Thursday, February 28, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Cloudsdale Congress!

I will be at Cloudsdale Congress in Alexandria, VA March 9-10.

I will be on four panels:

My Little Panel: A general analysis panel on MLP:FIM, including series-spanning themes, character archetypes, and a debate (topic to be determined, but probably Twilicorn Sparkopalypse-related).

Brony vs. Brony: MLP trivia gameshow. Six contestants, and any questions they can't answer go to the audience. Prizes and candy! I will be serving as laptop monkey/Vanna White-equivalent... you know, if Vanna White were a short, fat guy with a beard.

A Petite Panel about Ponies and Postmodernism: Basically this blog in panel form, but on a broad, series-wide level instead of going deep into individual episosdes.

A Brief History of Saturday Morning: A serious, historical study of the development of North American short-form animation, from the last days of theatrical shorts in the 1960s to the merchandise-driven wasteland of the 80s, through the golden age of the 90s, and culminating in the emergence of MLP:FIM. Totally not at all an excuse to spend an hour showing clips of our favorite cartoons, why would you think that?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Alicorns and Unicorns

Can only unicorns become alicorns, or is there a way for pegasi and Earth ponies to do it?

Because it sure seems like nobody but a unicorn could do what Twilight did in the finale, and that means that the three tribes didn't merge equally to found Equestria (or if they did, they abandoned that equality long ago); the unicorns rule the other two tribes.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Masculinity

Every once in a while, I see someone complaining that bronies are an attack on masculinity, or the product of a culture that attacks masculinity, or similar idiotic statements.

Whenever I see someone saying something like that, I really just want to laugh while drinking a glass full of their tears. I finally have real hope that this is the generation where, at long last, gender roles die in a fire--and My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is part of the fuel.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Musicals

While there are plenty of songs throughout the show, both the second- and third-season finales have been full-fledged musicals. It's a trend I'd be happy to see continue.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

We brought this blizzard to our home by fightin' and not trustin' each other. Now it's destroyin' this land, too. (Over a Barrel)

Wait, you mean this ISN'T a nuance and respectful
treatment of a culture tragically villainized and nigh-
eradicated by European aggression? But it
looks SO much like one!
It's March 25, 2011. Lady Gaga is on top for her third straight week, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Roderick Rules is number one at the box office, though only just ahead of the execrable Sucker Punch. That latter is something of an achievement, though, as it marks the only time someone has ever both written and directed a movie with only one hand. In real news, the U.S., France, and several other countries intervene on the rebel side of the Libyan civil war, Egypt holds a constitutional convention, and the death toll for the Japanese quake is now nearly 10,000, with over 15,000 missing.

This week, Dave Polsky gives us his last episode until the third season, and it's not exactly great. "Over a Barrel" suffers from a problem that will come up a lot in third season, namely that it's trying to tell a story that cannot be told within the limitations of a My Little Pony show.

I once heard a very good explanation of why Song of the South was horrifying, and I wish I could remember where it was so that I could cite this: "Imagine if someone made a musical set in Auschwitz in 1950, and it opened with a Jewish chorus singing 'Nothing bad has ever happened here!'" That's what this episode is like: it takes a horrifically violent period of American history, a time of genocide, biological warfare, and forced marches, and turns it into a pie fight.

But let's take a step back, and examine how else this episode could have gone. Take the premise as a given: My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is going to do an episode about the westward expansion of the U.S. and the conflicts between Native Americans and settlers. Is there any conceivable universe in which this is a good idea? The core values of the show are love, tolerance, and friendship, which means it is obligated to depict both sides as fully human and fully complex, but it is a half-hour show intended to be suitable for children, which means the conflict also has to be entirely defanged. Of course, that defanging is in turn incredibly disrespectful to the entire peoples systematically slaughtered, and ignores that, by modern standards of morality, the settlers were entirely and completely in the wrong.

Admittedly, the episode does make a good effort in some places. The first few minutes, up until the arrival in Appleloosa, are straight-up hilarious. Fluttershy's "I'd like to be a tree" is one of her funniest lines in the series. The buffalo are pure obnoxious stereotype, but at least we get to see representatives of the young people on both sides (Little Strongheart and Braeburn) who don't want to be drawn into the conflicts of their elders, but find themselves swept up in it anyway.

This doomed attempt to reject ethnic conflict by the young echoes more recent, similar conflicts. I'm not particularly aware of any major generational divide in attitudes toward the conflicts in the American Old West, but modern ethnic clashes often see such a difference, with many young people (often sharing in a quasiglobal youth culture of pop music and television) initially taking less hardline stances than their parents, only to be drawn into the conflict as they suffer losses due to it.

A case in point, and one that seems to have informed "Over a Barrel," is the 60-plus-year-long conflict between Israel and Palestine. (Not thousands of years; up until the mid-twentieth century, Jews and Muslims had historically gotten along with each other much, much better than either group got along with Christians.) Said conflict, always at least on the back burner, has steadily heated throughout the months that the series has been on the air, and several exchanges of rocket fire occurred in the week this episode aired. A short examination of the similarities between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the central conflict of "Over a Barrel" is thus evocative, if not actually proof that the creators had it in mind.

A point of due diligence before we continue: I am a leftist Israeli-American non-practicing Jew who thinks it was a mistake to put the Jewish state in Israel. Patagonia or Alaska (both of which were floated as possibilities when the state was founded) would have been a lot less disruptive to the surrounding peoples and led to a lot less conflict. Depending on who you talk to, that biography and opinion means I am horribly biased, though which way I am biased is a matter of some debate.

On with the similarities:

First, both conflicts are between relatively newly arrived settlers and natives, but both have seemingly legitimate claims to call the land their home. Notably (and unlike the American West as far as I know), the settlers have positioned themselves across the middle of the buffaloes' territory, forcing them to cross settler territory to get from one side of their land to the other, just as modern-day Israel divides the West Bank from the Gaza Strip--and, as in modern-day Israel, the settler ponies initially refuse to allow the buffalo to cross the orchard.

Applejack is another point of similarity; she provides resources to her ally among the settlers, and then serves as a voice shoring up the hardliners on the settler side, which of course she is free to do, having nothing to lose if the conflict escalates. Her behavior is not too different from that of the American right wing, which likewise fuels the conflict by shoring up the hardliners on the Israeli side and raises money for the settlers. One of the tragic unintended consequences of the founding of the state of Israel is that it has largely ended the historical alignment of Judaism with the left; in the U.S., in particular, the Jewish right is a potent political force doing its part every day to make life worse for almost everyone (this being the purpose of right-leaning political factions) in both the U.S. and Israel.

On the opposite side we have Spike and Rainbow Dash, who fill the role of neighboring Arab powers that serve a similar function in funding and shoring up hardliners on the Palestinian side. And in the middle we have Pinkie Pie, whose well-meaning attempts to spread peace and brotherhood just annoy everyone, much like the attempts by Western leftist groups (at least those view which don't just blindly align with the Palestinians out of a misguided assumption that underdogs never commit war crimes) to get involved.

The only real hope for ending the conflict lies in Braeburn and Little Strongheart--in other words, for those not yet embittered by conflict to serve as voices of reason, and find a solution by which neither side wins, but both sides are satisfied. In the cartoon, of course, this is achieved with almost comical ease; the reality is a bit harder. Much like the settler ponies and buffalo, the Israelis and Palestinians could work together to make a better world for both; an economic alliance or even a political federation could serve Israeli and Palestinian interests far better than continued conflict, while one side "winning" and successfully driving out the other would be an unmitigated disaster for that faction. Unfortunately, the wounds of past conflict make future conflict nigh-inevitable, because people are not ponies; even those willing to forgive, to move on, and to build are held back by fear of the unwilling on both sides.

The show strains against its limits, here, but it cannot overcome them. For all of the transformative power it has built up through its own alchemical magnum opus, it cannot transform the political realm directly, and its suggested solution rings incredibly false and unrealistic. By attempting to tell a story that resonates with real-world conflicts (current or historical), it runs headlong into the problem that people are much messier than ponies.

There are real, understandable motiviations for all combatants on all sides of all conflicts. No one ever picks up a gun and shoots another human being unless it seemed like a good idea at the time. Though from the vantage point of history it is easy to tell that the Native Americans were (mostly) victims and the settlers were (overall) unjustified aggressors, at the time everyone on both side had what seemed like good arguments that they were right. Unfortunately, those arguments are rooted in the violent, hateful elements of human nature, in greed and pain and rage, and these are things which must not and cannot exist in Equestria.

The result is, necessarily, a pie fight.

But then what is the show to spend its transformative energies on, if not addressing real-world conflicts?

The answer lies in the previous episode: it can spend its transformative energies on its viewers. Change every person in a society, and you change that society. Change a society, and you change every event in which that society is involved. To change one person for the better, even a little bit, is thus to take a step closer to a better world.

"Over a Barrel" isn't a great episode, but not out of any particular failures in its execution (though the depiction of the buffalo was a massive failure). Rather, it fails because this is an entirely wrong direction for the show to be taking. However, it may be that this was a necessary wrong direction; certainly, it will be quite some time before the show attempts any similarly doomed premises. With this wrong step behind it, it can return to the theme of transformation with new confidence and a more direct approach than its past oblique passes.

Next week: And what better place to start than with the phoenix?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Couches and Quills

The "sofa clerk," as "Magical Mystery Cure" calls him--the stallion whose Ponyville shop apparently sells quills and sofas, according to its sign? That actually makes total sense as a combination, seeing as they're both made out of feathers.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Pride Flags

For all the comments on Rainbow Dash from early in the show, Twilight Sparkle has very nearly the same colors as the bisexual pride flag.

Interpret that how you will.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: What I Want in Fourth Season

If fourth season doesn't have an episode where Scootaloo and Twilight get flying lessons from Rainbow Dash, with Twilight realizing to her dismay that she really likes flying and eventually uttering the line "Oh no--I'm a jock!" I will be very disappoint.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Twilicorn Sparkolypse

So, the season three finale was unexpectedly good. Great songs (mostly), and the alicorn thing wasn't quite as horribly artificial as I feared it might be. My only concern now is how we get back to Ponyville, because "Twilight leaves Ponyville" is much more of a series-killer than "Twilight now has wings," mostly because there is nothing that could get Applejack to leave her farm short of its total destruction, and splitting up the mane six permanently is absolutely antithetical to the show's themes.

And yes, I know about Tara Strong's tweet. Nothing is canon until it happens in the show.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Initial Reactions

Back in 2011, I was actually more surprised that the new Scooby-Doo was good than that the new My Little Pony was good.

Am I weird?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Pony Fans Not Bronies

I was looking at the "ponies" Tumblr tag today, and it's about 30% pictures of real ponies and about 70% brony stuff.

I feel bad for people who like real ponies.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

P.S. Obviously Spike did not have to learn a lesson, because he is the best, most awesome friend a pony could ask for. (Green Isn't Your Color)

The Fashion Mafia:
"Nice little boutique you have here. Be a shame if any of...
ze magics happened to it..."
It's March 18, 2011. Lady Gaga is still "Born This Way," and something I've never heard of called Limitless is leading in the box office. In real news, the Sendai earthquake and tsunami dominate, with the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant suffering from cooling system failures and possible meltdown as a result of the quake. This isn't revealed until much later, but the Obama administration begins the early stages of planning Operation Neptune Spear, which kills Osama bin Laden. The last American to serve in World War I dies, and Hillary Clinton announces her intention to retire from public life at the end of Obama's first term.

After last week, the notion of another Rarity-centric episode seems less than thrilling, but thankfully Meghan McCarthy has writing duties on "Green Isn't Your Color," and at least for the first two seasons her name is a sign of great things.

As I believe I've mentioned before, characters are most interesting in pairs, and this episode gives us three pairs we haven't seen much of before: Rarity-Fluttershy, Twilight-Fluttershy, and Rarity-Twilight. While we don't get a lot of insight into Fluttershy we haven't seen before, she's still pretty well-written. Both of her last appearances have emphasized the core of strength that underlies her anxiety and timidity, but doing that too much runs the risk of making that anxiety seem like a mask or an act instead of a real character flaw. Making Fluttershy consistently shy and reluctant to express her feelings throughout this episode, ultimately revealing them only when directly confronted, was an excellent call.

More interesting is the insight we get into Twilight Sparkle. She's very much the Twilight of "Look Before You Sleep" here, following any rules anyone tells her while ignoring the evidence in front of her face. Pinkie Pie's repeated warnings to her not to break her promises are blindly obeyed because, as far as Twilight is concerned, anyone who isn't her is more knowledgeable about how friendships work, and Pinkie Pie may as well be an expert. Of course Pinkie is wrong; some promises should sometimes be broken, but figuring out which are which requires a grasp of social nuance that is, frankly, beyond any of the Mane Six at this point.

Speaking of Pinkie Pie, I left her out of the list of interesting character pairs for the simple reason that she doesn't get any real development in this episode. She pretty much exists for purposes of a single running gag, and while it's a great gag, it's not exactly characterologically rich.

Most developed, happily, is Rarity. To judge by the last episode, she's kind of awful, but in this episode we get to see a much more appealing side to her. She is tremendously excited at the chance to get a leg up on her career, and believably jealous when Fluttershy gets the attention Rarity feels she deserves. That jealousy and ambition are both essential parts of who she is, but what makes her a joy to watch in this episode is the scene where she unintentionally ruins Fluttershy and Twilight's plan to ruin Fluttershy's modeling career. In that moment, Rarity has the chance to watch the pony who stole her dream crash and burn, and instead she chooses to help save her.

Put another way, Fluttershy spends the entire episode putting herself through hell to avoid distressing her friend, while Rarity, when the chips are down, gives the single thing which matters to her most and which she has always wanted to her friend. If there was any doubt that they deserved to be the bearers of the Elements of Kindness and Generosity, it's gone now.

Ultimately, of course, despite being kind and generous Fluttershy and Rarity are hurting each other and themselves by not openly communicating their feelings. It's a good lesson for the kiddies, and the episode works well on that level; at the same time, it manages to do something the show hasn't done much so far, and find a way to make the friendship lesson applicable to watching geeks.

The key is Spike, of course. One of the recurring themes of this blog is that, intentionally or otherwise, the ponies can be taken as signifiers of geekery, fandom, and Internet culture at its best. Meanwhile, in "Dragonshy," we established the dragon as a Shadow archetype of Fluttershy. Combining the two, we get the depiction of dragons throughout the rest of the series, starting here: as a group, dragons are the Shadow of ponies, which is to say they are the dark side of geekery, fandom, and Internet culture.

As a dragon raised by ponies, Spike sometimes acts as a pony and sometimes as a dragon; in this story, he's firmly in dragon territory, and the particular dark aspect of geekery he takes on is Nice Guy Syndrome. It was present in spades last episode, of course, but the difference is that there his behavior was depicted as amusing and harmless; in this episode he's a creep and a self-centered jerk. The difference is subtle, but strongest in the scene where Rarity announces that she "vants to be alone"; Spike ushers the other ponies out in apparent deference to her wishes, but then tries to stay with her and has to be dragged out by Twilight. He's a jerk (as he will be in most episodes that focus on him) and once again objectifying Rarity, choosing to assume that he's an exception because of how he feels about her, without regard for how she feels.

The A-plot of the episode makes a pretty good metaphor for Nice Guy Syndrome: in the absence of real communication, Fluttershy and Rarity each assume they know what is good for the other, and their well-meaning kindness and generosity just make each other more miserable because they never stop to ask whether their assumptions about the other person's wishes are true. Spike does the same thing to Rarity; he just assumes that what she wants in a partner is a footstool, and acts like one in the hopes that she will "notice" him. Rarity, for her part, ignores what he's doing, even though she has the social intelligence to figure it out. Who can blame her; in a society that strongly values friendship and niceness, how exactly does one say "Stop helping me, you're creeping me out?"

All Spike successfully communicates in this episode is that he's a loser with no self-esteem, so obsessed with his own feelings that he can't be bothered to ask Rarity how she feels about him. It's an attitude I've seen played out countless times, and while it definitely exists in our culture at large (it is essentially every romantic comedy male lead of the last twenty years), it appears to be much more prevalent in geek culture. Now, there's more to Nice Guy Syndrome than Spike's behavior here. He's still in the early stages, being "nice" to a woman with only vague expectations of how she's "supposed" to respond, assuming that his intensity of feeling and niceness will eventually just force her to like him back regardless of what it is she actually finds attractive. Eventually he'll transfer his obnoxious faux-niceness to another woman at least temporarily (Season 3's "Spike at Your Service"), and become more and more bitter about the repeated failure of his approach. At that point he will have two options: grow a spine, try actually getting to know a woman while being up-front about what he wants and seeing if she feels the same; alternatively, he can become a bitter wimp who moans endlessly about how women only like "jerks," a.k.a anyone with sufficient psychological health to recognize they have to express what they want to their partner and occasionally put their own needs first. If he picks the latter, then he enters the terminal stage of Nice Guy Syndrome and there is pretty much no hope for him.

(For the record, I have encountered instances of women with Nice Guy Syndrome, but it seems to be much, much rarer than in men, probably because women generally don't get told from birth by very nearly all of pop culture that the other gender exists to service their emotional and physical needs.)

Ultimately, just as in Nice Guy Syndrome, Fluttershy, Rarity, and Spike all need to learn the most fundamental rule of dealing with other people: that other people have internalities of their own, that they may not feel as you do or as you believe they should, and that you are both powerless to change this and morally obligated to accept and respect it. It is even more fundamental than Rule One ("don't be a dick"), because it's impossible not to be a dick until you learn it--it's so basal that it might as well be called "Lesson Zero."

But that's a topic for another time.

Next week: Hmm, what's a suitable topic for a show for five-year-olds about friendship, rainbows, and unicorns? I know: genocide! And you can't have a good genocide without hilariously terrible musical numbers and a pie fight, amirite?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: An Even Nerdier Comparison

I first made this comparison a couple of years ago, between first and second season. I'm a little less sure it holds up now, but it was never really meant to be serious anyway. Here is the nerdiest analogy or mapping I've ever done:

The Mane Six map onto the major races from Babylon 5.
  • Twilight Sparkle is magical, mystical, knowlegeable, scary powerful, and prone to creating utter disasters when she's stressed out. She's the Minbari.
  • Rainbow Dash is brash, loud, and outspoken, with fierce loyalty but quick to take offense. She has a tendency to get in over her head, and grows and learns the most over the course of the show. She's the Narn.
  • Rarity is proud, generous to her friends, and a fashionista. She's a major social climber, and prefers using those skills to violence--but can and will use violence if necessary. She's the Centauri.
  • Pinkie Pie is friendly and a community-builder, bringing together ponies of all kinds with her parties. She seems like a joke, but potentially she's the most powerful of them all. She's the humans.
  • Fluttershy is shy, and rarely participates with others, but when she does get involved, watch out, because she WILL kick your ass. She's the Vorlons.
  • Applejack is honest, pragmatic, determined, and ruthlessly competitive. She believes firmly that the best deserve to win, fairly but decisively, and she's as close as Equestria comes to a capitalist, which is in turn as close as modern thought gets to Social Darwinism. She's the Shadows.
That leaves Celestia and Luna as the First Ones, and the background ponies and CMC as the League. Works out, I think.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: The Second-Nerdiest Analogy I've Ever Made

Meghan McCarthy is to My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic as Stephen Moffat is to Doctor Who.

Back when someone else was running the show, they were unquestionably its best writer, with the best grasp of the hardest-to-write characters, the best handle on the show's themes, and able to write creative and entertaining episodes that had a lot of humor and also some real meat to sink your teeth into.

But then they got handed control, and although there were some real gems after that point ("The Doctor's Wife," "Magic Duel") the show as a whole suffered a loss of general quality, and disturbing signs of feminism-fail and gender essentialism began to raise their heads both in the episodes and in comments by the showrunner.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Why I'm Worried About Equestria Girls

So, if you haven't seen the news, there's mounting evidence that Hasbro is planning to launch an MLP spinoff called Equestria Girls. The evidence for the show is pretty solid, seeing as it's announced in a trade magazine distributed at Toy Fair, which is a pretty big toy industry convention; less solid is this image going around:

Still, I think it's pretty likely, and that worries me.

When I first heard the news about the show, I was neutral on it. It could be good, could be bad. The quality of MLP has nothing to do with the equine features of its cast; it's the strength of characterization, sincerity, and cuteness, all of which could still be fully present in a show with a human cast. The image, however, worries me, because every single one of them appears to be wearing a skirt. Rainbow Dash at least looks like she's wearing shorts under the skirt, so that's good, and there's nothing wrong with Rarity, Fluttershy, Twilight, or Pinkie Pie wearing a skirt, though I should think they, especially the latter two, would wear pants at least sometimes.

But Applejack? Her outfit is completely out of character, and was clearly designed by someone who got told "country girl" and nothing else. Which means this isn't a high school setting with the same characters, it's a high school setting with characters who happen to share the same names--and the people making the show don't know the difference.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Grand Narratives

In hindsight, alicorn Twilight was inevitable since at least the beginning of the second season. First season largely and happily avoided any of the grand narratives that have choked our media for decades, but the second-season premier ended in a giant Star Wars homage.

Star Wars, of course, is the point at which Joseph Campbell's concept of the monomyth entered Hollywood's consciousness, and it soon came to dominate. The Hero's Journey is obnoxiously omnipresent in modern Western television and film, and by heavily referencing Star Wars, MLP basically announced that the foul spectres of Lucas and Campbell had taken up residence in Equestria.

And how does the Hero's Journey climax? Usually, with some combination of ultimate battle between the hero and evil/repression, the acquisition of the treasure the hero's been seeking (knowingly or unknowingly), and apatheosis, the ascent to a godlike state. Either of the latter two is obviously the transformation into an alicorn, and the first could be the trigger that necessitates that transformation.

Now, oddly, the series isn't ending here. There's a few possibilities. One is that the Return phase of the journey involves an unusual amount of conflict, and the next season will cover that. Another is that Twilight must choose whether to sacrifice her newly gained power and knowledge in order to Return, and we all know she'd choose to restore the status quo. The last is that, as is often the case with female Hero's Journeys, the journey is cyclical, and either Twilight or her friends must complete more journeys in future seasons.

I hope it's one of the previous two. The problem with grand narratives is that they are predictable and tend to make all works that share the narrative similar. MLP is an unusual and special show; it shouldn't be constrained by having to fit into a storytelling cookie-cutter from Film 101.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Out of all the things that could happen, this is the WORST! POSSIBLE! THING! (Dog and Pony Show)

How Nice Guys (tm) see themselves and women.

It's March 11, 2011. Lady Gaga's still at number one in the pop charts, but Rango has been unseated by the brainless two-hour videogame cutscene Battle: Los Angeles. In real news since last episode, the misnamed Arab Spring continues with the Libyan civil war, protests throughout the Arab World (except in Saudi Arabia, which bans protesting) and in Wisconsin and Hong Kong, and the Space Shuttle Discovery makes its final landing. But all of this is largely forgotten when a massive earthquake and tsunami strike Japan the day this episode airs, killing hundreds and seriously damaging two nuclear reactors.

I'm struggling with the temptation to make a tasteless comparison to the utter disaster of an episode that is "Dog and Pony Show," but there really isn't any comparison. The earthquake was horrible, one of the worst in the last century, and there's simply nothing in any media that could possibly be as bad as a natural disaster that kills hundreds and leaves thousands more homeless.

That said, let's find a more tasteful comparison. I once saw a trailer for a movie called The Switch, the premise of which was so utterly, inhumanly horrifying on so many levels that it left me sputtering. Ever since, every time I see a bad movie or (more likely) a trailer for a bad movie, I have to ask myself, "Is it as bad as The Switch?" And the answer, happily, has always been no, it is not as bad.

For My Little Pony, I've recently acquired an equivalent: Is it as bad as "One Bad Apple?"

And no, "Dog and Pony Show" is not as bad as "One Bad Apple." It's still the worst thing Amy Keating Rogers has written for the show to date, and given my opinion of most of the rest of her work, that is saying something.

What's so bad about it? Well, for starters, it's simply not at all entertaining. It's not particularly funny, except for a couple of moments, it doesn't have any emotional punch, and it doesn't tell us anything about any of the characters we didn't already know, except for being the first in a large list of examples of Spike being a jerk. From that perspective, it's like a slightly lower-quality version of "The Show Stoppers": Nothing special about it for me to sink my teeth into.

It's also spectacularly unoriginal and cliche. I mentioned last week that it's based on O. Henry's worst story, referring of course to "The Ransom of Red Chief." Since then, however, I've done some research and learned that it's actually ripping off an even older source, Child Ballad 278, "The Farmer's Curst Wife," collected in the late nineteenth century and dating back to medieval origins, possibly earlier.

In the ballad, the farmer gives his wife to the devil because she is "bad." Eventually, the devil gets sick of her and sends her back because even he can't stand her, and the farmer is thus stuck with her. At the end we get a horribly misogynistic "comedic" moral, because while male mass murderers and genocidal dictators are pretty bad, they don't hold a candle to how bad women can be, amirite?


Rogers makes some changes to the basic story, including the very common change of having the "wife" kidnapped. Rarity is much more obnoxious to the "devil" of the story than she is to the "husband," and it's all part of an intentional plan on her part. However, Rogers leaves the underlying, misogynistic moral unchanged: even though Rarity is physically overpowered, nothing can withstand her womanly annoyingness!

Of course Rogers phrases it differently, that "Just because somepony is ladylike doesn't mean she's weak." That sounds like a good thing, and Rogers is, as usual, probably well-intentioned with it. However, the very notion that there is such a thing as "ladylike" implies exactly the prescriptive model of femininity that Friendship Is Magic seeks to subvert. Additionally, Rarity is pretty obviously lying when she suggests her complaining and whining was all part of her scheme, because she had no reason to believe it would work until after her initial complaints caused physical pain to the Diamond Dogs. We have to conclude that Rarity--after we've seen her willing to get her hooves dirty to help clean up Twilight Sparkle's house or work herself to exhaustion to finish dresses for her friends--is complaining because she's as much of a spoiled brat as the kid in "Ransom of Red Chief," too weak to do the work and too stupid to realize the Diamond Dogs could hurt her very badly if they chose. It's a wildly out of character depiction, and further evidence that Rogers simply does not get Rarity.

The misogyny inherent in the depiction is probably not intentional; Rogers is clearly playing with cliches without paying close attention to their implications, so the misogyny with which our culture drips is leaking through. That seems to be what's happening with Spike's jerkassery in this episode, too.

Spike and Rarity begin the episode with a simple business deal: He digs up the gems she finds, he gets to keep some to eat. After he receives the payment, however, he starts getting creepy, choosing to keep it as a token of love rather than consume it. Once she gives it to him, it's his property to do with as he wishes, of course, but he's walking a dangerous line; she did not give it to him as a token of love, and his choice to treat it as one creates a serious danger of confusing his fantasy of Rarity with the actual Rarity, dehumanizing (depony-izing? her).

Once Rarity is kidnapped, he develops a fantasy of rescuing her and being rewarded with a kiss--a rescue, notably, that Rarity neither needs nor wants. This fantasy sequence indicates that, at best, Spike has a badly skewed notion of how romance works; he seems to be stuck on a transactional model, where one partner performs favors and services for the other, and receives affection in return. He does seem to genuinely care about her--he is overjoyed and seems to largely forget his fantasies the moment he is found safe--but this transactional model he's employing is deeply worrisome, because it denies Rarity any internality or emotional life of her own, instead making her affection a prize to be won or a commodity to be bought.

Spike, in other words, is in the early stages of Nice Guy Syndrome. A few rejections by Rarity and he'll be ready to start complaining about how he's always such a nice guy (because that's what nice guys do, passive-aggressively pretend to be someone's friend out of ulterior motives while doing "nice" things nobody asked them for in expectation of reward) and mares seem to only ever date jerks (i.e., anyone who ever acts like anything other than a footstool).

This is the beginning of what will be a fairly consistent portrayal of dragons through the rest of the series. We began with the notion that ponies represent geek culture, and "Dragonshy" presented us with a dragon that functioned as a Jungian Shadow archetype to a pony. If that characterization stands, then dragons as a whole represent a collective Shadow of ponies as a whole, which is to say that they represent the dark side of geekery. That's certainly true of Spike in this episode, since Nice Guy Syndrome is rampant in geek culture, likely a result of the way shyness and an analytical bent (two common geek traits, though by no means universal) can combine to create a person who craves and fears affection and gravitates toward mechanistic, transactional solutions even in cases where they're not appropriate.

Unfortunately, nothing in the episode suggests that Spike's model of romance is wrong. True, Rarity seems oblivious to his intentions throughout, but in general Spike's fantasy sequences are treated as funny and harmless; the episode itself does not recognize the complete lack of respect for Rarity's internality that his fantasies imply.

But again, that's not a surprise. Spike is being a jerk here, but in a way that's got extensive support in our wider culture; Nice Guy Syndrome is just what happens when you try to apply the rules of romantic comedy to real life and, instead of learning that those rules are bullshit, become bitter that nobody else is following them. Unless you are consciously and actively aware that society has a lot of toxic memes floating around and consider it important to try to identify them and keep them out of your own work, they will end up in your work. Rogers clearly is either not aware or doesn't care.

Perhaps in a more interesting or entertaining episode the casual, blind misogyny of this wouldn't be quite so apparent. Unfortunately, this is a decidedly mediocre episode, and thus there's very little distraction from its blithe passing on of toxic gender roles to the next generation. All we can really do is hope that next week's episode is better.

Next week: Thank Celestia, it's Megan McCarthy exploring Rarity and Fluttershy's relationship and the nature of fame.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Boycott Hasbro

Recently, Hasbro has gone on the offensive against fanworks, getting Friendship Is Witchcraft pulled from YouTube and cease-and-desisting Fighting Is Magic. While legally they can do this, morally they don't have a leg to stand on.

So, I'm boycotting Hasbro, and I invite you to join me. From this point on I will not buy any products manufactured by Hasbro or their subsidiaries, including Milton Bradley, Parker Brothers, Playskool, Tiger Electronics, Wizards of the Coast, and Avalon Hill. I intend to use any money I save by doing this to support fan creators, and I will maintain this boycott until Hasbro:
  1. Makes a public statement that fanworks are not a form of piracy and apologizes to the fan creators who they have shut down.
  2. Retracts any cease-and-desist orders against fanworks.
  3. Agrees not to treat fan creators as pirates in the future.
If you agree with me and wish to join the boycott, please help spread the word by linking and reblogging this post.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Zombies!

In "Bridle Gossip," Spike was aware enough of zombie-apocalypse tropes to recognize that Ponyville resembled them. It's unlikely that ponies have zombie apocalypse stories, because those are all about the audience transferring their frustrations into a setting where you can shoot your boss or annoying neighbor in the face because they're zombies now, and ponies are nicer than that.

No, the likeliest explanation is that there is *historical record* of zombie outbreaks. I'm sure Celestia put them down fast, but somewhere out there, zomponies existed once.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Crossover

I don't see any way it could possibly ever be made to work, but a well-written My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic/Avatar: The Last Airbender crossover would be nigh-unbearably awesome.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Equestrian Geography

I prefer to think of Equestria as not having geography. It's like Fantastica from The Neverending Story (the book, not the movie); it grows whenever people think of something new to put in it, and everywhere is exactly one ad break away from Ponyville.

Well, okay, that last part isn't much like Fantastica.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Tree sap and pine needles, but no cutie mark. (The Show Stoppers)

I like that their singing has the same visual effect
as the cockatrice and Fluttershy's Stare.
It's March 4, 2011, and awesome is in the air. For once, however, the pop charts are topped by something that's actually somewhat provocative, Lady Gaga's weird and wonderful gay anthem "Born This Way," which works equally well as an anthem for any group of social outliers and outcasts, plus opens with a unicorn. I'm not surprised a quick search of YouTube has turned up at least six different PMVs for it. In box offices, we have a brief respite from the usual post-holidays, pre-summer slump with Rango, which caught me completely by surprise and ended up being easily the best animated movie all year (though admittedly, its only real competition was Kung-Fu Panda 2, so that's not saying much).

Ponies, alas, do not particularly share in the awesome this week. Which is not to say we have a bad episode; it is Cindy Morrow, and thus far she has been reliably, solidly mediocre. This week's "The Show Stoppers" is no different.

Mediocrity is hard to write about. From a critical perspective, it's much easier to praise a great episode, and easier still to tear apart a bad one--I fully expect next week to be the easiest My Little Po-Mo article I've written yet. A mediocre episode, however, gives little to work with; it simply doesn't do anything interesting, and that makes writing about it hard.

From a creative perspective, mediocrity is again quite difficult to write about. Characters who sort of vaguely muddle through are much harder to write engagingly than characters who fail miserably, triumph masterfully, or barely scrape by. This, alas, is what Morrow finds herself up against in this episode, which is all about the Cutie Mark Crusaders being mediocre.

It makes sense for the CMC to be mediocre, of course: they are three ponies who have yet to discover what they're good at, and therefore are basically mediocre at everything they do. Even though they do have talents (carpentry and repair for Apple Blossom, singing for Sweetie Belle, and stunts for Scootaloo), they do not recognize them, and thus end up creating a mediocre performance, a song which is entertaining and catchy but falls to pieces at the end. Even then, the CMC do not recognize how badly they are doing until the audience starts laughing at them--and when they win a comedy award, they learn the wrong lesson entirely from their adventure, and conclude they are gifted comedians.

To an extent, this is an attempt to examine and subvert the formula of the show. This is the first episode since the premiere not to end with a friendship lesson. The CMC have not learned anything, not acquired any experience, because (to reference our earlier discussion of von Kleist) they remain in a state of innocence, free of any pain or regret about their foolishness, but equally unable to grow. Only by passing through a painful adolescence will they ever reach a state of grace and self-actualization that makes possible a return to the good parts of childhood while avoiding the danger of stagnating in nostalgia.

There is a warning in this episode's mediocrity, to beware the trap of nostalgia. There is a dearth of biographical information available on Morrow, but I know she graduated CalArts in 1995 and had her first real credit in 1997, which suggests the bulk of her childhood happened in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This era of cartoons is most likely the one for which she feels nostalgia, which would go a long way to explaining the musical number in this episode, which is a pastiche of the cheesy rock ballads of the 80s, and most particularly recalls Jem's evil rivals The Misfits. (It also goes a long way toward explaining the Scooby-Doo/Josie and the Pussycats-esque elements of "One Bad Apple," but the less said about that abomination the better.)

Therein lies the problem, because everything about Jem was mediocre. It wasn't alone; the 1970s and 1980s were an era in which English-language short-form animation was defined by mediocrity. Miniscule budgets, an exile of talent, aggressive monitoring by parents' groups, and in the 1980s toy company sponsorship created a perfect storm that made bland, inoffensive, formulaic, and cheap the order of the day. Herein lies the trap.

Time for a new binary: There are basically two major reasons for bronies to watch My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. The first is one we've been discussing at least since we started talking about alchemy, and is essentially revolutionary. Revolutionary viewers watch the show because they're bronies; it gives them a way to connect to other bronies, and something to talk about. The core themes of the show are things that we can adopt as we put aside our fear of childish things: In a world dominated by capitalist, statist patriarchies (which is to say, a world dominated by institutionalized greed and violence), embracing and valuing "girly" things like rainbows and friendship and community is a revolutionary act.

Escapist viewing, on the other hand, watches the show because it allows one to forget, for a few minutes, that the world is dominated by greed and violence. It is a method of temporary escape, which is not at all a bad thing; to quote J.R.R. Tolkien, who I should think knows rather a lot on the topic of escapist fantasy, "Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?" Escapist viewing seeks to return to a childlike state of innocence, and escape our responsibilities in this world.

Of course, the binary comes already subverted, courtesy of von Kleist. The revolutionary requires the escapist; to seek a better world we first must dream it. Unfortunately, it is very easy to get caught in that dream, to get swept up in nostalgia and forget what we have learned since. Just as the Cutie Mark Crusaders don't know how bad their performance really was, it's easy to forget that the innocence of childhood makes accurate self-evaluation impossible. For example, nostalgia can lead someone to make a pastiche of art that was bad to begin with, creating this episode's musical number or (*shudder*) the entirety "One Bad Apple."

If, as seems plausible, MLP is able to transmute geek masculinity into something new, it can only do so if we avoid that trap, and consciously bring the Fruit of Life it offers back with us into the real world. It is not enough to play in Eden/Equestria, then go back to a world of violence and greed and emotional isolation; if we are to build an Equestria on Earth, we can only do so by practicing the magic of friendship in our day-to-day lives.

Happily, most bronies seem to get this, at least judging by the general friendliness of every brony gathering (online and meatspace) I've been to and the existence of thriving brony charities.

Next week: Amy Keating Rogers rewrites O. Henry's worst story with Rarity playing the role of the little brat, and it manages to be even worse than you'd expect.

(ETA: Boy, did I mess up. The version which initially went live had neither the correct article title nor the picture. Sorry about that; it's fixed now.)

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Earth Ponies

If I could be a pony, I'd want to be an Earth pony. Earth ponies are the ones who get stuff done, without any of the special powers and crap. They are the Batman of MLP.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Darker and Edgier

I don't understand the impulse to make "darker, edgier" versions of the show. It seems to miss the entire point, that it depicts a brighter, happier, more innocent world; it feels to me like a juvenile impulse to corrupt pure things because they are "childish," and supposedly darkness is more "adult"--the same impulse that gave us Rob Liefeld's entire career, basically.

I mean, Fallout:Equestria is okay, but only if I read it as something entirely separate from the show; it gains nothing from its relation to MLP except a ready-made audience.