Thursday, August 8, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Utopia vs. Utopian

There are fewer than two hours left on the Kickstarter! This is the absolute last chance to throw money at My Little Po-Mo: Volume One and get the Kickstarter-exclusive essay, along with all the other rewards!

Friendship Is Magic is a utopian show, but that doesn't necessarily mean it depicts a perfect world. Allow me to split hairs a moment: Utopias are a literary genre that depict better (at least in the author's opinion) societies than our own. A good pop-culture example is Star Trek's Federation, which has no poverty, little crime, and no bigotry. (Except all the gay people are mysteriously missing, and there's at least one episode of TOS that depicts there still being a glass ceiling for women, and...) Likewise, Equestria has no war, little crime, no institutionalized bigotry, and no poverty--it's a pretty darn perfect place to live, monster attacks notwithstanding. Depicting a utopia, however, is not quite the same thing as being utopian. A utopian work doesn't even necessarily depict a utopia; what it does is assume that utopia is achievable, and suggests ways to get there. Star Trek: The Next Generation depicts a utopia, but is not utopian--there is no real indication of how to get there from here. Star Trek, the original series, however, is utopian--it gives rather strong hints of what 1960s American is getting wrong. And Friendship Is Magic is most definitely utopian. Most obviously, that's what the letters to Celestia are all about, but putting that aside there's still the depiction of a society where fear does not dominate, where interpersonal connections are valued over material success, where people actually belong to communities and take time to try to contribute instead of only thinking about what they can get out of it. It is, if you give it the chance, ferociously critical of our society, and quite consistent in depicting what it sees as the way to somewhere better.

ETA: And the Kickstarter is over! $1,026 total raised, which is kind of astounding. Thank you all so much!


  1. You wrote: "Likewise, Equestria has no war, little crime, no institutionalized bigotry, and no poverty--it's a pretty darn perfect place to live, monster attacks notwithstanding."

    This may be the authors' intent, but IMO there's an awfully loud set of subtexts that seem to say the opposite. We are shown that there are plenty of non-pony sapients in the EquestriaVerse: dragons, griffins, sheep, minotaurs, donkeys, etc., yet the language of the place is *aggressively* pony-centric. "Anypony," "nopony," and of course, the place-names. "Equestria," "Ponyville," "Los Pegasus," etc., etc., etc.. We are pervasively, anviliciously reminded of exactly who owns the place.

    This is compounded by the sheep-herding scene (I don't recall which episode offhand--"Sisterhooves Social?") in which Applejack and Applebloom herd sheep, physically knock them around, and finally pen them up--at the end of which, one of the sheep says, "You could have just asked." The scene is an extended example of treating non-ponies as being outside the sphere of moral concern. Applejack's "farm animals" are *people*. Or to put it another way, everypony's favorite down-home Suthuhn gal is a *slave-owner*.

    We see the same sort of thing fairly often with Spike. While Twilight and the others do seem to care about him, they (Twilight in particular) have no qualms about frequently treating him as an instrument (communication device, servant) rather than a person. In "Spike At Your Service," we learn that there's a "Dragon Code" that, in Spike's mind, obligates him to life-long servitude if "somepony" saves his life. But in "Dragonquest," freeborn dragons are portrayed as a rather egoistic species, and not at all deferential to ponies. No high regard for "honor" (aside from a rough-hewn teenage-boy machismo) is evident. Spike's "Dragon Code," with its utterly rigid requirement of life-long devotion and service doesn't seem to fit very well with the portrayals of freeborn dragons the show has given us. But Spike wasn't raised by dragons, he was raised by ponies. Ponies (probably Twilight) are pretty much the only candidate source for his "Dragon Code." Its content turns out to be rather...convenient, for ponies.

    In "Secret of My Excess," we learn that in order to remain cute and friendly, Spike has to be kept impoverished (he can't have more than a handful of possessions), and he can never, ever grow up. Add it all together, and it turns out that Spike is not merely a domestic servant; he's *domesticated.* Like a eunuch, except that it isn't his gonads that get cut off, but his ability to mature into an independent adult.

    1. The ponies seemed surprised and confused by Spike's "Dragon Code," so I somehow doubt they were the ones who fed it to him. I assumed the teenage dragons were rebelling against the Dragon Code as well as against the rest of the rules of Equestria's society.

    2. I assumed, based on the obviously hand-made card that Spike had in the episode, that he made up the "Noble Dragon Code" himself, possibly as an attempt to teach himself maturity discipline and avoid another greed-based growth spurt.

  2. OT: Sorry for the double-post. The total character count was showing as 3384 when I put it down elsewhere, but I was getting a message here saying I was over the more-than-4,000 limit here. /OT

    So, when we look at the pony-centric language and place-naming in Equestria from the point of view of Spike, the sheep, a donkey, or one of the other non-ponies, it arguably represents a very aggressive, over-the-top institutionalization of bigotry and pony-privilege. "Welcome to Whiteyville, a lovely small town that anywhite in Whitopia would agree is a fine place to raise a family! Everywhite is nice here, and nowhite is alone and friendless."

    Another thing to consider is that only ponies get cutie marks. Only *they* are blessed with special, individualized savant-hood. As you point out in your commentary on Zecora, her cutie mark is more abstract than those of non-zebra ponies. It is less directly indicative of a Special Talent/Personality Attribute, i.e., of genuine, pony-level individuality and personhood. She's almost an intermediate between ponies ("real" persons) and sapients who don't count at all. The latter can be treated as livestock (Applejack's sheep and cows), used as house slaves (Spike), or openly called "monsters" (Iron Will) without any sense of shame.

    I'm probably reading too much into this. The pony-centric language is probably just meant to be cute, and Equestria utopian, the way "Bridle Gossip" was probably meant to be anti-racist/anti-Othering, but ends up implicitly sending the opposite message. Still, it's very easy to see the "utopian" portrayal of Equestria as comparable to the prettified portrayal of plantation life we see in "Song of the South." An alien watching that movie, unaware of the actual historical and cultural context, would probably get the impression that the Confederacy was "a pretty darn perfect place to live."

    Enough criticism--I've been reading through your blog entries on MLP, and they're all fascinating! Thank you for doing this!

    1. Spike's "dragon code" seems to be something he made up entirely on his own, especially considering that it came shortly after he encounter with some very non-friendly (to him as much as the ponies) dragons. The servitude thing though... well, it's not hard to think of him as Twilight's "servant", and that would be perfectly fine (given her several-fold high status having a servant isn't unreasonable) if not for his very young age (which is compounded by not getting wages, but by itself I don't think the wage question would be enough). It's not hard to find historical contexts in which this actually happened, and while not the cruelest possible system it implies a class structure a bit stronger and less mobile than we're comfortable with today.

      Applejack's farm animals, I'm willing to dismiss as the authors wanting to make a joke and not thinking very hard about the implications. And they shouldn't have to; if adding bronies takes away their ability to act like a cartoon on occasion, we've done something wrong. Since it was meant as a gag it is only fit to be analyzed when one is trying to be silly.

      As for Iron Will, yes. That looks like an actual case of racism, which went exactly the way it often does in real life. Rarity makes a subtly racist comment without thinking about it (several times but not once after being corrected, if memory serves), and moreover is willing to jump straight to a negative opinion of the bull quite quickly. Even the one time that her comment is pointed out to her by someone more cognizant of the problem it doesn't derail the argument they were already having and isn't the focus of any scene in the episode. So there is prejudice against minotaurs in Equestria, although it's not insurmountable since he's still able to make a career out of public speaking to cheering crowds.

      As for Zecora, there's no point trying to analyze it for subtext when racism was the text. They were prejudiced, this was shown to be wrong, and a less prejudiced ponyville was shown to be a better place. The message loses no points here, however sloppy the execution. The Diamond Dogs we can't read much into since the only ones we've seen engaged in banditry from the start. But the mules we've seen ARE treated 100% like ponies, no ifs ands or butts, and the griffins were treated fairly too (noone questioned Gustav the baker and Pinkie assumed Gilda would be nice at first). So maybe Zebras are even more foreign than Griffins? Who knows.

      In conclusion, Equestria is somewhat racist against minotaurs, unjustly phobic of zebras, and not appreciably racist against mules and griffins. And we should *really* hope Spike's situation is just a special case.

    2. Ifs ands or *buts*. *Buts*. Although on that note we never once hear anyone refer to anyone as an "Ass" so they get points for that. Also I just now remembered that donkeys and mules aren't the same animal so add Donkey in alongside Mule in the "treated just like a pony" category.

  3. The best essay I've ever read on Equestrian utopias was a guest article over on Overthinking It by Starswirl the Goateed. In it, he argues quite persuasively for Equestria being merely a reflection of Plato's republic, to such an extent in fact that readers reached out to Lauren Faust to ask if it was intentional.


    1. I also got into a brief discussion with this guy over virtue ethics vs. utilitarianism/ethical hedonism in Equestria.

      So, is it Platonic or Aristotelian?

  4. By the way, I'm reading all these comments. I'm not ignoring you, I'm deliberately not saying anything because I'm enjoying the conversation you're all having with each other too much.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.