This isn’t at all what I imagined. (Sisterhooves Social)

Normally I would make a silly comment, but I’m too
distracted by Rarity’s mother’s pants. Have we EVER seen
a pony wearing pants before this? Do we ever again?

It’s November 5, 2011, and so, for no reason other than that it pleases me to do so, I offer you this bit of
doggerel with apologies to Alan Moore and centuries of folk tradition:

Remember, remember
The Fifth of November
The two sisters who were not
I know of no reason
This sisterhood season
Should ever be forgot

The top song is still the exact same tiresome bit of Adele, and the top movie this weekend is Puss in Boots, the horrifyingly awful spinoff of the horrifyingly awful, omnipresent, and never-ending Shrek series. Rather appropriately, the series took a weekend off between the last episode and this one, which I completely should have cited when I decided to do a guest post. Ah, well. In the two weeks since last episode, an earthquake in Turkey killed hundreds of people, but did not stop the world’s population from hitting seven billion on Halloween. In a not unrelated story, the U.S. Department of Energy reveals that 2010 greenhouse gas levels were worse than the worst-case scenarios published by the ICCC four years prior. And twice in these two weeks, Oakland, California police respond violently to that city’s Occupy protests.

“Sisterhooves Social” is one of Cindy Morrow’s more interesting episodes for me, but curiously, the first time I watched it I found it entirely forgettable. I’m not sure I’ve rewatched it since, which makes it one of the episodes I’ve watched least (though there is one episode, which shall remain unnamed, which I have only ever seen once). I’m not sure how I missed this the first time, possibly because it’s been on my mind lately, but in large part this is a study of the gap between the intention behind an action and how that action is perceived by others.

There’s a term for this phenomenon in third-wave feminist circles: Intent Isn’t Magic. (Sometimes with an f-bomb thrown in there, but this is a scholarly, serious site about a children’s show, and that kind of language just isn’t fucking acceptable.) Though it’s usually applied to discussions of gender relations, it applies just as well to Sweetie Belle and Rarity’s interactions in this episode. Throughout the first part of the episode, Sweetie Belle has the best of intentions to help her sister, but her actions at first inconvenience Rarity, then destroy her property, and finally seriously set back her work. Rarity, meanwhile, eventually approaches Sweetie Belle with the intent of making peace, but her actions–suggesting activities only she likes, for instance–only drive the two further apart.

I’m actually going to take this a step farther than it’s usually taken, and stake out a fairly extreme position: intent isn’t just not magic, it’s irrelevant. Of course, having said it I’m going to pull back slightly: my intent is relevant to me, but not to you. Your intent is relevant to you, but not to me.

The problem with the intent of others is that it’s utterly unknowable. All that can be known is another’s actions. Even if you tell me your intentions, I can’t rely on that, because you could be lying or mistaken (how often have you done something with what you thought were good intentions, and realized after the fact you had ulterior motives or were just rationalizing?) Of course, fictional characters are different. Fiction has a very low information density compared to reality, which means we can interpolate and interpret much more freely and confidently because all the information that is there can be assumed to be relevant. In other words, because even the most complex fictional character is always going to be vastly simpler and more straightforward than any real human being, we can read their intentions reliably. Thus, the audience knows Sweetie Belle is trying to help and shares her frustration at the repeated failure of her efforts. However, to Rarity, Sweetie Belle is real, and thus her intentions are not readable. Rarity isn’t a mind-reader, so she has no choice but to respond to Sweetie Belle’s (repeatedly destructive) actions.

Both Rarity and Sweetie Belle find, by the end of the episode, that their intentions cannot enable them to get along; only by changing their behavior can they maintain the bond between them.

I want that written in letters of fire ten thousand feet high. I want that burned into the insides of the eyelids of every human being who ever lived or will live. I want that to be the national anthem of every country and the fight song of every school.

What you were trying to do only matters to you. What you meant to do, what you intended to happen, only matters to you. To the entire rest of the universe, what matters is what you actually do and how it impacts others.

And if that impact is not what you intended for it to be? Then you are doing it wrong and you need to do it differently. If your intentions really are what you think they are, that won’t even be difficult; you’ll just naturally keep trying things until you get the results you’re trying for. Because we know both their intentions, thanks to their fictionality, we know Rarity and Sweetie Belle will eventually work it out, barring some swerve that comes from some story element outside their characters (which is fairly unlikely in anything not by Joss Whedon or George R. R. Martin). They both genuinely want to get along, and therefore they eventually will find a way to do so. Which is another way of saying intent might not be magic, but friendship is.

This really is the next stage after Lesson Zero, and well-placed here, just a couple of episodes after. After recognizing the internality of others, that you cannot ever truly understand what happens inside another person but must accept it, the next step is to realize that they will never truly understand what happens inside your head, that you are more opaque than you realize, and that you will sometimes have to adjust your words and actions because others don’t see the thoughts and feelings behind them.

Which brings us to an odd question: Did Morrow intend for this episode to be an examination of the Intent Isn’t Magic concept? On one level, we can say probably not: the explicit friendship lesson is about compromise. On the other hand, well, does it matter what she intended? The episode works as an examination of the Intent Isn’t Magic concept, and therefore it is one. It follows naturally from the friendship lessons on communication and not making assumptions that predominated shortly before Pinkie Pie broke the show at the end of the first season, and ties them together with the Spike/Nice Guy Syndrome theme. (Spike being a classic example of someone who claims his intention is the benefit of another, but whose actions–and, more importantly, his repeated failure to modify his behavior when it fails to produce the results he supposedly intends–make it clear he’s not really after that at all.)

Like everything else that speaks directly to bronies, it might not be intentional, but nonetheless ends up being there. And like I’ve been saying all along, what the creators of the show do matters more than what they say they intended. Was Rarity’s conflict with Sweetie Belle intended to be more of a “don’t touch my stuff” thing than the more cleanliness-based conflict it ended up being, as Faust suggested in her recent Q&A on 4chan? Doesn’t matter–what matters is the episode that actually aired.

This isn’t, I should note, the Death of the Author. There’s no rule against considering authorial statements of intent. I’ve implied (in, admittedly, a moderately gonzo post) that “The Return of Harmony” can be read as a Gnostic fable; do you really think I’d object to an attempt to read it as the product of the stated intentions of the people who made it?

Instead, what I’m arguing is that Authorial Intent Isn’t Magic. The work is what it is and has the impact it has, and if it doesn’t have the impact the author intended it to have, then it is up to the author to adjust their future work. Saying “Oh, I actually meant X” when people experiencing the work come away with Y is as empty as Sweetie Belle saying she was just trying to help. This isn’t to erase the creator–far from it! I have a deep and abiding respect for anyone with the skills to create any kind of art. (Especially the visual arts. I can write, not just in the sense of stringing words into sentences but in the sense of being able to create fiction. I understand how writing works, so even when someone is a much better writer than me, I can sort of see how they did it. Drawing, on the other hand, is basically witchcraft as far as I’m concerned–you put lines on paper and suddenly there is an image. How that’s even possible is beyond my feeble brain.)

Instead, what I’m trying to do is prevent creators from overshadowing their work. Case in point, not that long ago on this very blog, a commenter objected to one of my Pony Thoughts of the Day with the words “Faust already said Scootaloo is flightless.” Not to pick on them, because this is endemic in fandoms in general, but this was well after at least two episodes of Season Three showed Scootaloo flying.

Ultimately, for all that it may be a harsh lesson, in the context of “Sisterhooves Social” the message that Intent Isn’t Magic is a welcoming one, because we were never intended. The show was never made with bronies in mind, and yet here we are.

Because whether they intended to or not, the folks at DHX made a show that is, blatantly obviously in just about every frame, for us. That doesn’t mean it’s just for us, or that we don’t have to share–but it is for us, and that’s pretty nice to have.

Next week: It’s Amy Keating Rogers. Writing an Apple-centric episode. Yay.

16 thoughts on “This isn’t at all what I imagined. (Sisterhooves Social)

  1. One of the funny bits about Intent isn't Magic is that it runs both ways, which I think is one of the nice things this episode does.

    Taken on a very shallow level, Intent isn't Magic can lead to a rather horrible and mechanical style of interaction wherein no one can do anything without needing to evaluate every possible angle and interpretation, which, quite frankly is an exhausting and neigh impossible task. I doubt there is a way to act or interact in such a fashion that one can cause offense to absolutely no one in any possible way, especially given the ambiguities of language and the complexities of people's differences. It's worth doing in the interests of not being a jerk, but after a certain point there's going to be a group who won't be pleased with you, regardless of how hard you try.

    To use an extreme example, there's a rather famous blog entry by a rather passionate individual who alleges that Firefly is among the most awful and sexist shows of all time, promotes rape culture, and is actively damaging to women. Needless to say, this blogger's interpretation is about as wrong as an opinion can be, and given some of their interpretations of scenes and dialogue, makes me question if they've watched the same show I have. There are many good critiques and criticisms one can make of Firefly and its approach to sex and gender, and this is a conversation that is absolutely worth having and an important topic worth thinking about, but, for example, Wash abusing Zoe off-screen is something with no textual evidence whatsoever, and in fact flies in the face of the evidence that is there (She's an awesome and deadly soldier who's among the strongest fighters present on the ship, and he's a lazy pilot who can barely get worked up enough to stay angry while being tortured, not to mention their relationship being portrayed as nothing but loving and affectionate in all the scenes they have together. If it had ever happened, it would only happen once, and the morning would greet Wash with a bullet to the head, I have no doubts). And I'd bet there's no way Joss Whedon could make this person happy. Interpretation isn't always magic, either.

    To use a nicer example, just this morning I sent a friend a text that I later realized could be read two different ways, one of which would be horrible insulting to her. I realized this about an hour after I'd sent it and immediately sent an apology. She texted me back saying “No worries, I understood what you meant :)” and that was that, but I still don't feel bad about apologizing for it. I'm the one who messed up after all. But she's my friend and she knew even before I apologized that the negative interpretation couldn't have been what I meant. We can't read one another's minds, but we can give one another the benefit of the doubt and a chance to explain.

    And that, I think, is terribly important: the difference between an explanation and a justification. Good intentions don't automatically make things alright, but they can go a long way towards finding forgiveness. Something made pretty explicit in the episode when Rarity finds the picture Sweetie Belle had made for her, and communicating Sweetie Belle's intentions in as clear terms as possible: “I love you and I want to be happy.” Trying to do something nice and messing up is quite different from being actively malicious, after all, and sitting down to have an honest and civilized discussion does a million times more good than dramatic pronouncements and ultimatums. Or, you know, you could skip the conversation and disguise yourself as your friend to help your little sister win a race to let her know you love her as well. That works too :)

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  2. And for those who haven't read it, I can't recommend Richard Knox's 1911 essay “Studies in the Literature
    of Sherlock Holmes” strongly enough. It pretty much kicks off the discussions about canon and authorial intent we're still having over 100 years later, especially of the sort we're doing here.

    Read online for free at: http://www.diogenes-club.com/studies.htm

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  3. Knox's essay is especially funny if you know anything about the history of Biblical scholarship, especially his reference to “deutero-Watson.”

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  4. As for the meet of your first comment–well, yes, that's kind of what I'm getting at with “if your intentions really are good.” Sweetie Belle's initial attempts don't convey her real intentions, so she tries something different that DOES work, the picture. (Though it initially seems not to, leading to the second half of the episode and the role-reversal where Rarity's intentions aren't coming through.)

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  5. And in the same vein, you may not have intended to pick on me, but… anyway.

    In my defense, there is a difference between flying and hovering/gliding, as exemplified by the fact that Rainbow Dash was carrying Scootaloo at the end of “Sleepless in Ponyville,” thus implying that Scootaloo wished to fly amongst those waterfalls (and rainbowfalls) but was still unable to do so.

    In other news… +1 to Spoilers Below's comment.

    Let me just add one thing, though: The purpose behind phrasing it as “isn't magic” rather than “is irrelevant” was specifically to address a practical problem: disingenuous assholes could seize on the (much easier to argue) question of what constitutes relevance, so the phrase “isn't magic” is used to shut that argument down and give them fewer escape routes.

    Also, it can't really be completely irrelevant, because perceived intent will invariably color the emotional effect of an action upon the recipient to some degree anyway, and sensory input and emotional input can't be clinically separated.

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  6. Yeah, sorry. I went back and forth on whether or not to include it, but it just felt like too obvious an example to not use–like if I left it out, the essay would have a glaring hole in it. I am sorry for picking on you, though. Friends?

    And yes, there's a difference between “flying” and “hovering/gliding,” but flightless animals don't do either.

    I'm not really criticizing the rhetorical use of “Intent Isn't Magic,” and I'm well aware I'm taking a rather extreme position by dismissing intent outright–which is why I then backpedal on it almost immediately.

    Perceived intent is important, but you're assuming that it's in some way related to intent. I'm not sure it is; at least, I think there's a much looser connection between actual intent and perceived intent than between, say, absorption spectra and perceived color.

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  7. Addressing what is clearly the *most important* point out of your entire article: Pinkie wears tacky 80s sweatpants, sweathshirt and sweatbands for her exercise routine at the start of A Friend In Deed, and you bet your flank I had to look up which episode that non-sequitor sight gag was in.

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  8. Re: Pegasus flight.

    A healthy 8 hand (2 ft, 8 inch) Shetland pony (a little pony, compared to the other breeds) weighs at least 385 lbs. Adjusting broadly and liberally for skeletal pneumaticity and other adaptations, and comparing to the heaviest definitively known flying animal (the Argentavis magnificens which stood about 4 ft tall and weighed about 165 lbs.), we're looking at at least a 23 ft. wingspan, a length which is not at all supported by the wing-to-body ratio of the pegasi.

    Wings would simply not be enough. Could it be that they are simply used for maneuvering only? Nor would it explain their innate ability to talk on clouds. Also, many other young pegasi on the program display a similar wing size. Clearly there is something else at work here….

    Also, relevant? http://i.imgur.com/z98HTw7.jpg

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  9. Yeah, friends, though would you mind editing it to just say “a commenter” rather than my username?

    And now that you've explained further, I think the problem wasn't a contradiction of canon but that we were thinking of different definitions of “flightless.” Which… probably could be related to what we were talking about, except I can never analyze reality like some of us can analyze fiction.

    I didn't say perceived intent was related to actual intent. All too often, the fact that it's unrelated causes massive problems. I'm… not actually sure what point I was making, actually. I guess I didn't want to just “+1” someone else's comment without adding something, and it had been kicking around in my head for a while.

    Re: the weight/mass issue:

    It has to be at least partly magic-boosted, because of the cloud-walking. But the flexibility and momentum-achievability of ponies in general makes me think that they simply have a different physical structure. Which would make sense, since they don't have to control five extra smaller appendages on the end of each hoof.

    Now I'm wondering what ponies evolved from, since maybe life forms on Equestria don't all have a bunch of vestigial muscles left over from different species of ancestor…

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  10. Pegasus ponies can fly because pegasi are flying horses. Birds fly by using wing-mass and power-to-weight ratios and suchlike. Pegasi fly by being pegasi. Chalk it up to pegasus magic, if you like; to quote Triangle and Robert, secretly the smartest webcomic ever made and, I am utterly unashamed to say, one of my profoundest philosophical and artistic influences, “It's magic. Figuring out the rules kills them.”

    @Sylocat: No problem. Edit made!

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  11. Actually, she wears the even-tackier combination of sweatshorts and leg-warmers. I'm not *certain* but I *think* her costume might be referencing the music video for “Let's Get Physical.”

    But yes, that's another instance of pants, and I'd completely forgotten it.

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  12. Part One:
    Re: The Meaninglessness of Intention.
    This topic fascinates me and seems to me analogous to the head-on collision between theoretical physics and the real, or more precisely, the experiental, world. It came to my attention about a year ago when some hellfire and brimstone ultra-radical feminists started word= and intention-policing and outrageously harassing anyone who questioned them on a very large, very left-wing political board on which I had been a regular for several years. What was especially galling and astonishingly hypocritical is that these individuals stated openly that the intention of anyone with whom they disagreed was absolutely irrelevant, their intentions had to be accounted for at all times and deferred to without exception. But I have come to expect such things from certain corners of the radical feminist community since I encountered the quasi-totalitarian BS double-speak spouted by Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin when I was in law school some twenty five years ago. I left that board about a year ago to avoid the pointless bullshit and haven’t been back since.
    And to put my cards on the table I am very left-wing and consider myself to be a Euro-style Social Democrat on economic issues and am quite libertarian on personal freedom issues (no restrictions on reproductive rights, pro pot legalization, absolutist when it comes to all free speech issues up to and including Wikileaks). I have also been an atheist since I saw Sagan’s Cosmos when it aired thirty-some years ago and had been an atheist-leaning agnostic for at least a decade before that, since I was about 14.
    That said, the whole “intention doesn’t matter” argument – which I think is profoundly silly for reasons I will set forth below – parallels in my mind a similar distinction between theory and everyday practice in the field of physics.

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  13. Part Two:

    It cannot be denied by any reasonable and informed person that quantum mechanics and possibly even more exotic models such as string theory may well account for the nature of the universe as it is. They are fascinating ideas to contemplate and their explanatory power is extraordinary. But as even the finest minds in theoretical physics readily acknowledge, in the real world of everyday life they do not matter. At all. Why? Because they cannot be perceived by human senses. The likes of Alex Filipenko and Michio Kaku will be among the first to tell you that we experience the world in terms of Newtonian physics, not quantum physics and it is therefore Newtonian physics that are most applicable to the human experience if not the human aspiration to understand the universe in which we live.
    And this is where I circle back to the intention question. In some absolute sense intention may not matter but we do not and I would argue can not live our lives that way. As the quantum principles are to the physical laws we observe every day, such as gravity, such a mindset is all but useless in everyday life. Every social interaction – at least to a hyper rational Asperger’s person such as myself, and if an aspect of social interaction is apparent to me it is certainly understood by neurotypical people who are far more attuned to the subtleties of interpersonal communications than people like me – involves some analysis of and some effort to understand intention. It is not optional, it is essential if any meaningful communication is to be possible. Some understanding of what it is someone else is trying to communicate – what they mean – is a necessary predicate to any possible understanding of what another is attempting to communicate. Whether intention is meaningful or not in an absolute sense, the need to understand, or try to understand it is, like Newtonian physics, the fabric of life as it is lived every day. It is not possible to behave as if intention has no meaning.
    This is definitely an interesting subject, and I really enjoy your blog. Who would have ever thought pastel-colored miniature equines would be the jumping off point for this and all of the other speculation, literary criticism, art, animation, music and all of the other things this remarkable fandom has generated. Feel free to respond to paul.bolin1@gmail.com. I am always up for a good, honest round of intellectual fencing and/or discussion.

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  14. First, I'm not sure your example holds. In the real world of everyday life, for most people, none of physics is relevant. Physicists and engineers are the only people who actually *need* to know any physics; for anyone else, physics is only relevant if they're curious about the questions physics answers. The everyday world of most *engineers* runs by Newtonian physics; the everyday world of most people in general runs by magic.

    As for the rest of your argument, I think (as I touched on in my response to Spoilers Below) you're overestimating the ability of people to read one another's intentions, and as such eliding the distinction between actual intentions and perceived intentions. The perceived intention behind an action does color how people respond to that action in important ways, and therefore is relevant, but there is no causal connection between actual intention and perceived intention.

    I should have discussed this more in the article, but to be honest I'm not sure I'd yet made this connection when I wrote it. Anyway, this is the fundamental reason that (actual, as opposed to perceived) intentions are not magic, and that I argue they're entirely irrelevant: because the actual intention behind your actions is unknowable to others (and only partially knowable to you), and any perceived intention is derived from your actions, not your intentions. (This may include actions performed subconsciously, such as body language.)

    In other words, if others perceive your intentions differently than you do, then your actions are not conveying the intentions you thought they did. This could be because the people you are dealing with are not very perceptive (though the probability of this drops rapidly as the number of people we're talking about increases), because you made a mistake at some point in your actions that (assuming you want your intentions read correctly) you need to correct, or because you have deceived yourself regarding your intentions and your genuine intentions are slipping into your actions without your knowledge.

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  15. Interesting. I speak from an unusual perspective as an Asperger's person. We usually aren't even capable of manufacturing hidden intentions because of the way our brains work. Brutal honesty that would surprise even Applejack is our default setting. WYSIWIG is totally the order of the day.

    As for my physics analogy, I missed making the point that to the extent regular people even think about physics – which usually involve gravity in real life – falling down, dropping something that breaks – life is Newtonian regardless of the depths that may actually lie beneath in the world of the quantum.

    As humans are innately imperfect creatures there will probably always be some gap between actual and perceived intentions, and there are certain people who will always read malevolent or hidden intentions into the most benign actions or statements or choose to deliberately misperceive or ignore others' fairly clear intentions for the purpose of manipulation or simply out of rottenness.

    Motive, which can also be described as a type of intention, always matters and it is incumbent upon one to at least try and understand it. Not everyone has sufficiently advanced social skills to always make themselves perfectly clear. I try to do so with exceptionally precise language because it is all I have, as is the case with most Aspies.

    Cheers!

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  16. The right language finally popped into my head for this whole question: What may be theoretically true on a deep level may have no useful application in the actual world of common experience and may, though not in the instance of physics, be actively counterproductive therein.

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