|If you average their expressions, you’ll basically
get what I looked like while watching this movie.
It’s June 16, 2013.The top song is the controversial “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke featuring T.I. and Pharrell, and the top movie is the dour Superman-as-kaiju flick Man of Steel. In the news, Edward Snowden is revealed as the source of the NSA leaks in the U.S. and defects to Hong Kong (he will ultimately end up living in Russia); Russia bans positive depictions of homosexuality; and it comes out that the Syrian government is using chemical weapons against its own citizens in the ongoing civil war there.
Meanwhile, the Friendship Is Magic movie Equestria Girls, written by Meghan McCarthy opens to a limited run of 200 screens. So let’s start with the obvious: This movie isn’t very good. The animation is not as much better than the show as one would expect for a theatrical release, the story is redolent with high-school drama cliches, and the songs are (deliberately, according to composer Daniel Ingram) modeled on contemporary girl-group pop, which is to say simplistic, autotuned to oblivion, and lacking in variety.
So let’s take that as a given, set it aside, and try to find something more interesting to say, because somewhere underneath the “new girl transgresses established high school factions, becomes darling of all” is the potential for a good movie about more interesting topics.
Consider the intense contrast between settings. Ponyville is practically defined by a lack of cliques or classes. Government officials of wildly differing rank, farmers, artists, artisans, and the apparently unemployed are fast and easy friends in this world, while different races of pony live together and interact harmoniously. Certainly there are circles of friends–the Mane Six themselves form one–but they are not as insular or exclusive enough to be cliques. Most of the Mane Six have friendships outside and distinct from the rest of the group, most obviously Pinkie Pie, but in addition Rarity has her friends in high society, Twilight has Cadence and arguably the other princesses as well, and Rainbow Dash’s interactions with the other pegasi in Ponyville are at least readable as implying friendship. The closest things to cliques in the show are, unsurprisingly, among the schoolchildren: the Cutie Mark Crusaders are very nearly one, with the exception that, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we can assume Apple Bloom and Twist are still friends. Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon, on the other hand, are definitely a clique.
By contrast, one of the first things Twilight Sparkle learns about Canterlot High is that it is defined by cliques, which operate as independent factions. Fluttershy outright states this (“Maybe it was different at your old school, but at C.H.S., everybody sticks to their own kind,”) and lists off several such cliques, including “the athletes, the fashionistas, the dramas, the eco-kids, the techies, the rockers…” and notes that Sunset Shimmer dominates over all of them. This is the familiar world of high-school cafeteria politics, but something interesting is very subtly implied later in the movie, when we learn this world’s versions of Fluttershy, Applejack, Rarity, Rainbow Dash, and Pinkie Pie were friends early in high school, before Sunset Shimmer split them up.
Look at that list of cliques again. Athletes? That’s Rainbow Dash. Rarity is definitely a fashionista, and Fluttershy would doubtless fit right in among the eco-kids. Fluttershy’s list doesn’t have a clique for every member of the Mane Five, but it’s not likely to be a complete list of cliques, either; what it does do is establish a pattern. Applejack and Pinkie Pie don’t really fit into any of the cliques she mentioned; it’s possible that they could be in some kind of baking-centric clique together, but the interactions of the Mane Five throughout the film suggest that they haven’t seen each other much in the years since Sunset Shimmer targeted them. More likely is that each of the five are in separate cliques (indeed, Pinkie Pie’s party-planning committee may be one)–which means that they initially had a strong, cross-clique friendship.
The existence of that friendship, in turn, implies that the school’s cliques were much less isolated prior to Sunset Shimmer’s arrival; more like the friendship circles typical of Ponyville, in other words, than the rigid and frequently hostile cliques of high school cliche. It is an outside force, a manipulator seeking control, who drove the Mane Six apart; it seems likely that she has done the same to the school, dividing and conquering.
The cliques, in other words, are artificial. They are constructs created specifically to divide the students, to prevent them from accomplishing what they could if they were united. This exploitation of the instinct for tribalism to divide people against their own interests resonates with many phenomena throughout our culture, particularly in the political arena, but let us follow the movie in keeping the focus on high school: where do cliques come from? They cannot be an instinctive and inevitable part of adolescence, though they are often depicted or implied as such–there’s little trace of such behavior being a particular and peculiar feature of youth in media before the 1950s or so, for instance. This is a recent cliche, which is to say a recent cultural phenomenon.
And as a cultural phenomenon, it is necessarily constructed by its participants. Cliques come from the students within those cliques, from the ways in which they choose to act on their attitudes and biases. For all that the “Help Twilight Win the Crown” sequence seems impossibly utopian even by Friendship Is Magic standards, the film has been quietly building an argument for it throughout: cliques are not inevitable. Students create and enforce them, and can choose to relax them if they wish.
Notably, it is Twilight who persuades–leads–them to do so. The film makes rather a point of contrasting Twilight’s initial discomfort with her wings to the necessity of adapting to bipedal locomotion and hands, with Twilight noting near the end of the film that adjusting to her wings should be much easier now. But those wings are simply a visual marker of her ascension to political authority, and her discomfort with them an echo of her uncertainty about her new role, a major theme of the coming Season Four. Likewise, her assumption of human form is a visual marker of the alien environment into which she is thrust in this film, high school. If she could climb to a leadership role there, and do a good job of uniting the students behind her in pursuit of a positive end, surely she can do it in the more familiar and convivial environment of Equestria.
Next Week: Season Four begins. And as I sometimes like to do, we’ll start with the ending–which is in itself a reflection of the past…