Friday, January 31, 2014

By disrupting that order--a way of surprising (I'm Not Afraid of Anything Anymore)

In one of the less-remarked instances of queer subtext in
Madoka Magica, Mami gives Charlotte head.
A reminder: My friend Viga is still trying to raise money for college. You can get art for helping! Details here, donation site here.

Sorry this is so late.

If nothing else (and it is much else), Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a meticulously structured series. Every moment of it is carefully placed to advance a complex story with extensive character development in a surprisingly small space. One example of that meticulous structure is the symmetry throughout the series, the way in which moments large and small repeat at precisely the right time to reflect one another.

Two episodes utterly transform the series. On a first viewing, these two episodes stand out as moments when what appeared to be a show about one thing suddenly becomes a different show entirely.  As in a mirror, they are at precisely opposite ends of the series, the third episode and the third-to-last. This is the first of these episodes.

The episode opens with hints to the second and longest of the series' three major arcs, focusing primarily on Sayaka and Kyouko. Sayaka is visiting a boy, Kamijo, to give him the CD she and Madoka went shopping for in the first episode. As the two listen to it together, we see Sayaka remember her first encounter with true beauty and with the human power of creation, when she saw Kamijo perform when both were small. We never learn precisely what is wrong with Kamijo, only that he has lost some mobility in his hands and can no longer play the violin; regardless, what matters is that the beauty Kamijo could once create is now beyond his reach, trapped in the past. This is the earliest emergence in the series of one of its major themes, a clear marker of its Buddhist influences: the inevitability of decay and loss. The beauty Kamijo creates had to be lost sooner or later, because everything is; time is the destroyer of all. The loss of Kamijo's music is not qualitatively different from Mami's family's death in a car crash or the destruction of the universe by the unrelenting march of entropy; they differ only in scale.

But thankfully, the opening credits are here to save us from such melancholy thoughts! This is still the false Madoka, after all, the safe, comfortable magical girl show with only occasional hints of darkness. Either the credits or Mami herself will always step in to save us before things get too dark.

But like teeth on the edges of the frame, darkness is creeping in around the show. Mami's flashback to her wish, to save her own life, contains so much unstated: Mami lives alone, with no clear source of money, and she was clearly in the backseat of the car that crashed. She wished hastily, to live, and now she counsels Sayaka and Madoka to think carefully about their wishes and be absolutely certain they are wishing for what they want.

She wished to live, you see, when she could have wished for her whole family to live. The paratext (particularly the series guidebooks) suggests that much the same is true for Charlotte; she wished to share one last cake with her mother, when she could have wished for her mother not to die.

But Charlotte is far from Mami's only parallel here. Last episode, we saw Mami's magical girl transformation paralleled with Junko's transformation into a different kind of warrior, the ambitious corporate climber. This episode, we see Junko laid low by an inevitable part of the life of the typical Japanese salary(wo)man: the after work drunken bender. As she staggers into the Kaname home, she both foreshadows that Mami will shortly fall to an inevitable part of the life of a magical girl, the messy death, and provides the impetus for A crucial conversation between Madoka and her father.

Madoka asks a natural question: why does her mother enjoy her life? What dream is she living out by being an ambitious cog in a profit machine? Her father explains that Junko's dream is not to do something, but to be something; that she works for the sake of working, that what she values about the effort is the effort itself. 

This mirrors the critical question Mami asks Sayaka. Does Sayaka wish I help Kamijo, or to have helped Kamijo? Does she want something for herself, in which case she should wish for that, or is it truly the helping itself that she wants? Just as Madoka is interested in being a magical girl, while Sayaka wants to fight evil, here Sayaka is focused on what she wants to do, rather than on what state of being she wants to achieve. She assumes that her action will bring that state of being about, but she is still failing to express the wish he truly wants. 

Similarly, Mami reveals in her final conversation with Madoka that she hates the state of loneliness in which she finds herself as a consequence of her wish. Though she stated earlier that she prefers how things are now to the prospect of death, she still regrets that she couldn't have made a better wish, and she still feels terribly, utterly alone. But just as she will at the end of the series, Madoka reminds Mami that she is not alone, and promises to become a magical girl to help support her.

This is the moment at which Madoka kills Mami. The joy that Mami feels at knowing she is no longer alone causes her to showboat even more than last episode. She underestimates the threat Charlotte represents, and in so doing ensures her death. More importantly, just as with Kamijo's music, her joy cannot last. It must end, decay, turn sour, because that is the inevitable consequence of existing within time.

Except for one thing: cheese.

We know from the paratext and from the Rebellion film that Charlotte is obsessed with cheese, searching for it endlessly. And what is cheese if not something good and life-sustaining that comes out of decay? It is rotten milk, raised into both a culinary delight and source of sustenance. It is a perfect example of the alchemical concept of putrefaction, the physical and spiritual notion that death is a source of life. Decay is repulsive, and yet the ugly, squirming mass of mold and maggots is teeming with life, able to sustain more beautiful and lovable creatures; without that decay, there would be no life.

In devouring Mami, Charlotte finds her cheese. This death and decay brings forth a new life, because it is the moment at which Madoka Magica transcends the norms of its genre and begins to fulfill its potential. Only a few short minutes after Mami first attacks Charlotte, everything has changed: Mami is dead. Homura has saved Sayaka and Madoka. Kyubey offers no comfort as they sob in the hospital parking lot. And as "Magia" finally takes its place as the true ending credits, one thing is clear: Madoka Magica has begun.

Next week: Miracles cures and suicide pacts.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Madoka Analysis Late This Week

Sorry, all, I should have had this announcement up several hours ago, but in my defense, I was unconscious at the time.

No Madoka analysis today, because I am sick and it's really hard to do decent analysis while drugged to the gills. Most likely I'll have it up by Friday noon.


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Sexism and Bronies

Sorry about the lack of post yesterday and snippiness in comments, I've been sick.

A not-at-all-bad essay has been floating around on the topic of sexism in the brony community. It's actually got some of the same points I made in the book (indeed, one of the author's correspondents seems to have used almost the exact same words to describe her experiences as when I interviewed her), but with a stronger focus on the downside to being a woman in the brony community. Slightly off-putting that the author keeps referring to "males" and "females" and at one point equates "having a vagina" with being a woman, but it appears to be out of pure cisnormative ignorance rather than actual transphobia. It's obnoxious but adaptable to, is basically what I'm saying, and worth putting up with for the meat of the essay. Certainly it's given me some interesting avenues to look into for Book 2.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Book Version: Doors are barred and shutters shut/Guess I should have stayed inside my hut (Bridle Gossip)

A reminder: My friend Viga is still trying to raise money for college. You can get art for helping! Details here, donation site here.

Looking back on past posts to create the book versions, some stood out as needing more improvement than others. Here, therefore, is the revised version of one of those articles, as published in My Little Po-Mo Vol. 1. Citations are numbered as in the book; unfortunately, Blogger doesn't allow anchors or superscript so they have been implemented in a fairly primitive way.

It’s December 10, 2010, and Rihanna still wants to be the “Only Girl (In the World).” In film, the top movie is Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which holds a special place in my heart as the book which made me realize I despise C.S. Lewis and everything he holds dear. Needless to say, I have not seen the movie.

In real news, assorted countries led by the U.S. continue to try to shut down WikiLeaks, in apparent total ignorance of the Streisand Effect;(42) Somali piracy is still making headlines; WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gets arrested for sexual misconduct (which he probably did, proving once again that good things can sometimes be created by horrible people); and British students protest a massive tuition hike.

On TV, Amy Keating Rogers pens “Bridle Gossip,” which, in the online version of this essay, I called a “complete failure of an episode” and “a steaming pile of racist horse-s**t.” Neither of which is true, really. It’s an exceedingly mediocre episode, one of the show’s worst, but there are no truly bad episodes of Friendship Is Magic until well into Season 3. And while it is racist, its racism is a matter of lazily and uncritically repeating stereotypes, not active malice.

Nonetheless, on the internet, I correctly predicted how some people would respond: “And now everybody’s all upset, because calling something racist is the! Worst! Possible! Thing! you can say, worse by far than actually being racist, and how dare I say anything against Rogers, who you met at that one con and she seemed like a really nice lady and...”

Let me make something clear: This episode is not trying to incite hatred. I suspect it actually is well-intentioned, an attempt to add the first hints of a non-Western culture to Equestria. The reason I suspect this, is because I can easily believe that all the racist undertones and implications in this episode comes from the same source as the sexist commentary in “The Ticket Master”—namely that Rogers either can’t write certain characters, doesn’t understand them, or simply isn’t interested in them, and therefore takes a “shortcut” by writing them in conjunction with the most obvious stereotypes.

I have tried exceedingly hard to like this episode, and its attached character. Zecora is one of my friend (and cover designer) Viga’s favorite characters, and she dressed as her for both Halloween and several conventions. She’s argued for, and I can see, the good points here, most notably the attempt at inclusion. We live in a culture where white is treated as “default”—in other words, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, characters are assumed to be white. For example, while this has improved drastically in the past year, a Google Image Search on “humanized ponies” still returns mostly white ponies, and most group photos will have at most one “pony of color.”

The show itself has done nothing to cast doubt on that “default viewer” assumption. Quite the opposite: prior to this episode, we know that Rarity’s accent pegs her as a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) from the start, and Twilight Sparkle comes from a city modeled on Arthurian legend.

Later in the series we get confirmation that the rest of the Mane Six come from pony counterparts to European cultures as well: Pinkie Pie is apparently Amish (likely German); Applejack descended from settlers in the American West (Western, Northern, or Central Europe, primarily); and Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash come from a city that closely resembles Mt. Olympus as depicted in Disney’s Hercules.

So the introduction of a character obviously drawn from another culture could have been a much-needed breath of fresh air. Zebras could bring something very interesting to Equestria—a different set of traditions, different ways of doing magic, maybe even different languages.
The premise of the episode fits right in with this potential: An outsider with “different ways” (essentially a different “base culture”) comes to Ponyville, and the sheltered ponies, who have never before encountered representatives of other cultures, are initially afraid of her. After a round of misunderstandings, including allergic reactions to a magical plant which the main characters misinterpret as Zecora cursing them, they finally learn that Zecora’s a good pony with a different “way of life,” as deserving as anyone else of respect and friendship, smiles, hugs, and a good lesson to the kiddies.

The problem, and to be fair it’s one any writer would struggle with, is the issue of tokenism. If Zecora shows no trace of African or black culture, then this continues to erase non-European cultures from the show. But if Zecora is the only character on the show to signify Africa or black people, then any trait she possesses is possessed by all characters who signify black people. If any of those traits are even remotely stereotypical or problematic, then the show is universalizing them across all black people. The only way out is to add more zebras who signify black people or Africa in other ways, but given the toy-driven nature of the show that’s unlikely to be a possibility.

But this is Rogers, and as with Rarity, when presented with a character she isn’t comfortable writing, she writes a stereotype instead. We thus get a Zecora who is built to be generically “African”: named “zebra” in an East African language, wearing Southern African neck rings, and with a hut decorated in West African masks. The end result is a hodgepodge of cultural indicators and “artifacts,” taken from completely different cultural and filial groups, spread out over a large geographical region with likely little interaction between them.

Keep in mind, this is a show that has taken pains to give pegasi, unicorns, and Earth ponies extremely distinct architecture (and, in later episodes, clothing, both modern and traditional) that reflects their cultural origins: Classical Greco-Roman for the pegasi, fairy-tale Western European for the unicorns, and a blend of nineteenth-century Old West and medieval European thatch-roofed cottages for the Earth ponies. The one zebra, on the other hand, gets a blend of African elements separated by a greater distance than the distinct cultures used to make each of the three Equestrian tribes.

Somewhere, an anthropologist is lamenting this disparity in five different local dialects.

The only explanation for this is simple, old-fashioned Eurocentrism: everything from the entire continent of Africa goes into a pot labeled “African,” while more familiar European cultures are seen as distinct. To make matters worse, Zecora has an Ojibwe (a Native American tribe) dreamcatcher over her door, making clear that she’s not only the generic “African,” but the generic “tribal” pony, too.

The episode thus not only lumps all of Africa together, which is appalling (not to mention misinformed) enough, but all of humanity outside of a small circle of European-descended cultures. These “other” cultures then get depicted as primitive and crude: Zecora’s cutie mark is more abstract and less colorful than the others on the show; her masks have chunky outlines suggesting rough-hewn handmade carvings compared to the polished, manufactured look of most pony decorations; and she cooks over an open flame rather than on a stove.

Of course, as is often the case for “primitive” characters in fiction, Zecora gets to be “wise”—she is allowed knowledge about topics such as nature and healing (but not in any sort of scientific way), can dispense good advice (but at the same time lacks social awareness, such as in her apparent belief that all the shops just “happen” to be closed each time she comes to town), and shows every sign of having a higher “emotional intelligence” than the rest of the cast. However, this only heightens the impression that she is a “closer to earth,” “noble savage” type of character, which is to say misjudged through paternalist and imperialist notions, as opposed to more actively hateful and violent racism.
Put another way, she falls victim to the polite, upper-class sort of racism that enslaves cultures and burns its way across continents in the name of “Manifest Destiny” or “bringing civilization,” as opposed to the rude, working-class kind that organizes lynch mobs.

Now, to be fair, it’s not entirely clear how much of this was Rogers’ doing. Zecora was intended from the start as a recurring character, so at least some elements of her characterization are doubtless the product of the entire Friendship Is Magic creative team and probably Hasbro’s toy designers as well. But that only strengthens my core contention, which is not that Rogers is a racist, but rather that this episode and Zecora’s character uncritically draw on stock character traits rooted in misguided stereotyping.

But if we’re going to be fair, we have to be fair in both directions: what little documentation I’ve been able to find suggests that Zecora speaking in rhyme was entirely Rogers’ idea. Because she wasn’t typecast badly enough already, she needs to speak like she has some sort of bizarre compulsion, or possible brain damage.

Again, I really don’t think Rogers hates black people or anything like that. The impression I get is that it simply didn’t occur to the makers of this episode that there could be implications here other than what is directly stated. For example, there’s a scene in the episode where Spike makes fun of the other pony’s curses, even though at least a couple of them are potentially life-threatening (especially Rainbow Dash’s and Applejack’s), and Twilight’s could doom the entire town (given that she saved it from destruction just a few episodes ago). All of their curses are at the least very hurtful for the pony suffering it. And yet Spike not only laughs at them, he lies to them; he tells them he’s working on a cure, and instead spends his time coming up with more jokes at their expense.

All of this is played for laughs; we are supposed to join Spike in laughing at the ponies. In a sense, that’s okay; the ponies are fictional characters, and have no actual feelings to be hurt. Laughing at them is certainly no worse than watching characters die for our entertainment in an action movie or suspense thriller. Also, as this is an episodic comedy-adventure cartoon for small children, we know that, unless there’s a “Part One” in the episode title, odds are very high the characters will all be perfectly fine by the time the credits roll. As I’ve said before, in an adventure the primary question is not “Will they get out of this one?” but rather “How will they get out of this one?”

However, within a diegetic context, this scene is very much not okay. Spike is being actively hurtful here, and nothing ever comes of it. Further, I’m not sure it occurred to anyone involved in making this episode just how much of a bully Spike is being, since no character calls him out on it, and he suffers no consequences. Rogers is failing utterly at basic empathy, what the show itself will later term “Lesson Zero”: the recognition that the feelings of others exist and are always legitimate, no matter what they are.

Sadly, the show itself fails at this lesson in one key respect. This episode is one of (to date) two that attempt to depict someone from a non-Western culture, and the other one is just as laden with stereotypes. For all that it tries (and usually succeeds) at being a feminist show, for all that it is clearly made with the best of intentions, Friendship Is Magic doesn’t deal well with race.

Zecora’s later appearances are, thankfully, few and brief, but always painful to watch, because they represent a sort of rot in the heart of the show. This is supposed to be a show that celebrates community and bringing people together. It is a show that celebrates the “many ways of being a girl” and, since there is no statement true of all women that is not true of all humans, by extension the many ways of being human.

As long as your ways of being human fall within Western norms or descended from European cultures, anyway. Otherwise, you’re an Other, and the creators apparently expect you to count yourself lucky that you get one heavily stereotyped token to represent you.

Which isn’t to say that Friendship Is Magic is a bad show. Other good shows have struggled with race and tokenism before, and it’s at least one notch better than erasure. Nonetheless, race remains a sore point for the show, a topic it never manages to address successfully, and that’s sad.


42. That is, the tendency of efforts to suppress information to instead result in increased publicity for that information, particularly where the Internet is concerned. See Andy Greenberg, “The Streisand Effect.” Forbes (May 11, 2007).

Saturday, January 25, 2014

MLP Liveblog Chat Thingy: Three's a Crowd

A reminder: My friend Viga is still trying to raise money for college. You can get art for helping! Details here, donation site here.

How to participate in the liveblog chat:

Option 1: Whenever you watch the episode, comment on this post as you watch with whatever responses you feel like posting!

Option 2: Go to Enter a nickname, then for the Channels field enter ##rabbitcube, and finally fill in the Captcha and hit Connect! We'll be watching the episode and commenting there starting at just before 2:00 p.m. EST. After the chat, I will update this post with a log of the conversation.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Flame Wars!

Somebody commented the other day asking if I watch Madoka subbed or dubbed, so I figured I might as well just jump into several flame wars simultaneously:
  • Star Trek, because it isn't single-handedly responsible for convincing Hollywood and a distressing number of watchers that there is only one way to tell a story.
  • Deep Space Nine, because it makes humans something other than the Mary Sue people from the Mary Sue planet, and adds in some moral complexity. (Except the last episode going all black-and-white good-vs-evil, what the hell guys?)
  • Subs, because most American voice actors doing anime aren't actually very good. Obvious exception for Disney translations of Miyazaki films and a few other standouts.
  • They have wings if and when they want to, because like all Maiar except Sauron, Morgoth, and the wizards, they're shapeshifters.
  • As there is no empirical experience within this universe that can distinguish between divine entities existing or not existing, the two alternatives are logically equivalent, and the question becomes purely normative.
  • It should be legal, period, no restrictions whatsoever.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Anime recs?

So, the most recent anime I've watched to completion is AKB0048; the second-most recent is Madoka Magica. I gave Attack on Titan the 3-episode test and found it boring. (Please don't bother telling me it gets better later on; I'm not a student anymore, so if it takes more than three episodes to get good I don't have time for it.)

What anime of the last couple of years should I be watching? Nothing more than 30 episodes please, see aforementioned time constraints.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career (I Think That Would Be Truly Wonderful)

My friend Viga is still trying to raise money for college. You can get art for helping! Details here, donation site here.

"Yo, this be Puella Magi turf. You best not be steppin'."
The magical girl transformation sequence has a curious history and function, which makes the recapitulation of Mami's transformation a fitting opening for Madoka's second episode. The sequence originates in Go Nagai's 1973 manga and anime Cutie Honey, itself interesting for being originally intended as a shonen (i.e., "for boys") action series, retroactively considered a magical girl show by fans and critics. By Sailor Moon, the transformation sequence is firmly established as a key visual element of the genre, serving in that show, and most other magical girl shows that follow, as a purely extradiegetic (note that no villain ever interrupts a transformation sequence to attack) scene that references both the Cutie Honey and sentai elements in the show's DNA and saves money by allowing the use of stock footage.

Within most magical girl shows, the transformation sequence serves a number of functions. The traditional sequence (epitomized by Sailor Moon) involves colored silhouettes of apparently nude characters, on whom the magical girl costume forms. The magical girl frequently takes a sequence of poses as the camera spins around her, creating the effect of a lone nude girl dancing in the center of a multitude of Male Gazes. In story terms, this is an empowering moment, and the music that accompanies it usually evokes a similar feeling, but the camera simultaneously asserts the character as an object to be looked at; she is, in other words, empowered, but not too empowered. She is still performing femininity and submitting herself to masculine hegemony. The sequence thus serves to say, more or less, "Yes, this young woman is a powerful protector, but she is still not going to threaten the patriarchal status quo or your fragile male ego; she is here for your enjoyment." There is a reason the magical girl genre is associated with the stereotypical basement-dwelling pervert.

Mami's sequence is tamer than most, seeing as she never loses her school uniform, but still lingers on breast and buttocks, emphasizing her body and costume rather than her face. Mami is a feminine figure, maternal and kind, even as she quite violently blows away the familiar threatening Madoka and Mami. This transformation is paralleled only a few minutes later by Junko, who starts her only scene of the episode in a mothering role, gently, kindly chiding Madoka for staying out late the previous night. As soon as she finishes putting her makeup on, however, she becomes the steely, ambitious executive, weighing her allies and options in a potential bid for dominance of her company. In both cases, the transformation sequence serves as a gateway from the traditionally feminine role of schoolgirl or mother to a traditionally masculine role as warrior or conqueror.

For Mami in particular, the transformation sequence serves as a way to interrupt the strangeness of the witch's labyrinth with a normative element of magical girl shows that reinforces both the norms of the genre and the social norms of patriarchal society. Notably, however, when she transforms again near the end of the episode there is no such sequence, just a quick burst of light and ribbons after which Mami is in her magical girl costume. Where the full transformation sequence emphasizes that the schoolgirl exists within the magical girl, this abbreviated sequence does the opposite, reminding the viewer that the warrior exists within the woman. Rather than reinforcing the social order, it undermines it, creating the suggestion that maybe the magical girl doesn't need to perform for a masculine audience or emphasize her femininity to gain their permission to fight; perhaps all she needs is a cause.

Certainly that seems to be enough for Sayaka. She is drawn in immediately by Mami's role as protector of the innocent, willing immediately to cheer for Mami and hate Homura. For Sayaka, the magical girl represents an exciting conflict between a clear good and a clear evil, one Sayaka is eager to join on the side of good. She wants to become a magical girl so she can fight for justice and stand by Mami's side, hence her decision to bring a weapon to the witch-hunting session. By contrast, Madoka is more interested in the experience of being a magical girl; she wants to understand Mami and Homura both, to make friends with them. She wants to become a magical girl so that she can feel "cool" and special and be like Mami, hence her focus on designing a costume. Put another way, Sayaka is focused on doing and Madoka is focused on being. Sayaka is active, but unfocused; Madoka is centered, but passive.

Regardless of their different interests in becoming a magical girl, both girls struggle with the question of the wish. Surprisingly for such young girls, the two meditate briefly on how privileged their lives are; as children, they have no real influence on the quality of their own lives, and so must acknowledge that the fact that they are safe, healthy, fairly well-educated for their age, members of their society's dominant ethnicity, good-looking, and well-off (Sayaka appears to be somewhat less wealthy than Madoka, whose house is enormous, but based on later interactions with Kyoko, neither appears to have experienced food or housing insecurity) is down entirely to their luck in being born to their particular parents, not any special effort on their part. It is Sayaka who articulates this problem; as we will see later, she has seen in Kyousuke how easily random chance can derail a life. However, Madoka shares her sentiments; both girls feel that they are simply too well-off to have any wishes worth the price Kyubey charges.

There is an underlying theme throughout this episode that posits magical girls as part of an ecosystem of sorts. Kyoko will state this outright in a few episodes, but already we have the basics: witches predate on humans, and magical girls predate on witches. Within this ecosystem, Kyubey is a scavenger, feeding on the byproducts of the predation, but socially he is pure predator, picking out the most vulnerable members of the group to target and use for his purposes. Based on Mami's, Homura's, and Kyoko's flashbacks to the circumstances of their contracts, it is clear that he seeks out girls who are in pain and despair, and thus likely both to be willing to take the contract and to turn relatively quickly into witches. Madoka and Sayaka's slowness to accept his offer is a product of their fortunate circumstances; it is quite difficult to manipulate someone who doesn't need anything.

This is usually not an issue with magical girls. Kyubey seeks consent from the girls who fight his war, and within the context of these first two episodes thus comes off looking rather better than his equivalents in Cardcaptor Sakura and Sailor Moon. Neither Sakura nor Serena was offered a choice in their respective shows; the former was told that as the one who released the Clow cards, it was her duty to recover them, and the latter simply informed that she was destined to become Sailor Moon. As is often the case in both media and real life, women are expected to simply accept that they will fulfill certain roles, regardless of their consent. (Which is not to say that this doesn't happen to men, just that men in media are more likely to be offered a choice and more likely to resist their fight. Shinji in Neon Genesis Evangelion struggles constantly against his destiny as an Eva pilot; Serena just goes along with being a magical girl.)

Knowledge of later episodes, of course, makes Kyubey's duplicity obvious. He is not seeking informed consent at all, but rather tricking and manipulating women in truly appalling ways. Even within these initial episodes, familiarity with stories of trickster genies and deals with the devil (emphasized by the graffiti quoting Faust that the witch victim walks past) suggests that Kyubey is not what he seems and not to be trusted. Madoka and Sayaka are not living in Cardcaptor Sakura (no matter how much Madoka's waking at the beginning of the episode mirrors the second episode of that show) or Sailor Moon, and the world of the magical girl will soon seep into and corrupt their safe, comfortable, privileged lives whether they make the deal with Kyubey or not.

Mami may seek to protect the innocent and maintain the norms of the magical girl genre, but she will fail. Though she transforms Sayaka's bat into a pink, cartoonish scepter of the sort that might appear in the typical magical girl show, the bat is useless against the witch at the end of the episode, and serves only as a means to temporarily lock Sayaka and Madoka away from it while Mami fights. "Magia," the harbinger of the dark version of Madoka, plays throughout this fight, as the witch imposes its surreal labyrinth onto Madoka's world. Mami is able to defeat it once again, but it puts up an admirable fight that reveals both her overconfidence (as she falls for the butterfly rope trap) and constant awareness of her audience, for whom she is clearly performing, rather than focusing on the battle.

Mami, by the end of this episode, has firmly positioned herself as a protector and mentor to Sayaka and Madoka. So long as she is around, she will keep the "Magia" version of Madoka confined and at bay, preventing it from overwhelming what might be called the "Mata Ashita" (the ending theme of the home video versions of the first two episodes) version of the show; that is, she will keep the emotional intensity, complexity, and menace of the witches back and maintain the stability and comfort of Madoka's happy, safe-for-preteen-viewers little life. It is no longer merely clear that Mami must go for the show to move on; it is clear how she will go, as a victim of her own confidence and tendency to showboat.

Next week: Cheese, cake,  and Prozac.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

You know, it occurs to me...

My friend Viga is still trying to raise money for college. You can get art for helping! Details here, donation site here.

There's some deep poetic appropriateness to the enduring high sales of Monopoly being a clear example of market failure.

(You want the rant below the comic, not the comic.)

Monday, January 20, 2014

Maybe something less over-the-top and not so super-hyper (Too Many Pinkie Pies)

My friend Viga is still trying to raise money for college. You can get art for helping! Details here, donation site here.

Sorry this is so late. Regular posts resume tomorrow.

Paul Dukas, eat your heart out.
It’s November 17, 2012. The top movie is The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part Two, enjoying the first of its three weeks on top, and the top song is still Maroon 5's "One More Night," a boring and heavily auto-tuned song, the video of which manages to be almost interesting by dint of showing a woman deciding to leave her husband/boyfriend/whatever while the song is clearly being sung by a man trying to work up to leaving his wife/girlfriend/whatever. In the news, after four days of fighting, Egypt brokers a truce in fighting between Israel and Hamas, which lasts all of a day before rocket exchanges resume; the death of a woman in an Irish hospital due to the hospital refusing to perform a medically necessary abortion provokes international outcry and condemnation; and Hostess files for bankruptcy, choosing to blame union strikes rather than the fact that their alleged "food" products taste like styrofoam. Classy.

Meanwhile, “Too Many Pinkie Pies,” written by David Polsky and directed by Jayson Thiessen, returns us to questions that have been left largely unaddressed since “Party of One.” Specifically, it examines the flatness of Pinkie’s usual portrayal, but where “Party of One” did so via character collapse, which ultimately is an attempt to find depth, “Too Many Pinkie Pies” has Pinkie herself confront avatars of her flat persona in the form of her duplicates.

This confrontation has the side effect of making the episode also function as a critique of Pinkie Pie’s portrayal in fanworks, which tend either to depict her as a pure fun-seeker with no interior life to speak of or a completely deranged avatar of chaos, with the latter going as far, in some depictions, as violent and disturbed. This ultra-violent “Cupcakes”-style Pinkie Pie is fairly obviously an intentional departure from the character and values of the show undertaken for pure shock value, and thus requires no critique, nor could the show ever seriously acknowledge the existence of such a depiction. Thus, the episode leaves it out, and instead has Pinkie Pie confront duplicates who both are pure fun-seekers and bring chaos to Ponyville.

At the beginning of the episode, Pinkie Pie is functioning in her usual persona as someone who exists purely in the moment and seeks immediate gratification. As I discussed in my article on “Party of One,” Pinkie Pie can be understood in terms of Daniel Kahneman's theory of two selves: she has a fully developed and functional experiential self (that is, the aspect of the self that lives in the moment and seeks experiences that provide immediate, positive stimuli), but a stunted and suppressed remembering self (the aspect that lives in the past, plans for the future, and seeks experiences that build good memories). One of the consequences of this stunting is that Pinkie Pie’s sense of well-being is extremely unstable, as she cannot draw on good memories of the past to get her through less-than-pleasant moments in the present. Here she takes this behavior to its logical extreme, finding herself trapped between two potential fun experiences because she can only pick one, and cannot bear giving up either.

The Mirror Pool that she uses is clearly quite dangerous. Other than Granny Pie (who is not only a grandmother, but the grandmother of the Fool, and thus doubly privy to sources of knowledge beyond the ken of the merely wise), the only source of information on it appears to be a book sealed away in Twilight's library. This is not surprising; the danger of a mirror is that it reflects surfaces only, and so the mirror creates simplistic, flat Pinkie Pies who do not have stunted remembering selves, but rather no remembering selves at all. They must be taught the names of Pinkie's friends, and are incapable of delaying their pursuit of fun in order to prevent negative consequences, such as the destruction of yet another of Applejack's barns. They have no memory, and care nothing for the future.

In short, they are the standard-issue depiction of Pinkie Pie in fanworks such as the Lunaverse or "Forever!" Oblivious, silly, cartoonish, and annoying, this version of Pinkie Pie is not too dissimilar from her party-obsessed outer persona as seen in the earlier segments of "Griffon the Brush-Off," "Party of One," or "A Friend in Deed." However, it ignores other elements of Pinkie's character, the hints of greater depths, such as her collapse in "Party of One," or her Fool-like access to special knowledge, as in "Swarm of the Century," "Feeling Pinkie Keen," and this episode. Above all, it ignores that Pinkie truly does love everyone, to the point of keeping up with the lives of every citizen of Ponyville well enough to be able to talk to each and every one of them.

Still, Pinkie has probably the shallowest character of the Mane Six (though Applejack and to a lesser extent Rainbow Dash can make claims to that character; certainly Twilight, Fluttershy, and especially Rarity have received significantly more development than the other three up to this point in the series). Her stunted remembering self means she has little answer to the question of who she is; she has (somewhat deliberately) shed most of her past, and thus has little in the way of roots or grounding. As I discussed in my article on "Party of One," the price of escaping her difficult and dreary past is that she has no stable sense of self-worth, being utterly dependent on constant validation by her friends because her past achievements have no meaning for her. She lacks a stable sense of identity for much the same reason; she cannot be "the filly who grew up on a rock farm," "the pony who taught the Elements of Harmony to laugh at danger," "the pony who taught Luna that it can be fun to be scared," or even "the pony who reunited Cranky Doodle and Matilda," because those occurred in the past. Nor can she identify herself by her goals, because she has none. All she is is "the pony who is friends with everyone," and thanks to delegating that to her duplicates, she is no longer even certain of that. Her identity crisis in this episode is thus inevitable; surrounded by living Pinkie Pie memes, she is no longer even sure that she is the real Pinkie Pie.

It is thus no surprise that the final test to identify the real Pinkie and weed out the duplicates relies on both Pinkie's love for her friends and her ability to forgo immediate gratification in exchange for getting to stay in Ponyville, something she desperately wants. The former element of the test depends on a strength that Pinkie possesses that is frequently overlooked in her caricatures, including the duplicates, namely her capacity for love and devotion to her friends. The second element, however, is a strength Pinkie generally lacks, being the hallmark of the remembering self. Her devotion to her friends, however, translates into a determination to stay, and thus for their sake she is able to endure boredom in the present to maintain in the future that which she valued in the past.

In discussing "Party of One," I noted that Pinkie Pie ultimately learned nothing because the structure of the show at the time--in which Twilight and only Twilight writes friendship lesson letters--meant that no one else had room to learn and grow. Here, more than a season later, Pinkie finally gets that chance at growth. Forced to use her remembering side to keep her identity and friendships intact, she has been reminded that she has a remembering side. It has grown just that little bit stronger, and therefore so has Pinkie Pie.

Next week: Please no. Not yet. It's too soon! ...So I'm going to delay a week. Next week, something special and My Little Po-Mo related, week after, the next episode.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Saturday, January 18, 2014

MLP Liveblog Chat Thingy: Rainbow Falls

A reminder: My friend Viga is still trying to raise money for college. You can get art for helping! Details here, donation site here.

How to participate in the liveblog chat:

Option 1: Whenever you watch the episode, comment on this post as you watch with whatever responses you feel like posting!

Option 2: Go to Enter a nickname, then for the Channels field enter ##rabbitcube, and finally fill in the Captcha and hit Connect! We'll be watching the episode and commenting there starting at just before 2:00 p.m. EST. After the chat, I will update this post with a log of the conversation.

However, once again I will not be able to watch the episode today, so I will update with my own live comments while watching sometime early next week.

Finally, tonight/tomorrow's post will probably be up late as my best friend is moving 2000 miles away tomorrow so I'm unlikely to work on it today.

Liveblog below the cut!

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Slender Man and Pinkie Apple Pie

As always, tomorrow there will be a liveblog chat thingy for the new Friendship Is Magic episode at 2 p.m. However, I will once again not be around for it; I will record my own impressions of the episode some time early next week when I finally get to watch it.

So, you may have seen floating around the Internet that there is an apparent appearance by the Slender Man creepypasta in the most recent episode of Friendship Is Magic, "Pinkie Apple Pie."

A detail from the episode, roughly 16:06, showing
a few frames at a slowed speed. An apparent blank-
faced figure in a suit slips behind a tree in the background.
I can confirm that the image is legit; with some difficulty I managed to find it in the episode itself. The question, therefore, is if this is intentionally a reference to the Slender Man, and if that intentionality matters.

Certainly it looks remarkably like the usual depiction of the Slender Man: a faceless, thin man with no face and extremely pale skin, wearing a neat, conservative black suit with a red or black tie. However, when it comes down to it this is a blobby purplish shape and two dark shapes sliding around in the background; framed as it is in the image above it looks unmistakably like Slendy, but in the context of the full scene it is quite clearly made of similar shapes and colors to the background trees, suggesting the possibility that it could just be an error--different layers of the background are moving in different directions and speeds to simulate camera movement, and it's possible that one layer is moving incorrectly.

But in a sense that doesn't matter. Part of what makes Slender Man such an effective creepy pasta is that many of the works involving it, particularly Marble Hornets and similar web series, hide Slender Man in many shots, training the viewer to hunt for Slender Man. The most frightening part of such videos is the few minutes after watching when, trained to look hard for Slender Man, the viewer starts seeing him everywhere, because the basic shape of a light-colored roundish thing on top of a tall thin dark-colored thing is surprisingly common. Much like the infamous "face on Mars" photo, which is actually less than half of a vaguely face-like formation, plus a shadow that tricks the brain into assuming the other half of the face is hidden beneath the shadow, anything vaguely Slender Man-like becomes Slender Man.

So, yes, I look at that image, and I see a very clear and obvious Slender Man. But I've watched a lot of Marble Hornets and Tribe Twelve and Everyman Hybrid, so of course I would. doesn't help that the original Slender Man mythos has him mostly targeting children, while most of the actual stories and shows have him targeting young adults. The ponies in many ways combine features of both, especially Pinkie...

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Someone in Japan found my blog!

Someone wrote about one of my posts here.

Based on what little I can glean from feeding it into Google Translate, it's a response to my article Corpse of Milk on Madoka Magica: Rebellion. It appears to be part of a series on international responses to the movie? The most interesting thing for me is the spot where (as always, assuming that Google Translate can be trusted) they appear to be seeing that the general consensus of Japanese viewers is that Madoka is a very Christian story, while I said that it's quite Buddhist. They found that contrast interesting, and so do I.

Anybody out there good at Japanese and willing to translate/summarize what the person is actually saying?

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A Secret Streamlet Trickles (I First Met Her in a Dream... or Something)

A reminder: My friend Viga is still trying to raise money for college. You can get art for helping! Details here, donation site here.

Oh, and this series has no queer subtext going on whatsoever.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica can be understood as three distinct arcs, each focusing on a particular character or pair of characters and exploring a particular theme, although the themes of all three can be found in the other two. The first such arc covers the first three episodes, and focuses on Mami. Through her, it works through a fundamental internal struggle of the series, between its position within magical girl genre and its aspirations to be something new. This in turn can be viewed as a struggle between two competing shows, the fairly typical (albeit somewhat dark), heavily Cardcaptor Sakura-influenced series it initially appears to be, and the deeply unsettling offspring of Revolutionary Girl Utena and Neon Genesis Evangelion it evolves into. To simplify still further, this can be understood as a conflict between a false show or mask (as epitomized by the ending credits of the Blu-Ray version of the first two episodes) and a true show (as epitomized by the ending credits of Episode 3 on). In other words, what this first arc accomplishes is to set up a binary between the generic magical girl show audiences unfamiliar with Gen Urobuchi expect, and the dark deconstructive series he is likely to create, before appearing to settle on the latter.

The first episode, and thus Madoka itself, opens with a curtain rising. However, this is not traditional animation, but rather stop-motion animation of a paper curtain rising. Given that the difference between art and non-art is the frame--a story not framed as a story is a lie; a painting not framed as a painting is graffiti--a strong argument can be made that it is the frame that defines the art. In that case, we must consider the possibility that the stop-motion paper cutouts--and, more generally, the deployment of art styles far outside the norm for anime--are some in sense the definition of Madoka, a representation of its individuality as opposed to its existence as an instance of a genre.

This interpretation fits quite well, as we shall see, but first we must deal with Madoka running through a distorted, vast interior space, a checkerboard that evokes the warped spaces of Escher. Blacks and whites are sharply delineated here, clear binaries, but this space is not real. Unlike the latter part of Madoka's dream, it does not appear to correspond directly to events we see on any timeline, but rather is a hint at the place where she will shortly encounter her first witch.

The latter part of the dream, however, is (as we eventually learn near the end of the series) actually a memory of a previous timeline. This is the reality of the series, as signified by the use of "Magia," the series' true ending theme. "Magia" will not play at the ends of this or the next episode; in the TV broadcast, the credits play over the final scene of the episode, while the Blu-Ray version has a cheerful (so long as one ignores the lyrics) song accompanied by happy images. "Magia" is not played as ending credits until Episode 3, the point at which the series abandons all pretence of being a normal magical girl show.

Visually, this portion of the dream is all grays of various shades, with little black or white. In the center of the ruined city is a dead tree, nature and civilization fallen together. Walpurgisnacht appears, her Harlequin form and massive gears implying artificiality and order, belied by wild shrieks of laughter. Everything is its opposite. Duality is an illusion; in Madoka all binaries collapse into unity. We will return here.

The episode tries to contain the revelations of this short sequence. The scene is played off as a dream, in much the same way as Cardcaptor Sakura--one of Madoka's clearest influences--plays off its own portentous first scene. The opening credits which follow are also very typical for a magical girl show (again, so long as one ignores the lyrics), with Madoka's very Sailor Moon- or Cutie Honey-esque transformation sequence into a costume strongly reminiscent of several of Sakura's.

Indeed, most of the rest of the episode consists of playing up Madoka's life and personality to be as harmless and ordinary as possible. Her family is basically perfect, a warm and friendly-seeming stay-at-home gardener father and driven businesswoman mother, plus a typically adorable baby brother. She is nearly late for school and runs out with toast in mouth, just like the titular character in the first episode of Sailor Moon, among countless other examples.  (Indeed, that exact same image of a schoolgirl late for class, rushing out with toast, was used to convey the comfortable ordinariness of "normal" Rei in Shinji's fantasy sequence in the final episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion.)

Even the arrival of Homura, which shatters normality as far as Madoka herself is considered, is completely predictable from an audience perspective. The mysterious transfer student is a hoary enough anime trope to be invoked by name in the Haruhi Suzumiya novels, which are in part a parody of the several anime genres that share in common more or less typical Japanese adolescents encountering the supernatural; it thus borders on cliche that Homura appears following Madoka's dream, and quickly excels in every area of high school life. Her chilly persona (which, as a defensive affectation, fits both the classic an modern definitions of the word) an effortless, bored-seeming accomplishment serve only to make her more predictably mysterious. 

Save one, every intrusion of the world of the magical girls into Madoka's life is doubly generic--both not particularly distinctive, and typical of the genre. Her rescue of the injured Kyubey is yet another example, mirroring Sailor Moon's rescue of Luna, who likewise offered to unlock her potential in exchange for her fighting evil. Other than the one intrusion we're avoiding talking about, the most refreshingly non-generic moment in the episode is the intrusion of mundanity when Madoka describes her dream to Hitomi and Sayaka. In one of the most quietly brilliant scenes in the series, the three seriously discuss several explanations for the dream of various degrees of plausibility, from the reasonable suggestion that Madoka has seen Homura somewhere before to the absurdity of past life memory (which, of course, is the closest to the truth). Sayaka even notes how much like an anime the situation is!

Which brings us to the least anime-like sequence in the episode, the witch attack. This is the ultimate intrusion of both the magical world into Madoka's safe little life, and of the non-anime into the anime. The stop-motion, papercraft explosion of bizarre and unsettling imagery forces Madoka and Sayaka to acknowledge the strangeness they had previously been shielded from, to acknowledge the wider world outside the one they know. The alien art style reinforces their disorientation and horror, while at the same time managing to be faintly absurd, even comical. The Anthonies in particular--mustachioed cotton balls reminiscent of the Pringles potato chip mascot--are both ridiculous and deeply creepy. This is not an uncommon effect in postmodern works; the juxtaposition of elements from one context within another context creates a jarring, incongruous effect, and both humor and horror depend on similar sensations of incongruity.

Homura can do nothing about this intrusion except to say, "Oh no, not now." She recognizes that this is inevitable; as an agent of the true Madoka Magica (note that she is the only magical girl in Madoka's dream sequence) any attempt by her to preserve this safer, more comfortable false show is doomed to failure (as we will see again in both Episode 10 and Rebellion). That protection can only be accomplished--and only for a little while--by Homura's opposite number.

Enter Mami. She positions herself immediately as Homura's enemy, threatening her in order to protect Kyubey, who at this point in the story is still the cute, lovable mascot-herald who awakens the girls to their magic--it is only when the series drops its mask that he will drop his and become a manipulative devil-figure and take over the antagonist role. Mami and Homura share in common, as we will see, that they are experienced magical girls who wield guns, but are otherwise near-total opposites. Homura is new to the school, while Mami, as an upperclassman, has been there longer than Madoka and Sayaka have. Homura's guns are entirely mundane, modern weapons, while Mami's are magical flintlocks. Homura is all straight lines, dark colors, and purples; Mami is all curves (not just in her figure, but her hair as well), whites, and yellows. Homura is closed, mysterious, seemingly hostile; Mami is open and friendly.

Most importantly, Mami has the power to restore the false Madoka, where Homura does not. Her first act, before we even see her, is to define a safe space around Madoka and Sayaka within the witch's labyrinth. She is able to drive off the agents of the true Madoka, both the witch and Homura. Her role in this episode is to restore order, returning the art style to familiar anime norms, healing the injured Kyubey, and enabling him to take his initial position as the Luna-equivalent, offering magical power to Madoka and Sayaka. With her positive attitude, determination and considerable power, Mami is a potent stand-in for magical girls past, and as we shall see over the course of this first arc, brings with her all the standard themes of the magical girl genre. So long as she stands in defense of it, the false series shall not fall.

She'll simply have to go.

Next week: At least Kyubey offers a choice. That's more than Luna ever did.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

MLP Season 4 so far...

Has been really, really solid, hasn't it? "Daring Don't" and "Castlemania" weren't the greatest, but otherwise we have a really solid run of episodes. I think we're seeing what they learned from the experimentation of Season 3, and can now put into practice.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Anyone know if this exists?

A reminder: My friend Viga is still trying to raise money for college. You can get art for helping! Details here, donation site here.

Are there any augmented reality survival horror games? Because that seems like it could be both terrifying and a lot of fun, if done right. (Which, given the history of the genre, it probably wouldn't be until the tenth or twelfth time, but still.)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Sun Is Very Important (The End of Flutter Valley)

The Good Joke.

Once again, we have a guest post from the talented Spoilers Below on a Gen 1 story. This, by the way, is NOT the guest post I was hoping to get last weekend, but Spoilers Below was kind enough to step up and send this in.

“But running away won’t solve all your problems, will it?” - The End of Flutter Valley

The Letter: Dear Princess Celestia,

Communication can be very difficult, especially if you can’t understand the people you’re trying to talk to. It seems like everyone you think you can turn to for help is having problems of their own, and they were just about to ask you for help! In the end, though, it might turn out that you’re making a bigger deal out of things than you needed to, and that you can come to a compromise. After all, they might turn out to be friends you just haven’t met yet!

Your faithful student,

What is it? A ten part epic about the nature of friendship, the problems of communication, and the cycle of nature.

What is it about? Witches tricking bees into stealing the sunstone, and chaos ensuing.

Is it worth watching? If it were only 4 episodes long, I could make a case, but 10? Even though they’re only ten minutes apiece, you’ve probably got better things to do with 100 minutes.

What else was happening? 15-19, 22-26 September 1986. This month the Big Mac Index, showing purchasing power in various countries by relating how many hours the average person needs to work in order to afford the burger, is introduced by the Economist. Kalamata, Greece is rocked by an earthquake which destroys 1/5 of the city, kills 20, and injures 80. Augusto Pinochet survives an assassination attempt at the cost of five of his bodyguards, insuring that brutal, dog-eat-dog capitalism will be safe in Chile for another few years. In better news, Desmond Tutu becomes a bishop. Heidi Montag is born, and the Oprah Winfrey Show debuts. Our number one hits for this period are “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin, and “Stuck With You” by Huey Lewis and the News.


One of the worst parts of a televised childhood were the ambitious multi-part episodes that usually made up the season premieres and finales. Because of the way syndicated TV worked, you really had to plan out being in front of the TV at the right time on the right days every time, or else you’d be lost. And when you’re small, this level of planning can be next to impossible, as parents, school, sleep, and other activities are always getting in the way. To this day, actually, it’s a strange problem of mine. I don’t watch broadcast television anymore, but whenever I’m at my parent’s house or over at a friends, it is inevitable that only certain parts of multi-part episodes will be on. Whenever we pass by an episode of Doctor Who, it will end up being the episode “Bad Wolf.” Whenever it’s Star Trek, it’ll be the one where Lore has taken over the Borg (“Descent”). Whenever it’s The Venture Bros, it’s the one that claims to be part two of a terribly complicated three part series ("Escape to the House of Mummies Part II"), but ends up being about a very funny shrinking contest. The first two times I saw this one, I legitimately believed parts one and three existed, which would resolve the time traveling Edgar Allen Poe bits at the beginning and end. 

Foolish me.

For any TV show to be successful, it needs to be consumable by both the casual viewer and also the dedicated follower, and multi-part episodes doubly so. As such, these stories always seemed to be playing catch up, wasting precious screen time with “Previously on...” segments, and when you only have about a 9 minute run time after the opening and closing credits, that really eats into your story time.

Additionally, you need to make sure your story is really worth ten episodes. This is a story that used to take quite a bit of effort to actually see. Nowadays we just punch the title into YouTube and enjoy, but back in the 80s and 90s you needed to do something at the exact same time and exact same place for two weeks. Two specific weeks, because the local video rental store doesn’t own a copy (not that asking to rent it wouldn’t come with its own separate discussion with your parents about why and things you maybe ought to be into instead because of your age and gender). It required the same devotion that regular church attendance does: be at a specific place at a specific time and perform a specific action.

And life, being what life is, you’d end up missing parts. There’s always something missing.

There are gaps, of course, in any religious tradition, by the very nature of human fallibility and the entropic nature of our world. People make mistakes. Even works as ancient and central to human understanding as the Iliad and Odyssey, the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Rig Veda, exist as portions of larger series, and we are missing the other parts. We only know of them from mentions in other works and the occasional plot summary from a learned scholar’s commentary on a people’s traditions. The actual text is lost. For the longest time, there was only one existent copy of Beowulf; can we imagine the state of modern western heroic literature if it had been lost? Even today, the search for Doctor Who episodes carelessly erased by the BBC is the life’s work of a number of individuals, trekking through distant African television studios and analyzing reel after reel of unlabeled footage in the hopes of finding even a few frames of missing show.

Now, putting religion aside for just a moment, and speaking from a decidedly anthropocentric point of view, the Sun is without a doubt one of the most important things in all of existence, up there with air, water, and the laws of physics. That gigantic mass of incandescent gas miasma of incandescent plasma is one of the primary reasons that life on this planet exists in the form it does, and it should come as no surprise that it was worshipped and/or held in high esteem by pretty much every civilization throughout all of history. Because, really, it’s difficult to think of a better god: the Sun provides light, heat, makes the plants grow, provides the temperatures that cause wind movement and therefore the seasons, provides the gravitational pull to lock the Earth into a stable orbit and force time into its present rate... You may think that I’m belaboring the point, but seriously. There is not a single moment of your life that has not been shaped and guided by the Sun, whatever your beliefs about religion, politics, ethics, or ponies may be.

Lance Parkin, in his delightful essay “Above Us Only Sky”  posits that the origins of religion had nothing to do with explaining whether or not god(s) exist(s) or giving reasons why bad things happen to good people; the question they wanted an answer to was “Where does the sun go at night?” In the recorded 8000 some years of human history, and the 200,000 some years that modern Homo Sapiens has existed, this question has caused nations to go to war and people to be branded heretics and executed. If you think about it for a moment, you’ll understand why it’s such an important question. Humans have evolved to function best where there is sufficient light for our eyes to see. We do not have the complex olfactory senses of dogs, nor the sensitive asymmetrical ears of the owl, nor the sensitive electro- and mechanoreceptors of the platypus. We are intensely visual creatures. And that the primary source of light for the majority of human existence spends between 9 and 15 hours (depending on the time of year and the latitude we live in) hidden from our sight was no doubt a source of much confusion and terror. And so, using the best possible tools that our ancestors had available to them, they did the best they could to explain it: the Sun was a chariot that was carried across the sky by the gods, who retreated to do battle with the darkness and emerged victorious every morning because of our devotion. We believed this before we knew how to smelt iron, before we built houses, before we fully understood what allegories were...

(Aside: is any surprise that it is Celestia, she who raises the Sun and banishes the night, that the FiM ponies pay homage and devotion to?)

It is odd that Flutter Valley appears no longer as a tranquil and secluded paradise, but as a blasted and desolate wasteland anyone can now walk to. The ceremonial circle is worn and decayed, cracked and sandworn rocks arrayed in a circle surrounding the object of worship, the gleaming gem that is the sunstone itself, precariously balanced on a curved spire that hangs over the Queen's head. And even that is far less spectacular than we would expect from such an important totem. The ceremony is sparsley attended, and the offerings meager, but Rosedust does not let this trouble her. Her voice is strong and unwavering, her bearing noble, her concern for her people and their traditions; in every way the very model of a queen.

The three witches pick up right where the Movie left off, still incensed by the failure of the Smooze to complete the destruction of Ponyland, and those accursed little ponies with it. This time, however, the plot is simply to steal the sun stone and move in. Flutter Valley will die without the sunstone, you see. But because the witches are really quite bad at what they do -- how does one mess up a landslide, exactly? -- they instead decide to hire the bees, who are also quite bad at being bees, to steal it for them. This ought to be a win-win, because the bees live in Bumbleland, a frigid area with no flowers at all. The bees can then grow their own flowers, the ponies will vacate the dead valley, and the witches will move in.

The premise is, of course, silly: Bees do terribly in the snow; they could never survive there in the first place. Sting would be killing himself by removing his stinger in the very first scene we see him in. The nectar bees crave is not inhaled like cocaine. If the sunstone is hot enough to burn down Bumbleland, it would be too hot for anyone to handle. Why would the flutter ponies leave it hanging so precariously over Rosedust’s head during the ceremony? Why bother looking for Megan? How are we to really tell the difference between the barely grassy fields of the Sunstoned Fluttery Valley and the barren sunstoneless one? How could a society of creatures that can never agree with one another work a magical ceremony together? Who dug the vast tunnels underneath Bumbleland? Is this episode actually a subtle attempt to get your children to worship the sun, just as She-Ra introduced them to the occult powers in female centric deities, the vast and easy associations of horses with goddesses? Is the images of ponies trapped in honey while the forest burns down around them simply too scary for little children?

None of this really matters, of course. It never did. The point is that the sunstone is returned, evil is punished in the most perfunctory of way (the same Utter Flutter that banished the Smooze), and dark clouds are banished from blocking the real Sun. The sun stone merely reflects its rays and amplifies them. The point was never that there was a literal boy who literally lost control of his father’s fiery chariot. The point is moot as to whether or not the fox actually complained about the sour grapes. It doesn’t matter that we know full well that it’s just a children’s television program and that we’re a periphery demographic.

The point is that the stonebacks were on our side all along, and just wanted to play with us. They just didn’t speak our language. The point is that we should let the bees come and have the nectar; we don’t need it, and it only makes the flowers grow better. Hell, it’s necessary for their very survival. The point isn’t that the furbobs always disagree, it’s that they can work together despite their differences of opinion and heal an injured pony when the time comes. It’s not easy to look at, because it’s so bright. But it’s the thing that lets you see everything else. Without basic trust and communication, all other things break down. We can disagree, but we have to work together when it’s important. That should be as easy to see as the Sun itself. Yet it’s so, so very easy to miss. Especially when hidden between a lot of running about and feinting about interesting events that could happen but don’t.

It the inconvenient way they schedule those episodes, you see. It requires an almost religious devotion to see others as worth seeing as you see yourself.

Other Bits:

  • Yes, that is Bart Simpson you’re hearing. Nancy Cartwright worked in the MLP stable of voice actors before hitting it big with her Simpsons’ role.
  • The amount of time your author had to repeat “This is not a review blog. This is not a review blog” while writing this would make some cry. Your author did not succomb to the temptation to submit the sentence “This is not a review blog.” 334 times in lieu of actual content, under the policy of “If you can’t say something nice don’t say anything at all”.
  • Thankfully, we are over the big hump, and none of the other episodes are longer than 4 parts until we reach the G3 movies. Which, at your author’s present glacial pace, should be sometime in 2020 (?).

Next Time on G1 Ponies: G-g-g-g-g-g-ghosts!!!!