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...

Rubedo

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 BoxOfficeMojo.com 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...

6 comments:

  1. I like the idea of MLP being unusually open and friendly. It's one of the nicer things about the fandom and the show as a whole, in my opinion. It's certainly a very inviting community.

    Oh, next week is the "Dear Princess Celestia: atheists are stupid" episode, isn't it? I think it's my least favorite episode of the series. (Ironically, it was my first episode and almost put me off the series altogether; fortunately, I gave it another shot, and loved Boast Busters.) But I really did enjoy 'Suited for Success', especially all the music, and Fluttershy having secret sewing skills. And there were a lot of good gags too, including the famous '20% cooler' bit.

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    1. Seriously. Obviously there are exceptions, but in general bronies are just about the nicest people I've met in any fandom.

      *rubs hands gleefully*

      Oh, I'm going to have *fun* with my next article...

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  2. It's good timing, too, that you've been writing posts about change and metamorphosis in the main series, given the big discussions about the direction of the Lunaverse (mostly in the comments of RDD's latest story, 'At the Grand Galloping Gala', which have folks arguing whether or not it's making the universe too dark or whatnot). If you don't mind me asking, have you formed any opinions on that?

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    1. I haven't, actually--I only read completed stories, so I haven't looked at that. Also I've been not very involved in the discussions lately--RL's been a bitch. This blog has barely gotten finished some weeks, but I'm determined to make my deadlines on this and not have it go the way of my AtLA Mondays back in the day.

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    2. The debate has moved onto the boards, if you're interested. See: http://www.fimfiction.net/group/760/the-lunaverse/thread/8714/light-in-the-darkness-controlling-implications-raised-about-the-setting#comment/608202

      I enjoy your blog a lot, so I'm glad that you've written so much. And I'm really interested in what you have to say about 'Pinkie Keen.' Good luck with dealing with your RL stuff as well!

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