P.S. Obviously Spike did not have to learn a lesson, because he is the best, most awesome friend a pony could ask for. (Green Isn’t Your Color)

The Fashion Mafia:
“Nice little boutique you have here. Be a shame if any of…
ze magics happened to it…”

It’s March 18, 2011. Lady Gaga is still “Born This Way,” and something I’ve never heard of called Limitless is leading in the box office. In real news, the Sendai earthquake and tsunami dominate, with the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant suffering from cooling system failures and possible meltdown as a result of the quake. This isn’t revealed until much later, but the Obama administration begins the early stages of planning Operation Neptune Spear, which kills Osama bin Laden. The last American to serve in World War I dies, and Hillary Clinton announces her intention to retire from public life at the end of Obama’s first term.

After last week, the notion of another Rarity-centric episode seems less than thrilling, but thankfully Meghan McCarthy has writing duties on “Green Isn’t Your Color,” and at least for the first two seasons her name is a sign of great things.

As I believe I’ve mentioned before, characters are most interesting in pairs, and this episode gives us three pairs we haven’t seen much of before: Rarity-Fluttershy, Twilight-Fluttershy, and Rarity-Twilight. While we don’t get a lot of insight into Fluttershy we haven’t seen before, she’s still pretty well-written. Both of her last appearances have emphasized the core of strength that underlies her anxiety and timidity, but doing that too much runs the risk of making that anxiety seem like a mask or an act instead of a real character flaw. Making Fluttershy consistently shy and reluctant to express her feelings throughout this episode, ultimately revealing them only when directly confronted, was an excellent call.

More interesting is the insight we get into Twilight Sparkle. She’s very much the Twilight of “Look Before You Sleep” here, following any rules anyone tells her while ignoring the evidence in front of her face. Pinkie Pie’s repeated warnings to her not to break her promises are blindly obeyed because, as far as Twilight is concerned, anyone who isn’t her is more knowledgeable about how friendships work, and Pinkie Pie may as well be an expert. Of course Pinkie is wrong; some promises should sometimes be broken, but figuring out which are which requires a grasp of social nuance that is, frankly, beyond any of the Mane Six at this point.

Speaking of Pinkie Pie, I left her out of the list of interesting character pairs for the simple reason that she doesn’t get any real development in this episode. She pretty much exists for purposes of a single running gag, and while it’s a great gag, it’s not exactly characterologically rich.

Most developed, happily, is Rarity. To judge by the last episode, she’s kind of awful, but in this episode we get to see a much more appealing side to her. She is tremendously excited at the chance to get a leg up on her career, and believably jealous when Fluttershy gets the attention Rarity feels she deserves. That jealousy and ambition are both essential parts of who she is, but what makes her a joy to watch in this episode is the scene where she unintentionally ruins Fluttershy and Twilight’s plan to ruin Fluttershy’s modeling career. In that moment, Rarity has the chance to watch the pony who stole her dream crash and burn, and instead she chooses to help save her.

Put another way, Fluttershy spends the entire episode putting herself through hell to avoid distressing her friend, while Rarity, when the chips are down, gives the single thing which matters to her most and which she has always wanted to her friend. If there was any doubt that they deserved to be the bearers of the Elements of Kindness and Generosity, it’s gone now.

Ultimately, of course, despite being kind and generous Fluttershy and Rarity are hurting each other and themselves by not openly communicating their feelings. It’s a good lesson for the kiddies, and the episode works well on that level; at the same time, it manages to do something the show hasn’t done much so far, and find a way to make the friendship lesson applicable to watching geeks.

The key is Spike, of course. One of the recurring themes of this blog is that, intentionally or otherwise, the ponies can be taken as signifiers of geekery, fandom, and Internet culture at its best. Meanwhile, in “Dragonshy,” we established the dragon as a Shadow archetype of Fluttershy. Combining the two, we get the depiction of dragons throughout the rest of the series, starting here: as a group, dragons are the Shadow of ponies, which is to say they are the dark side of geekery, fandom, and Internet culture.

As a dragon raised by ponies, Spike sometimes acts as a pony and sometimes as a dragon; in this story, he’s firmly in dragon territory, and the particular dark aspect of geekery he takes on is Nice Guy Syndrome. It was present in spades last episode, of course, but the difference is that there his behavior was depicted as amusing and harmless; in this episode he’s a creep and a self-centered jerk. The difference is subtle, but strongest in the scene where Rarity announces that she “vants to be alone”; Spike ushers the other ponies out in apparent deference to her wishes, but then tries to stay with her and has to be dragged out by Twilight. He’s a jerk (as he will be in most episodes that focus on him) and once again objectifying Rarity, choosing to assume that he’s an exception because of how he feels about her, without regard for how she feels.

The A-plot of the episode makes a pretty good metaphor for Nice Guy Syndrome: in the absence of real communication, Fluttershy and Rarity each assume they know what is good for the other, and their well-meaning kindness and generosity just make each other more miserable because they never stop to ask whether their assumptions about the other person’s wishes are true. Spike does the same thing to Rarity; he just assumes that what she wants in a partner is a footstool, and acts like one in the hopes that she will “notice” him. Rarity, for her part, ignores what he’s doing, even though she has the social intelligence to figure it out. Who can blame her; in a society that strongly values friendship and niceness, how exactly does one say “Stop helping me, you’re creeping me out?”

All Spike successfully communicates in this episode is that he’s a loser with no self-esteem, so obsessed with his own feelings that he can’t be bothered to ask Rarity how she feels about him. It’s an attitude I’ve seen played out countless times, and while it definitely exists in our culture at large (it is essentially every romantic comedy male lead of the last twenty years), it appears to be much more prevalent in geek culture. Now, there’s more to Nice Guy Syndrome than Spike’s behavior here. He’s still in the early stages, being “nice” to a woman with only vague expectations of how she’s “supposed” to respond, assuming that his intensity of feeling and niceness will eventually just force her to like him back regardless of what it is she actually finds attractive. Eventually he’ll transfer his obnoxious faux-niceness to another woman at least temporarily (Season 3’s “Spike at Your Service”), and become more and more bitter about the repeated failure of his approach. At that point he will have two options: grow a spine, try actually getting to know a woman while being up-front about what he wants and seeing if she feels the same; alternatively, he can become a bitter wimp who moans endlessly about how women only like “jerks,” a.k.a anyone with sufficient psychological health to recognize they have to express what they want to their partner and occasionally put their own needs first. If he picks the latter, then he enters the terminal stage of Nice Guy Syndrome and there is pretty much no hope for him.

(For the record, I have encountered instances of women with Nice Guy Syndrome, but it seems to be much, much rarer than in men, probably because women generally don’t get told from birth by very nearly all of pop culture that the other gender exists to service their emotional and physical needs.)

Ultimately, just as in Nice Guy Syndrome, Fluttershy, Rarity, and Spike all need to learn the most fundamental rule of dealing with other people: that other people have internalities of their own, that they may not feel as you do or as you believe they should, and that you are both powerless to change this and morally obligated to accept and respect it. It is even more fundamental than Rule One (“don’t be a dick”), because it’s impossible not to be a dick until you learn it–it’s so basal that it might as well be called “Lesson Zero.”

But that’s a topic for another time.

Next week: Hmm, what’s a suitable topic for a show for five-year-olds about friendship, rainbows, and unicorns? I know: genocide! And you can’t have a good genocide without hilariously terrible musical numbers and a pie fight, amirite?

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