I don’t even know what I’m supposed to wallow in! (Simple Ways)

“And can you IMAGINE the fabulous
dresses I’d make out of his skin, darlings?”

It’s February 8, 2014. The top song is “Dark Horse” by Katy Perry featuring Juicy J, a typical Perry outing of heavily processed pop with a bit of guest rapper tossed in, but it’s about a woman asserting her power to decide who she will be in a relationship with and insisting that they have to live up to her standards, so it’s the most appropriate the top song has been to the week’s MLP episode since Perry’s “Firework” lined up with the bulk of Season One’s accidental alchemy arc. The top movie is The Lego Movie, which is tremendously fun and has a stellar twist at the climax, unfortunately undermined by the being the latest in a long series of movies in which a highly trained and hyper-competent woman is reduced to sidekick status so the story can instead focus on the vitally important task of telling white men that they’re really special and important and will always be the hero no matter how much of a loser they start as. But it genuinely is fun and light enough to almost get away with it, and it is notable for being part of a minor trend of action movies in 2014 in which the villain is talked down or proven wrong, and the climax hinges on the hero finding a nonviolent resolution. So it’s not all bad, just partaking in a troubling trend. Again, appropriate to the episode.

In the news, one of my favorite actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman, dies; the Scottish Parliament votes to legalize same-sex marriage; and the 2014 Winter Olympics open in Sochi, Russia amidst international outcry against Russia’s draconian anti-gay laws. And on TV with have Josh Harber’s sophomore effort at penning Friendship Is Magic, “Simple Ways.”

It is difficult to deny that love triangles are popular at the moment. The marketing of both the Twilight and Hunger Games franchises depend heavily on the concept, for example, with the briefly ubiquitous “Team Jacob”/”Team Edward” t-shirts for the former and the somewhat less successful attempt to sell equivalent “Team Peeta”/”Team Gale” concepts for the latter. And I hate them. I find them a lazy way to build conflict based on a presumption of monogamy and heteronormativity, and in particular the way they’re pushed in narratives for and about young people reflects a regressive desire into forcing people to choose a life partner young, when youth should be a time for experimentation and exploration, building the self-knowledge necessary to make that kind of choice.

And so I ought to hate the love triangle in this episode, and on first watching I did, because I completely misread its nature. I was fooled by the episode’s standout scene, in which Rarity and Applejack play-act as caricatures of one another, each laying claim to the other’s virtues in a way that makes quite clear they see them as flaws. It feels like the two of them fighting over Trenderhoof, which is a troubling narrative, since the idea of the ponies even considering privileging an imaginary, potential romance over their very real friendship is unsettling, out of character, and recalls the toxic “frenemies” concept I discussed way back in “The Ticket Master.”

But Applejack has no actual interest in Trenderhoof–indeed, she appears to barely tolerate him–which means this love triangle isn’t about Applejack and Rarity competing for his affections. This is about Rarity choosing between pursuing the disinterested Trenderhoof and maintaining her friendship with Applejack–the two pairings the love triangle implies, in other words, are not Trenderhoof-Rarity and Trenderhoof-Applejack, but rather Rarity-Trenderhoof and Rarity-Applejack. And it is Applejack who represents Rarity being true to herself.

Take a moment. Enjoy this. This is, given the cultural environment of 2014 and the endemic conservatism of both commercial children’s television and toy companies, very likely as close as Friendship Is Magic will ever get to acknowledging homosexuality as something that actually exists. To put it in fan terms: Rarijack is now the next best thing to canon. (Note how the “imitating each other” scene ends with Rarity accidentally spilling something Applejack’s gown and rubbing at it with both hooves–this would be incredibly suggestive for children’s television if they were human.)

And of course Rarity chooses Applejack. It is obvious from the start that she will, because it is obvious from pretty much the moment Rarity begins changing herself that this episode is going to be about not changing oneself to impress another. But as with so many episodes in Season Four, there’s something subtler going on as well, a critique of the very concept of the “crush.” This starts from the moment at which Rarity reveals her crush on Trenderhoof: a room full of memorabilia and images of the object of one’s interest is usually televisual code for a stalker, not a harmless crush. Indeed, the episode takes pains to parallel Rarity’s behavior with Spike’s, making a joke out of it when he finds her crying about Trenderhoof’s interest in Applejack. Spike’s crush on Rarity has led him to some pretty toxic behavior in the past, as we’ve discussed at length, and here Rarity engages in similar displays once she decides to keep pursuing Trenderhoof, creating a false persona for herself (simultaneously deceptive toward Trenderhoof and rather insulting to Applejack) and abandoning her work on the town festival.

But Rarity doesn’t know Trenderhoof. She knows only his image and his writing; she has had next to no interaction with the pony himself, just as Trenderhoof knows only what little he’s seen of Applejack. Both their infatuations are shallow fantasies, based on an image of the object of the infatuation constructed on very little information–and object is of course the right word here. Neither is particularly interested in actually getting to know the object of their crush, because that necessarily means finding out all the ways in which the fantasy is inevitably wrong. Applejack, unsurprisingly, cuts to the heart of the matter, when both Trenderhoof and Rarity pronounce how much they enjoy hauling apples, and Applejack sardonically comments that they should “try it sometime.” Both are interested in surface appearances and being appreciated; neither has any understanding of or interest in the actual work involved.

This is, of course, a message for fans, and in particular for the type of fan who get passionately invested in fictional characters or celebrities. You cannot love someone you do not know; it is a physical impossibility. Love requires a relationship. It cannot happen at first sight or from a distance; those are fantasies and infatuations, based on a person who exists only in your head. Genuine caring and connection requires a reciprocating subject on the other end, just as with friendship.

In the end, of course, Rarity realizes how silly she’s being. She became over-invested in an illusion, a story, and the story didn’t match reality. It’s the same thing that happened with Prince Blueblood back in Season One, really, just with the slight difference that Trenderhoof isn’t actually a jerk, just not interested. (Note that once Applejack makes clear that she’s not interested, his response is to express disappointment and then not bother her again.) Hopefully Rarity will learn this time.

I mean, Pinkie Pie is getting character development. At this point anything could happen.

Next week: Barbershop quartets are a proper subset of “anything.”

8 thoughts on “I don’t even know what I’m supposed to wallow in! (Simple Ways)

  1. When you said that a song about a woman asserting her relationship power was fitting for this episode, I went, “Huh? I thought he hated this one.” And then I read on to find out you had done a full 180 on this ep. Congrats.

    (Note how the “imitating each other” scene ends with Rarity accidentally spilling something Applejack's gown and rubbing at it with both hooves–this would be incredibly suggestive for children's television if they were human.)

    …Wow. I was already mining this episode as fuel for my RariJack OTP (they just remind me so much of Beatrice and Benedick), but I never thought the episode could be read as an actual hint of it in itself. I also never noticed that imagery, and now I almost wish I wrote clopfics.

    And now, of course, I want to launch into an epic-length dissection of The Lego Movie…

    unfortunately undermined by the being the latest in a long series of movies in which a highly trained and hyper-competent woman is reduced to sidekick status so the story can instead focus on the vitally important task of telling white men that they're really special and important and will always be the hero no matter how much of a loser they start as.

    Given that the “Chosen One” prophecy is revealed to be made up, and WyldStyle's big hero speech to the crowd was about how all the people should “Build things only you can build” (specifically because Emmett wasn't really special or important at all), I thought the movie was kicking down the generic-white-guy-must-be-the-chosen-hero formula just like it did with pretty much every other Hollywood storytelling problem of the decade.

    (also, the sequel setup seems to be prepping to take on the no-gurlz-allowed-in-the-treehouse aspect of boyhood, and by extension of geek culture)

    and it is notable for being part of a minor trend of action movies in 2014 in which the villain is talked down or proven wrong, and the climax hinges on the hero finding a nonviolent resolution

    Huh. What were the others?

    (Sorry if I'm incoherent, I can't seem to words today. I was about to ask if you'd seen Maleficent yet, but it's not out on DVD until November 4th, dang it)

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  2. I'm going to be honest: I thought I was done writing about this episode, went off to find a screencap to use (that and finding a quote for the title are usually the last thing I do, except for the rare instances when I have one from the start), and the very first hit made me realize the episode was even more blatant in its Rarijack than I thought. So I added that parenthetical you quoted.

    All of what you say re: Lego Movie is true… but Emmet still gets the Master Builder powers essentially handed to him because he's the main character.

    I know I had two other movies in mind when I wrote this, but at the moment I can only remember one, X-Men: Days of Future Past. There it was just straight-up explicit: killing the bad guy leads to bad future, talking him down leads to good future.

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  3. I'm… kind of surprised that you were so supportive of this episode, actually. But hey, I can't fault your argument. (Well, other than the AJ-Rarity homosexuality bit. I find that a bit unfounded.) One thing you didn't give too much focus on is Trenderhoof. I'm curious to see what you think of him.

    Truth be told, I've always felt sympathetic towards him. He's a hard-working travel writer who decides that he wants to give up his stressful old life for the quiet, simple ways of farm life. Along the way, he meets a beautiful earth pony named Applejack and instantly falls in love. He tries to engage with her to learn more about her and her lifestyle, but she rebuffs him. In the end, his dream of giving up travel literature and becoming a farmpony is utterly crushed, without a very good reason, really.

    Now, yeah, this is a pretty strange reading, very different from the presentation in the episode, but I think the evidence in the episode pans out my way. After all, he claims that he is fascinated with country life *before* he meets Applejack. That's his job, as he states: to find the interesting in the otherwise-normal. Throughout the episode, he claims that he is growing to love farm work, but Applejack claims, “You should try it sometime!” Well, what if he did? Rarity attempts and fails multiple times, but Trenderhoof almost never gets the opportunity. (In fact, in the background, Trenderhoof does try applebucking.) At the very end, Trenderhoof claims that he wants to live on an apple farm. Rarity says that he's doing it to impress Applejack, but he himself says that he's doing it because he's tired of being a travel writer. Now, the implication is that he's getting in over his head (like Rarity), but I don't see any proof of that. All I see is that he's genuinely interested in farming and wants to give it a shot. I don't see why that's wrong. If he sinks, he sinks. But if he swims, he swims. The narrative never gives him the chance to swim; it assumes he will sink.

    Anyways, that's just one of many things I think this episode bobbled. Rarity's crush and emotional stability; Trenderhoof's overfrequent bait-and-switches; the missed opportunity of Spike's own crush; Applejack's own feelings; the purpose and effect of Applejack's dress-up; in the end, the episode falls to cliche, when FiM won us over on using surprising twists on the old girly tropes.

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  4. >>Note how the “imitating each other” scene ends with Rarity accidentally spilling something Applejack's gown and rubbing at it with both hooves–this would be incredibly suggestive for children's television if they were human.< < As in Rainbow Rocks?

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  5. The main argument I see against your reading, and supporting Rarity's statement that he's doing it to get close to Applejack, is that the minute she tells him he can't come live on Sweet Apple Acres he completely reverts to his look at the start of the episode; the strong implication is that he doesn't want to join an apple farm, he wants to join hers. There's nothing stopping him from trying to join a different apple farm, but he seems uninterested in doing so.

    As for what I think of him, I think he's all right. As I said, he makes his play for Applejack and, when she rejects him, responds maturely and appropriately, so there's really nothing in this episode to put him in a bad light. He's pretty close to a non-entity, to be quite honest.

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  6. *sees that picture* Well… thank you for linking me to that guy's gallery. ^_^;

    but Emmet still gets the Master Builder powers essentially handed to him because he's the main character.

    Huh. I thought the fake-prophecy reveal meant that there weren't any Master Builder “powers,” hence why all the townspeople were able to unlock their own potential during the rebellion.

    That scene, with WyldStyle's speech, came off (to me, anyway) as her reaching out to all the people whose faces weren't so generic that they matched every character in the database, and letting them know that they were every bit as strong and creative as The Chosen Hero.

    Because, even though it's Emmett who talks Lord Business down from supervillainy, it's the common people's wild creations that first impressed The Man Upstairs enough to get Lord Business's attention and allow him to be reached out to.

    (yeesh… I should write a full essay on this)

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  7. Well, no, but human!Rarity does a spit take all over human(ized)!Twilight's blouse and tries to wipe it off. Didn't seem particularly salacious to me…

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