to be innocent except by the most strident gender police: it's only natural for boy-things to be better than girl-things, and most people don't assume a prurient interest in women saying that an underage male character is cute. For men to like something intended for girls, however, trips alarms for many people, even some who have managed to resist most of society's sexist programming. The assumption is that the man already has access to superior boy-entertainment, so what reason is there to enjoy girl-entertainment? That's where the attitude that men pursue sex comes in: people assume it must be sexual.

Of course, it doesn't help that a small minority of bronies do have a sexual interest, but it's a very small minority that's actually easier to ignore than their equivalent in a lot of other fandoms.

I leave you with this image, which I'd love to credit but I have no idea where it's from (Sailor Moon, obviously, but who added the text?):

Sunday, January 20, 2013

I'm an egghead (Sonic Rainboom)

Rarity may have lost the Best Young Flyer competition,
but just wait until she goes to Neigh Orleans next Mardi Gras.
It's February 18, 2011. The top song is still Bruno Mars' execrable "Grenade," but he pleaded guilty to cocaine possession a few days ago, so hopefully that won't last much longer. The top movie this weekend is Unknown, because we're living in an Abbot and Costello routine. I've never seen it and have no idea what it is, so I think we can safely assume it didn't make much of a splash.

In real news, the "Arab Spring" protests continue, especially in Algeria, Iran, Bahrain, and Wisconsin, while Libya is in full-blown civil war; the IBM-built AI Watson wins Jeopardy! in a special competition against Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings, the two most successful players in the show's history to that point; and Facebook adds civil unions and domestic partnerships to the list of available relationship statuses.

In ponies, we have "Sonic Rainboom" by M.A. Larson.  The last time Larson wrote for the show, the resulting transformation of the canon led to the show's near-destruction and forced evolution. The show now exists on two levels, as a children's show to teach youngsters about friendship and sell toys, and as a philosopher's stone capable of transforming online communities. Larson has already emerged as the most fan-friendly writer, so he is very much up to the challenge here. On the level of children's show, this episode is about Rainbow Dash nervous about winning a contest, but then her friends are in danger and she saves the day, pretty rainbows, Rarity learns not to be so vain, a fun time is had by all. I'm being a bit glib here, but this is good work--quality children's television is hard work. If Season Three has proven anything so far, it's that it's very, very easy to write a pony episode that contains actively toxic elements.

At the more adult level, this episode is about Rainbow Dash seeking to recover something she did in her youth. Specifically, it is something that she was once able to do without knowing how she did it; when she tries to recover it intentionally after years of training as a flyer, she is unable to do so. This recalls Heinrich von Kleist's "On the Marionette Theater," in which he discusses and contrasts the innocent, unconscious grace of childhood with the conscious effort of adulthood, and argues that the former is in many ways superior. Near the end of the essay, however, he suggests that it is possible to eventually acquire a grace superior to the innocence of childhood, one born of so much experience that it effectively wraps back around, alluding to the story of Eden from the Bible and the two Fruits of Life and Knowledge.

In the European occult tradition of which alchemy is a part, the Fruit of Life represents the primordial state of spiritual perfection, revelation, and enlightenment, while the Fruit of Knowledge represents civilization and learning. Alchemy is a matter of using knowledge and formulae to attain the Fruit of Life, the philosopher's stone--it is precisely what Kleist is talking about when he refers to eating the Fruit of Life twice.

As I said, Rainbow Dash's quest in this episode mimics the path Kleist describes. In her initial state of childish innocence (which we will see later this season, in "The Cutie Mark Chronicles") she is able to do things without understanding how she does them, the way a small child learns a new language. By the time of this episode, however, she can no longer do it. She struggles and strains to recover that ability, just as an adult struggles to acquire a second language. In the end, however, she finds a way to do it, and we will see later she can now do sonic rainbooms and variations thereof at will: she has passed from sweet innocence, through corrupt experience, to perfect mastery.

Much of the appeal of the show is its sincerity, its depiction of a world where people get along and care about one another without needing to hide behind cynicism and irony and all the other armors with which we guard ourselves from emotional harm. Many of us have lost the ability to trust easily, to empathize openly, to care about strangers. We've learned that this hurts, and this experience has led us to abandon the free and easy socializing of children in favor of emotional isolation, practiced coolness or detached cynicism. The popularity of My Little Pony proves that many of us ache for what seems a simpler, more innocent time, but we seemingly cannot recover it. We have passed from sweet innocence to corrupt experience, but mastery appears out of reach.

But there is a way, and the key is this episode's rainbow iconography. Throughout the series, starting back in the first story, rainbows exemplify the magic of friendship, most obviously in the visual effect generated by the Elements of Harmony. The sonic rainboom is no different, as "The Cutie Mark Chronicles" will make emphatically clear; even in this episode, Rainbow Dash is only able to do it when she stops worrying about winning the contest, and instead acts for the benefit of others in her desperate dive to save Rarity and the Wonderbolts.

So it is with our lost access to the magic of friendship. We live in a cynical world because so many of us are cynics; the cure is for more of us to refuse to be cynics. We can pass through cynicism and realize the limits and costs of cynicism itself; eating the Fruit of Knowledge a second time, we can pass through experience to mastery. The secret is astonishingly simple: Help one another. Help strangers. Reach out and do good. Prove that cynicism is wrong, that some people can be trusted, by becoming one of those people. Dive to save someone who is falling, and you will find the magic of friendship exploding once more. The emergence of Bronies for Good (the first of several brony charities) a few months after this episode suggests that the transformation has begun; bronies are beginning to change, to become something different than your run-of-the-mill geek fandom.

It's fitting (to the point of being, in hindsight, perhaps inevitable) that a glorified toy commercial would show us the way. Of course the ultimate expression of commercialized cynicism, a merchandise-driven children's show, would eventually pass through to a new sincerity on the other side. How else could it show us the way to do the same?

Next week: Fluttershy and the CMC. In one episode. I'm not sure I'll be able to stop squeeing long enough to actually do any analysis...

Sunday, January 13, 2013

It's not scientifically possible. *You* are not scientifically possible! (Feeling Pinkie Keen)

[Insert Lord of the Rings "walking
around Middle-Earth" music here.]
It's February 11, 2011. Bruno Mars' Grenade is back on top song duty, and I think I already said everything I have to say about it. The top movie this weekend is Just Go With It, a romantic comedy and remake starring Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston, so that's four strikes against it out of the gate. I haven't seen it--hadn't even heard of it prior to writing this article--and feel absolutely no regret for that.

In real news, social media-organized protests in Tunisia and Egypt lead to the dissolution of the ruling party and resignation of the president, respectively, and a new protest begins in Serbia. Activision Blizzard announces they're done making Guitar Hero sequels, provoking a resounding cry of "meh," and George W. Bush cancels a trip to Switzerland amid calls by Swiss and international activists to arrest him for war crimes as soon as he steps off the plane.

On TV we have one of the more controversial episodes, Dave Polsky's debut effort "Feeling Pinkie Keen." It's a fairly straightforward premise: Pinkie Pie is being weird, and Twilight Sparkle puts on her scientist hat to investigate. She is deeply skeptical about Pinkie's claim to predict the future with various twinges and twitches, and sets out to test it. Her efforts are repeatedly frustrated, however, by successful predictions on Pinkie's part that seem to inevitably result in Twilight suffering comedic injury, from getting flattened behind doors to taking an anvil to the head.

This is unquestionably a deeply flawed episode. Structurally, it suffers from the essentially random hydra attack in the third act. It's set up in terms of establishing that Fluttershy is in the swamp and that Pinkie Pie has premonitions of "a doozy" happening there, but it doesn't have any particular resonance with the main conflict of the story; there's no thematic reason to have a hydra attack as opposed to any other kind of crisis. Twilight is also badly out of character throughout the episode--she has her moments of being Ms. Know-It-All, but nowhere else in the series is she this outright and openly contemptuous of one of her friends. From a story perspective, it's necessary for her to act this way. Cartoon slapstick only works if the victim is unsympathetic: Wile E. Coyote's injuries are only funny because he's an arrogant bully who wants to kill and eat the innocent Road Runner. It's a general rule, however, that if your story requires a lot of out of character behavior, it's the story that needs changing.

More to the point, cartoon slapstick falls well on the cynical side of the cynicism-sincerity binary we've been developing. It requires that there exist people who deserve to have anvils dropped on their heads, which is quite a bit harsher than most people's views on real life, let alone the cleaner, brighter world of My Little Pony.

So, given a structurally flawed, out of character, and tonally inappropriate episode, what's the main complaint in the fandom? Why, that it's anti-science, of course!

To be fair, that's a legitimate complaint. Pinkie's claims have all the trappings of the usual claims of "psychics" in real life--broad, vague terms like "something" and "soon," "you don't believe because you don't understand," and the way her abilities evaporate the moment she's put in controlled, laboratory conditions. There's a spectrum of such claimants, from outright frauds and con artists to people whose need to feel special leads them to mistake everyday coincidences for special powers, but regardless, their claims can and do cause real harm by leading people to base their decisions on unreliable information, because in real life, psychic powers have repeatedly failed to work after repeated attempts (particularly throughout the latter half of the twentieth century) to prove their existence.

Thus, if the episode were honest, well-constructed, and actually trying to make Pinkie Sense an equivalent to real-world psychic claims, it should have ended either with Pinkie learning a lesson about coincidences and Occam's razor, or ambiguously, with both Pinkie and Twilight satisfied with their position and agreeing to disagree.

The episode can also be read as anti-atheist, both insofar as the atheist and skeptic movements are allied, and also because Twilight's final embrace of "belief" results in a literal visit from God--Pinkie Pie predicts again that "something" will fall, and Celestia herself descends onto their balcony without explanation to accept Spike's letter. Given that the episode already quotes the "Derpy Hooves" meme in the form of having a wall-eyed Ditzy Doo working as a clumsy deliverypony, it seems quite likely that this is a deliberate reference to the "Celestia is God" meme. Twilight's out-of-character depiction is also typical for a fictional atheist: angry, contemptuous of believers, and self-deluding; once she embraces Pinkie's abilities, she becomes happier, friendlier, and more fun.

This is an obnoxious stereotype, which unfortunately has not been helped by the existence of a minority of atheists who are angry, contemptuous of belief and believers, and motivated by a delusional belief that belief without evidence is inherently harmful and morally wrong (a claim for which they provide no evidence, so we can add hypocrisy to the list, too). Most of us are, of course, no better or worse than anyone else, aware of the fact, and willing to live and let live, but for precisely that reason we're far less noticeable than the shouty minority. Converting a dogmatist isn't likely to change them much--they'll just obnoxiously demand everyone around them conform to their new dogma--so, if it wanted to be critical of specifically the New Atheists or what Philip Sandifer calls Big-Ass Science, as opposed to throwing around tired stereotypes bordering on religious bigotry, the resolution really ought to be either the ambiguous one I described above, or for Twilight to accept that Pinkie Pie is wrong, but having fun and not actually hurting anyone, so why not let her just be weird?

The problem with both reads, and the proposed fixes to the episode that result from them, is that they all require Twilight to be right. Pinkie Sense needs to demonstrably not work, just as psychic powers in the real world don't work; otherwise, Twilight is a caricature of a skeptic. In the episode, however, Pinkie Sense is real, which results in the episode coming across as a wish-fulfilment fantasy by someone who believes in psychic powers or something similar, and dreams of a world where they actually and obviously work, so all those meanie-pants skeptics and scientists get beaten over the head with anvils because of their unbelief. Read that way--which, again, seems the most natural read--the episode is even more mean-spirited than it already appeared, and even less of a fit for the series as a whole.

All of this assumes, however, that we read it as straightforwardly taking one side or the other in a simple, two-sided conflict between Team Skepticism and Team Woo. The episode can be partially redeemed if we consider the possibility of taking an intermediate position--alas, I can do nothing for the characterization, structure, and tone, but perhaps the theme can be salvaged. There's good reason to try--first, because there's not enough good or even mediocre art in the world, so any approach that gives us more is a good approach, and second, because Polsky's next episode is all about finding middle ground in a seemingly polarized, two-sided conflict, so it's possible there's grounds for doing so here.

First, if we are going to attempt a redemptive reading we can start by rejecting the assertion that Twilight represents an atheist position. The issue there is simple: all ponies are atheists. There has never been the slightest hint of there being any form of religion in Equestria, fan memes notwithstanding; Celestia and Luna are immensely powerful entities, but they are the physically present heads of state and government, not gods, and the reactions of other ponies toward them are not worship or any kind of spiritual experience, but typical rituals toward a monarch. The key here is their physical presence; you can't just walk up to a god and say hello. At the very least you need to undertake some arduous quest to reach a remote physical location like Mt. Olympus or Kadath in the Cold Wastes; more often, communication with the gods is only possible by spiritual means.

If all ponies are atheists, then this is really an episode about doubt regarding physical phenomena. The most obvious comparison is of course to psychic powers, but as I said, the single most important fact about real-world psychic powers is that they don't actually exist. The episode gives us every reason, however, to believe that Pinkie Sense does work. While they do contain a lot of vague terms, Pinkie's predictions are actually fairly specific in terms of time frame--the events she predicts occur within hours of the prediction, and frequently within seconds. "Something is going to fall in the next day" is a very vague prediction--lots of things fall in a day, so it's a very safe bet. "Something is going to fall in my presence in the next ten seconds" is a much more specific prediction, and one Pinkie successfully repeats enough times in the course of this episode to suggest that something is going on.

Of course, that something is not necessarily what Pinkie thinks it is. Twilight is right to investigate cautiously, because the fact that Pinkie's tail-twitches correlate closely with falling objects is not in and of itself proof of anything. However, rejecting outright the possibility of any connection and insisting that it's all coincidence, repetition after repetition, is neither science nor skepticism. To give a real-world example: Psychic powers don't exist. You can't predict the future. On the other hand, it's fairly well-documented for people to get odd tinges and pains, especially joint pain, shortly before a storm. There's no magic at work here, simply a physiological response to a change in air pressure, temperature, and moisture, but the only reason we know that is because somebody saw the correlation and looked for a connection, which we now understand well enough that you can get an "aches and pains" forecast at most weather sites. If, however, the response of scientists had been to insist that the correlation must be coincidence and to refuse to look for any kind of connection, we still wouldn't understand what causes those twinges, and we wouldn't be able to warn sufferers that there's probably going to be a storm tomorrow, so they should keep painkillers handy.

In the real world, scientists investigated claims of psychic phenomena. Some of those scientists believed the phenomena were or might be legitimate; others were actively trying to disprove them. The results of their collective effort was that we now know that, for instance, people who claim psychic powers are no better than random chance at guessing symbols on hidden cards or predicting which of several random colors a computer will flash next. Pinkie, on the other hand, repeatedly performs succesfully. A good scientist would respond by noting that something unusual is happening in the data, and seek for a reason why, which Twilight almost spends all of three seconds doing in her basement lab (which lab is, credit where credit is due, completely awesome).

Throughout this episode, Twilight is consistently a terrible scientist and a terrible skeptic, to the point that she really doesn't qualify as either. She has a strong preference going in for what she wants the outcome to be, and repeatedly ignores or discounts data that doesn't fit her desired outcome. In short, she behaves less like a skeptic and more like a conspiracy theorist pretending to skepticism, also called a denialist after the most prominent examples in the English-speaking world, who deny the overwhelming evidence for global warming, evolution, or the effectiveness and safety of childhood vaccination. Twilight is a pitch-perfect denialist, ignoring the evidence in front of her face even when it would require absurd amounts of planning and coordination to fake (this particular conspiracy would require, at a minimum, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, Ditzy Doo, and a hydra to cooperate), treating everyone who doesn't share her delusion as a weak-minded fool for buying into the lies of the imaginary conspiracy, and generally being a hostile jerk to everyone around her. Read as a conspiracy theorist, even her out-of-character jerkassery makes sense; a lot of real-life conspiracy theorists are perfectly nice people until you dare to question the Secret Knowledge they have built their identity around. (The similarity to the way geeks respond when you criticize their favorite media is no accident; most people respond with hostility if you challenge a fundamental element of their self-image.)

Twilight's letter at the end, if we read her as a recovering conspiracy theorist, again makes sense. The common element between the conspiracy theorist and the scientist is the need for life to make sense and be understandable, the need for organizing principles under which all knowledge can be filed. Unfortunately, there are limits to this approach. Some things really do have to be believed in, at the very least those things which stop existing if not believed in, like money, laws, and morals. (In the business, we call these social constructs.) Her letter thus does take a stand against an extremist pro-science position that all of everything is most easily understood by means of Science! (this position pretty much always regards science as having both capital S and exclamation point), but it is hardly equivalent to a call to abandon reason and embrace superstition and woo. It is simply acknowledgment that not every phenomenon that occurs is necessarily going to be within her personal scope of understanding, and sometimes she just has to let it go and leave it for other people to study with other tools.

Is this the intended or even the most likely reading of the episode? No. The most likely reading remains the wish-fulfilment fantasy of a frustrated believer in whatever it is that Polsky believes, and a bit of a revenge fantasy directed toward whichever skeptics pointed out that his beliefs aren't objective facts. But this is ponies, and we're bronies; it's worth at least trying to read the episode in a more positive way and get what good out of it we can.

Next week: Pride, performance anxiety, Icarus, and varicolored explosions.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

You see? We are apple pie! (Suited for Success)

Pinkie Pie will devour your soul.
And it will be adorable.
Identity Crisis and Transmutation

The crisis ushered in by "Swarm of the Century" is, more or less, resolved. My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic has addressed the question of where it stands between sincere and heartfelt friendship lessons for tots and cynical reference-heavy humor for geeks--halfway between, forever tugged in both directions, taking the best of both while trying to navigate between the pitfalls of either.

It is still not quite deserving of the dedication and devotion that the brony phenomenon represents. Work yet remains to be done; it is still becoming.

The great work concludes...


The final phase of the magnum opus is "reddening," the creation of the philosopher's stone. The base materials have become gold in the prior phase,  but now they become that which creates gold; the inner light created by the synthesis of opposites now shines forth strongly as dawn gives way to the bright morning of a brand new day. This phase represents perfection, spiritual enlightenment, and the power of creation; it is the attainment of a new maturity and the fulfillment of potential.

It's February 4, 2011. Top of the charts is Britney Spears' "Hold It Against Me," a song unironically based entirely around a standard-issue cheesy pickup line and one of the best arguments in history for just giving up on this whole "civilization" thing and embracing extinction. Tops at the box office is The Roommate, which helpfully and hilariously categorizes as a "Blank From Hell" thriller. No help there as far as arguments for humanity's worth as a species go.

Since last episode, the protests in Egypt have dominated the news, with similarly organized protests going on in Tunisia, Yemen, Syria, the Sudan, and England, among other places. World food prices hit a record high, which is hardly mentioned as a possible cause for the widespread protests. Wikileaks continues to expose government and corporate malfeasance around the world, but this barely registers as news anymore. 

Meanwhile, on TV, we have My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic's first truly flawless (which is not necessarily the same as best) episode, Charlotte Fullerton's "Suited for Success." For the first time, the show is absolutely hitting on all cylinders: every one of the Mane Six has a part to play, and every one of them is completely in character. It's a perfect hybrid of the Rainbow Dash and Applejack approaches we identified in the last two articles: it's got a big fat Sondheim reference in the form of Rarity's song and reprise, and generates a couple of the show's most enduring memes, especially "twenty percent cooler." It's got great humor, but it's all thoroughly character-based, and the ponies are all good and well-meaning people with less than perfect social skills: the conflict feels real and there are genuine stakes for Rarity in the form of business success and professional pride, but nobody's the bad guy, nobody's a jerk, a lesson is learned and everything works out in the end.

Like "Swarm of the Century" before it, this is very much an episode for bronies, and like "Call of the Cutie," it's very much about us, too. I say "us" because, in case it isn't already obvious, I identify as a brony.

A couple of months ago at AnimeUSA, my friend Charles invited me to be on a panel with him and a couple of other people about otaku. One of the things we talked about was the many, many different possible definitions of the term. I argued for the term as an equivalent, at least in English-speaking contexts, to anime geek. An anime geek, I argued, is not quite the same thing as an anime fan; an anime fan is someone who likes anime. An anime geek is someone who constructs their identity at least in part around anime; someone who would be a different person if they had never encountered anime. I gave two personal examples of the difference: I am a fan of DC comics, but not a geek for them; if I had never encountered Superman, Booster Gold, or the Question I would still be the same person. I am a geek for My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, however; in a world without it, I would be a different person.

"You were definitely a different person before ponies," Charles quipped.

All art is transformative. There's this myth floating around that art is a form of communication, that the purpose of art is to transmit information from the mind of the artist to the mind of the viewer. It's understandable where this myth comes from, since art frequently uses the same vectors as communication--images and sounds, pictures that look like things, the spoken and written word. But treating art as a form of communication quickly leads to absurdity, because good communication is clear communication. There is no such thing as excessively clear communication, but there is such a thing as overly transparent art. We expect communication to be didactic, to have an agenda; these are features, not flaws, yet to say that art is didactic or that it has an agenda is usually a criticism.

Purpose is in the eye of the beholder, and so the purpose of art is different for every person and every work. Function, however, is objective, and the primary function of art is transformation. Experiencing art changes you; usually only a little bit, but sometimes much more. Any art can achieve this transformation, but some works do it more than others--and some works seek actively to transform.

That's what My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic did to me. It made me someone other than who I was before it, and very much for the better. It's mostly subtle, little things. When someone posts a stupid opinion on the Internet, I'm a lot less likely to argue with them, and when I do argue, I pull out sooner. I'm more social, and less likely to stay home all weekend. I answer the phone slightly more often. I've been told that I'm also more passionate, more energized, less prone to holding myself back and playing it safe in social situations.

Oh, and I started a blog where I analyze the series to ridiculous levels, can't forget that.

All art is transformative, but "Suited for Success" is where My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic starts seeking actively to transform. In alchemy, rubedo is the final stage in creating the philosopher's stone. It is the ultimate end goal of the magnum opus, the creation of an object which can turn base metals into gold, create the elixir of eternal life, and heal the possessor both physically and spiritually. It is an object, a work, which transforms people, makes them better.

Back when I began this blog, I argued that a show about the magic of friendship, in this day and age, is necessarily a show about the Internet and the Internet Generation. But despite its vast potential, the Internet remains very much an untamed wilderness, a place where the cynical and the hateful and the self-obsessed--"trolls" in online parlance, "dragons" in the mythology of the show--can lash out freely and without consequences. It is a place where people are free to be who they are without consequences, and the result is that a small handful of dedicated assholes run around destroying everything they can touch.

The legendary bastion of this dedication, the ultimate hive of scum and villainy, at least in the English-speaking portions of the Internet, is of course 4chan's /b/ board. I have no idea if this is actually true--I refuse to go anywhere near 4chan, but I find it a bit difficult to believe that anything can be worse than YouTube comments--but in a sense that's less important than the general perception that 4chan is the bottom of the Internet barrel, and /b/ is the squirmy things living in the filth under the barrel. And yet this is where bronies began.

It is a baffling contradiction. The fandom that gave us "I'm going to love and tolerate the shit out of you" began in the black heart of the Internet Hate Machine. Oh, it might have been ironic at first, but spend some time with bronies and it becomes quickly clear that sincerity is a defining feature of the fandom, just as it is of the show. Most bronies are completely sincere in both their love of the show and in their yearning for a world where people can be kind and friendly without being torn apart by dragons, trolls, and assholes who perceive gentleness as weakness and sincerity as vulnerability.

The alien infection of love, happiness, and rainbows at the heart of /b/ necessarily resulted in rejection. 4chan tried to drive the ponies out, and succeeded for a time--but only for a time. In the end, they had to cave in and let the bronies return.

From the heart of darkness, My Little Pony forged light, and that light in time overcame the darkness. This is the power of the philosopher's stone. It is a power that was always latent within the show--the story I told above began with the first episode--but it is only with "Swarm of the Century" that the show becomes aware that bronies exist, and only with "Suited for Success" that it figures out what to do about them.

Because this episode, more than any before it, makes clear that we are the main characters of this show. As Rarity struggles to create, the demands of the other ponies become a typical litany of complaints you'll hear on any fan board. Twilight Sparkle wants accuracy at the expense of quality--she's those fans that want the show to stop mid-episode and spend 20 minutes explaining why Rainbow Dash can turn a cloud into a trampoline. Pinkie Pie has no sense of restraint and wants everything she thinks is cool to happen at once, no matter whether it fits together, like a bad crossover fanfic. Applejack is obsessed with the pragmatic side of things--she can equally well be read as the sort of fan who constantly looks up Nielsen ratings, or alternatively as a Concerned Parent (tm) insisting that the show be safe and educational and aseptic. Rainbow Dash is the vague fan who can't explain what they want, but insists that the show do it. And Fluttershy insists on treating a dumb little cartoon like it's high art and over-analyzes every detail, like some asshole blogger or something. They are fractious, complaining, and selfish, like every Internet fan discussion thread ever.

Yet they learn. At the end of the episode, they realize that their vision of how things should be isn't working out as well as they'd hoped, and decide to embrace Rarity's vision instead. Almost like posters on a certain image board deciding to watch My Little Pony to mock it, and instead discovering they love it.

The Internet is changing. Originally created as a place where anyone could say anything from behind a veil of anonymity, this is rapidly being revealed as a terrible idea. It turns out that, when there are no rules and no consequences, power and the abuse of power don't magically disappear; they fall into the hands of the biggest asshole. As more people move onto the Internet, discontent is growing; demand for safe spaces and civil discussions is rising, and people's freedom to do awful things from behind a mask of anonymity is increasingly challenged, as witness the recent war between Reddit and basically every non-jackass on the planet over the "creepshots" subreddit.

A long cultural love affair with bullies and bullying as a sort of refining fire is starting to end. Everywhere from our schools to the Internet to the ballot box, we are beginning to recognize that bullying breeds only bullies, broken people, and broken communities. A new generation is rising, more interconnected and social than our immediate predecessors, more open about our thoughts and feelings, more tolerant and community-minded.

Of course we're also selfish, intolerant, hateful, and angry. Of course we're cynical and bitter. It's an ugly world, and we all do our part to keep it that way.

But it doesn't have to be. Put aside the magic, the talking animals, and look for a moment at the essence of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. These characters are, more or less, believable. A little naive, a little trusting, but ultimately they're people with jobs and lives and friends, who make mistakes and don't always do the right thing, but who generally forgive one another and try their best to get along.

It's an escapist fantasy, which is to say, it is a better world than the one in which we find ourselves. But again and again, friendship lesson after friendship lesson, it hammers home that this better world is better because the people in it all choose for it to be such. It is an escape that heals, that offers happiness and peace without cynicism.

It's a funny thing, but when I'm feeling happy and peaceful and non-cynical, I'm a much nicer person. I think most people are. Do a lot of something that makes you happy and peaceful and non-cynical, and you spend still more time being a nicer person. Spend time around others who are feeling the same way, within a fandom for instance, and it reinforces that niceness. By and large, the brony communities I've participated in online are vastly nicer, friendlier, and more welcoming than the norm.

Of course there are exceptions. Some people are always going to be jerks, and everybody has a bad mood sooner or later. But the baseline is simply higher for bronies than any other fandom or online community I've been in. Most online interactions have an undercurrent of wary hostility, a sense that anyone could go off at any moment; as a result, it's extremely jarring to enter a brony space for the first time and find oneself assumed to be friendly until proven otherwise.

This is the second great truth of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: Cynicism poisons communities, and sincerity and openness are the cure. That truth is the source of its transformative power; by maintaining sincerity without descending into the twee, it demonstrates that sincerity is not inherently a weakness and bit by bit chips away at the cynicism of its fans.

The philosopher's stone takes many forms--a stone, of course, but it can also be an elixir, a powder, even a spiritual essence. And, apparently, it can be a cartoon about ponies.

The great work is complete.

The real work begins.

Next week: Done with alchemy, at least for now, it's time to wade into the Science Wars...