You are a natural! A natural disaster! (Secret of My Excess)

People continue to argue with me that I’m misunderstanding
Spike and he’s actually not a jerk at all. Sure he isn’t.

Apologies for the lateness, all. It’s been a rough weekend.

It’s December 10, 2011. The top song is still the same bland Rihanna thing, and the top movie is a romantic comedy called New Year’s Eve, but then again this is the worst weekend for theater attendance since 2008, so don’t feel bad that you’ve never heard of it. In the news, the board of Olympus Corporation, a Japanese company known mostly for their cameras, announce that they will be resigning over an accounting scandal; the CEO of MF Global, an international commodities brokerage, testifies to the U.S. Congress that he doesn’t know what happened to hundreds of millions of dollars in missing customer money; and the European Union struggles desperately with the sovereign debt crisis, part of the ripple effects of the banking collapse of 2008.

On TV, we go from a standout episode to one of Season 2’s top candidates for worst episode, “Secret of My Excess,” written by M.A. Larson and directed by Jason Thiessen. This episode has a pretty bad reputation, in large part because it’s fairly boring. Spike’s falling intelligence as he gets larger and more aggressive, coupled with the fact that he spends most of the episode with spindly misproportioned limbs, undercuts any menace his rampage might have presented. At the same time, since Spike has already been depicted as a jerk more often than not, the fact that his transformation entails him behaving like a jerk isn’t any real loss–“Spike spends an episode acting like anything he wants is his because he wants it” works as a description for most of the Spike-centric episodes.

Now, there is a possible redemptive reading here. It’s not a particularly persuasive one, mostly because it requires reading Spike as something that he’s never signified before and or since. However, before we get to that, let’s make an attempt to catalog what this episode needs to be redeemed from.

What’s most troubling about this episode is the suggestion of biology-as-destiny. Spike is, among other things, an adopted child. He is culturally a pony, and yet this episode suggests that his only options are to grow up as a dragon and abandon all of his pony upbringing, or remain a baby and a pony; his biology prevents him from being an adult pony-shaped-like-a-dragon.

We live in a culture that frequently acts like biology is destiny. Scam artists sell “seduction manuals” on the claim that personality and preference are defined by possessing or lacking a Y chromosome. Trans people are openly discriminated against because society privileges genitalia over brains in defining gender. Movies like Man of Steel and Gattaca predicate their plots on an absurd notion that you can predict someone’s life based on their DNA, as if your genes determine what infections you get or what interests you happen to discover. Can you be genetically predetermined to be a pianist if you never encounter a piano?

Meanwhile, actual biology tells us that matters are much more complex. A newborn infant’s physical body and personality are determined by the interplay of genetics and uterine environment, and from that starting position, in the absence of major genetic disorders future development is mostly determined by environment, which in turn is partially shaped by the person’s own choices and the choices of people around them. Even in the case of a genetic disorder (many of which require environmental triggers, particularly the psychiatric ones), the course of the disorder and how the person responds to it is heavily influenced by environment and choice.

That our lives aren’t determined by our biology should be obvious. How could a being whose behavior is defined by its genes learn a language? That the same human being can, depending on which environment it finds itself immersed in, learn any of hundreds of different languages, with their own associated vocabularies, grammars, and patterns of thought, proves the plasticity of the brain, its capacity to take different shapes.

That Spike’s brain will apparently lose that plasticity if he ever grows up is horrifying. It is one thing to have an inclination to greed, and quite another to lose the capacity to choose to follow another inclination over it, especially as it seems that adult Spike will lose his intelligence and capacity for articulate speech with it. Admittedly, at the end of the episode Spike manages to remember Rarity and return to his previous self, but in the process he must also give up his physical maturation.

It’s one thing to say, as the first two Cutie Mark Crusader episodes did, that one should enjoy being a child and not try to grow up too fast. It’s quite another to advise never growing up at all! It’s especially troubling because Spike is the only prominent male character, and as such this is easily readable as a suggestion that men are inherently greedy, stupid, or self-centered (an implication made stronger by the similar subtext of the later episode “Dragon Quest”). This is an unfortunately common claim by the media, which I have dubbed Sitcom Sexism after the genre in which it’s most common. It’s a particularly toxic form of gender essentialism which manages the peculiar feat of being simultaneously sexist against both men and women, the former obviously because it depicts them so negatively, and the latter because it suggests that boorish behavior by men isn’t really their fault and places the burden on women of civilizing men.

Even as Spike returns to normal, it’s the supposed civilizing power of loving a woman that restores him, because telling little girls that a selfish, destructive monster will become a cute, doting little guy once he’s in love is a great, responsible message that won’t get those girls into any trouble later in life. This is toxic filth, but as with Amy Keating Rogers’ episodes it’s pretty obviously toxic filth absorbed from the larger society and repeated without malice aforethought, or indeed a forethought of any kind. Still, if not for the fact that the rest of the episodes he wrote range from “good” to “excellent,” Larson would be joining her on the list of writers whose names make me worry whenever I see them at the beginning of an episode.

I mentioned before that there was a possible redemptive read for this episode. While it doesn’t negate any of the points I’ve made so far, there is a read that could at least explain what they were going for, and it brings this episode into thematic alignment with Larson’s next, “The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000.”

Consider this: Is there a type of entity that can be quite nice when small, but must devote itself to greed in order to grow bigger? That inevitably becomes greedier as it grows, and necessarily loses touch with its humanity? Until ultimately, it cannot help but be a monster, or else return to being small?

Spike is a corporation. He starts out small and capable of forming interpersonal connections, just as a small mom-and-pop business has little or no distance between the people making the decisions and the people doing the work; the CEO (more likely called an owner at this stage) sees the customers and workers every day, directly witnessing the impact of their decisions. However, if the company is to grow it must pursue profit–act on greed, in other words. As it grows, the decision makers become more and more separated from the people on the ground. Policies are determined by senior managers who will never meet the people those policies impact due to insulating layers of supervisors and junior and middle managers, consultants and subcontractors. It is virtually impossible for most people to generate significant empathy for distant strangers–while we might be able to muster a few dollars for starving people in other countries, most of us are not willing to significantly alter our lives for their benefit, the way we might be willing to help out a friend or family member–and as such this distance enables those senior managers, board members, and investors to base their choices on the pursuit of profit without regard for the well-being of those impacted by the decision. It is hard to fire someone you’ve worked with for years, but easy to lay off ten thousand people you’ve never met; hard to put poison in the food of the child in front of you, but easy to poison thousands by bribing inspectors in another state. So it is that large, powerful corporations become essentially Lovecraftian monsters, beings with names like Hasbro, Monsanto, Yog-Sothoth, and Newscorp, unconcerned with the individual humans beneath their feet, casually trampling us as they go about their business. There is no malice here; it simply never occurs to them to notice or care; real evil is almost always more callous than malicious.

Spike, in his final form, tromps about Ponyville without ever noticing the damage he’s causing. He simply takes what, in his mind, is his, because he wants it and he’s not capable of any motivation other than greed. The only solution, it seems, is for someone to speak to him directly, to remind him that once he had other motives–and even then he must be stripped of his size and power, because his greed and callousness are a direct and necessary consequence of his strength.

It’s not a bad primer on the problems of capitalism for kids, but a little obtuse, and the toxic, sexist reading is the more accessible of the two. Fortunately this won’t be the last stab Larson takes at the topic.

Next week: Flashbacks, secret origins, and the power of history to shape the present. And you still don’t know whether I’m going in production order or broadcast order…

14 thoughts on “You are a natural! A natural disaster! (Secret of My Excess)

  1. LOL on that last line. Hearth's Warming Eve and Family Appreciation Day are both about similar themes aren't they. That would have been something I would have noticed immediately if there wasn't a gap of several weeks between the two.

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  2. I think it's less complicated than him being a corporation, and more just a warning about the dangers of material greed. A theme which has been revisited (in a much more straightforward way) in “Just for Sidekicks,” so it's not really something that Spike has “never signified before or since.”

    Remember, it wasn't just Rarity expressing affection for Spike that changed him back, but also (and primarily) reminding him of something he had done for her.

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  3. I dunno, the material greed of an individual usually can be satisfied–there is a point at which you have so much of a thing that getting more isn't desirable. (Economics calls this the law of diminishing returns.) The fact that Spike's greed grows stronger as he acquires more, and is directly tied to his size, suggests there's something else at work here.

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  4. I honestly hope the writers retcon or revisit the topic of Spike aging. Spike's adult form in this episode is different from the one Spike had when hit with a spell in the “Cutie Mark Chronicles” and he seems to be the only wingless dragon in Equestria. Perhaps that's because a dragon's phyiscal form is tied to the way they mature, with greed based maturity producing the most violent, quick, and stupid and wingless adult form. The fact that Spike mentions an “honorable dragon code” means that their are other emotions that are prevalent in dragon society, and maybe they produce dragons like the ones you see in “Dragonshy”. This would still be “physical appearence reflects internal character” stuff mind you, but slightly closer the concept of cutie mark, acting as a “nature will be reflected in physical appearence” thing than the other way around.

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  5. “Gattaca predicate their plots on an absurd notion that you can predict someone's life based on their DNA”

    Well you just managed to miss the point of Gattaca's plot by 180 degrees.

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  6. This episode and the events in it hit a bit hard, even if they weren't intended to go down this route, because they make me think about an old friend of mine who is thankfully doing a lot better than he used to. Said friend is an alcoholic who, as of this writing, is currently 14 months sober and a regular AA attendee, for which all of us who care about him are thankful.

    He's ordinarily a very nice guy, fun to play D&D with, great card player, and a generally reliable and enjoyable fellow to be around. Unfortunately, when he starts drinking, he quickly regresses into a monster, starting at the basic bargaining and reassurances that “this time it'll be different” and “I can handle it,” but within a couple months he'll have lost his job and, in the last instance which scared him into a proper program and which has kept him scared straight ever since, graduated to sticking needles into his arm. That, coupled with an intervention led by his girlfriend and parents and time locked up in a rehab center, got him sober this last time, and ever since he's been very good about saying no whenever offered (only by those who don't know; we're not monsters, and I don't drink around him), and not being afraid to admit that he has a problem with alcohol, an amount of progress I respect a great deal. I've been through this with him twice, and I hope to never have to go through it again.

    Now, my friend's is a terribly sexist story. Through a combination of self-control and the love of a woman who “stuck by him through it all,” he made concrete changes in his life, combated a very serious disease, and has turned things around to return to a comfortable middle class existence. Thankfully he was never physically abusive or anything, but regardless it's not a nice story at all, even though it has a happy ending so far. He could relapse and we'd either go through the entire thing again, or he'd end up OD'ing and dying, which I sincerely hope doesn't happen. I despite the notion of “Bio-Truths” as much as is possible (because as you say, “genetic destiny” is a sham and a crock intended to manipulate the gullible or keep others down (the untruth of which, as an aside, I thought was the point of Gattaca's ending)), but in this instance there is a concrete link between drinking and my friend becoming a monster. Others, myself included, can drink responsibly without issue, but he cannot. In a world without alcohol, it would never have come up. But alcohol does exist and is consumed regularly world wide, and he has to live with it. It isn't fair and it isn't something he deserves, but it's the burden he has to live with for his entire life.

    And the episode reminded me a lot of this. The plot is a lot simpler, and Spike's addiction to “owning stuff” is far more acceptable for children's television, but the way it played out struck me right in the gut. It hit really close to home, even if it wasn't supposed to. Of course Rarity is under no obligation to help him, nor is it a good lesson to teach young girls that people with those kind of problems just need to someone to be nice to them and they'll stop. That's a horrible moral that gets people hurt every day. But it's a story I was a participant in. You don't get that everyday from television, especially the terribly accurate depiction of the slippery slope that leads Spike down the path, the denial and bargaining and excuse making and absolute refusal to see anything wrong, and the various reactions of those around him. Many of the real stories don't have a happy ending, but Spike realizing what a horrible person he's become and making a conscious decision and effort to change, including apologizing to those he's hurt and attempting to make amends, is how many of them do.

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  7. I'm 95% certain that it's said out loud that Spike made up the Honorable Dragon Code himself. The fact that he's taking it that seriously suggests he probably made it up specifically in response to not liking what he saw during Spike Quest (though I bet this episode helped).

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  8. It's entirely possible that I'm misremembering, since it's been a decade at least since I've seen that movie, but wasn't the point of Gattaca that they COULD do this kind of prediction, but it was a bad idea to do so?

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  9. Behaviorally, Spike in this episode doesn't differ much from the adult dragons we saw in earlier episodes like “Dragonshy” and “Owl's Well That Ends Well.”

    Also, like Brickman I seem to recall Spike making up the Dragon Code. It's one of the episodes I've only seen twice, though, and that was months ago, so I may be misremembering.

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  10. Interesting. Addiction had not occurred to me as a read here, but it does work. The difference, I'd say, is that drinking is not a necessary part of adulthood, so your friend can still grow up and participate in adult society; Spike can't.

    Also, I'm really sorry you had to go through that. It sounds really rough, and I'm glad your friend is doing better.

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  11. Well, it is possible to live a pretty ascetic existence without owning a lot of things. It's been the subject of numerous books and specials about “decluttering your life” and “focusing on what's important”. The flipside, of course, being hoarding, a serious psychological problem that affects thousands everyday…

    I suppose the problem is one of development: without a horde, would he remain in a neonotenous form, still physically a child but with the mental age of an adult? or would the physical changes come about regardless (if dragon's migrate, maintaining a horde could be quite difficult (we don't see any pack dragons carrying the adult's stuff, or any gigantic sacks of treasure slung on their backs, for example))? Perhaps he'd develop into a 3rd form, like an axolotl?

    And thanks for the kind words :)

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  12. Oh, it absolutely is possible to live without collecting things, at least for humans and presumably ponies, but Zecora's statements do seem to imply that dragons can never mature without going all greed-monster. Which is frankly horrifying; eternal childhood is around #3 on my list of things terrifying enough to keep me up all night.

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  13. Gattaca's an interesting movie. There were two things going on in terms of genetics: they could find genetic predispositions for various diseases and disorders (which is a good thing that the movie treated like a bad thing) and they could “custom-make” children by choosing which bits of each parent's DNA went into the child, which led to discrimination against people who weren't “optimized.”

    Gattaca predicated its plot on the fact that the notion that you can predict someone's life based on their DNA is absurd. It used “genetic optimization” as a metaphor for other, equally absurd but much more prevalent, forms of discrimination. Gattaca was brilliant because it discussed racism in terms that self-centered economically-stable white guys could understand. Gattaca was an artistic failure because the message was TOO subtle – it was too easy to read as a “nobody's gonna hold me back!” actualization story, instead of the story of a black man refuting his racist society by climbing to the top of his profession while passing for white.

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  14. The impression I got was that the “Greed Growth” is an offshoot development, and that Spike will be able to grow up normally (Big Red from Dragonshy could talk) should he not do the whole hoarding thing. That said, it hardly negates your other points regarding Rarity and Sitcom Sexism.

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