|You know, I really wish I hadn't already used |
"20 percent cooler" in a previous article title.
The big news in the brony community is that the much-anticipated fan-made episode "Double Rainboom" goes live on YouTube in a little over a week. But quietly, just ahead of the big episode, a small group of fans known as Silly Filly Studios releases “Snowdrop,” a short animation written by Meredith Sims and directed by Sims and Marshal “Zedrin” Watson.
Way back in the “alchemy” series of reviews in the first season, I posited that Applejack and Rainbow Dash could be read as representing opposing visions if the show. The Rainbow Dash Show is flashy, cool, fun, and exciting, but also a bit heartless and excessively fannish, while The Applejack Show is sincere, honest, and remains true to the core values of the show, but is also prone to sentimentality and a tad on the boring side.
“Double Rainboom” begins as everything right about the Rainbow Dash approach and ends up being everything wrong about that approach. “Snowdrop” starts as everything wrong about the Applejack approach, and ends up being everything right about it.
Snowdrops, like many flowers, are quite redolent with meaning, almost to the point of being oversignified. They are small, fragile flowers that bloom just at the beginning of spring, and thus often appear while there is still snow on the ground, which together with their small, white blossoms gives them their names. They are frequently cited as one of the first signs of the end of winter; for example in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe the appearance of snowdrops is one of the earliest indicators that the power of the White Witch is starting to break. Like any other symbol of winter’s end, they therefore represent rebirth, restoration, and thereby also origins and beginnings, but the power of these meanings is belied by their frailty, small size, and the simplicity inherent in being a plain white blossom.
It is thus fitting that the small, white, fragile filly Snowdrop should be named for one. Her character seems designed to evoke sympathy as directly and hamfistedly as possible: she is blind, shy, picked on, and melancholic, but at the same time never shows signs of giving up or lashing out. She is very close to the Japanese anime-fan aesthetic of moe, which translates roughly to “that which provokes protectiveness.” In shows that employ the aesthetic, moe characters (who are usually female and either childlike, hyper-sexualized, or (in the most disturbing cases) both) are depicted as weak or shown suffering physical or emotional traumas, in ways meant to evoke a desire to protect them in the (mostly male) audience. It is in essence fiction designed to fulfill the audience’s White Knight fantasies.
White Knight fantasies represent a desire to save others in the abstract—that is, not an altruistic and response rooted in empathy for the real, material, concrete suffering of a specific person or group, but a self-centered, abstract desire to save generic others and thus acquire an increased sense of self-worth or affection. As such, they are closely related to Nice Guy Syndrome, in that both involve greater focus on what the White Knight/Nice Guy wants to give, rather than understanding what the object of the fantasy/syndrome wants to receive, and both substitute a self-centered desire for entitlement to emotional rewards, rather than any actual empathy.
In addition to the moe aesthetic of the character herself, the winter setting of “Snowdrop” also recalls any of the large number of mawkish, emotionally manipulative Christmas tales that employ the suffering of a “pure” character to teach the audience some lesson, such as Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Match Girl.” These stories are frequently sentimental to the point of sappiness, and it is difficult to say whether the ones where the suffering, pure little girl (it is usually a girl) gets her wish are more obnoxious than the ones (such as “The Little Match Girl”) where the suffering girl is “too pure for this world” and gets “rewarded” by dying horribly. Such stories are the epitome of glurge, stories so blatantly emotionally manipulative that, even when intended to produce positive feelings or responses, they are still vaguely nauseating. And for most of its running length, “Snowdrop” looks exactly like one.
Except then Snowdrop makes the first snowflake and presents it to the Princesses, and everything changes. The one thing moe characters never get to do, the one thing the Little Match Girl cannot be permitted, is to tell their own stories, to contextualize their own experiences under their own terms. Snowdrop, however, gets to express herself artistically. She creates the snowflake to represent the sound of stars twinkling that she alone can hear; since she is blind, she presumably does so by touch, and this is an animation. Her snowflake is therefore a visual representation of the tactile experience of hearing a star.
That concept alone makes any flaws in “Snowdrop” worthwhile, but in addition to making art, the narrative also affords Snowdrop a space to make an artist’s statement. She is allowed to explain the why of the snowflake, and in so doing touches one of the listening ponies, Princess Luna. We know this is set in the far past of the series, because Celestia’s opening narration frames this as a flashback even as it shows familiar ponies in the now; because Celestia’s hair is pink instead of rainbow-hued, which is commonly used in fanart of her as a young pony; and because the paratext tells us so in the form of a video description. This is thus Luna before she became Nightmare Moon: it is a Luna who is at some point in the (possibly quite near) future going to allow herself to be consumed with jealousy that no one appreciates her night who hears Snowdrop explain that snow isn't useless.
Snowdrop isn't useless; she has a creative power, just like anyone and everyone else. Luna isn't useless either, nor is her night; is it any wonder that Luna refers to Snowdrop as "the only one who ever truly knew my night?" She's not talking about blindness--the fact that ponies have a word for it suggests that other blind ponies have existed. She's talking about that feeling of uselessness, of wanting to prove she has value. Jealousy isn't greed; it isn't simply a matter of wanting something you don't have. Jealousy is resentment, as much a feeling that what you have is worthless as that what someone else has is desirable. Luna feels less valued than Celestia, and therefore feels less valuable; her night is used for rest and recovery (just like Snowdrop's winter), instead of fun and happiness like the spring or Celestia's day.
Snowdrops, in praising winter, is also telling Luna that she's wrong about the night, that it isn't worthless and can be celebrated. But critically--and more than anything else, this is what saves the short from the dangers of glurge--Luna doesn't listen. She continues to feel that her night is worthless and unvalued, continues to stew in jealousy, and ultimately tries to seize power as Nightmare Moon. Snowdrop's sweet, disabled, martyr-like moe purity cannot prevent Luna from becoming a monster.
Yet Luna remembers her as a friend anyway. Snowdrop doesn't fail; she transforms winter forever, and is never forgotten by the night. At the same time, there is a limit to what she can accomplish; the end is thus not sickly sweet, but bittersweet, as Luna mourns her absent friend and the mistakes which meant she never got to say goodbye.
The last of Snowdrop's snowflakes--which is recognizably the first--drifts to the ground, landing on a snowdrop, which slowly blooms. Sadness and cold and darkness exist. It is not as easy as simply being pure and sincere and trusting that everything works out perfectly--but even in the midst of snow, the first signs of spring can bloom.
Next week: There is a reason this is called Derivative Works Month, not Fanworks Month. This is why.