Thursday, May 23, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Implied Viewer, Part One

I've been doing some research for my upcoming panels, and in particular learning more about reader-response criticism, which my school largely skipped. This has led me to thinking about the contention I occasionally encounter that bronies are "ruining" the show by trying to make it "for them," and whether there's any truth to it. (Spoiler: Not so far, and it will continue to be untrue as long as the showrunner continues not to take fangst remotely seriously.)

So, who exactly is the show "for"? That's pretty close to the concept of "implied reader" in media theory, or in this case I suppose "implied viewer."

Basically, the implied viewer is the person (or group of people, or type of people) that the show seems to be assuming the viewer to be. There are many, many ways to make implications about the viewer. The way the camera moves, how it frames shots, can function as a "gaze" for the viewer, and thus imply what it is the viewer finds interesting. Allusions and references can imply that the user is supposed to "get" those references. A work can signal in a multitude of ways how intelligent it thinks its audience is, or how easily bored. (Because I'm apparently hating on TV news this week, watch a few minutes of any 24-hour cable news network. Doesn't matter which one, they all find a myriad of ways to make clear that they think you are extremely stupid and have the attention span of a gnat.)

Since I'm in a teacherly mode at the moment, working on the slides for my Analyzing Anime 201 panel, I'll stop here and toss it out to you in the comments. In what ways does Friendship Is Magic imply a particular audience? Does it imply one particular type of viewer, or several? Is the brony viewer in any way implied, or are bronies a case of appropriating someone else's show?

By the time you see this, I'll have already written my answers and put it in the queue, but I'm curious to see what the rest of you think.


  1. Well, the closest thing to a direct shout-out to bronies turned out to be the result of an elaborate chain of crossed signals and misunderstandings, rather than an actual conscious decision by any one person involved in the show, so I don't think the show implies brony viewership much.

    Even the visual Easter Eggs are usually put there by the storyboard artists rather than the writers (because the storyboard artists, unlike the writers, are actually allowed to read fanfiction and keep track of fanon).

    The comics, however, most definitely imply brony readership. Not just because they've practically canonized a ton of fanon (Derpy being a mailmare), but also because they expand on the continuity and world-building, two things that geeks love for reasons outlined in your Swarm of the Century recap... and because the main comic series has gone a bit darker than the show is able to go (though not too much darker, thankfully)

    However, the comics also gently skewer the bronies, with the cave troll in Issue #2, which is a nice sign that they're not going to bend over too far to flatter us.

    1. Ah, but that's the beauty of the implied viewer: it's about what the show implies, and is therefore entirely independent of what the creators intended. Part of the point of implied author/reader is to free you from having to consider the actual author/reader so you can focus entirely on the work, not things external to the work.

    2. Ah, I see.

      Well, if we're breaking it down that way, I think we'd first have to establish what would constitute an implication of Brony viewers in particular as opposed to the target audience. What sets them apart from the show's target demographic? We know what is usually thought of as appealing to the general age/gender group of most bronies, but if that was what we really wanted to see, we wouldn't be watching this show in the first place.

      So, what changed once the brony phenomenon took off?

      There are only two elements I can think of that are noticeably more likely to be lost on the show's target audience, and have been expanded upon since the brony phenomenon arose.

      The first, is references to other geek iconography. However, Swarm of the Century was already written and animated before the brony phenomenon even existed, and certainly before it came to the attention of the showrunners. Granted, I don't think the show would have gone quite so far as to have the ponies fight Q, if there wasn't a new peripheral geek demographic watching (or at least they probably wouldn't have bothered paying John de Lancie to voice himself), but apart from an occasional big shout-out like that, the references have been kept to a definite minimum... until MMMystery on the Friendship Express, but the five main references there were less obscure than Star Trek, to the point where some of them seemed to imply viewers far older than even most bronies. Same with The Crystal Empire's tribute to Lord of the Rings.

      The second element, however, goes a bit deeper: continuity. Generally speaking, the show's primary target demographic isn't known for keeping track of continuity and world-building (although you'd be surprised), so when the show goes into that, that's a fairly good sign it's got a peripheral demographic in mind. That varies greatly depending on the writer, though.

      So, we're left with the visual Easter Eggs, which consist of a few background tributes to other shows and movies (My Not-So-Little Lebowski), most of which could just as easily be parental bonuses, and the Where's Waldo game with background ponies, most of which only even mean anything to those who are already familiar with the fanon, so if we're disregarding authorial intent, I'm not sure those really "count" either.

      To summarize, I don't think the show itself really implies much viewership out of its primary target demographic. Other than, y'know, the fact that it's actually well-written enough that actual human beings can watch it without feeling nauseated.

  2. We know for absolute certain that the first few episodes of the show were written specifically for young girls, possibly with the hopes that they'd also write something that boys or kids slightly above the targeted age bracket could enjoy too. At best the only adults they expected to watch in any significant numbers would be a parent to whom they'd want to toss a joke once or twice an episode. So in a sense, any implications of being written *for* bronies would have to be found in the differences between early and later episodes (though not every change could be accounted to it). Are there differences?

    Yes. There's a bit more continuity, which is mostly-wasted on five-year-olds but coveted by adults. A couple of fan-favorite antagonists return for a second episode (that sounds like a silly thing to even merit mentioning until you remember that the standard model they'd be operating on given no interference is the "bring someone new in for one episode so you can sell toys of them" model, ala Pip or Featherweight). At some point they remembered that there was supposed to be a second princess and made her appear in a few episodes. And the second season opens with an episode that expands the premise to allow more flexibility in the episode structure, though that one could go either way though--it really was constraining what stories they could write and which characters they could focus on.

    But everything I just said, while pointing towards an acknowledgement of the bronies, is applied ''very lightly''. They brought back Trixie and Discord, but they didn't do that every episode and other one-shot characters remain absent. Heck, they only even brought back Twilight's *brother* for the two-parter immediately following the two-parter where he was introduced. Background ponies (and punny place names) are kept consistent and are now reused for continuity rather than budget but they remain in the background and mostly-unvoiced. Luna is completely irrelevant to the plot except in two episodes where she's central to it instead. There's still an implicit or (more often) explicit lesson after every episode; it's just not always for Twilight.

    So what does that mean? It means they're still writing for the same children. They really are. They've just also noticed the second group that's watching and started adding in things that that group would like, even if the original audience wouldn't get it. But they're doing it carefully, never putting in anything that would leave the kids feeling left out if it flew over their heads.


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