But, you know, whatever you want to do is fine (Filli Vanilli)

[insert “!” and Metal Gear Solid sound effect here]

It’s February 15, 2014. Katy Perry and The Lego Movie still top the charts and box office respectively. In the news, the U.S. federal government recognizes all same-sex marriages in states where same-sex marriage is legal; Facebook allows users to set a custom gender; and a massive cold wave and winter storms strike the southern U.S. and Britain.

On TV we have the Amy Keating Rogers-penned “Filli Vanilli,” the second major reference this season to pop acts that predate both the target audience and the majority of the bronies, but will be immediately recognizable to the older bronies and parents. Specifically, the title refers to the late 80s/early 90s German R&B group Milli Vanilli, who were the center of a scandal when it was revealed the apparent members of the group, Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus, were actually just lip-synching to prerecorded music.

Other than the title, however, the episode has little to do with the scandal, since it’s actually the opposite situation–in real life, Morvan and Pilatus were hired after the band had started recording to provide its public image, and later asserted they had been contractually “trapped” into lip-synching after initially believing they were going to sing, while in the episode Fluttershy is actually invited to be a part of the onstage group and it’s her choice that she remain backstage, lip-synching.

Indeed, this is one of the episode’s greatest strengths, that it remains focused throughout on Fluttershy’s choice. Her stage fright is of course unsurprising, given her intense fear of public humiliation as depicted in “Hurricane Fluttershy”–indeed, when she finally is exposed backstage, the crowd’s cheering transforms quickly into images very reminiscent of the jeering masks from that episode.

But despite these fears, and her initial rejection of Rarity’s suggestion that she join the Pony Tones as a fifth member, Fluttershy elects to compound her potential humiliation by deliberately restoring her “Flutterguy” voice from “Bridle Gossip” (played to hilarious effect in that episode by Blu Mankuma, and here equally well by Alvin Sanders and Marcus Mosely–in both episodes, the voice actors do a marvelous job of imitating Andrea Libman’s performance at a lower register). Fully aware of Fluttershy’s earlier objections, Rarity insists that Fluttershy doesn’t have to do it, but Fluttershy feels she must for the sake of the animals whose benefit concert is in danger of cancellation.

As the episode progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Fluttershy is greatly enjoying performing with the Pony Tones. The episode never makes explicit whether this is because she just loves singing (which the cold open makes quite clear), relishes the opportunity to be a part of a music group of which she states herself to be the “number one fan,” or if she’s enjoying the opportunity to hear the crowd cheer for her even while she remains safely backstage and anonymous. (Social anxiety, after all, does not negate the need for social approval and validation.) The episode works well with any or all of these explanations, so in this case leaving it open to viewer interpretation is likely the right call–regardless, what’s quite clear is that Fluttershy is happy with the lip-synching and upset when she realizes it’s her final performance. This leads her to throw herself into the performance as never before, dancing in mid-air backstage and throwing in improvisations that Big Mac struggles to accommodate with his performance.

It seems reasonable to suspect that, regardless of her motivations for enjoying the performance, some part of Fluttershy wanted to be found out. Maybe she wanted to get credit for her work; maybe she felt guilty about deceiving the audience. Whatever the reason, her lack of caution in this final lip-synch belies her fear of public performance, forcing her into the spotlight, where she panics.

Here again the episode shines. Pinkie Pie is obliviously straightforward, to the point of hurting Fluttershy, but the other ponies quickly catch on to how upset Fluttershy is and, just as Rarity did throughout the episode, allow Fluttershy to set the pace. She performs with the Pony Tones for a tiny audience of just the Mane Six and her animal friends, and then when they suggest she join the Pony Tones for a larger concert, she refuses–and the episode ends with the others acknowledging and accepting that she will set the pace for dealing with her stage fright.

There is a principle I’ve discussed several times on this site, but I think this is actually the first time it’s come up with Friendship Is Magic. Which is fitting, actually, because most other times I’ve talked about it, it’s been in regards to cases of characters failing to abide by it, and thus creating disaster. Here, instead, we have a pitch-perfect example of what I’m talking about when I discuss helping versus saving: this is what helping looks like. Helping is offering resources, opportunities, and support without asserting control; in this case, it means letting Fluttershy decide that she wants to work backstage or put on a tiny concert for an audience of animals and close friends, not perform onstage at a major town event. It is the open acceptance by the rest of the Mane Six that their offered opportunity could be rejected, and that’s okay, because the goal is not to save or fix Fluttershy, but to help and support her.

In other words, for Rarity throughout the episode (and indeed, for Big Mac as well; note that he is clearly increasingly uncomfortable with lip-synching with each performance, but is shown looking at Fluttershy and then resuming his efforts) and for the Mane Six at the end, this is not about pushing Fluttershy to some arbitrary standard they set for her, according to abstract principles or their own egos and perceptions, but rather about being supportive and providing whatever resources she decides she needs to work through her own issues. They do not treat Fluttershy as being broken, a project in need of supervision, but rather as a friend to whom they can offer a hand, trusting her to decide whether to take it. It is immensely more respectful and far healthier for both them and Fluttershy.

Except for Pinkie Pie, of course. But she’s an interesting case, too. I’ve taken Rogers to task a fair few times for having characters behave horribly for the sake of a joke, especially in Season One, so credit where credit is due: she seems completely aware that she’s doing it, this time. From the audience’s point of view, Pinkie Pie is clearly in Comedy Mode, saying awful things to Fluttershy because Pinkie being oblivious to social cues is a recurring joke. But critically, the other characters don’t respond in that way–most notably when they point out to Pinkie that in her frightening rant to Fluttershy after the lip-synching was exposed, Pinkie didn’t mention how well Fluttershy sang, and Pinkie tries (poorly) to correct that error. In other words, even Pinkie is trying to help, she just can’t because the episode structure won’t let her.

This feeds back into the helping vs. saving narrative at the end, when Pinkie starts to go off on yet another rant to Fluttershy and Twilight Sparkle silences her: often the hardest part of helping someone is doing nothing, standing by quietly because while someone you care about struggles, yet do not need or do not want the particular kind of help you’re able to give. The impulse to try to save them–to impose assistance regardless of their wishes–is strong, and so knowing when to shut up and listen is a key skill for helping. One Pinkie Pie clearly still needs to work on; fortunately Rarity, Big Mac, and to a lesser extent Twilight all show themselves able to teach her as and when she asks for help with it. As Fluttershy says: baby steps.

Next week: I honestly don’t remember this episode well enough to have anything to say about it. Hopefully I come up with something by next week?

One thought on “But, you know, whatever you want to do is fine (Filli Vanilli)

  1. This is one of my favorite S4 episodes, primarily because of Rarity. She is the very model of a supportive but non-pushy friend in all her dealings with Fluttershy in Filli Vanilli. It seems to me that no character other than Twilight has grown and deepened more since S1 than Rarity. She's become a highly entertaining, multi-faceted character. She's still a drama queen but that she has a heart of gold and works hard at understanding her friends as the ponies they are and not as the ponies she wishes they were are just as important. The latter quality was hinted at in S1 in “Green Isn't Your Color” but the writers have done a wonderful job in making Rarity a well-rounded and very likable character.

    The AJ/Big Mac exchange was comedy gold.

    Pinkie Pie's over-the-topness I attribute to PP being PP, the Rule of Funny (even though she made Fluttershy cry, otherwise an unforgivable sin) and also as performing an expository function of explaining stage fright to the target demographic,

    But Rarity was second only to Flutters herself as the star of this episode.

    Like

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