Heheh. Who knows? (Ponyville Confidential)

Due to how late this post went up Monday, there will be no Tuesday post. Regular updates resume Wednesday.

Sweetie Belle has just discovered the awesome power
of coffee. Apple Bloom and Scootaloo are unimpressed.

It’s March 31, 2012, and the top song is still “We Are Young,” as it will be for the remainder of the season. The top movie is also unchanged, as The Hunger Games has its second of four weekends at number one. In the news, in the wake of a scandal surrounding wealthy donors paying for access to him, Prime Minister of Britain David Cameron publishes a list of the donors who did so; Visa and MasterCard have a massive security breach which potentially compromises more than 10 million credit card numbers; and the London Metropolitan police make a scandal of their own when a black man they arrested uses his cell phone to record them abusing him and using racial slurs.

On TV we have “Ponyville Confidential,” the antepenultimate episode of Season Two, written by M.A. Larson going unusually light on the outside references and directed by Jayson Thiessen. A Cutie Mark Crusader episode, it returns to their core motivation–where in their last episode they were motivated as much as or more by concern for Cheerilee as getting their cutie marks, here the cutie marks are their primary concern once more.

On the surface, this appears to be a fairly typical story of the “journalism is a corrupting and invasive industry that ruins lives for profit” ilk. (Are there any industries that don’t?) However, it contains a distinct oddity that makes it stand out both from other, similar stories and from the rest of the Cutie Mark Crusader episodes: at the end of the story, the CMC are still on the student newspaper, which neither collapses or continues on in villainy, but instead has a change of leadership and increase in outside guidance.

If not about the evils of journalism, then, what is this episode about? Generally speaking, a work can be said to be about (among other things) whatever it is that the core conflict is fought over and with. In this case, there are two major conflicts: first, between “Gabby Gums” and the townsfolk who are hurt by the stories she tells about them, and second between the CMC and Diamond Tiara, who blackmails them into continuing to work for her. In that light, it becomes rather clearer, since these are essentially the same conflict, between those who wish to establish their own identities and those who wish to control them–in other words, it is once again a conflict between freedom and power.

The descent of Gabby Gums begins innocently enough, with a funny, embarrassing story about Snips and Snails that the two foals are happy to have shared–indeed, they even try to recreate the incident later in the hopes of being at the center of attention once more. Some people seek out attention, whether by taking public office, pursuing fame, or committing crimes, and by so doing give up some of their right to privacy and self-definition. 
Most people, however, do not. Gabby Gums is soon revealing irrelevant stories about public figures (the mayor’s hair-dying “scandal”) and, worse still, exposing the secrets of private individuals (publishing Rarity’s diary, for example). Eventually, Gabby Gums crosses the line into outright making up stories about the citizens of Ponyville.
This may seem an odd choice at first. While they are both classic examples of journalistic malfeasance, there is not an obvious progression from invasion of privacy to libel. However, the inclusion of the second conflict makes the connection more clear. Blackmail, libel, and invasion of privacy all have something in common: they are all violations of the right to define oneself. Libel is the most obvious–publically lying about a person obscures the truth I who they are. However, blackmail or privacy violation is equally a violation of self-definition; what a person chooses not to reveal defines their public persona just as much as what they choose to reveal, and so blackmail is as much an attack on their public persona as libel. In this context, whether or not the information is true is secondary to whether it disrupts one’s ability to create an identity for oneself.
That is why this had to be a Cutie Mark Crusader story as opposed to, say, Twilight or Rarity getting involved in the local paper: because the CMC’s own quest is to figure out who they are, they are the perfect characters for a story about how easy it is to gain power by defining for others who they are allowed to be. 
Of course, like any rights, there are limits to the right of self-definition, determined by where it comes into contact with other rights. Printing that the mayor dyes her hair to look older than she is may be justifiable if she ever used he apparent age to imply greater experience in a campaign. Rarity snooping in Sweetie Belle’s bag early in the episode is unjustifiable, but once she has reason to suspect that Sweetie Belle may have stolen her diary, it becomes a more reasonable course of action. There is such a thing as too much freedom to self-define.

We live in an age where, paradoxically, privacy is increasingly difficult to maintain in the offline world, yet most of the social ills to be found online can be traced to an excess of anonymity. Given an unlimited freedom to define an identity, a small but virulent minority choose to define no identity at all, instead reveling in the ability to lie, troll, and generally disrupt any community in which they find themselves. This is known as the online disinhibition effect, and one of its major causes is precisely the dissociative anonymity that Gabby Gums provides the CMC: she is an invention, a cipher, that enables the CMC to engage in toxic activity they never would have dare undertake in their usual identities. The cure for such behavior, as the CMC themselves experience, is light: stripped of their anonymity, they come clean, apologize, and endeavor to do better going forward.

The balancing act, therefore, is between the need for privacy to create a space within which people can define themselves, and the need to shine light on people who abuse that privacy and anonymity. Consider the three news stories with which I began this article: neither the Prime Minister nor any of those credit card holders wished their information to get out, and I doubt the London police knew they were being recorded. All three involve taking away from someone the power to define what information about them is presented to the world. Yet instinctively we recognize that exposing malfeasance by those in power is a good reason to take that power, and stealing credit card numbers a bad reason.

The Internet has intensified both sides of the equation, creating both new ways to communicate anonymously and new ways to discover information about others. Ultimately, however, it is an equation that has already been solved. It might not be as simple as replacing the editor-in-chief and bringing in more teacher supervision, but the answers are out there.

Next week: Didn’t we already do pony Rashomon? Oh well, this is closer to pony Murder on the Orient Express anyway.

5 thoughts on “Heheh. Who knows? (Ponyville Confidential)

  1. Worth the wait!

    This seems like an adequate time to bring this up, given your references to toxic elements of Internet culture: do you have any thoughts on whether MRAs are influencing public perception of adult MLP fans? The last two articles I read about MRAs both offhandedly mentioned MLP as if the two were related, and I've definitely spoken to some people – friends of mine, even – who I had to reassure that I'm not an MRA, even though I watch MLP.

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  2. Thanks!

    That is a very interesting question. It's not one I know anything about, but it would be interesting to investigate. I'm planning to look a bit more at the dark side of the fandom for the second book, so that could be interesting.

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  3. “Men's Rights Activists”? Excuse me? Maybe it's just because my primary exposure has been via Froborr's strong leftist take on the series (well, leftist when the decision arises, anyway), but the whole idea of that seems antithetical to the core spirit of the show. I understand that fandom is large, it contains multitudes, but I just can't wrap my mind around the logical leap necessary to go from “I watch a show originally targeted at little girls that promotes a spirit of universal kindness” to “absent fathers should be able to opt out of paternity payments”. I mean even if for some bizarre reason you should hold both those views simultaneously I can't imagine anyone feeling the compulsion to reconcile the two somewhere in the center (even considering the fandom's PONY VERSION OF EVERYTHING credo). And this is something that people apparently associate with a generic image of the fandom? Could someone please explain to me what happened?

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  4. FWIW, the most “famous” MRA Brony turned out to be a troll.

    Of course, labels are far easier to stick on than to peel off, particularly because of that old axiom “stereotypes have a grain of truth to them” …even though the only reason “stereotypes have a grain of truth” is because if you look at any large enough group of people you're bound to find examples that fit whatever trait you want to project onto the group as a whole.

    As for the episode itself: The other reason it didn't cast the newspaper itself as the villain was because journalism itself is not just a good but an important field for a society that hopes to balance power with accountability, and tabloid gossip is in fact a bug and not a feature.

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  5. As a side note (which is paradoxically more linked to the actual post than my original comment), that caption is now by far my favorite on mlpomo and will remain with me whenever I watch the episode.

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