Friday, February 28, 2014

The Fosters

So, remember WAY back last year when I asked for show recommendations? No, not the anime recommendations, even earlier?

I went through those recommendations, and it turns out the only one of those series I have free, legal access to is The Fosters. So guess what I gave the three episode test?

And yeah, it passed. At this point I'm completely caught up on both the show and the web series. It's pretty good! Standard-issue family melodrama, of course, but still surprisingly good for something airing on ABC Family that isn't Whose Line Is It Anyway reruns.

The basic premise is the adventures of a fairly non-standard family: two lesbian moms (one white, one black), the bio-son (who sucks) of the white mom from a previous marriage, and an adopted pair of Hispanic twins (one boy, one girl). In the first episode they take in an additional pair of Troubled (tm) foster kids, a teen girl and her little brother (who is the best character).

Most of it is, as I said, standard-issue family and teen melodrama, but where it occasionally shines is in the way it shows how the political is personal. Issues like gay rights, the flaws in the foster system, and immigration law impact this family and the people around them directly. Rather than pontificating opposing political philosophies, the show (usually) refrains from preaching and just shows the direct impacts on the characters of these issues, and how their lives are distorted by the unfairnesses inherent in our society and laws. Also Jude is legitimately adorable, which is hard to pull off!

So that's one recommendation down, umpteen to go!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Madoka: Rebellion/Frozen AMV

The best AMVs are the ones that make a connection that I would never in a million years have made on my own, but which once made are completely obvious.

Actually, that's really what the best anything does.

(Spoilers, obvs.)

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Only Lost Cause (Can You Face Your True Feelings)

I'm running a Kickstarter campaign to fund My Little Po-Mo volume 2 here!

And as long as you have your wallets out, you can help Viga pay for art school (and earn some custom art in the process)!

Apologies for the lack of updates the last couple of days, going to a con sick turns out to be REALLY EXHAUSTING.

Look at how happy Sayaka is! Clearly everything
is gonna be just fine. Really!
Last episode, we saw how Kyubey denies the agency of the magical girls by restricting their access to information. This episode opens by continuing that thought, as Kyubey demonstrates to the audience and Sayaka how little he cares about her. As part of a demonstration of his claim that the removal of the magical girls' souls is beneficial to them, he uses Sayaka's Soul Gem to torture her, demonstrating that the pain of the first blow in her fight with Kyoko would have crippled her utterly if not for the buffer provided by the gem. His total lack of interest in her agony as anything but a teaching tool, however, belies any claim by Kyubey to have the benefit of the magical girls in mind.

The repeated use of the word "zombie" to describe the magical girls (which is original to the Japanese text--Sayaka can be distinctly heard using it several times in the episode) is telling here. The entire point of a zombie is that it is shaped like a person, but actually a thing. In philosophy, a "zombie" is a creature that acts like a human but has no internal experience or life--for example, poking a zombie will cause it to say "ow," but it has no internal sense of pain. More familiarly, the zombies of movie fame are walking corpses, who can be fought and killed while technically being already dead. This allows the audience the visceral thrill of imagining fighting and killing other people, without having to worry about the morality of actually causing a human being to die. In other words, both the philosophical zombie and the movie zombie are extreme cases of objectification, in which a person's agency is stripped away leaving only a thing which can be used and abused with impunity.

Objectification is rampant throughout the episode. Paralleled to Kyubey, who assumes he knows what is best for Sayaka and causes her intense suffering as a consequence, is Kyoko. Throughout Kyoko's story of how she became a magical girl, her family and the people around them are represented by dolls, puppets, and toys--like zombies, human-shaped objects that possess no agency. Kyoko made a wish that she believed was what her father wanted, but since she did not consult him, she got it wrong, and as a consequence brought pain not only to her father but to her entire family and ultimately herself. By failing to communicate openly with her father, and simply assuming she knew what was best for him, she treated him as the object of her observations, rather than as a subject capable of expressing his own needs and wishes.

However, Kyoko has learned entirely the wrong lessons from this experience. Rather than talking to Sayaka and trying to understand her, she assumes that she and Sayaka are the same, and that Sayaka's problem is that she wished for Kyousuke without understanding what Kyousuke wanted. Kyoko has come to reject empathy and human connection entirely, fixating on purely physical needs (namely, food) as a source of comfort while rejecting all human companionship and norms. This is unacceptable to Sayaka, because Sayaka's problem is ultimately not that she objectifies others.

Sayaka spoke with Kyousuke frequently while he was hospitalized, and he expressed quite clearly that he wanted his arm to heal, and that its inability to heal was a source of despair to him. Sayaka did not assume that she knew what Kyousuke wanted; she found that out directly from him. Rather, Sayaka's error was (as Mami hinted back in Episode 2) not understanding what she wanted--she wanted a healed and happy Kyousuke, yes, but specifically so that she could be with him. Sayaka's error, in other words, is that she is excessively self-sacrificing, in effect objectifying herself.

Kyousuke's self-centered disinterest in Sayaka doesn't help her mental state at all, of course. He never thinks to question why she visited him so frequently in the hospital; he simply accepts this as normal and thus does not stop to consider whether Sayaka might appreciate being told when he leaves the hospital or that he is returning to school. He displays no interest in her inner life or motivations, and as such does not think to consider her feelings; he treats her as a background character in his life, rather than the main character of her own life--much as he himself is a background character in the show.

The cure for all the objectification going on in this episode, of course, is for characters to treat one another as agents possessed of unique, subjective experiences. Key to this is open communication, which unfortunately is in short supply throughout the episode. Characters mostly talk at each other, missing entirely the effects their words are having; the only real exception is the conversation between Madoka and Sayaka in which the latter breaks down, sobbing that she cannot approach Kyousuke romantically because of her altered physical state.

The trigger for that conversation is a demonstration of how difficult it can be to understand and appreciate others' subjectivity. Hitomi does everything right when she approaches Sayaka; nothing requires Hitomi to delay approaching Kyousuke or give Sayaka the first chance, but Hitomi does so anyway because she knows how Sayaka feels and doesn't want to hurt her. Unfortunately, because she doesn't know about everything else Sayaka is going through--and Sayaka understandably chooses not to tell her--she has no idea that by giving Sayaka this ultimatum she is triggering all of Sayaka's newly acquired body image issues. Hitomi has no way of knowing how she is hurting Sayaka, and likewise has no idea why Sayaka doesn't make her feelings known to Kyousuke; Hitomi thus has no reason to believe that Sayaka has any objections to or issues with Hitomi and Kyousuke dating.

Interestingly, however, it is not the loss of her love interest that most hurts Sayaka, but rather the brief moment during this conversation in which she regrets saving Hitomi from the witch in Episode 4. Sayaka is holding herself to a ridiculously high standard here, and thus failing to recognize that brief ugly impulses are a part of the human condition, an element of the internal life that does not necessarily translate into outward behavior. Instead, Sayaka takes this momentary viciousness as proof that she has truly become subhuman, that she is a "zombie" rather than a person with an unusual physical configuration.

Ultimately, this tendency of Sayaka to objectify herself culminates in deliberately numbing herself so that she can fight the witch with no sense of pain. Her sense of self-worth has plummeted to the point that she no longer cares about self-preservation and is no longer willing to accept help. It is only a matter of time, in her eyes, before she inevitably loses Kyousuke, and she feels that this is only right because she sees herself as having become a thing. At this point, despair and deep depression are all Sayaka sees in her future, and fighting witches the only purpose she has left.

The stage is now set for the culmination of the middle arc of Madoka. The first arc ended with the show escaping from the constraints of the magical girl genre. This second arc will end with the genre's death.

Next week: Five faces of depression.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Guest Post: “Get back, you! One bad apple spoils the bunch!” (One Bad Apple)

To the fairest...
I'm at Mysticon this weekend, so have a guest post by Spoilers Below about his own take on "One Bad Apple."

Reminder: the Kickstarter for volume 2 is still running! 

A few weeks ago, I suggested to Froborr that, if he didn’t want to write about this episode, I’d be happy to jump on that particular grenade. He did, though, and did so with aplomb, but, as I always manage to do, I’d gotten most of an article prepared in advance just in case, and so in lieu of my usual G1 stuff, I decided to finish it. I have nothing to add to Froborr’s assessment of bullying -- which was personal, touching, and sad in the kind of way that hits you under the ribs and leaves you frowning, but also was quite different from what I took away from the episode. So, instead of jumping on the grenade, I want to take it apart and see what happened.


"“What is this all about? The gods aren’t content to foist guilt on man. That wouldn’t be enough, since guilt is a part of life anyways. What the gods demand is an awareness of guilt.”
--Roberto Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony

It’s the dawn of time, and Uriel has just received a brand new flaming sword to keep a pair of orchard thieves away. In celebrity news, Peleus and Thetis are wed in a star studded ceremony that leaves one particular important personage left on the sidelines scratching the word ΤΗΙ ΚΑΛΛΙΣΤΗΙ into the soft golden flesh of an apple, and, though they might not know it yet, it will be one of the last times that the gods and men will ever dine at the same table or live in the same place. This seemingly small and unimportant apple will kick off the first gigantic, widespread world war that the Western world has ever seen, and will cause the deaths of just about every named hero in all of mythology.
One bad apple caused it all, you see. The fall from grace, of course, coincided with woman’s acquisition of knowledge of good and evil, and saddled everyone with original sin, which may or may not be a form of predestination depending on which sect you believe in. She shared it, of course, because one of the foundations of Western civilization has been that women are the cause of every problem and at the root of every evil, a perception that has only just now, 3000 some years later, begun to be exposed for the complete self-serving bullshit that it is. And on television, three young friends who have banded together to find solidarity in their mutual lack of ability anxiously await the arrival of a fourth to join their crew. She’ll be just like them, you see. Why wouldn’t she be? She’ll be the cool one.

This was always going to be a hard episode: the introduction of a new “Cool” character who recalls Poochie from The Simpsons, already unpopular regular characters acting like the bad guys in the second half, an uncomfortable moral that would not sit well at all with the periphery demographic, the chance to revisit uncomfortable moments from our pasts and our reactions to them...
The apple itself is a symbol of knowledge and beauty, something jealously guarded and fought over, something which brings life and prosperity, something which has transformative power inside itself. Every seed contains within itself a full tree, given enough time and the right conditions. And similarly, every pony contains the potential for transformation and self-discovery. The first thing the television series dealt with was a bushel of smashed apples, and a pony wondering about her cutie mark. It should come as no surprise that, 26 years later, these are still prime concerns. But while the first episode of the original series had Twilight assure Ember that it would come in good time, and was content to say no more, FiM devotes episode after episode to the search for a purpose in life, for your special talent, for that one thing that sets you apart from everyone else and makes you you, the thing that no one else has. This is dangerous knowledge, this puberty thing, which introduces all sorts of adult problems and responsibilities. Far from being the ideal land of do as you please, there are bills to pay, rents and mortgages to arrange, significant others and spouses and children to devote time to, jobs that cannot be pawned off or ignored the way school work can... The stakes are real when you’re a grown up.

The show, being a children’s television program primarily aimed at ages 5-9, is uniquely unequipped to deal with all the ramifications of a magical system of visible predestination. All the jokes and the dark fan fics about ponies with bloody knives for cutie marks or whose special talent is killing aside, it really does introduce a tough question: what if a pony’s special talent is something she doesn’t like? What if she grows out of it? What if she wants to switch careers after a mid-life crisis and try something new? What if her husband doesn’t support her desire to go back to school and start teaching and turns out to be a robot? And why is your special talent only one thing? We already had an episode devoted to explaining how horrible it would be to be too special and too good at too many things -- as if such a thing as being too talented or too skilled is possible in the real world (if you don’t believe me, try imagining a situation where someone says “Oh no, get a worse doctor, this one is too good of a violin player to operate!” or “This person can’t be a firefighter! Sure, she got 100% on all the assessments, but she was also a geologist and figure skater before she applied here!”) Given the static nature of television, it’s a pretty good bet that we’re not going to see the cutie mark crusaders ever get their cutie marks until the show hits season 7 or 8 and needs a reboot and new cast to sell different toys to a different audience, replacing the main cast, if ever. I’m not going to say never, because after all, Twilight has wings and is a princess now, but we’ve had how many episodes where Applejack learns not to be so stubborn, Spike not so greedy and irresponsible, Rarity not to take on so many tasks at once at the expense of her friends and family, Rainbow Dash not so competitive, Fluttershy more assertive, Twilight not so compulsive, Pinkie Pie not so needy...

The apple keeps rolling, out of Adam’s shocked hands and lands at the feet of three goddesses, who immediately begin to quibble over it. Despite their supreme power, sagacious wisdom, and dominance over Love itself, they simply cannot stand the idea that the other two are more beautiful, and so Zeus calls in Paris Alexander, the backpacked protector of men, who recently judged a bullfight fairly, to say who deserved the apple. Zeus isn’t going to get mixed up judging  any beauty contest that involves his wife. He’s not that foolish. And, fool that Paris was, he broke his vow to judge fairly and chose the bribe of a beautiful woman, not realizing that being king of all the known world or the most wise and ferocious warrior the world had ever seen would have given him access to any woman he wanted and prevented the war and carnage that followed. But such is the anthropic nature of stories: if people don’t make mistakes, if conflicts and fated meetings do not occur, then there is no story to tell.

And so, shall we blame the Original Sin or the Original Snub for Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon, who just happen to be walking by right then and there? (And yes, I realize at the outset how silly it is to debate the free will of scripted characters, animated ones at that, who are even less free than their acted counterparts (actors can at least sometimes sneak a facial expression or line interpretation in)). What do their cutie marks represent? A crown is a poor choice for an earth pony in a country ruled by an immortal alicorn monarch who has already chosen her successors. A silver spoon for stirring up shit, perhaps? Do they really have any control over their actions, any more than Applejack could quit the farm and live in the city with the Oranges?

Arthur Schopenhauer put it quite well in The World as Will and Representation: “Everyone believes himself a priori to be perfectly free, even in his individual actions, and thinks that at every moment he can commence another manner of life, which just means he can become another person. But a posteriori, through experience, he finds to his astonishment that he is not free, but subjected to necessity; that in spite of all his resolutions and reflections he does not change his conduct, and that from the beginning of his life to the end of it he must carry out the very character which he himself condemns, and as it were, play the part which he has undertaken to the very end.”

Hence why the takedown at Diamond Tiara’s Cutecenaria about how the blank flanks have so much potential and openness left in their futures is so devastating. Her status is all she has: her special talent is being special, which is every bit as worthless as it sounds. It is unsurprising that she takes it out on others. This does not absolve her of her actions, of course, no more so than Twilight’s freakouts don’t need to be apologized for, nor Rainbow Dash’s hypercompetitiveness, nor Applejack’s stubbornness. Learning to mitigate it will be her own battle, but we’ll never see it. In Friendship Is Magic, she isn’t one of the main characters, and exists only to torment the real protagonists. Unfortunately, she’s less real than the other characters. She only exists when the CMCs see her.

Who are, if you still remember, anxiously awaiting their already christened 4th member. They’ve piled expectations onto her, and can’t wait to induct her into their club, regardless of how she feels about it. They are, if you will, a pride organization, who are already priming to out their newest member to the public of a new town and parade her around in a gigantic float, without bothering to ask her feelings on the matter or let her even finish a sentence. It is easy to think that you’re helping, because after all, didn’t you want then when you were feeling down? Why wouldn’t they want the same thing? For someone who was actively fleeing any associations with her blank flank status and looking forward to some anonymity in the boonies, is it any surprise that she snapped?

This is an uncomfortable thing to mention, of course. Most pride organization are quite literally built on the idea that their particular niche is nothing to be ashamed of, and it something to be celebrated, and most of the time quite rightfully so (Fuck NAMBLA. No, seriously, fuck those guys). The CMCs hit on something that isn’t quite one of the five geek social fallacies, but is close: the assumption that someone will be just like me simply because they are in the same circumstances. I recall a part in Chuck Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters, a novel about a fashion model who has had her lower jaw shot off, where a friendly nun working in the hospital keeps trying to set the protagonist up with various other patients -- a burn victim, a lawyer who just lost his nose -- as if her own disfigurement now meant that she was now solely attracted to other accident victims. Not everyone deals with things the same way, and part of our failure to deal with the specifics of individual circumstances is why huge programs to change things fail. To what degree is a member of an afflicted group obligated to participate in support group activities? No one communicates their feelings properly, and everything breaks down.

Adam and Eve get cast out of paradise for their theft; Aphrodite gets her arm slashed by Diomedes and cannot save her son in exchange for her prize. Babs is a wounded and scared little girl in a new town whose attempt to get away from the things that have been ruining her life have been completely dashed. Is it any surprise that she doesn’t want to live under constant bullying here also? (aside: note that DT and SS don’t mention Babs’ blank flank when she’s on their side; unlike some forms of bigotry, bullying is almost never about specific things that could be changed to the bully’s satisfaction. Or, with a simple motion of her tail, Babs is able to pass, which opens up a much larger discussion about the duty to be “out and proud” which we simply don’t have time for here) Does this excuse Babs’ rampage? Of course not. But try explaining to a person who has just been outed without their permission that they shouldn’t be angry or hate you or lie and cover up their secret and see how well that works.

The moral? Damned if I know. When I was being bullied as a child, I came home crying and talked to my parents. My father explained that there are always going to be people who are always going to dislike you simply because of the way you look, the way you are, the things you like, the way you talk, or any reason you can imagine, and that there’s nothing you can do to change these people’s minds. And sometimes, when you’ve tried everything else and have run out of all other options, you have to hit people to make them leave you alone. He told me to tell the person that I was going to hit them first, and if they kept doing it anyways, to just hit them until they stopped doing it. He then taught me how to make a fist and throw a punch properly. He had been a construction worker and motorcycle punk before he finished his master’s, and worked as a social worker in the Chicago inner city school system doing a lot of work with street gangs, and thus didn’t have time for long lectures or bullshit about hurt feelings and the amount of effort it takes to keep a classroom in line from administrators who, he knew all too well, were overworked and underpaid. I hit the kid, my father and mother cleared things up with the principal. It stopped for a while. I got a reputation as a kid who would hurt others, and people left me alone, except when they didn’t. Because we moved a lot, I never stayed in the same school long enough for it to matter. Bullying, hitting, principal, respite. The cycle continued. To what extent was it my duty to put people who hated me before myself and allow whatever it was that caused them to act the way they did to end with me? I was a kid; such thoughts didn’t even occur to me. I was quite lucky to have a published psychologist for a father who could get in people’s faces and explain why things were the way they were. I got used to being alone and not paying attention to others when they weren’t getting directly in my face. I made some friends and we bonded over mutually nerdy activities. I got my arm broken by some neighborhood kids who had, weeks earlier, knocked me off my bike and left me lying covered in my own blood from a particularly vicious punch to the nose. The ensuing restraining order meant that his family had to move off our block. I learned to stay inside and discovered the internet. I learned what subjects were acceptable to talk about if other people haven’t brought them up first, our own MLP especially included, there being no such thing as Bronies or ironically cool children’s cartoon fandoms back in the 90s. I don’t say these things with any kind of pride or as a recommendation for future action. It simply continues the cycle of violence, and more than once I was beaten up and left bleeding rather badly. I was larger than a lot of other kids and always had enough to eat, so I was at a slight advantage over many of my peers while in public school, but there was only me. It did wonders for my undiagnosed OCD, the as-yet-unnamed intrusive thoughts making me wonder if I simply was a truly violent and awful person who deserved everything that was happening to him. I moved on to a private Catholic high school, and the last fight I was in was a simple back hand slap delivered to the face of a kid who called me a freak. I got served a week’s detention because it was a slap, rather than a closed fist punch which would have gotten me expelled, and the kid never spoke to me again. Turns out he was being bullied by some kids I was casual friends with, and he was making fun of me because I was on the periphery of that group. I didn’t know about any of that; I just wanted him to leave me alone. Rich private school kids were nothing compared to the brutal conditions of some of public school kids I had come up with, though their words hurt a lot more and I got used to feeling stupid and inadequate. But I had pot to smoke by then, and that’s a different story. Again, it is very difficult to write this in a way that doesn’t sound like bragging of one kind or another, which isn’t my intention at all -- “There is no such thing as an anti-war film,” as Francois Truffaut said. A single high school kid was not capable of the kind of systemic change at all levels which this sort of anti-bullying reform would take. I was lucky to have parents who were quite familiar with the system and the way it was navigated. I survived. I don’t think about it much anymore, because it’s a part of my life that has passed and is no more.

In a way, it seems almost as if the episode was going to endorse violence as the solution to bullying, but it then takes care to associate violence with evil. The shiny golden apple rumbles its way through the fruit parade to cheers and shouts, booby trapped and headed towards the inevitable fall. But we’ve seen this before. Dumping people off cliffs was the first thing Nightmare Moon did to our regular heroes, and provided Applejack with her opportunity to be honest. Then, as now, she managed to leave out critical information that would have rendered the entire situation moot (“Hey Twilight, let go. Don’t worry. Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy will catch you!”; “Hey, your cousin was being bullied real bad about being a blank flank back in Manehatten and she’s coming here to get away from all that, so be extra gentle with her, would’ja?”). If they’d taken Sweetie Belle’s suggestion and spoken with her earlier, no doubt the entire problem would have been dealt with. Applejack isn’t the sort to allow people to weasle out from under her. Violence was a solution for me because I was the recipient of vast privilege, able to call upon a well-educated man with an angry beard and deep voice who would show up in a suit and tear into people who suggested that I should keep my head down and let myself be made fun of, or that I was actively attracting negative attention and deserved what was happening. Not everyone is that lucky or privileged, though were it in my power they would all have what I had growing up -- though, were I that powerful, it wouldn’t even happen in the first place.

But now that they know, the CMCs are forced to consider Babs as an actual person for the first time in the episode: at first she was a brand new friend who was going to be exactly like them, then she was a horrible bully just like the other two in town who constantly menace them. This doesn’t mean that she’s suddenly a good person or that what she has done is right, but it does mean that she can no longer simply be slotted into a box and treated according to their wishes, rather than her’s. And this, this right here, is the hardest thing in the world. The person whose work very eloquently explained it to me, David Foster Wallace, was an alcoholic and drug abuser who at one point early in his career nearly hired a hitman to kill the separated husband of the woman he was obsessed with. He was also a sufferer of chronic depression who grew into a wonderful husband and a caring teacher, and who committed suicide in 2008 while attempting to transition from one antidepressant to another. He was by no means a good or perfect person. And yet, the philosophy still holds: we are presented daily with more than enough evidence to conclude that the world is a horrible and cruel place that isn’t worth it. But when we take a moment to consider that literally every other person on the planet is in the exact same situation that we are in, alone and scared and tired and wanting to feel like they matter and what they do is worth it, it’s difficult to be mean to them, even if we think they deserve it. It doesn’t mean being a sucker or a pushover or a victim. But it does mean realizing that people aren’t one dimensional or simply the brief moments you experience with them.

Before Babs was a monster, they barely let her get a word in. Maybe if they’d actually spoken with her, none of this would have happened. Again, this does not absolve Babs of any of her later actions. She deserves full blame for being a cruel and horrible person, and that she gets off scotfree is one of the episode’s great failings. I don’t think I can emphasize that point enough. It isn’t the CMCs fault that they got bullied. But they weren’t being very good friends at the outset, even though they thought they were being welcoming and inviting. Sometimes what you think people want isn’t what they want. Compare and contrast with Green Isn’t Your Color by the same author, and you have nearly the same story about presumption and missing information, right down to the ridiculous plot point about “not snitching” when you really, really ought to.

The golden apple rolls down the hill, and the CMCs end up covered in mud, just as DT & SS do at the end of the episode. Everyone but Babs is covered. The one who could have prevented it all with a little communication beforehand, Applejack, the keeper of apples and mistress of the orchard, remains oblivious to her role in the entire thing. No surprise there. God never gets a comeuppance for placing a gigantic, obvious temptation right in front of his innocent and trusting new creations, along with a snake to inform them about how good and right it would be to disobey. What kind of omnipotence couldn’t see that coming? Eris sits on the sidelines laughing all the while, strife and conflict proving the one sure and constant thing about human existence from Heraclitus to Hegel to the Hadron Collider. Without conflict, there isn’t a story.

But real life isn’t a story.

Confusing the two is where we start to have problems. This story addresses bullying in vague ways, unable to properly get at the deeper parts that, quite frankly, children’s television cannot show without their ratings moving up to adult. The episode isn’t long enough, and couldn’t in 22 minutes address all the vicissitudes that would need to be covered to explain the topic to an adult’s satisfaction. But it wasn’t trying to be the end all and be all. Episode author Megan McCarthy said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly “[It] explores how you should handle a bully, and sometimes what the source of bullying is [...] It’s wrapped in a story that’s really fun and funny, and has music, and doesn’t feel heavy-handed.” Fair enough, I can agree with the first half: you should tell your parent or guardian or an older sibling you can trust, and sometimes it is because the bully is being bullied themselves. You can’t show the second half of the story, where sometimes your parents can’t do anything and you either keep your head down and hope people don’t notice you today or you start hitting the kid until you get sent to the principal’s office, and just understanding that the bully has reasons or a tough home life or is being beaten by other kids doesn’t make them stop and doesn’t make it any easier for you to live through.

You need to eat the apple and see the world for what it is to deal with that second half, but that usually doesn’t come until it happens to you. You have to see and understand the world if you’re going to work towards making it better. Progress is happening, and we’ve made amazing strides in the past thirty years compared to the past three thousand, but the work is nowhere near complete. It takes more than a bold declaration and a lot of talk to bring about real change. For all its high mindedness and greater purpose, this episode’s failing for me was being an episode of a typical kid’s show. It’s one I skip on rewatches not out of any triggered anger or rising bile, but simply because I find it uninteresting. I don’t need it anymore than I need a children’s guide to bicycles, Fencing for Dummies, or a Philosophy 101 textbook. It isn’t worth my time. I’ve moved past that. It doesn’t have anything worthwhile to say to me unless I dig really deep. And that’s okay; I’m part of the periphery demographic, not the target audience. Having now done so, it can get buried once and for all. Maybe somewhere else, with some other kid, a tree will grow.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

MLP Liveblog Chat Thingy: "Twilight Time"

My Kickstarter campaign to fund My Little Po-Mo volume 2 is here!

And as long as you have your wallets out, two more worthy causes to which you can give: You can help Viga pay for art school (and earn some custom art in the process), or you can help the family of Michael Morones, the bullied Brony boy who attempted suicide.

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 after 3:00 p.m. EST. Not that that is one hour later than usual because I have a 2 p.m. panel. After the chat, I will update this post with a log of the conversation.

Chatlog below the cut!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Methinks I have confused Netflix...

I'm running a Kickstarter campaign to fund My Little Po-Mo volume 2 here!

And as long as you have your wallets out, two more worthy causes to which you can give: You can help Viga pay for art school (and earn some custom art in the process), or you can help the family of Michael Morones, the bullied Brony boy who attempted suicide.

 So, it appears that my viewing habits have utterly bamboozled the Netflix recommendation algorithms. Their top picks for me include both Mickey Mouse Club House: Road Rally and Battle Royal. I don't even.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Whedon and Anime

My Kickstarter campaign to fund My Little Po-Mo volume 2 here!

And as long as you have your wallets out, two more worthy causes to which you can give: You can help Viga pay for art school (and earn some custom art in the process), or you can help the family of Michael Morones, the bullied Brony boy who attempted suicide.

It doesn't take much squinting to see heavy influences from specific anime in several of Joss Whedon's shows: Buffy pretty much is Sailor Moon, Firefly has similar cast dynamics, a half-Chinese half-country-of-show's-origin space setting, and a mysterious girl in a box, just like Outlaw Star, and Dollhouse owes a significant debt to Ghost in the Shell.

Which, of course, leads to the logical question: what about Angel. And to be honest, I have no idea; I can't come up with a single specific anime which it heavily references or draws on. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Even a Purely Moral Act (This Just Can't Be Right)

I'm running a Kickstarter campaign to fund My Little Po-Mo volume 2 here!

And as long as you have your wallets out, two more worthy causes to which you can give: You can help Viga pay for art school (and earn some custom art in the process), or you can help the family of Michael Morones, the bullied Brony boy who attempted suicide.

Dammit, Jim, I'm a magical girl, not a miracle worker!
And now the image of Puella Magi Bones Medica is in
your brain and can never be unseen. You're welcome.
One of my professors in college once gave an odd bit of advice: If you ever have to write on a work, and you're stuck for a topic, look for the exact midpoint, and right about whatever you find there. I am not remotely stuck on topics for Madoka, but seeing as the end of this episode is the midpoint of the series, it seems as good a time as any to discuss Madoka and consent issues.

The final scene of this episode has the characters recoiling in horror at the latest revelation from Kyubey: that the bodies of magical girls are not alive, but rather simply shells, which can be repaired so long as the Soul Gem is intact. Only by harming that gem can the magical girl herself be harmed--but by separating the gem from Sayaka's body, Madoka has effectively caused Sayaka's (temporary, thanks to Homura's quick intervention) death.

There is a case to be made (not a very good case, but a case nonetheless) that the girls are getting worked up over nothing. Frankly, what Kyubey describes seems like a pretty sweet deal: the physical experience of the body is close enough to being alive that most magical girls never even notice the change, but it is perfectly healthy, more durable, and able to heal from anything? Plus, given the evidence from Kyoko, it seems likely that it can eat junk food forever with no consequences? I'd take that deal in a heartbeat.

Indeed, the Soul Gems seem fairly clearly to be a reference to the Russian folkloric character Koshchyei Byessmyertnuy (Koschei the Deathless in English), who hid his soul in his finger, which he then severed and hid inside an egg inside a duck inside a hare inside an iron chest, which he buried underneath a green oak on a distant island. Koschei is a villainous figure who menaces young women, and only if the hero can find the egg can Koschei be harmed. The advantages to Koschei of doing this are quite clear.

But there is an important difference between Koschei and Sayaka here, which is that of affirmative, informed consent. Koschei, the legends imply, knows what he is doing and chooses to do it. Sayaka had no idea that her life was in her Soul Gem, that her body had been transformed against her will. In a later episode she will note that she does not believe her new body is capable of bearing children, which she perhaps wanted to do someday. Regardless, the horror expressed by Sayaka, Kyoko, and Madoka in this episode makes it clear that all three recognize this as a supreme violation.

Kyubey's defense is that he doesn't understand why humans care so much about where their souls are located. This is irrelevant nonsense; it doesn't matter why they care when he clearly knows that they do care. Kyubey is deliberately concealing relevant information when he makes these pacts, and then blaming the victim when they reject him. In essence, he is justifying his actions by saying "Sayaka never said no."

"No means no" is often tossed around as a slogan in campaigns for women's rights, especially where issues of consent and bodily autonomy are concerned. However, while certainly better than failing to acknowledge that no means no, this is an incomplete standard, as Kyubey demonstrates. More important than "no means no" is "yes means yes," which is what is meant by a standard of affirmative consent. An absence of objection is insufficient, because that could mean that the person was unable to object, just as Sayaka was unable to object to aspects of the deal she didn't even know about.

This question of respecting the choices and autonomy of others interacts interestingly with another scene in this episode, when Madoka talks to her mother (in the vaguest possible terms, of course) about Sayaka's situation. Two things are important here, the first of which is Junko noting that doing the right thing does not always lead to happiness or good outcomes. The significance there is that it is an outright rejection of consequentialism as an ethical position, which in general matches the stance taken by the show (hence the consistent depiction of Kyubey as a strong consequentialist).

The significance of rejecting consequentialism explicitly in the scene with Junko is that the ending scene on the bridge implicitly rejects it as well. Kyubey's position is a consequentialist one: the soul extraction is beneficial for the magical girls, since it enables them to fight witches and survive, but learning about it tends to make them unhappy, so the best thing to do is to extract the soul and not tell them about it. The music and the framing of the scene (particularly the way Kyubey is shot to be literally overshadowing the girls, despite his small stature) make it quite clear that the show is rejecting Kyubey's construction and empathizing with the girls' horror, which is to say rejecting the consequentialist perspective.

The second significant element of the conversation is the description of Sayaka as someone doing the right thing and making things worse as a consequence, because that description is hardly unique to Sayaka. It equally well applies to Homura, whose repeated attempts to save Madoka keep making her suffer more and become a more powerful witch in each successive timeline. Junko's advice to Madoka to make a mistake on her friend's behalf thus not only applies to throwing Sayaka's Soul Gem off the bridge; it is equally a description of her choice to become a magical girl (the very thing Homura has been trying to prevent) in the final episode. That this dual meaning is no accident seems clear given the musical choices; the theme which accompanies Junko's advice in this episode also plays in the final episode, starting from when Madoka says to Mami that she will always reject anyone telling her not to hope, and continuing through her transformation into a magical girl and apparition to all the other magical girls.

Further, this idea of saving someone by making a mistake for them is reiterated in Rebellion, where both Madoka and Homura take seemingly very ill-advised actions on each others' behalf--but more on that when we get there.

Today's Madoka post will be a couple of hours late

Sorry. I've been swapped with con prep, and these middle episodes are definitely the hardest part of the series to say anything interesting about. Especially given I have what I think is a really good idea for episode 7, which makes it hard to focus on episode 6... anyway, point is, I'm not finished yet, and it'll be noon before I get another chance to work on it.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Announcing the My Little Po-Mo Volume 2 Kickstarter!

The Kickstarter for the second My Little Po-Mo book is now officially underway! This book will include all of the Season 2 My Little Po-Mo articles, plus the Best Pony articles from the Volume 1 Kickstarter, and additional content on the "dark side" of the fandom.

You can back the Kickstarter here!

And as long as you have your wallets out, two more worthy causes to which you can give: You can help Viga pay for art school (and earn some custom art in the process), or you can help the family of Michael Morones, the bullied Brony boy who attempted suicide.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

You will never have the amazing, show-stopping ability (Magic Duel)

Because the nineteenth-century Chinese shopkeeper running
the Store of Mysteries wasn't enough of a stereotype, let's
give him some kung-fu action grip, too. Sigh.
It’s December 1, 2012. The top song, as it will be for most of the month, is "Diamonds" by Rihanna, and the top movie is still Twilight. In the news, BP is suspended from bidding on U.S. government contracts as part of its woefully inadequate punishment for causing the Deepwater Horizon disaster; thousands protest Egyptian President Muhammed Morsi's assumption of sweeping powers last week; and Time announces the candidates for 2012 Person of the Year, including the Higgs boson. For some reason, their inability to distinguish between subatomic particles and people does not completely discredit them as arbiters of the worthiness of persons.

We ended last season on a bittersweet note. The defeat of the changelings was certainly a good thing for our characters, and the solid two-parter built around that defeat a good thing for the show, but the inherently paranoid nature of an “evil shapeshifter infiltrator” plot had a subtle lasting impact, helping to legitimize paranoid readings of the show. Paranoia, of course, is characterized by overactive pattern recognition—it is often characterized as “seeing patterns where none exist,” but that’s absurd. To exist, something must be a material entity, but patterns are not material entities; they are relationships between those entities, which can be separated from the entities and expressed symbolically. For example, there is the pattern that objects fall when you drop them, which can be expressed with a mathematical formula relating masses and forces and accelerations, or with the simple word “gravity.” The equation for gravitational attraction is the pattern, and the equation is also a statement, constructed of symbols; patterns, in other words, are constructs. They are not entities that exist in nature, but tools we create in order to aid us in understanding nature. (Which is not to say that, for example, the laws of physics aren’t true. Being a construct and being true aren’t mutually exclusive—quite the opposite! To be a true statement, something must first be a statement, and all statements are constructs.)

All of which is a complex way of saying that paranoia is not “seeing patterns that aren’t there,” but rather “imposing patterns where they don’t belong.” Now of course “where they don’t belong” is a subjective judgment, and thus where the line is between a paranoid reading and innocent speculation is equally subjective. Ultimately, paranoid readings by fans and critics are mostly harmless, since their power to influence the show is limited.

Paranoid readings become somewhat more problematic, however, when they begin to influence creators, especially when those paranoid readings become attempts at unifying theories. The general result of treating a unifying theory as a formula is for works to become, well, formulaic. Which brings us, of course, to the monomyth, or as I like to call it, The Paranoid Reading That Ate Hollywood.

To briefly summarize, the monomyth was a theory proposed by the folklorist Joseph Campbell and described in detail in his The Hero with a Thousand Faces, that there was a single unifying story that crossed cultures, in which a hero is called to adventure, sets out into the world, and then returns home having mastered that world. Of course if one interprets the structure as vaguely and metaphorically as possible, then it is possible to more or less fit nearly all stories into it—but at that point, one is saying that most stories start by introducing a status quo, then have some kind of conflict, and end by restoring the status quo or establishing a new one. (Even then, there are exceptions, such as Ernest Hemingway’s famous attempt to write the shortest story possible: “For sale: One pair baby shoes. Never worn.”) In other words, Campbell’s discovery ultimately amounts to the observation that if you define a category vaguely enough, it will hold a lot of things.

Where the trouble starts is that Campbell also defined a much more complex and detailed formula for the monomyth, dividing the three stages into a multitude of substages and significant events, then using a handful of cherry-picked examples to show how the structure applies to many different traditional stories from different cultures. Which, it is worth noting, is hardly unique to Campbell and not inherently problematic. There are common elements and structures that recur in many stories, as witness the popular website TVTropes or its professional equivalent (and predecessor by a number of decades), the Stith-Thompson Index of folktale types and elements.

Where Campbell becomes problematic is in his insistence that the monomyth is universal, because it signifies a universal experience of adolescence. Which is nonsense to begin with—there is no such thing as a universal signifier—but also carries the danger of converting his attempt at a description of how stories work into a prescription. That is, his attempt to convince the analyzers of stories that there is only one story that can be told could instead convince the tellers of stories that there is only one story that should be told.

Which brings us to the second villain of our piece, George Lucas. Lucas made a little movie you may have heard of, Star Wars, and in so doing essentially invented the big summer Hollywood blockbuster as we know it. He has stated that he deliberately followed the monomyth as a recipe, and he made a great deal of money doing so, with the consequence that Hollywood learned the monomyth as well, and fixated on it as The One True Way to Tell Stories Make Money.

Which is a problem if you like variety in your stories, if you like them to be non-formulaic. The power of the monomyth within film and television is now such that anything which resembles the monomyth gets pulled gravitationally into it. Just as shows like Lost and The X-Files have trained us to instinctively engage in paranoid readings, series like Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer have trained us to instinctively expect the story beats of the monomythic formula.

One of the dangers of the dominance of the monomyth is the excessive focus on adolescence. If every story is the story of adolescence, then adolescence is the only story, and reaching adulthood becomes the end, rather than the beginning, of one’s life story. The epilogue to Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows, for instance, is disappointing largely because it implies that nothing has happened in the decades since the end of the characters’ adolescent adventures, since all of them have precisely the lives one would have expected based on who they were and what they were doing at the end of their adolescence—that for them, growing up meant that all stories are ended forever. The ending of Buffy, while rather more satisfying, carries largely the same implication: after three seasons of trying to escape the cycle of once-a-season monomyths, Buffy finally succeeds by destroying the premise of the series. She can go anywhere and do anything, has total freedom to experience any kind of story she wants—and at that precise moment, the series ends, because the monomyth tells us that adults don’t have stories worth telling, unless those stories can serve as metaphors for adolescence.

And so when Friendship Is Magic ends a season with both a strong encouragement toward paranoid readings and an extended, blatant Star Wars reference, the implication is strong that the monomyth is coming, especially since Friendship Is Magic actually is about the process of maturation and socializing, which is a large part of adolescence and therefore the monomyth structure. The only thing surprising about the presence of monomythic elements in “Magic Duel” (written by M.A. Larson and directed by Jayson Thiessen) is thus that it manages to turn away from them in the end.

That there are Jungian elements in play in this episode is fairly obvious. Trixie is not only Twilight's foil but her Shadow, the image of that part of Twilight which she works to overcome--in her case, her initial antisocial focus on developing her magic over relating to others. That in the end Twilight must save Trixie, rather than destroy her, confirms her status as a reflection of Twilight's own darkness. The specifically Campbellian elements, however, are also present. For instance, that Trixie's power source is the Alicorn Amulet makes her equally a shadow of Twilight's primary mother-figure, the alicorn Princess Celestia. She is thus the Dark Mother, and Twilight's final making of peace with her is the Atonement with the Mother (fittingly for this show, both are gender-swapped from the standard-issue Hero's Journey). Twilight initially Refuses the Call by trying to stay in Ponyville when Trixie tries to drive her out, and is punished by harm befalling her loved ones (compare Luke Skywalker's initial refusal to be trained by Kenobi, immediately followed by stormtroopers killing his aunt and uncle). She encounters a good mother-figure/mentor in Zecora, acquires the Gifts of the Goddess, and prepares to face off with the Dark Mother once more so that she can return home. And just to make clear that this is not simply paranoid reading on the viewer's part, Zecora tells Twilight she "must unlearn what you have learned" and has her levitating objects while standing on her head, at which point Twilight is interrupted by a message telling her she needs to help her friends--all clear references to Yoda's training of Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back.

At the same time, a degree of departure from standard formulae is already apparent, most notably in the titular magic duels. Typically, magic duels in fiction tend to take one of two forms. Often (as in Star Wars and Harry Potter) they strongly resemble non-magical duels such as fencing, Old West-style gun duels, or even street brawls (as in Buffy). Alternatively, they also frequently take the form of the shapeshifting contest, the most familiar examples of which are probably the competition between Merlin and Mim in The Sword and the Stone and the one between Dream and the demon Choronzon in Neil Gaiman's Sandman, but mythological and folkloric examples (especially if one includes the non-magical variant in which the shapes are indicated by words or gestures) abound. Equestrian magic duels, however, work very differently: rather than assuming competing forms or trying to destroy one another, Trixie and Twilight instead each cast spells which the other tries to dispel or undo, with Twilight losing the first duel when she is unable to undo the effects of Trixie's age spell.

This departure is then compounded by Twilight's trickery in the second duel. Her apparent Gift of the Goddess, the amulet given to her by Zecora, is a fake. She has learned no useful magic from Zecora's tutelage, and her apparent Apatheosis into a massively powerful spell-caster is a trap to get Trixie to try to swap amulets. In other words, the episode that opens with Trixie defeating Twilight at her specialty, spell-casting, ends with Twilight defeating Trixie at her speciality, stage magic. Through all this, it is ultimately Trixie, not Twilight, who grows; this was never the story of Twilight's maturation at all--and even Trixie has not "grown up" in a singular leap, but taken a single step toward greater maturity and socialization.

Given the immense gravity of the monomyth in the modern culture of television, coming this close to it and then veering away is quite an achievement, and the result is a leading contender for strongest episode of the third season (which, interestingly, tends to shine when it puts characters up against their Shadow archetypes). But there is a price, unfortunately; the series did not quite attain escape velocity, and as such must sooner or later come crashing back down into the monomyth. The monomyth's endgame was not averted in this episode, only delayed, and the result will be the show's greatest crisis since the departure of Lauren Faust, and the deepest rift within the fandom to date.

The Apatheosis of Twilight Sparkle is coming.

Next week: I'm at a con, so guest post! This time, another good one by the ever-reliable Spoilers Below.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

MLP Liveblog Chat Thingy: "Filli Vanilli"

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.

Chatlog below the cut!

Friday, February 14, 2014

Welp. Equestria Girls 2 trailer

Sorry this is up so late. Blogger error.

Based on my intensive, in-depth analysis (i.e., watching it once), it appears that the new film once again contains a bunch of girls with identical body types, because if there's one thing Friendship Is Magic is about, it's that there's only one way for a girl to be. Also it contains at least one generic High School Musical-style crowd pop song. Clearly this trailer has left me just tremendously psyched, and also hyped. I expect that the new movie will underwhelm me just as much as the first--and if we're very lucky, it may also result in fifth season being short and uneven just like the first movie did to third season.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Some good news on Michael Morones

New readers coming from the Michael Morones site: Welcome! You may be interested in my analysis of "One Bad Apple," which also discusses bullying and Michael's situation.

Michael Morones--the bullied Brony who attempted suicide--is showing signs of neurological activity and has been moved into a wheelchair. The full extent of the damage is still unknown, but from what I understand (which is not much, so take this with a grain of salt) this development means he will probably have at least some degree of cognitive and motor function.


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The role of the writer is not simply to arrange (There's No Way I'll Ever Regret It)

The Puella Magi were created by Kyubey. They rebelled.
They evolved. They look--and feel--human. Some are
programmed to believe they are human. There are
many magical girls... And they have a plan.
In Episode 5, the beginning of the second arc continues to mirror the first arc. Just as Episodes 1 and 4 both served as introductions, Episodes 2 and 5 are both about establishing and positioning the characters, exploring the nature of this new world, which is a polite way of saying that this is an episode where not much happens.

The episode opens with a flashback to Kyubey and Sayaka performing the ritual that transforms her into a magical girl, presumably right after she assured Kyousuke that magic exists in Episode 4. While Kyubey has been creepy throughout the series so far, this flashback is the longest sustained depiction of him as a (literally, here) dark figure, and the framing and lighting both are highly suggestive of a death scene. As Homura states later, Sayaka's fate is fixed at this point; she is, effectively, a dead woman walking. (Again, quite literally, as we will learn in a few episodes.) Further, by placing Kyubey in deep shadow with a large plant behind him, several shots look as if Kyubey has multiple tails, suggesting the kitsune, a Japanese trickster spirit that takes the form of a fox and grows additional tails as it becomes more powerful. The large number of tails implies that Kyubey's power is enormous.

We also see for the first time how a Soul Gem is formed. The ritual suggests strongly that Kyubey literally pulls it out of the girls' hearts, making it from something that already existed within them. This accords with statements by Mami and Kyubey in prior episodes that they can sense great power in Madoka, even though she has yet to become a magical girl, and explains why Kyubey does not simply use his power to accomplish his goals: though enormous, his power is extremely limited. He can grant wishes, act as a telepathic switchboard, control who can see him, and (as we will learn later in the series) exist in multiple places at once, but cannot actually wield magic to alter reality the way the magical girls and witches do. A few of his comments even suggest that what wishes he can grant is determined by the power of the magical girl doing the wishing--given comments in later episodes that Sayaka is not a very powerful magical girl, it's possible that the reason she only wished for Kyousuke's hand to be healed and not the rest of his body is that she couldn't heal the rest.

Kyubey, in other words, is a facilitator. He enables prospective magical girls to tap a power that already exists in them, so that they can fight witches or each other for him. As we see in this episode, he is perfectly happy to construct a conflict, empowering Sayaka even though he knows Kyoko is coming, feeding Kyoko information while keeping Sayaka in the dark, all because the fight between them serves his ends.

As a consequence of Kyubey's manipulations, Kyoko takes over Homura's role in the first arc as the antagonistic magical girl of questionable morality. Kyoko is everything Mami warned about: highly willing to fight other magical girls, concerned only with the rewards of defeating witches, and uncaring about protecting the people of Mitakihara. Her willingness to let the familiar kill people until it becomes a witch, along with her comments regarding the food chain and her own constant eating, combine to suggest that Kyoko sees eating as an expression of power and embraces a might-makes-right philosophy regarding that power. In opposing her, Sayaka takes over Mami's role as the "good" magical girl, the one who fights to protect others and believes the strong have a duty to defend the weak.

By interrupting them, Homura reveals that she has taken over the other role Mami played in the first arc. Homura is no longer trying to erase the traditional magical girl structure and replace it with the show Madoka will be; that has already been achieved. Instead, she is now trying to prevent the next logical development in the story, the Magical Girl Madoka promised by the title. She refuses to help Sayaka when Madoka begs her to do so, but when the only alternative is for Madoka to become a magical girl, Homura has no choice but to step in.

This leaves only Madoka and Kyubey. Madoka makes an interesting and deliberate choice to not change her role--just as she was Mami's unpowered sidekick and confidante, so she offers to be for Sayaka. Even if she is understandably terrified of becoming a magical girl, she is still willing to risk her life to stand by Sayaka's side--and as we see at the end of the episode, even willing to become a magical girl if need be. Kyubey, meanwhile, likewise does not change his role, but rather increasingly reveals to the audience what his role is, moving from a figure of questionable morality and allegiance to an obviously manipulative figure who is increasingly positioned as antagonistic, actively assisting Kyoko and keeping her a secret from Madoka and Sayaka.

But what precisely is that role? Early in the episode, Sayaka takes Kyousuke to the roof, where his family give him back his violin and he plays "Ave Maria." What makes this notable is that elements of the scene keep comparing Kyousuke to Kyubey. First, this is the same location in which Sayaka made the pact to become a magical girl at the beginning of the episode, and although they are outside rather than inside the concentric rings of flowers, Sayaka and Kyousuke are in the same relative positions as Sayaka and Kyubey were in that flashback. Second, Kyousuke is shown as a silhouette in some shots, just as Kyubey is in the flashback, and in shots from Sayaka's point of view, Kyousuke blocks the view of where Kyubey was standing in the flashback. Most subtly, but also most importantly for understanding the function of the Kyousuke-Kyubey parallel, Kyubey reaches into Sayaka's heart to make her into a magical girl, just as Kyousuke's music reaches into Sayaka's heart, creating her feelings for him that motivated her to become a magical girl. And, of course, we will see in the next couple of episodes that Kyousuke is rather thoughtless in his behavior toward Sayaka, so he shares with Kyubey that they facilitated Sayaka's transformation into a magical girl while caring very little about her feelings.

Near the end of the scene, Kyousuke puts down the violin, and yet "Ave Maria" continues to play as the background music for the rest of the scene, transitioning from diegetic (that is, "in-universe") to extradiegetic sound. This ability to straddle the borders of diegesis has, up until this point in the show, been presented as an ability possessed by the witches. To convey their otherworldliness, the witch's labyrinths are generally given their own unique art styles, distinct from the show, with the result that we see the characters noticing, and reacting with terror to, changes in the art style--a diegetic response to an extradiegetic method. Kyousuke is now reaching across that barrier in the opposite direction, one of only three non-witch characters to cross that threshold--and the only one without any apparent "magical" abilities.

This is because his music is an expression of emotion, and therefore magic; as we will see much later in the series, human emotion is the source of all the magic in the series. It follows that human art is therefore fundamentally magical; that artistic expression can reshape reality. Certainly it has done so here: Kyousuke's music is heavily implied to be the source of Sayaka's interest in him, which is the reason she became a magical girl; every violation of the laws of physics performed by Magical Girl Sayaka is thus a consequence of Kyousuke's music.

But if Kyousuke can cross between diegetic and extradiegetic in a scene in which he is heavily paralleled with Kyubey, does it follow that Kyubey can do likewise? Indeed, he can, and is the second of the three non-witch characters to do so. Kyubey is an extradiegetic entity taking up residence in the story.

Consider: Kyubey creates magical girls to serve his own purposes, knowing that they will suffer--even relying on that suffering. He wants Madoka to become a magical girl, and shapes everything he does toward that end result, since he has a problem she can help solve. He sets up Kyoko to fight Sayaka for the same reason, once again caring nothing for how it effects them except insofar as those effects serve his goals.

Among other things, Madoka is a series about consent and autonomy. There have been hints toward this theme, but it becomes undeniable in the next episode. Given that, what better villain for such a series than the one who controls the actions of the characters? All of Kyubey's abilities--to make magical girls, to know what they're thinking, to be everywhere in the story at once--and all of his motivations--to make the magical girls experience emotional highs and lows, to keep the world of the story running as long as possible--are consistent with the role he plays without knowing it: Kyubey is the author of Puella Magi Madoka Magica.

Today's Madoka post will be late.

Sorry! Please expect it up around 2 p.m. EST.

ETA: Actually, expect it later than that. Sorry.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Fixing Angel Season 4

Content Note: Includes discussion of consent issues and the rape of fictional characters

So I've now watched Angel through the end of Season 4, and wow was it ever frustrating. There was so much potential, and a few episodes (especially near the end) were wonderful, but it just kept misfiring, and it all comes down to one basic problem: for a season ostensibly about free will and agency in the face of well-meaning attempts to erase that agency in the name of peace and harmony, the writers seemed to consistently flub issues of consent, which is rather central to having any agency.

The two main areas where they drop the ball on consent are the horrifically squicky, quasi-incestuous Connor/Cordelia "relationship" and the final resolution of Connor's story (at least, not having seen Season 5, I'm assuming this is the final resolution).

We'll start with the infinitely awful ConCord arc. Incestuous overtones aside, Cordelia (who, in the show's grossest recurring motif, is CONSTANTLY being threatened with or subjected to various magical rapes) is mind-controlled by Jasmine into sleeping with Connor. Jasmine is thus guilty of raping both of them: her magic is functioning as a date-rape drug on Cordelia and she's committing rape by fraud of Connor, since he believes he's sleeping with a free-willed Cordelia that wants to be with him. This is compounded when the mind-controlled Cordelia becomes pregnant and carries it to term, without ever being able to consent to the pregnancy--mystical complications of which ultimately leave her in a coma, in which state her blood is then used (again, without her consent) to fight against Jasmine.

This is fairly straightforward to fix: Drop the mind-control aspect (and, preferably, Cordelia's involvement) and just make it that Connor's child is a mystical pregnancy, which the mother chooses of her own will to keep, and then once Jasmine is born she starts working the mind-control mojo, rather than in squicky rape scenarios before.

The other major problem is the end of the season, where Angel wishes Connor into a happier life. Unfortunately, since this entails erasing all of Connor's memories (as well as the memories of everyone who knew him except Angel) and replacing them with new ones, it is effectively murdering Connor and replacing him with a completely different person who looks like him. This is a ridiculously easy fix: just have Angel consult with Connor before doing this!

Now, it's possible that these issues, especially the latter, are intentional sour notes to provoke further discussion about issues of agency and consent. Unfortunately, there's nothing to suggest that in the text--unless Angel gets called out for what he did to Connor (and, to a lesser extent, his friends) in the fifth season, we're left with it being presented as a happy ending for Connor, and any suggestion that the ConCord plotline is supposed to be a serious examination of consent issues and rape culture runs smack into the problem that this isn't the first time Cordelia has been raped and impregnated via mystical means.

Monday, February 10, 2014

A Bit of a Pattern with Rarity

As if there needed to be more reasons to dislike "Simple Ways," the inimitable Viga (whose gofundme is still running, by the way) pointed out a rather unfortunate pattern to me yesterday: Rarity has had three cases of having a crush on a pony, because she's the "girly one" and romance "girly." If we have to have romance in ponies (which, as I have made fairly clear, I'd very much prefer we didn't, but that fleet of ships appears to have sailed), can't we mix it up a bit and get one of the less "girly" ponies like Rainbow Dash or Applejack to fall for someone?

Sunday, February 9, 2014

I'll be embarrassed, shamed, disgraced, mortified, humiliated... (One Bad Apple)

But sure, let's all sing an upbeat song about being bullied.
There is no way I can write coherently about this episode.

Some things never heal.

It's February 5, 2014. Eleven-year-old Michael Morones is in the hospital after attempting suicide two weeks ago. Doctors believe he likely has brain damage, and may even be blind, but it will be months or years before the full extent of his injuries is known. He attempted to hang himself after prolonged bullying over his love for My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.

His parents are taking the attitude that his bullies should not be punished, because it is not in keeping with the principles of the show. They are using the donations the brony community and others have raised to pay for his medical care, but also to set up a fund to combat bullying.

A boy is in the hospital because he did not conform to society's standards of masculinity. The people who put him there will not be punished, and will most likely go on to do it again.

Welcome to the bully culture.

It's November 24, 2012. The top song is still Maroon 5 with "One More Night," and the top two movies are still Twilight and Bond, though at least the surprisingly good Rise of the Guardians debuts at number four. In the headlines, Israel continues firing into Gaza and vice versa, the voice of Elmo resigns in the face of allegations of sexual abuse, and Australian scientists determine that Sandy Island, which is shown on a number of marine charts and maps, including Google Earth, does not actually exist.

In ponies we have "One Bad Apple," a pastiche of the cartoons of the 1970s and 80s written by Cindy Morrow and directed by James Wootton.

Which is where the trouble starts, really; pastiche is a favored technique of postmodern writing, and so it is no surprise that Friendship Is Magic assays several over its run. The thing is, postmodern art is characterized by processes of decontextualization and recontextualization. The idea is to shed new light on the work or genre subject to pastiche, or to call attention to aspects of the new context that jar with the borrowed elements. "One Bad Apple" doesn't do that; the elements of 1970s and 80s cartoons are instead treated like the most boring Internet memes, decontextualized and repeated without any recontextualization, as if they have some intrinsic value independent of the change of context.

Which would work well if they did, but unfortunately, we are talking about the cartoons of the 1970s and 1980s here.

It's some time in the fall of 1989; I am eight years old. I am at a classmate's house along with four or five other boys, working on a project that has something to do with the local Native American tribes. To ensure that I do not contaminate the project by contributing to it, the other boys take turns holding me pinned to the floor. They have to take turns because they have to hold their breath to do it; breathing air that touched me would be bad. The most striking thing about this memory is how utterly normal it seemed at the time.

In School Bullying: New Perspectives on a Growing Problem, author and bullying expert David Dupper defines bullying as "the systematic abuse of power," and expands to describe it as "the unprovoked physical or psychological abuse of an individual by another individual or group over time to create an ongoing pattern of abuse against a victim who cannot easily defend him or herself." That is what happened to me, to Michael Morones, to the Cutie Mark Crusaders. It is not what happened, at least on screen, to Babs Seed.

There is very little good about American cartoons of the 1970s and 80s. Due to a number of pressures, mostly lack of funds, tight content restrictions, and an exodus of talent caused by the aforementioned lack of funds and tight content restrictions, most cartoons were cheaply produced, formulaic pap. Much of "One Bad Apple" references these cartoons, particularly the musical number, which both in musical style and in the frequent use of repetitive, simple backgrounds resembles the musical numbers of shows such as Josie and the Pussycats or Jem. The conversation at the end of the episode, in which a child has to explain a (subtly misused, already outdated) slang term to a clueless adult, is another standard gag of the era, with "bad means good" being the most common such slang term.

Even the bullying plot which dominates the episode is, ultimately, just another reference to the "very special episodes" that were a common feature of family and children's television in the 1980s and, less frequently, into the 1990s.

It's late 1991 or early 1992. I'm ten or eleven years old. They're more sophisticated than a couple of years ago; no one lays a finger on me. They don't even touch my desk if they can help it; if someone brushes against it by accident, they have to immediately go to the washbasin in the corner of the classroom and scrub. I try to tell my parents what's going on. "It's just teasing," my father tells me. "Ignore it and they'll stop."

I've been doing nothing about it, carefully showing no outward sign that it affects me, for years. They haven't stopped. Lesson learned: Telling an adult is useless. They don't know what to do either, and they'll tell you it's your fault.

On my father's advice, I try striking back in kind. I make what I think is a witty zinger against one of them. I will not say what it was, because it was based on the girl in question's name, and I have no interest in revealing anyone's identity. Everyone laughs--at me.

Lesson learned: Don't bother trying to fight back. They can't be stopped.

"Very special episodes" were a format (frequently preceded with advertising along the lines of "Tonight, on a very special [show name]") in which a character of a normally much lighter show confronted a Serious Issue of the Day, usually in the form of a new character who suffered from or caused the issue. Substance abuse was the most common topic, due largely to the willingness of the U.S. government to pay makers of popular shows to make episodes that polemicized against drugs, but everything from the Challenger explosion (on Punky Brewster) to abortion (a critically applauded, highly controversial episode of Maude that helped start the trend), racism (a particularly ridiculous episode of Family Ties stands out here), and the apocryphal lurking pedophile (Diff'rent Strokes). Bullying was another common topic, so it's no surprise finding it here.

Unfortunately, like most "very special episodes," the topic is horribly mishandled. The myth of the self-doubting, pitiable bully is repeated, all aggression is castigated as bullying, and the solution at the end is that the bully needs more and better friends, all in keeping with the teachings of the bully culture.

It's 1993. I'm twelve years old. The girls are worse by far than the boys. The boys merely tell me that I'm disgusting, weak, worthless. The girls don't need words to let me know it, and that makes it far harder not to believe it.

But now there are three or four of us in the same boat. We band together, bottom of the social hierarchy, and bond over a shared love of cartoons, science fiction, and utterly ridiculous, rule-free roleplaying campaigns that we play during lunch and occasionally gym.

The typical bully, according to Dupper, "tend[s] to be easily frustrated, have low levels of empathy, have difficulty following rules, view violence positively, defiant toward adults, break school rules, have poorer school adjustment, and [be] more likely to drink alcohol and smoke." Contrary to the usual narrative, bullies have average or higher self-esteem. Boys are more likely to be bullies and girls more likely to be bullied, but neither by very much; boys tend to use more direct tactics such as physical or verbal attacks, while girls (as also documented by Rachel Simmons in her Odd Girl Out) are more likely to use indirect tactics such as social exclusion, rumor-spreading, and manipulation of friendships and relationships.

At first the episode proceeds fairly realistically. Babs bullies as a way of asserting her social status, pushing down the lower kids in the hierarchy (the Cutie Mark Crusaders) in order to elevate herself and get in with the more dominant kids (Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon). Though her tactics are almost entirely direct, that makes sense for the show's main demographic; per Simmons, indirect bullying generally doesn't start until the preteen years, with even girls preferring direct tactics up to about the age of eight.

But as it progresses, it becomes clear that the episode is largely missing what it is truly like to be bullied. Babs Seed is clearly a marginalized kid with severe self-doubt, which just isn't most bullies; while the kids at the very top of their schools' hierarchies generally don't bully, the kids immediately beneath them are the most likely to bully. Unsurprisingly, bullying tends to coordinate with strong social skills and status; how else would they get away with it? Victim-bullies (that is, bullies who are themselves victims of bullying previously or in another context) do exist, and are often the most vicious bullies and the most likely to continue their aggressive behavior into adulthood, but are nonetheless rare.

Most damningly for the episode, Scootaloo and Apple Bloom reject Sweetie Belle's suggestions of telling an adult because they don't want to be "snitches," but that's not why bullied kids don't tell adults.

It's the fall of 1995. I am fourteen years old. We are supposed to run a mile in gym class. I know I won't be able to run it, so I walk instead, chatting with a friend I've recently made. The gym teacher comes up behind us. He calls me a fat sack of crap who will die of a heart attack before he's thirty, and tells me that I'll deserve it for being lazy.

After temperament, the strongest predictor of bullying is the behavior of adults in the environment. Kids bully because they see adults bully, or because they see that bullies get away with it. You can tell kids that they need to tell an adult when they're being bullied, but unless they perceive that the adults are willing and able to help, they're not going to bother. As Dupper puts it, "Even when teachers witness bullying behavior, they often fail to recognize it as bullying behavior, and they may even exacerbate the problem by blaming the victim. As a result, very few students who have been bullied report the incident to an authority figure."

It's the spring of 1996. I am fifteen years old. For months now, a particular senior has taken it upon himself to torment me. Because I'm short and have a belly and a Jewfro, he calls me "troll." My shoes don't fit, so I often walk with a limp, and for various reasons I don't like using my locker, so I carry all my books at all times in an enormous backpack. My clothes are cheap, shabby, and frequently unwashed. He likes to ask me if I'm homeless, to say I carry my house on my back. In combination with the troll thing, he frequently says that I live under a bridge.

He has a couple of friends--tough-looking boys, slightly shorter and smaller than he--and a spectacularly gorgeous girlfriend. All laugh whenever he teases me.

I don't know it, but he's my last bully. After he graduates at the end of the year, I will never be bullied again, though some of my friends still will.

It doesn't matter, though. It's too late.

Dupper points out that verbal and indirect bullying have the same long-term neurological effects as physical abuse. Simmons argues quite convincingly that the prevalence of indirect bullying among girls is because girls are encouraged to be non-aggressive, and as such most obvious outlets for aggression (whether destructive or healthy) are closed off. The result is that aggression--which is a natural and inevitable part of living in a community and having relationships with other people--must be channeled into what she terms "alternative aggressions," frequently vicious, deniable methods of acting out against the targets of aggression.

This is where the episode veers from being merely mistaken to being outright irresponsible and potentially dangerous to children. The Cutie Mark Crusaders have aggressive feelings toward Babs Seed; who wouldn't after a sustained campaign of many days of torment? They act on these feelings inappropriately, absolutely, by putting Babs Seed in a dangerous situation that could cause her serious harm.

But--and I cannot stress this enough--they are not bullying her.

It's the spring of 1999. I am seventeen years old. My achalasia--a rare neuromuscular condition in which the esophagus clamps shut, preventing swallowing--has worsened to the point that in any given meal I have better than even odds of throwing up undigested food which has never seen the inside of my stomach. Drinking water sometimes helps, but it will be several years before I hit on the strategy of carrying a large water bottle everywhere I go, and so instead I am dependent on the water fountain in the corner of the cafeteria. When I do throw up I have only seconds of warning, which means it is usually either in the water fountain or the trash can nearby, in full view of everyone. Nobody says anything to my face, but I can feel them watching. I stop eating lunch, and my weight begins to plummet. Occasionally I hear the whispered rumors--that I have an eating disorder, that I have some sort of stomach disease, that I have Ebola or AIDS.

Dupper argues that bullying in our schools is a reflection of bullying in the larger culture, from nation-states using their militaries to pound weaker countries into submission to action heroes that murder with impunity and then mock their victims to audience cheers. Adults often send mixed messages by encouraging bullying in some areas, particularly sports, while decrying it in others. Inaccurate or sympathetic portrayals of bullying in children's media likewise frequently subtly or outright blame victims while excusing the bullies themselves.

Dupper himself does not draw the analogy, but his depiction is very similar to rape culture, the phenomenon whereby Western culture simultaneously claims to hate rape while finding excuses to excuse rapists, blame victims, and spread false beliefs about who is likely to rape and how rape occurs. Obviously, rape is a much more serious crime than bullying, but they have much in common, being expressions of power at the expense of another, made easier by a cultural milieu that makes it easy to isolate victims and discourages them from reporting what has happened.

The Cutie Mark Crusaders have lashed out aggressively against Babs Seed, yes, but neither in a sustained campaign nor without provocation. They are not bullies, and it is entirely wrong to equate what they did with what Babs Seed did. Both are wrong, but the CMC acted out of fear and desperation; Babs acted out of a desire for status.

The end of the episode has the CMC and Babs Seed becoming friends, of course, because this is Friendship Is Magic. It is also, of course, not impossible for former bully and former victim to become friends. However, Applejack and the structure of the episode strongly imply that they should be friends, that it is somehow a failing if they do not become friends, and therein lies the problem, because it implies that aggressive feelings are inherently bad--precisely what Simmons identifies as the cause of the epidemic of indirect bullying in girls. Good parenting on Applejack's part--and responsible writing for children about bullying on the part of Morrow--would be for her to help the CMC find a way to express their feelings against Babs nonviolently, constructively, but still aggressively--for example, the way Rainbow Dash confronted Gilda in "Griffon the Brush-Off," a vastly superior treatment of the topic of bullying.

It's March of 2000, two days after my attempt. We Adult Non-Violents have lunch at the same time as the Twelve-to-Eighteen Non-Violent Girls. Even being in the same room makes it impossible for me to eat; I get special dispensation to eat lunch alone.

I'm better now. A lot better. It usually doesn't bother me. But I've been reading up on bullying lately, and today while I was in line to pay for my lunch, I heard a child laugh. For just a moment, I wanted to die. I felt sick the rest of the afternoon, and it took enormous effort to do basically anything.

It's 1989 and 1992 and 3 and 4 and 5 and 6 and 9 and 2000. It's 2012 and 2014.

Some things never heal.

There is no way I can write coherently about this episode.

If you would like to donate to the Michael Morones Recovery Fund, you can do so here.

Next week: Something better. It has to be.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

MLP Liveblog Chat Thingy: "Simple Ways"

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.

Chat log after the cut!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Five Episodes I Like

Reminder: MLP Liveblog tomorrow. Details go up at noon EST, actual liveblog chat thingy is at 2 p.m.

Something I'm toying with doing on occasion: Here's a list of five really good episodes of television. It's not a top five list or anything, although the intention is for the episode mentioned to be at least a contender for best episode of its show; they're just five episodes I really, really like, with a brief explanation of what's so good about them. No pattern, just the first five I think of.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Once More with Feeling." Buffy has enough truly great episodes to easily fill one of these lists on its own--"The Body," "The Gift," "Surprise"/"Innocence," "Graduation Day," "Hush" all come to mind swiftly and easily--but my postmodern heart swells with joy at "Once More with Feeling," a musical wherein the protagonists' main goal is figuring out why they keep singing their feelings and making it stop, while the villain uses the inability to feel without singing about it to torment them and disrupt their relationships. On top of this, unlike most musical episodes (a trend it more or less invented) it is not a one-off; it continues plot and character threads established in prior episodes and is a vital turning point for several of the season's major plots. Plus it's a genuinely good musical in its own right!
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "In the Pale Moonlight." It's the best episode of the best Star Trek, and the one that goes farthest in exploring the moral ambiguity that characterized (most of) DS9. Trekkies who hate DS9 frequently cite it as their go-to example of how the series betrayed the founding values of Star Trek, to which my response is that yes, it absolutely does, and it's amazing.
  • Veronica Mars: "Pilot." This is, quite simply, the best first episode I've ever seen. It is confident, well-acted, engaging, and not bogged down in exposition; it's the kind of episode a series has at the start of its second or third season, not its first. Plus, how often do you get to see a rape victim tell her own story for herself and define it for herself? I flung myself headlong into Veronica Mars late last year, and this episode is the main reason why.
  • Puella Magi Madoka Magica: "I Won't Rely on Anyone Anymore." Ten episodes into a twelve-episode series is not, usually, when you completely recontextualize every event of the series so far, up to and including the meaning of the opening credits. But Madoka doesn't do things the usual way. This episode is, by turns, unsettling, heartbreaking, and fantastic, and it blows open the path to the end of the series in an utterly spectacular way.
  • Babylon 5: "Sleeping in Light." One of the most satisfying, heartbreaking, bittersweet series finales ever shown. I cannot make it through this dry-eyed; there is one musical track in particular that I cannot hear without tearing up. My father died in 1992; that was the last time I cried until I saw this episode for the first time in 1998.
What are some of your favorites?

ETA: Fixed a couple of typos in the last two bullets: Madoka is a twelve-episode series, not thirteen, and "Sleeping in Light" was the series finale of B5, not just a season finale.