Sunday, March 31, 2013

This day was going to be perfect/The kind of day of which I dreamed since I was small (The Best Night Ever)

Let's talk about evolution. No, not the inexplicably controversial--despite being as close as any model can get to solid fact--biological theory; I mean something more basic. Specifically, let's talk about the difference between evolution and change.

Frequently, talk of evolution implies some ideal of progress, but that's not really accurate to the concept; certainly biological evolution has no sense of going from "bad" states to "good" ones. Likewise, the evolution of a character might make them less appealing to the audience (to use one definition of "bad" character) or involve a decent into villainy (to use another). The real definition of evolution is simply cumulative change, that is, a series of changes, each building upon the last.

Some characters evolve within their stories, while others merely change. To use pony examples,within the first season Applejack does not evolve. She changes in "Applebucking Season," but her change is circular: ultimately she returns to the state she was in before the episode. Twilight Sparkle, on the other hand, evolves. She is a different pony after "The Elements of Harmony" than at the beginning of "The Mare in the Moon," and she retains these differences after. She changes again in "Winter Wrap-Up," and again retains elements of those changes for the rest of the series.

As I've mentioned several times before, transformation and change are recurring themes in the first season. There's several non-exclusive reasons why this should be the case, but one is particularly notable here at the end of the season: The show itself has been evolving, and many individual episodes reflect this continual change.

No, really, it's not a magical girl show after all.
It's May 6, 2011.Katy Perry's "E.T." is back at the top of the charts, and while still not great, it's a massive improvement over last week. Speaking of massive improvements, we have an actually good movie dominating the box office for the first time in what seems like ages: Thor, which is exactly as gloriously silly and overwrought as a movie about a Norse god (who's actually a space alien) becoming a superhero ought to be. In the news, the biggest story broke Sunday with the announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden, Sony's in trouble again with the news that hackers may have stolen the account information of nearly 25 million Sony Online users, and the Canadian elections create a Conservative majority, because when times are tough people like strong, decisive leaders who will do everything in their power to make things worse.

The final episode of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic's first season is unquestionably Amy Keating Rogers' best, the aptly titled "Best Night Ever." At heart, it's about disappointment and recovery; about planned and hoped-for events going awry, yet ultimately turning out as good or better than planned.

Obviously, the Grand Galloping Gala itself is such an event, at least for our main characters. The episode depicts its development into and beyond disaster as effectively an evolutionary process. The Mane Six enter the Gala with certain expectations, but events shatter those expectations. A period of chaos ensues, forcing the ponies to come up with something else that turns out to be just as good as what they planned--at least for the Mane Six themselves, Spike, and Celestia. Granny Smith will have to find another way to pay for that new hip, and all the other Gala attendees had their evening ruined, but then it wouldn't be a Rogers episode without some failure to think through the implications or empathize fully with out-of-focus characters--and it wouldn't be a My Little Po-Mo article about a Rogers episode if I didn't complain about it. (Also: While this is, by far, her least bad attempt, I still hate how Rogers writes Rarity. There, anti-Rogers quota achieved.)

The episode opens with an elaborate musical number which (besides being the best song of the season) neatly encapsulates the series' evolution so far. Back in "Elements of Harmony," Pinkie's musical number was tongue-in cheek and the responses of the other ponies suggested that they were not only aware of the prevalence of musical numbers in cartoons, they were familiar enough with the trope to be sick of it. It was a moment for the show's makers to demonstrate that while they may be doing a musical number in My Little Pony, they're still cool and detached. By contrast, "At the Gala" is an enormous production number unironically indulged, a celebratory moment shared by every pony on the screen. There is no effort to be cool here; it is gloriously emotive and sincere.

As a general rule, musical numbers are nondiegetic, which is to say that they are not "real" from the perspective of the characters. A musical number is a narrative technique to convey a character's emotions to the audience, not a part of the plot; it is generally safe to assume that anything that happens in a musical number isn't real unless something in the show signals otherwise. "The Elements of Harmony," however, signaled otherwise from the beginning of the first musical number of the show, making it clear that Pinkie Pie was really singing, the other characters knew she was singing, and they were as weirded out as any of us would be on encountering a musical number in real life. For the rest of the early first season, Pinkie Pie was the only pony who sang, and the audience could assume all her songs were diegetically "real."

"Winter Wrap-Up," along with all the other changes it initiated, had the entire population of Ponyville singing a song together. On the one hand, this musical number (also called "Winter Wrap-Up") has to be at least somewhat nondiegetic; there is no way ponies across town from each other could coordinate their timing to trade off verses as they do in the song. On the other, groups of laborers often use music to coordinate their efforts, so it's entirely plausible that the song is at least somewhat diegetic. As the season has gone on, however, we've gotten more songs from non-Pinkie Pie characters, such as Rarity's "Art of the Dress." Here in "Best Night Ever," we have no less than three songs, which is quite a few for a 22-minute cartoon. It's not quite a full-fledged musical episode, but it's close enough to make clear that this is no longer a show that's too cool for musical numbers. Musicals, after all, are on the surface silly, sincere, and endearingly cheesy--an excellent description of My Little Pony's appeal.

But "silly, sincere, and endearingly cheesy" is not the show we began with twenty-five episodes ago. Oh, those elements were all present in the series premiere, but they shared the stage with an attempt to be cool. To judge by the series premiere, we were watching an unusually funny magical girl show, a spiritual successor to The Powerpuff Girls that shifted the anime influence from the character designs to the plots. The natural expectation would have been for the majority of episodes following to involve battles with monsters and villains, ending with an encounter with some kind of uber-villain or major crisis in the season finale. Certainly a comedy or character-building episode here and there, and of course there's no getting away from the friendship lessons that are the show's raison d'etre, but the original conception of the show seems likely to have been driven by sanitized violence. Perhaps a preschool version of the greatest Western magical girl show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Mane Six would have battled monsters that symbolize the challenges of growing up, drawing power and support from their friendship with one another, and "Dragonshy" would have been a typical episode rather than an interesting one-time experiment.

That might have been a good show, but it didn't work out that way. Immediately after the premiere, we started focusing on the characters themselves, without symbolic monsters to act as crutches. Unable to be My Little Buffy, the show cast around for other things it could be, and a season of evolution began. It spent a few episodes exploring the characters and discovering its capacity for sincerity in a world where even the children's shows are cynical and bitter, but found itself trapped in the tension between being a utopian idyll that stayed true to its characters, and a meme fountain and growing pop cultural icon. That crucible triggered its alchemical transformation into a new kind of show, and it has spent the latter half of the first season trying to figure out just what kind of show exactly that is.

"The Best Night Ever" doesn't try to answer that question. Instead, it ruminates and reflects on the journey thus far, which in itself is a partial answer. The show My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic started as would have ended its first season with some kind of massive conflict with a major villain, probably one threatening a narrative collapse--something not too different from the second season premiere. That's just how TV shows--especially ones that earn a geek cult following--work in the 2000s. Instead, we have an episode entirely devoid of antagonists, where the only conflict is that between the unrealistic expectations of the characters and the reality of what occurred.

It never occurred to me, the first time I watched this episode, to be disappointed in it. But in a sense it is a failure to fulfill a promise given when Nightmare Moon was defeated. All the rules of normal television say that this episode should have involved a battle with an even bigger villain and ended with another use of the Elements of Harmony. That's what we've been trained to expect, and therefore to want, by the last decade-and-a-half of television, by everything from Buffy to Teen Titans to even Adventure Time. There's nothing wrong with this structure, per se. It's appealing and it works and there's lots of variety in how it can be done--but it's not the show My Little Pony evolved into.

The show My Little Pony evolved into ends its first season with a rumination on where its been. We get a mini-character collapse from Fluttershy, we get a deflated (albeit less literally this time) Pinkie Pie desperately trying to get a party going, we get a glimpse of why Twilight Sparkle might not have thought much of social interaction in Canterlot. It's something like a greatest-hits album of the season, touching on an essential element of each character lightly and then moving on (except, of course, with Rarity, but at least she gets to tell someone off fairly impressively).

But this isn't a clip show, even in spirit. It does actually have something to say. The Gala is a constraining structure that traps the ponies, forcing them into paths they don't want to take, and only by unleashing chaos can they break free and change it. This is no less true of the series. Last time they made a major change, it required a complete alchemical transformation. Now a new challenge is looming, because last week proved something utterly devastating to the premise of the show: Twilight can't learn a friendship lesson every episode. It's too constraining, and it prevents the other characters from meaningfully evolving if their crises and their character-building episodes must conclude with Twilight learning a lesson.

There's also the issue that, if Twilight has to learn a new lesson about friendship every episode, sooner or later the writers are going to have to start either teaching lessons Twilight never needed to learn or repeat old lessons. Either way, it undermines Twilight's evolution and forces her into mere change.

To break free of the constraints of Twilight's friendship lessons is a major challenge. It's a core element of the premise of the show--I referred to it above as the raison d'etre, and from the Hub's point of view that's true. Part of the purpose of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is to fulfill the Hub's obligation to provide educational programming; remove the thirty seconds of "Today I learned..." from the end and it no longer fulfills the requirements.

There is, of course, the solution of having the other characters learn lessons as well, but within the show that runs into the issue that Twilight was assigned to Ponyville to learn friendship lessons. It's her job, and she can't just let others do it for her.

The show appears to be trapped, just as Celestia was trapped by the constraints of the Gala. And just like Celestia, the solution is to invite in an outside element that brings chaos. This element has many names, but at its core it is the essence of change. It is time and entropy and death and rebirth, that which laughs at constraints and dissolves the old order so that a new may arise. It is chaos, and it is dangerous and tricky.

Pinkie Pie called it by name last week, invited it in: "Okie doki, Loki." Possibly unintentional on the part of the writers, to be sure, but Pinkie Pie can walk through end-of-episode irises and hang off the top of the frame; she can tell where the show is headed. It needs an injection of chaos, a narrative collapse that permits a new narrative to be built from the ruins. The problem is that chaos is rarely cooperative. That's why it's so frequently depicted as a Trickster--once invited in, it does what it wants, and we have to be prepared that what we get might not be what we expected, even if odds are good that it'll be as good or better.

The show is going to try to get that injection of chaos; it's going to get a big ol' storm instead. Discord is coming.

Next week: To celebrate finishing off the first season, I'm taking a break from episode analyses for a month. But that doesn't mean an end to My Little Po-Mo articles! Instead, April is going to be Fanworks Month. Every Sunday I'll apply the same techniques I use for the episode analyses on a different fanwork. Some might be major fan favorites, others my own idiosyncratic preferences; some might be video, others fanfics or comics--every week will be something different. Then in May we'll pick up where we left off with the beginning of the second season.

So what fanwork am I doing next week? I'll give you a clue: All the way across the sky. What does it mean? Find out April 6!

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Going to be late again. Another year of scandal and shame. If only we could be *more organized*.

Sorry all, going to be a few hours late. Will have the new article up by dawn noon.

Pony Thought of the Day: Friendship Is MANGA!

It's official: There's a licensed MLP manga coming out in Japan to coincide with the Japanese dub of the show.

And you know what that means? Pony panels at anime cons, here I come!

Friday, March 29, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Who are bronies, really?

The herd census is complete!

Interesting findings: Bronies are majority male (84%), and overwhelmingly American (64%, nearly 10 times the second-place country, Canada). Brony concentrations within the U.S. follow population centers, as you'd expect, but per capita Utah has the most bronies, followed by Washington state. In general the northwest and northeast have the most bronies per capita.

Bronies are overwhelmingly white, again nearly 10 times as many as the second-place race, Asian. Bronies come from more stable-than-average families, tend to be more highly educated than the average American, and are less likely to serve in the military than the average American. The study wasn't able to get good data on the question, but all of these factors correlate with wealth in the general population. It would make sense for bronies to be from wealthier-than-average households--unsurprising, when you consider that the only ways to watch the show are non-basic cable or high-speed Internet.

Most interesting result, to me at least, was that the community largely rejects the term "pegasister," with women even more likely to reject it than men.

Sadly, the study very nearly invalidates itself by tossing in a "Jungian personality test," a.k.a the thoroughly discredited Myers-Briggs. The study's authors do mention wanting to do more thorough personality testing in the next iteration of the census, so hopefully they will use real personality tests next time.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: My Favorite Fanon Character

Sweetie-bot. Sweetie-bot is the most quotable thing in all of Equestria. "My primary function... is failure..."

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Fanon Versions of Characters

There's a lot of fanon versions of the characters on the show, to the point that sometimes I think we tend to forget that they aren't actually canonical. Celestia and Luna being god-tier in their magical abilities, for example, has no real basis in the show. Neither does Ditzy Doo being physically or mentally disabled, or Scootaloo being an orphan. That's all stuff we made up.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Doujinsplosion Incoming

Given the imminent arrival of an official Japanese dub of Friendship Is Magic, and the fact that Japanese anime fandom historically doesn't really distinguish between Japan-made and foreign-made shows, I expect within the next few months we're going to see a lot of Japanese-made fancomics.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: New Logo!

You might notice there's a new logo at the top of the page, courtesy of the inestimable Viga Gadson. I'm pretty excited about it!

Big things are afoot here as we approach the end of Season 1, but more on that Sunday...

Sunday, March 24, 2013

All I really need's a smile, smile, smile/From these happy friends of mine (Party of One)

Who knew Jackson Pollock was a brony?
It's April 29, 2011. The top song is Rihanna and Britney Spears singing "S&M," which is exactly as repetitive, brainless, and tawdry as you'd expect from the singers and song title. The top movie is Fast Five, so also repetitive, brainless, and tawdry. In real news, WikiLeaks releases files that confirm that everything we thought was happening in Guantanamo Bay is, in fact, happening in Guantanamo Bay, renowned crazy person Ron Paul (not to be confused with his even crazier son, Rand Paul) announces his intent to run in the increasingly wacky Republican Presidential race, and the Playstation Network implodes.

Meanwhile, Megan McCarthy brings us the best episode of Season 1, "Party of One." There is so much greatness in this episode it's hard to keep this post from degenerating into incoherent squeeing noises. The jokes are solid, and the visual gags come thick, fast, and funny. The animation is as good as first season gets, the lighting is inspired, the use of backgrounds is incredible--the episode simply hits on all cylinders.

Like "Applebucking Season," it's a character collapse. In a character collapse, circumstances force a character (in this case Pinkie Pie) outside of their normal role. That's just good character writing, however; to be a true character collapse, the character must respond by inverting elements of their own personality and undermining their own goals or well being. In short, a character collapse is a process of transformation by which a character, through their own choices and in-character responses to circumstances, becomes their own foil.

Up to this point, Pinkie Pie has been a cartoon character. Of course, this is a cartoon, so every character is a cartoon character, but Pinkie Pie is by far the cartooniest of the bunch. With her random outbursts, tendency to break the fourth wall, and general happy-go-lucky bouncy attitude, she'd fit right in on Animaniacs or some of the less cynical Looney Tunes shorts. Like Roger Rabbit, she can do basically anything as long as it's funny. Even when she's not doing anything in particular, her bright color and characteristic bouncing motion liven up any shot that contains her. While that motion is reminiscent of Pepe Le Pew, her friendly, fun-loving demeanor, innocent-prankster mischievous streak, and above all her ability to pull anything she needs out of nowhere recall the classic, and sadly now nearly forgotten, Felix the Cat.

Pinkie is also a cartoon in the negative sense of the word, or at least she is at the beginning of this episode. True, she is colorful and animated, but she is also flat, two-dimensional, and more caricature than character. All Pinkie wants, it seems, is to receive immediate gratification of her desire for the pleasures of parties, friends, and sugar.

There is a concept in psychology, originating with the work of Daniel Kahneman, that we can construct a person as two selves in the same body, tugging in different directions. The experiencing self lives in the moment and wants to do things that are pleasurable now, while the remembering self lives in the past and wants to do things that will create good memories. Because of its focus on remembering the past, the remembering self is capable of planning for the future; it wants to do now what will bring it pleasure in the future. Often they are at odds: for example, hard work to overcome a challenge isn't very pleasurable and so the experiencing self dislikes it, but it can create very good memories, so the remembering self loves it.

We have seen no trace of Pinkie Pie's remembering self. She always lives solely in the moment, and seems to never look back. She indulges her every impulse to pursue pleasure, and seems to have no interest in accomplishing anything, no goals, no memories she wants to create. She is literally lacking a dimension all the other characters possess, which is another way of saying that she's a flat character.

And then Meghan McCarthy comes along to collapse her. It's quite a feat, collapsing a character that's already flat, and this episode is a testament to just how good McCarthy is when she's at the top of her game. Throughout the first two acts, Pinkie Pie sticks to behaviors we've seen her use before, albeit from other characters' perspectives. As in "Griffon the Brush-Off," she pursues Rainbow Dash relentlessly, somehow managing to already be wherever Rainbow Dash goes, despite Rainbow Dash being the fastest pony in Equestria. And as in "Green Isn't Your Color," Pinkie lurks inside innocuous objects such as a haystack and a bell.

In those other episodes, Pinkie's behavior was portrayed from the point of view of Rainbow Dash or Twilight Sparkle, and came across as purely humorous. In this episode, her behavior is portrayed from her own point of view, and while still funny, it has an edge of desperation that casts her past actions in a new light. In "Green Isn't Your Color," Pinkie expressed a belief that friendships are fragile and can easily be damaged by a broken promise, and dedicated herself to paranoically pursuing Twilight to ensure that she didn't do so. Now in "Party of One," Pinkie's behavior is again a paranoid pursuit of her friends, and again based on her belief that friendships are fragile. Her behavior in "Griffon the Brush-Off" was comically annoying, but driven by a desire to spend time with her friend; now we see that it is not a desire but a desperate need.

With only her experiential self to draw on, Pinkie has no resources to draw on when alone. Her self-esteem and self-image are based entirely on how much fun she is having at the moment, how much attention her friends are paying to her, and how much she is entertaining others. She has no accomplishments or achievements to think back on proudly, no future goals and therefore no progress to be proud of. She doesn't have Applejack's or Rarity's career successes, Twilight's ever-growing magic and knowledge, or Rainbow Dash's competitions. In this respect she is most like Fluttershy; both ponies place their sense of self-worth entirely in their ability to please others, with opposite, but equally shattering, effects: Fluttershy feels inadequate when she is around others because she fears earning their disapproval, and Pinkie Pie feels inadequate when she is alone, because she can no longer earn approval.

For all the silliness of Pinkie Pie's resulting behavior, her distress speaks to a very real problem with being defined solely by one's relationships rather than by the totality of one's person. We live in a society where women in particular are likely to be defined by their relationships alone. President Obama, for example, frequently uses a "wives, daughters, mothers" framing when discussing women's issues, which has the effect of making it seem like he's talking to men about women and of making it seem like women are only worth something to society because of their relationships to others, as opposed to having the intrinsic worth that, for instance, wealthy straight white cismen are assumed to possess. When Shakesville's Melissa McEwan started a petition asking him to stop using that framing, it failed to reach the required number of signatures, and some people, such as National Review's Patrick Brennan, argued that people should be defined by their relationships.

Of course there's nothing wrong with being partially defined by your relationships. Relationships are like food: there's no one food you absolutely must eat,, but a wide variety of food is essential to a healthy diet, and if you have no food, you will die. Likewise, there's no one absolutely essential relationship, but to be a fully realized human being you must have relationships of some sort with others, and a wide variety of different types of relationships is much healthier than just one type of relationship. I don't think anyone is arguing against that; the problem is with being defined entirely by relationships, which undermines self-worth and leads a person to, like Pinkie Pie, be unable to function without constant support from others.

Pinkie Pie's breakdown, once she believes her friends have abandoned her, is swift and unsettling. It's a testament to McCarthy that this episode never stops being funny, even though Pinkie is suffering what amounts to a psychotic break in the third act. Everything her "new friends" say is directly from Pinkie's own thoughts, and quite telling: she is furiously angry at her friends, which speaks to how badly hurt she feels. Without access to her remembering self, she cannot remind herself of all the signs that her friends love and care about her; all she feels is their current absence, and that feels like a betrayal.

Why doesn't Pinkie Pie have a remembering self? Or more accurately, since everyone has a remembering self, why is hers so overpowered by her experiential self? We got the answer just two weeks ago, in the "Cutie Mark Chronicles." Her story in that episode has "unreliable narrator" written all over it, but it seems the core of it is true: Pinkie Pie grew up in a joyless environment of emotional isolation and repression, and had no good memories for her remembering self to take pleasure in. When she discovered her gift for partying, she found something to feed her experiential self, and all of her growth since then has therefore gone to that self; her remembering self is stunted. As far as Pinkie is concerned, there is nothing to be gained from remembering the past, and therefore nothing to be gained by caring about the future, by pursuing goals or trying to accomplish anything. She just wants to throw parties and enjoy herself every waking moment of every day, to be loved by everyone and never have to worry about anything, because working hard reminds her of her unhappy childhood. She has swung from one extreme to the other, and utterly missed health in the middle.

Friendship sustains and nurtures her, but the only cure for her desperate lack of self-worth is meaningful accomplishment, something which Pinkie finds an abhorrent reminder of her miserable upbringing. She's trapped, and it doesn't seem likely that anyone except either a very good therapist or Pinkie herself can unravel this snare. Friendship is magic, it seems, but not even magic can do everything.

At the end of the episode, Pinkie Pie is bouncing and happy again, because she's reassured that her friends love her. But has she actually learned anything? Twilight writes the letter to Princess Celestia, not Pinkie, and it seems that from Pinkie's perspective, the problem was that her friends appeared not to like her, and the solution was discovering they did like her. She still has no self-worth outside her friends' approval; in short, there's nothing to prevent something like this from happening to her again.

Fittingly, as the pony most likely to interact with the medium, Pinkie's collapse has demonstrated the seams in the show itself. Friendship may be magic, but not even magic, it seems, can fix everything. But if that's true, then what is this show about? What is it for, if not to evangelize to children about the magic of friendship?

Yet again, as it has been doing all season, the show must reinvent itself, and Pinkie Pie has spoken the name of the force of change it requires. As before, it will take several episodes to fully transform, but the collapse of Pinkie is where it truly begins.

Next week: Things fall apart. The center cannot hold.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Hasbro's Winter Upfront

Hasbro has released their winter upfront, which promotes upcoming shows to try to drum up advertiser interest. Interestingly, there's no mention of a movie or Equestria Girls in it, which suggests a few possibilities:
  • The movie is going to be a theatrical release. (Yeah, right)
  • The movie and/or Equestria Girls were never going to happen.
  • The movie and/or Equestria Girls were going to happen, but have been canceled for whatever reason.
  • The movie and/or Equestria Girls are still going to happen, but later than expected.
Either way, good news for those of us who weren't enthused about Equestria Girls: It's either not happening or going to be worked on more before it happens.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Not a Character Collapse

The inversions of the ponies' Elements of Harmony in "The Return of Harmony" doesn't count as character collapse. That inversion is the result of an outside force, while in a character collapse the character does it to themselves in response to a crisis. A subtle distinction, but important, since a true character collapse provides a greater level of insight into the character.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Character Collapse for (Almost) Everyone!

Each of the Mane Six except Rarity has had a character collapse at this point--that is, an episode where extreme circumstances lead the character to invert their own usual role on the show, revealing inner contradictions or hidden deaths.

Applejack had hers first in "Applebucking Season." Exhaustion caused the normally dependable pony to become a danger.

Pinkie Pie's is "Party of One." Apparent abandonment leads the happy-go-lucky party pony to turn depressive, paranoid, and delusional.

Twilight's is "Lesson Zero." The stress of imminent failure makes the town's best organizer into a force of chaos.

Rainbow Dash's is "Read It and Weep." Forced to sit still for a while, the bluntly realistic pony immerses herself in fantasy.

Finally, Fluttershy's is "Putting Your Hoof Down." As a result of assertiveness training, the kindest and most timid of ponies flips over into cruelty and pettiness.

Rarity has come close a few times, but never had a true character collapse--which suggests she's next.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Pirate Ponies!

I saw a pic of Applejack as a pirate recently, and while it was a pretty cool pick, I just can't see her doing it. She strikes me as the least nautical of the Mane Six; she probably gets seasick, and she'd certainly never plunder or pillage anything.

My pick for best pirate of the Mane Six, and the one who'd take to the lifestyle easiest, is Rainbow Dash, hands down.

What do you think?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Three little words, and then three more

There are six words I want to see spoken at the end of an episode next season. Six words that, in my opinion, will make the whole Twilicorn thing (which I never had much problem with anyway) completely worth it.

Six words, spoken by Celestia, the last six words of the episode: "Dear Princess Twilight, today I learned..."

Also, since it went up late, here's a link to yesterday's episode article.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Twilight Sparkle. I mean seriously, I can't even work with that. (Owl's Well That Ends Well)

Spike's true colors revealed!
It's April 22, 2011. The top song is still "E.T.," and the top movie is still "Rio." In real news, there's not much going on: Government crackdowns on the Arab Spring protests are getting more violent, Anne Robinson leaves The Weakest Link, leading to its cancellation, and Apple and Google are revealed to be keeping a massive database (presumably called Skynet) tracking the movements of smartphone owners.

In ponies, Cindy Morrow gives us a predictably mediocre outing with "Owl's Well That Ends Well." The episode has some good laughs, an extremely annoying running gag, and a creepily adorable new pet for Twilight.Unfortunately, it's also heavily focused on Spike, who is at his absolute jerkiest until second season's "Secret of My Excess," and while it does a fairly good job of making his behavior laughable and pathetic, there are a couple of odd missteps.

Spike's jerkassery in this episode is most definitely a play on the Nice Guy Syndrome he was displaying in "Dog and Pony Show." As I mentioned in that article, Spike is stuck on a transactional model of relationships: he is "nice" (that is, subservient and self-effacing) to a pony, and expects affection and companionship in return. It's a simple exchange that has the slight flaws of being incredibly passive, easily prone to turning passive-aggressive, and not remotely resembling how real relationships actually work. The advantage for the "Nice Guy" (who should never be confused for a genuinely nice person, but always is in both his own mind and mass media) is that since he never expresses what he actually wants, he never has to deal with being rejected.

The typical progression of Nice Guy Syndrome is cyclical. Its early stages are that transactional relationship; the self-described "Nice Guy" awkwardly and uncomfortably latches onto a woman, continually offering gifts, services, and emotional support, as opposed to taking an honest approach which might allow her agency and thereby risk rejection.. The woman may be aware of how strange this all is, and respond with statements of gratitude but underlying discomfort, or she may think the "Nice Guy" is being genuinely nice and treat him as a good friend, unaware that he has an underlying ulterior motive. Eventually, the woman starts dating someone. Since the "Nice Guy" cannot handle the notion that women has agency, because that in turn implies the possibility of rejection, he cannot deal with the notion that the woman is capable of making good decisions for herself, and therefore concludes that this new person must be a jerk. Any behavior which is less than entirely passive and submissive is taken as evidence of jerkiness. Eventually, the "Nice Guy"--possibly based on repetitions of this cycle or evidence from talking to "Nice Guy" friends--concludes that "women only date jerks" and becomes increasingly bitter and more vocally misogynistic. At this point, they can either grow up and stop being weaselly little passive-aggressive jerks, or they can start throwing money at "pick-up artist" scams and become even more bitter and misogynistic. Sadly, most choose the latter.

"Owl's Well That Ends Well" depicts the point in Spike's cycle where the object of his poorly expressed affections brings a new man into her life, the point where his self-centered and idiotic approach to relationships hits inevitable failure. Twilight becomes close to a new male character, Owlowiscious, and Spike's fragile Nice Guy ego immediately concludes Owlowiscious is somehow evil. The episode mostly does a good job of showing how the exact same behavior is viewed as harmless or neutral by Twilight Sparkle, but menacing and untrustworthy from Spike's, and to that end here's a new My Little Po-Mo vlog showcasing the different points of view.

Unfortunately the scene at the end of the vlog suggests that there is at least some objectivity to Owlowiscious' menace, a suggestion which has no support in the three seasons of the show so far (indeed, after this episode Owlowiscious' appearances can be numbered on one hand). That suggestion of objectivity weakens the depiction, but to an extent that's made up for by Spike cavorting in a mustache, cape, and top hat, making it abundantly clear who the villain of this scenario is. (It's hard to see what other purpose that costume could serve; his retrieval of it is framed like a joke, but it's not actually funny, and endures for several shots too long to be just for that attempt at a gag.)

Regardless of that one moment, it's pretty clear that Owlowiscious is a problem only in Spike's mind. Spike never considers whether Twilight Sparkle might be capable of making her own informed decisions about who to relate with; he projects his own insecurities regarding his position as her assistant and friend into a scenario of being her protector, much as he fantasized about unnecessarily rescuing Rarity in "Dog and Pony Show." White Knight-ism and Nice Guy Syndrome are frequently closely intertwined, so it's no surprise he concocts a way to reframe his possessiveness of Twilight as a need to "prove" to her that she's making a mistake in regards to Owlowiscious' character.

At no point does Spike consider talking to Twilight. He could, in theory, just tell her how he sees their relationship. He could tell her about the fears that Owlowiscious provokes, reveal his insecurity, and be reassured and comforted. He will never do this, however. The reason he tells himself is that it's a "burden" on Twilight, because he likes to envision himself as supporting and protecting her, and sees the support-for-affection and service-for-gratitude relationships as flowing in only one direction. The real reason, however, is simply that he lacks the courage to make himself vulnerable. There is a chance that Twilight might respond in a way that he finds hurtful, or reject him, and he is too fearful of that possibility to risk it.

The result is that he utterly denies that Twilight has any agency in this situation. He does not permit her to make any informed choices about her relationship with Spike, because he doesn't want her to have the power to hurt him. In so doing he sets himself up to forget that she has her own unique interior life, her own needs and wishes and feelings, and tries to engineer situations that force her feelings about Owlowiscious to match his own. In short, he aggressively denies Lesson Zero, and then acts surprised when, on figuring out that he's doing this, Twilight responds with anger and confusion.

As she herself says, in this episode Spike isn't the person Twilight thought she knows and loves. That's because Spike's transactional model is (as any transactional model must be) highly conditional. If Twilight doesn't keep up her end of the bargain she never made and doesn't know about, then in Spike's mind the deal is off and Spike's behavior drastically changes. Unfortunately, while a new unstated bargain forms at the end of the episode, there's little evidence that Spike has learned the underlying lesson, which is the same lesson the series has been repeating for a few episodes now: Relationships require openness and honesty. Don't assume you know how others feel, and don't presume to dictate how they "should" feel.

The series is continuing to build up to something, a realization that is still a few episodes away and in another season, but we can see the shape of it now. There is something underlying all friendships, all healthy relationships with other people. Something without which kindness, generosity, honesty, loyalty, laughter, and friendship become twisted parodies of themselves, and that something has to do with recognizing the interiority of others.

The groundwork is laid for what may be the best and most important episode of the entire series. But to get there will require challenging the structure and premise of the show itself, and in the logic of television, that requires a season break. We must therefore put it aside for a little while, knowing that sooner or later, it must be addressed.

Next week: The ablation of Ms. Pinkamena Diane Pie.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Sorry all, going to be late again

[watch this space for the next article, which will be up by noon]

Pony Thought of the Day: Negativity and Butthurt

The following is a list of negative comments I've made on this blog, according to the degree of butthurt I've gotten in response. Please note that this does not mean EVERY response I've gotten has been butthurt, just a measure of how butthurt the butthurt people were. Some of the responses were in comments on this blog, but most were in message board or reddit threads linking to this blog, or made to me in person at conventions.

Saying that Zecora is a racist caricature: Minor butthurt.
Repeatedly pointing out Amy Keating Rogers' serious flaws as a writer: Minor butthurt.
Mentioning the Geek Social Fallacies at all: Some butthurt.
Jokingly claiming that being mean to Fluttershy is an irredeemable sin: Surprisingly, some butthurt.
Calling for a Hasbro boycott: 50/50 mix of butthurt and reasoned disagreement.
Saying I'm worried Equestria Girls will not be very good: Serious butthurt.
Calling Spike a jerk: SO MUCH BUTTHURT

Friday, March 15, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Cutie Mark Switcheroo, Part Two

Given that who got which cutie mark in "Magical Mystery Cure" was pretty much certain, the order in which Twilight helps them is set, too. Each pony is freed by their willingness to go against their destiny and try something alien to help a close friend, and whoever is last needs to help someone outside the Mane Six. I guess some of the big sister relationships would work for that, but the show's is about friendship, rather than family, so really what's needed is for the last pony to have friends other than the Mane Six--which pretty much means Pinkie Pie.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Cutie Mark Switcheroo, Part One

"Magical Mystery Cure" picked exactly the right ponies to get each cutie mark. Each one basically got their worst nightmare.

Rarity has to spend her life working on something that has no permanent results, a chaotic system to which she cannot bring order, and which pretty much always has to be done the same way--interesting weather is pretty much definitionally bad weather.

Applejack has to spend her life creating fru-fru things that are always different, no repetitive chores, and all of it done in the isolation necessary to art, away from her family.

Pinkie Pie is back on the farm, doing a never-ending stream of chores. It's like a return to her much-hated childhood.

Fluttershy has to get up in front of crowds of people and expose herself to their judgment. If she fails, they dislike her, if she succeeds, they laugh at her; a perfect lose-lose for her.

Rainbow Dash has to stay in one spot, doing a job that requires gentleness and care, where the center of attention must always be on the animals, never her.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Voice Actor Comedy Duo

Having now seen Michele Creber and Lee Tockar doing a panel together, I have come to the conclusion that I would pay good money to get the Creber and Tockar Comedy Hour as a weekly show or a podcast or something. They were hilarious!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Double Rainboom

I saw the first half of Double Rainboom at Cloudsdale Congress. It is seriously going to blow everyone away when it comes out. The only hint that it's fan-made is the sheer amount of fanservicey awesomeness. Everything else--the acting, the music, the animation--is professional caliber and nigh-indistinguishable from the show.

March 30 is marked on my calendar!

(Okay, it was already marked for the Doctor Who premiere and AKB0048 finale. But now it's got a third mark!)

Monday, March 11, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Cloudsdale Congress, Summarized

Cloudsdale Congress was, even though it was only in its first year, better organized than any Katsucon I've been to and most of the Otakons.

And then Closing Ceremonies degenerated into an impromptu dance party and singalong.

If there's one next year, I'm there. Period.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

From all of us together: Together we are friends. With the marks of our destinies made one, there is magic without end! (The Cutie Mark Chronicles)

This is the story of a fandom...

Bronies were born in the depths of 4chan, like a rose growing in a swamp, or a party pony raised on a rock farm. They began with the intent of hating the show, of watching it ironically, with all the bitter cynicism that passes for appreciation in the Internet Hate Machine.

They fell in love. Ponyvangelists spread rapidly across the Internet, posting about their love of ponies wherever they could: All over 4chan itself, on Facebook and Tumblr, big fora like Something Awful and TVTropes, small fora like the Front Row Crew Forum and Slacktivist--bronies quickly became inescapable, at least in the geekier corners of the Internet.

4chan tried to kick them out, and more or less succeeded for a time; eventually it caved, and bronies returned. You can't go to an anime convention without seeing humanized pony cosplayers. Pony fanart is all over DeviantArt, and pony videos and music are all over YouTube.

It hasn't always been a happy fandom. Derpygate divided us, bitter factions arguing over what did or did not constitute ableism or censorship. Twilicorn Sparkopalypse divided us again. I know fans who still refuse to watch the Season 3 finale because Twilight becoming an alicorn disturbs them so much, and other fans who are still complaining about it. Many fans complained about it right up until the episode, and changed their minds because they liked the episode after all; other fans didn't like the episode and found it rushed. Still others never had a problem in the first place.

Throughout, the fandom has dealt with outsiders and "neighsayers" who don't understand, who look askance at teen and adult men and women watching a cartoon for young children. But we live in a cynical age, and we need light and joy and love.

I remember the 1980s, barely; people who remember them better than I do frequently comment on how no one really expected to survive the decade. That was supposed to be the end of the world, in a fiery nuclear conflagration--and yet the 1990s happened. We've been holding our breaths for the apocalypse for more than 20 years, and instead all we've gotten is a long slow decline into economic and environmental ruin.

Bronies see a better world. We look at Equestria and we see a world where obsessing over everything that could go wrong is a neurotic flaw, not a universal trait. Where the profit motive marks you as a Flim-Flam Brother whether you make a quality product or not, because we all know you'll cut the quality and screw the local farmers if you have to in order to win. Where you can be who you are without being afraid of being judged against some artificial standard of what your gender is "supposed" (by whom?) to be like. Where love and peace and friendship have the power to change the world for the better.

Wanting a world like that marks you as childish, in our world. It didn't always; Judaism calls it "tikkun olam." Christianity calls it "the Kingdom of Heaven." Ethicists call it optimal utility. It's what civilization was invented for in the first place.

All over the world, a generation is waking up and realizing that the we aren't bound by an inevitable destiny; we can shape our own. The world isn't ending; we're going to inherit it, and we need to decide what we want it to be. Equestria has flaws, and reasons it would never work in the real world--but it's not a bad picture to keep in our minds, either.

This is the story of an animator...

Born 1974, Lauren Faust grew up loving the My Little Pony toys and playing with and having adventures with them, but absolutely despising the show. This is the sort of detail biographers love to put in, because it helps turn the chaos of living a life in the real world into a nicely organized, neat little narrative full of foreshadowing and recurring themes. "See?" this detail seems to say. "She was always destined to revolutionize the show. Of course if she never touched the toys, you could accomplish the same foreshadowing by pointing out how everyone around her liked My Little Pony and she didn't, while the foreshadowing if she loved both toy and show would be obvious.

She became an animator, and worked on several high-profile shows for Cartoon Network in the late 1990s with her eventual husband Craig McCracken. The first was Powerpuff Girls, created by McCracken. Faust started as an animator, and worked her way up to directing and writing episodes, including writing the theatrical prequel movie. Despite its bright colors and adorable female main characters, PPG broke the mold for girls' shows. It had a lot of action, the girls had not only distinctive hobbies and quirks, but their own strengths, weaknesses, dreams--in short, distinct personalities--and were able to be little girls while also being completely badass superheroes. It proved to be so popular that it's now coming back to Cartoon Network after nearly 15 years off the air. She had a larger role from the start in Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, also created by McCracken. Faust was the character designer, head writer, and a storyboarder.

A feminist, Faust repeatedly tried to pitch a show with an all-female cast to Cartoon Network, and was repeatedly told such a show couldn't succeed. (Note that this is after Powerpuff Girls was a smash hit.) Then, after Hasbro bought half of Discovery Kids and started looking for content to fill their new network, she tried approaching them; they turned down her initial idea, but countered with an offer to helm a new My Little Pony series, with the intent of creating a new toyline based on the show. Faust set out to combine what little good there was in the old cartoons with her own sensibilities; she has said at different times her goals were to create a show for little girls and their parents that both could enjoy, and to create a show that explored many different ways to be a girl.

This is the story of an evolving show...

Here we have Rarity demonstrating how to
reject something as not being your destiny.
Thank you, Rarity, you're a lesson to us all.
It's April 15, 2011. The top song this week is still Katy Perry's "E.T." The top movie is Rio, which while not as bad as the last couple of movies we've seen in the top spot, is still pretty bad. The news is mostly more of the same, with military killing protestors in Egypt and Syria, among other places, and Japan getting hit by more aftershocks and evacuating more people from the area around the Fukushima nuclear plant. One bright spot: On the day this episode airs, Australian and Japanese researchers successfully teleport information-carrying "packets" of light.

This week's episode is a stunning tour de force by M.A. Larson, "The Cutie Mark Chronicles." The most ambitious episode yet, it uses a complex structure of interconnected flashbacks to address questions of destiny. This is a brilliant approach, since we are used to thinking of destiny as a linear thing, a (rather depressing, and entirely at odds with our sense that we do, at least sometimes, make meaningful choices) notion that our lives are a straight line determined by our trajectory at birth. This episode, however, is anything but a straight line. Applejack's flashback, for example, begins well before anyone else's, and depending on the travel time between Manehatten and Ponyville, either it or Pinkie Pie's flashback ends last. Rainbow Dash's and probably Twilight Sparkle's flashbacks take place entirely within Fluttershy's, Rarity's ends later that night, and Pinkie Pie's the next day--if Pinkie Pie's even happened.

It's an interesting conceit, to have a single central event tie together the lives of the Mane Six before they ever knew each other. This episode was clearly set up far in advance, both overtly (Rainbow Dash's previous comment that, prior to "Sonic Rainboom," she'd succeeded in creating one exactly once) and subtly (Rainbow Dash's dismissive attitude towards Fluttershy in "Dragonshy" makes more sense--and becomes a clumsy attempt to protect her, rather than evidence of dislike--if Rainbow Dash has been protecting Fluttershy since they were foals).

However farfetched it may seem, it makes more sense as a result of the Texas sharpshooter fallacy: If you fire a bunch of bullets at a wall, and then draw the target where the bullet holes are clustered, you may well come out looking superhumanly accurate. Likewise, if you look hard enough for something that coincidentally ties together a randomly selected group of people, you will find something. Though it is interesting that the sonic rainboom coincides with their discoveries of their callings in all of the stories, it's still perfectly believable as a meaningless coincidence.

But then, what is the difference between meaningless coincidence and destiny, except that destiny is meaningful and coincidences are not? If we insist that meaning must come "from" somewhere other than ourselves, then there is no destiny, only meaningless coincidence. But in these parts we take as given that meaning is constructed, that we create it ourselves and in concert with the surrounding culture, which means that no coincidence is meaningless unless we choose it ourselves. We can choose what counts as destiny and what counts as coincidence.

This is the story of a fan...

A couple of years ago, Viga saw a thread about ponies someone created on the Front Row Crew forum. Initially, she thought it was a troll, but with time enough people on the site gave the show a shot to make it a brony-friendly place. Viga loved the show herself, and as official Pusher Robot of our circle of friends, nagged me to watch it.

Eventually I did. I had little in the way of preconceptions regarding the show--vague memories of seeing the G1 movie with Tirek, nothing more. The first episode seemed to me to be the best attempt by Westerners to imitate what I like about magical girls since Joss Whedon did it, but then the next few episodes after that failed on that promise.

And then "Dragonshy" happened, and I realized that I am Fluttershy and she is me. I have never identified with a character as strongly as I do her, never felt that their experience portrays my own, but Fluttershy is not just me. She is me at my best, a better version of me. Even as I watch her grow in the show, I realize that I have in me the capacity to be much of what is good about her, and to borrow the things she learns about herself.

I love My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. I'm passionate about it. I devote massive amounts of energy to my love for it, and I receive a great deal in return. It's not really something that can be described to someone who's never been a geek about something, but I feel like it's a part of who I am now. I was always destined to be a brony--and yet if Viga had not happened upon that thread on FRC, or if I had continued to refuse to watch the show, I would never have been one.

Case in point: Two of my closest and oldest friends are gigantic bronies. They started watching before I did, and discussed with each other whether to recommend the show to me. They decided I probably wouldn't like it and it was better not to bring it up. I came this close to never seeing the show.

But I did watch it, and now I write thousands of words a week about My Little Pony, and I've seen every episode at least four times (except "One Bad Apple," because it sucks). What a fragile thing destiny can be.

This is the story of a franchise...

In 1982, designer and illustrator Bonnie Zacherle, together with sculptor Charles Muenchinger, created a design for a girl's toy: a brightly colored plastic horse with combable mane and tail. Hasbro marketed the toy, which proved extremely popular, and in 1986 launched a tie-in cartoon. This was the wasteland of 1980s children's television, when half-hour toy commercials ruled the world, and My Little Pony was very much Transformers for girls. It mapped neatly onto the gender stereotypes: nifty mechanically complex toy involving robots and cars, and an adventure cartoon with lots of different personalities engaging in exciting action, versus brightly colored inarticulate toys with pretty hair that were horses and had cloyingly sweet, mundane quote-unquote adventures with only one personality shared among the bunch. Because according to toy manufacturers and childrens programming directors, little boys are people and like active things and excitement, little girls are identical ciphers and like passivity and sweetness. There was some exception in the first incarnation of the cartoon, with villains of the week and adventures, but still indistinguishable characters, not to mention the terrible animation typical of 1980s TV cartoons.

But things changed for cartoons in starting around 1987. The rise of syndication meant a degree of creative freedom relative to network television, and Disney's Ducktales proved it was possible to create a syndicated cartoon that was popular, profitable, and actually good! The Warner Bros.-Amblin team followed closely on their heels with Tiny Toon Adventures, and the next few years were a golden age for syndicated cartoons. The 1990s, on the other hand, saw the rise of cable TV, where restrictions were looser still and a new generation of artists like John K, Mike Judge, Genndy Tartovsky, and Craig McCracken had the creative freedom and budgets they needed to shine. The merchandise-driven era of animation gave way to the creator-driven era, and the animation and writing of the best cartoons of the 1990s and 2000s were leaps and bounds above the efforts of the 1970s and 1980s, able to stand proudly among the greats of the 40s and 50s.

But while the rest of TV animation improved, MLP stayed the same or got worse. Second and third generations of the toy lines followed, and new versions of the cartoon. 1992's My Little Pony Tales was the second cartoon associatd with the G1 toys. Because the demographic was growing a little older, it was aimed more at preteens: the ponies went to school, and were interested in makeup and boys, and while you started to have differences between the characters in terms of attitude and hobbies, every problem for every character could pretty much be solved by a makeover. Generation 3 had its own direct to video shorts and features from 2003-9. These were aimed at toddlers, but pandered so much even babies might have a hard time enjoying them. All the ponies were indistinguishable pallette swaps, the the animation was terrible, the writing was terrible, the cartoons were, simply, terrible.

As 2010 dawned, My Little Pony was shorthand for the worst of pandering, low-quality entertainment, the go-to example for people who argued that shows marketed to girls sucked.

This is the story of us all...

Every life is a chain of coincidences; very few events are the result of some agency or purpose. But it is up to us to decide which of those coincidences are meaningful and which are not, which to embrace, which to bemoan, and which to discard as unimportant. If I choose to interpret my life that way, then yes, I was always destined to be who I am now. Or, if I prefer, I can choose to read my life differently and claim another destiny as my own.

The random intersections of people's lives and stories, those coincidences and connections, are what make everything in our culture--in any culture--possible. Is it a meaningless coincidence or destiny that Faust played with ponies as a child, or that I can remember the G1 movie? Meaningless coincidence or destiny that 4chan got wind of the coming show?

It doesn't matter. What matters is that we all live in the same world, and everything that exists affects everything else that exists. We are all connected, and we pick and choose from these connections to grow our lives, art, politics, philosophy, everything shaped all along by these meaningless coincidences, this multitude of interacting destinies. Everything we do and are, everything we create and love, is shaped by these encounters and intersections, these coincidences and destined encounters, these connections and interactions.

And that's how Equestria was made.

Next week: Of the final five episodes of the first season, four are simply excellent, outstanding examples of what My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic can do at its best. Next week's... isn't.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Pony Thoughts of the Day: Character Arcs (Part Two)

There are still a couple of characters whose arcs haven't been finished:

Applejack doesn't have an arc, which is a big part of why I find her boring. There's no clear way to give her one, either--she already has everything she wants, and all of her vices appear in one episode only. If she could acquire one, maybe something to do with the loss of her parents or the family responsibilities that get in the way of her enjoying herself or something like that, it would help the character a lot.

Spike is always either a loyal servant or a greedy jerk; he has no other modes in which to relate to people. And now that Twilight's need for a voice of reason is decreasing, his position as her servant is making less sense. He's tried latching onto being others' servants (Applejack, Rarity), as well as increased the frequency with which he enters greedy jerk mode, but that's not really growing. There's potential here for an arc, and it's never too early to warn kids away from Nice Guy Syndrome.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Character Arcs (Part One)

It feels like the show brought a lot of character arcs to a close, or near to a close, this season:

Twilight's is pretty obvious: She's gone from antisocial loner, to slowly coming to understand how to relate to others, to de facto leader of the Mane Six, to member of Equestria's ruling class. She has an obvious next arc, though, which is learning to balance her personal friendships with her duties to all of Equestria, as well as learning what those duties are and how to express them.

Fluttershy has slowly learned that she does have a valuable skill that can serve her in a confrontation, namely her ability to use body language, tone of voice, and careful observation of the needs and wants of her opponent to resolve the conflict nonviolently. She's gone from "only able to use it on animals" to "able to use it in a crisis" to "able to use it on Discord." Her next arc is not obvious.

Rainbow Dash has gone from arrogant, brash, and heedless of the consequences (she kicked a dragon in the face, and Fluttershy had to calm him down!), to being able to recognize the potential consequences her actions may cause to befall herself and others, and making an effort to minimize them. She's also joined the Wonderbolts, apparently? Ish? That episode ended very abruptly. Her next arc is not obvious.

Rarity doesn't have an arc so much as a negotiation, balancing her desire for fame and social status with her love for her friends. She's several times had to waver between these in an effort to find an appropriate balance. There's no particular reason she couldn't keep struggling with it, but at the same time it's feeling a little played out (which is probably why there were no Rarity-centric episodes in Season 3). Her next arc is not obvious.

Pinkie Pie's finally learned some restraint. She went from needing to learn that her friends love *her*, not just her parties, to having to adapt to the notion that different people have different relational styles and boundaries, to being confronted with questions of just who the "real" Pinkie Pie is, and she's finally starting to grow up a little. Again, it's hard to see what her next arc is.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: I Make Video Sometimes

Too busy prepping for Cloudsdale Congress to come up with a Pony Thought of the Day today. As an apology, here's the intro video for one of my panels.

I'm *probably* going to do something to smooth the transition between the first and second clip, I'm just not sure what. Let me know if you have any thoughts on something to go there.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Rarity's Lightning Bolt

So, according to "Cutie Mark Chronicles" and pretty much everything else we've seen, Rainbow Dash's cutie mark symbolizes her love of racing. So how come, in "Magical Mystery Tour," Rarity became weather manager instead of a racer? I mean, it's not like Fluttershy became a baker.

Admittedly, then we wouldn't get the great "weather pattern" and "too last season?" puns, but on the other hand, Rarity, who hates to sweat or get dirty, as a racer? That'd be pretty awesome.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Unsung Heroes

Daniel Ingram and James Wootton don't get enough credit for making the show great, especially Wootton. He directed every episode of the first two seasons, and directed or co-directed more than half of Season 3. I don't mention him much in my reviews because his presence is unchanging, but I should really change that and talk more about his work.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Pony VAs

If I could pick one person who has not otherwise worked on MLP to voice a pony, it would have to be Cree Summer (Penny, Elmyra, Foxxy Love, Numbuh 5--her list of roles is nearly as long as Tara Strong's).

Who would you pick?

Sunday, March 3, 2013

I'm just good with animals. It's my special gift, you know. (A Bird in the Hoof)

The single most disturbing image in the entire series.
You could add Slenderman looking in through the window,
and it still wouldn't be any creepier than it already is.

It's April 8, 2011, and the number one song is Katy Perry featuring Kanye West with an obnoxious nerdboy power fantasy, "E.T." The top movie, meanwhile, is Hop, a disorganized, idiotic mess typical of the same wave of CG-live action hybrids that gave us Alvin and the Chipmunks, Marmaduke, and The Smurfs. Real news is just as bad as the entertainment world: since last week the Arab Spring has grown steadily more violent, as governments crack down on protestors and the Libyan Civil War continues; experts confirm that the nuclear reactors damaged by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami are leaking radioactive materials into the water--just in time for an aftershock that kills nine people and injures hundreds; a flurry of tornadoes and heavy storms strike the U.S.; and Idaho bans abortion of fetuses older than 20 weeks.

Thank goodness we have ponies to distract us--and what a delightful distraction Charlotte Fullerton gives us this week! "A Bird in the Hoof" is a charming little story, and full of those wonderful details that make this show such a joy to watch. There's the marvelous variety of facial expressions, like Princess Celestia's indulgent, motherly smile when Pinkie Pie eats her cupcake or Fluttershy's pupils dilating hopefully before she breaks into a big grin during Philomena's aromatherapy. There's the pill Fluttershy gives Philomena, recognizably the broad-spectrum antibiotic tetracycline hydrochloride. Or my personal favorite, the wheelchair-bound mouse that Fluttershy gently treats and then returns to his family in their hole in the wall--which means she even takes care of the vermin that chew holes in her house!

But this episode is more than a diversion, it's a continuation and refinement of themes we've been seeing through the series. Most obvious is the rebirth motif inherent in the symbol of the phoenix. Philomena dies and is reborn in fire, and thus is the perfect pet for the sun goddess Celestia. Rebirth is often closely associated with the sun, which not only dies each night and is reborn each day, but dies and is reborn on the Winter Solstice and during every total solar eclipse, too. Rebirth has been a recurrent theme throughout the series, starting back in the very first scene of the first episode, which as I pointed out back then is an eclipse myth. Celestia's disappearance throughout that episode, and her reappearance at sunrise, is a similar death-and-rebirth to Philomena's in this episode, and at the same moment we get the death of Nightmare Moon and rebirth as Luna.

I've already addressed the death and rebirth of the series itself, its alchemical transformation from "Swarm of the Century" to "Suited for Success." Transformation and rebirth are, ultimately, the same thing--something was, and no longer is, but is made new. It's therefore fitting that "A Bird in the Hoof" is the first episode as flawless as "Suited for Success" was. Indeed, at this point there would be very little evidence against the claim that Charlotte Fullerton is the series' best writer--but wait a few more episodes on that one.

Including transformations as part of the rebirth theme, we must therefore add the Cutie Mark Crusader-centric episodes to our list; what they seek is to initiate the transformation of adolescence, to die as children and be reborn as adults. Arguably, transformation is the central theme of the show to date; at the very least, it has been the central theme of this blog.

What's interesting about this episode, however, is that it's a subversion of the rebirth motif. Sure, Philomena burns and emerges from the flames beautiful and healthy, but she's still the same mischievous prankster she was before she burned. Celestia is still patient and gentle, Fluttershy is still kind, easygoing, and timid, and Twilight Sparkle is still neurotic and anxious. The only transformation here was the least interesting kind, the literal and physical.

It's a very postmodern thing to do, actually: after an entire season of transformations and rebirths, we finally get a phoenix to lampshade it, and then the episode calls the entire motif into question by giving us no transformation at all. Instead, it focuses on a similar issue to the last Fluttershy-centric episode, "Green Isn't Your Color," and critiques the misapplication of kindness.

In feminist circles, this concept is known as Intent Isn't Magic (sometimes with an added f-bomb for emphasis). It doesn't matter if you intended to help the other person; true kindness (like true generosity, true loyalty, and true friendship) aren't about you, they're about the other person. Before you can help someone, you have to know whether and how they want to be helped, and the only way to accomplish that is clear and open communication. A lot of people have a serious problem with this; they do things that they think are helpful, and then when the response is not gratitude, they get upset. Here, Fluttershy becomes upset and frustrated not because of a lack of gratitude, but because her efforts to help aren't accomplishing anything. The underlying cause, however, remains the same; she didn't bother to ask what help was needed, and just assumed, with the result that her "help" was actually useless and possibly harmful (I doubt immersing a dying phoenix in water is a good idea). Just as in "Green Isn't Your Color," the lack of open communication, despite everyone involved having the best of intentions, results in completely avoidable heartache for the characters.

The temptation I repeatedly struggle with, in writing this blog, is to look at episodes in isolation. The show is extremely episodic, especially in the first season, to the point that some have argued that the weird behavior of the seasons implies that the season's airing order is not the chronological order of events in Ponyville. This episode, however, is one of the reasons I don't think that's possible. Fluttershy's character has an arc this season; at first she's too timid to do much of anything, but she successfully faces her dragon and gains enough confidence to stand on stage as a model, but not enough to confront Rarity about her feelings. In this episode she has more confidence still, enough to outright snatch the ruler of Equestria's pet because she feels it isn't being well cared for. Her behavior at the Grand Galloping Gala is the next step from here; the Fluttershy of earlier episodes would have given up long before her freakout.

Viewing this episode together with the rest of the season, and in particular in light of the previous episode, it becomes clear that we have another mini-arc on the theme of undesired help, lack of communication, and that Friendship, not Intent, is Magic. We start with Dog and Pony Show, where (as I discussed) in the article on that episode, Spike is in full-on obnoxious Nice Guy mode. This pattern of behavior, again, is all about being "nice" (that is, having intentions that can at least be interpreted as good by someone very, very generous and biased in the Nice Guy's favor) while not caring at all about the internality of the other person. Nice Guy Syndrome is an excellent, real-world example of the way real, genuine friendship (that is, knowing and caring about the other person) can form meaningful bonds as opposed to the awful behavior "nice" intentions create in its absence.

Next up is "Green Isn't Your Color," which we've already discussed at length. In this case Rarity and Fluttershy's intentions are genuinely good and unselfish, but again, they neglect to take into account the internality of the other, and that it differs from their own.

"Over a Barrel" suffers the most from the tendency to view it in isolation. Viewed in the context of the episodes around it, the read of it as a satire of modern proxy imperialism I briefly mentioned in the article becomes much stronger. Modern neoliberal imperialism (so called because it was invented by Kennedy-era liberals, but now present in both sides of the political divide) is essentially a rehash of White Man's Burden: our culture is better and free-er than theirs and democracy is objectively the best and most moral form of government, so we should go in and liberate those poor people suffering under oppressive regimes, whether they've asked us to or not. This has the effect of escalating every local conflict into a clash of opposing superpowers, but when the dust settles all those Western corporations have new markets to sell to and new resources to exploit. Don't dare suggest that was ever part of the motivation, though. Obviously the Old West setting obscures the satire somewhat, as Manifest Destiny was a completely different, more savage, and far more honest excuse to go into other people's land and kill them; specifically, it was the two-year-old's attitude of "I want that, therefore it's rightfully mine." That the satirical elements of the episode would have worked better without it is just another in the long, long, long list of reasons the Old West setting was a terrible, terrible idea.

But mostly we're here to discuss "A Bird in the Hoof," which is the culmination of the theme. "Over a Barrel" showed where the attitude of "I have good intentions, and therefore can do no wrong," leads on a cultural level. This episode shows where it leads on a personal, relational level, which I see as a much more effective approach to getting people to stop doing it--especially this show's two main audiences, children and geeks, who are often isolated from the larger culture and unlikely to see its failings as their own.

On the level of interpersonal relationships, the Intent Is Magic attitude leads to some truly horrific behavior. In the episode we have a long (and very funny) montage of Fluttershy trying and failing to solve Philomena's problem, and while it's frustrating and distressing for Fluttershy, it looks like sheer torture for Philomena. The high level of slapstick absurdity in this episode's animation helps obscure and make palatable the suffering Philomena is put through, but she is roasted, frozen, plunged into water that causes her to swell terribly, given ointments that make her break out in hives, and force-fed a pill she's already rejected. We are quick to label as selfish a person who focuses solely on their own wants and needs, and ignores what others want and are able to give. The inverse is just as true, however; the person who focuses solely on what they want and are able to give, and ignores the wants and needs of others, is exactly as selfish.

Children necessarily live on the receiving end of that every day. Because we are born ignorant and have to learn as we grow, children often don't know their own needs very well, and their wants tend to be unrealistic. Parents must sometimes do what their child needs as opposed to what the child wants, and that's unpleasant for everyone; worse still is when, due to the child's still-evolving communication skills, the parent doesn't understand what it is the child needs and, with the best of intentions, does the wrong thing. Though normally the ponies are the point of identification for the viewer, in this case Philomena is; she is the child who cannot express what she needs, and Fluttershy the well-meaning parent who doesn't stop to try to work it out. It's not intentional self-centeredness on Fluttershy's part, but then, as we said, Intent Isn't Magic.

Friendship is, however. Truly knowing and understanding another person, being open enough with them that you can ask after their needs and wants, and they can tell you if you're missing the mark, without fear. That's the point, when you recognize another's internality, that true kindness becomes possible; any charity before that is at best flailing in the dark, and at worst actively harmful.

Next week: Rainbows and cutie marks and transformations for everyone! Plus we get to see the Mane Six as kids! Does it get any better than this? Amazingly, yes, yes it does.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

I'm late! And for a very important date!

Due to Mysticon eating my buffer, prepping for Cloudsdale Congress, and a potluck I committed to ages ago and need to cook for, this week's episode analysis may be a couple hours late.


Edit: Sorry again. Party ran longer than I expected and I'm exhausted. I'll have the post up by noon EST, I promise.

Pony Thought of the Day: Scootaloos and Scooby-Doos

When I think about it, the history of MLP and the history of Scooby-Doo are pretty similar. They both started as cheaply made cartoons in an era of cheaply made crap, and the first iteration of both was slightly better than it ought to be, but still not actually good.

Then each successive version got worse and worse... until 2010, when all of a sudden this new, brilliant, very postmodern version came out, and distinguished itself as a major departure and improvement before the opening credits of the first episode.

Mystery, Inc. getting arrested is to Scooby-Doo as the tale of Nightmare Moon is to MLP.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Pony Thoguht of the Day: Everypony Was Kung Fu Fighting

You know, it's kind of weird that Applebloom and Rainbow Dash practice karate, since that particular martial art is based mostly around punches and strikes. Like, with your hands. Wouldn't a kick-based art like tae kwan do make more sense?