Sunday, June 9, 2013

You don't have any cutie marks *either*? I thought I was the only one! (The Cutie Pox)


Sweetie Belle bowls WITH HER FACE.
Anyone who dislikes the CMC is OBJECTIVELY WRONG.
It's November 12, 2011. The top song is Rihanna featuring [somebody] with "[stupid title]." As we've come to expect from top Rihanna singles, the song is repetitive, brainless, and cliche, and the video is hilariously pretentious. The top movie this weekend is "Immortals," yet another CG-fest action movie that forgets to have a story, characters, or acting in it. Since last episode, Barnes & Noble released the nook, which will become the number two dedicated e-book reader, a record number of Americans (just shy of 50 million) are living below the poverty line, and the International Atomic Energy Commission reveals that Iran may be working on nuclear weapons technology. The U.S. demands that Iran stop, apparently under the impression that the only country in history ever to use nuclear weapons to kill people has the moral authority to tell other countries whether they get them.

“The Cutie Pox,” written by Amy Keating Rogers and directed by Jayson Thiessen, isn’t a bad episode or even really a mediocre one. It’s just that, from “Party of One” to “Sisterhooves Social,” the show was on fire for seven straight episodes, and now that it’s back to being merely pretty good, it’s a bit of a let-down. It also does not help at all that this is the second episode in a row to focus on a Cutie Mark Crusader, though admittedly “Sisterhooves Social” had too much Applejack and Rarity in it to be considered a pure Cutie Mark Crusader episode.

The episode also features Zecora more heavily than any episode since her debut. I’ve addressed why I consider her a deeply problematic character before, so here I will simply repeat my call for the only cure for tokenism: we need more zebras on the show! There are some problems with the plotting, too, most notably that Applejack and Twilight Sparkle seem to make a huge logical leap when they decide to seek out Zecora to cure Apple Bloom, and then Zecora coincidentally shows up anyway, making it entirely unnecessary. I suppose it’s possible that they thought a five-year-old would need reminding that Zecora was involved, but the show is normally more confident of its audience’s ability to follow along. Also, it doesn’t really matter much, but it’s never made entirely clear whether the effects of the Heart’s Desire plant merely simulated the ancient plague, or the original Cutie Pox was caused by ponies using Heart’s Desire.

There’s also the question of why Apple Bloom doesn’t get her heart’s desire, but that’s easily explained both diegetically and non-diegetically. Non-diegetically, entities that grant wishes are almost always tricksters, and grant a parody of the wish instead. This episode fits neatly into that narrative tradition, but more interesting is the diegetic explanation.

Consider the Mane Six in “The Cutie Mark Chronicles.” For each of them, it’s not simply a matter of doing a particular kind of work and discovering they’re great at it; Applejack and Twilight Sparkle in particular have been doing farmwork and magic, respectively, for years when they get their cutie marks. In every one of the flashbacks in that episode, what causes the appearance of the cutie mark is not discovering their talent, but discovering that they love their talent. That's why Rarity's talent is design and not mining; why Rainbow Dash's is racing and not sky-clearing, and so on.

Apple Bloom doesn't know what it is that she loves to do. She has shown, by the end of this episode, an amazing talent for various kinds of hands-on work, most notably carpentry in "The Showstoppers" and potion-making in "The Cutie Pox" itself. Yet despite demonstrating these talents, Apple Bloom still doesn't have her cutie mark, because she hasn't found--or decided on--her calling.

Which is exactly why she gets the titular Cutie Pox. Since she wishes for any cutie mark, the Heart's Desire gives her every cutie mark. At least, she would presumably have continued getting new cutie marks for the rest of her life if she hadn't been cured. And note that most of the talents Apple Bloom demonstrates are showy, public ones that a performer might have--hula hoop stunts, plate-spinning, tightrope walking, and so on. This is because Apple Bloom's motivation for wanting a cutie mark is her desire for validation (that is, her desire for proof that she has value); she wants the approval and acceptance of others, and she believes that she can get that if she is seen to have a cutie mark. (Interestingly, the precise reasons that Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle want their cutie marks are never revealed; we can presume it's similar to Apple Bloom's reasons, but there's little actual textual evidence for this.)

Our society has a lot of ugly messages about validation floating in it, especially during the prime dating years of late teens through twenties, which happen also to be the prime brony years. The most common is the message that you need a committed, romantic, sexual relationship to be a whole person--that anyone who lacks such a thing or, worse, has never experienced it is somehow lacking. Combined with our culture's general heteronormativity, many of us end up internalizing the message that you need a member of the opposite sex to validate you. Broadly, men get told they need to get laid, and women get told they need to have a boyfriend or get married.

This is a deeply poisonous idea. It both feeds and is fed by the pernicious "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" myth that poisons so many relationships, it aggravates loneliness by encouraging the lonely person to think that they are less of a person because they are lonely, and it is a major contributing factor to Nice Guy Syndrome.

Worst of all, though, it blinds you to other sources of validation. The search for validation is one of the great motivators; once all your basic needs of physical survival are met, which for most of us (alas, not all by any means) is relatively easy, it's the search for validation that drives most of what we do. But the insistence that there is One True Way to Validation obscures the many, many other ways to be validated, or the fact that different possible sources of validation work for different people.

At the end of the episode, typically for Cutie Mark Crusader episodes, Apple Bloom appears to learn nothing. The overt friendship lesson for the kids, about not trying to rush things or be dishonest, seems to be entirely ignored when she waits for a matter of seconds before resuming her crusade with Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle. However, as I've been saying for some time now, the show is increasingly operating on two levels, with an overt friendship lesson for the kids and a subtler one that's applicable to bronies.

There do seem to be hints that Apple Bloom has internalized the other lesson, about not assuming there's only one way to be validated. She doesn't need a cutie mark to feel that she has value; she can achieve that feeling by coming clean about a misdeed, earning her elders' approval with a well-crafted letter to Celestia, or having fun with her friends. Most importantly, because she has lots of ways to feel that she has value, she can start to develop an internal ability to self-validate when the other sources aren't around. Maybe then she can figure out who she is and what she wants, and actually get that cutie mark.

Next Week: Rainbow Dash sings, tortoises fly, and everything is wonderful forever.

4 comments:

  1. You just made me appreciate this episode far more, as well as contribute to my understanding of how Cutie Marks work. Very nicely done! (Also, I personally think that the Hearts Desire was merely simulating the Pox, though admittedly there is no textual evidence to back or refute this.)

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    1. Thanks!

      I tend to think that as well about Heart's Desire, but the episode really doesn't answer it. Of course, that's not what the episode's really about or interested in, but still... not knowing bugs me for some reason.

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    2. I feel like given that the effect was cured by planting and growing a "seed of truth", we're not supposed to think that the Heart's Desire can be the "real" source of anything, good or bad.

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    3. That makes a lot of sense.

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