|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…