This is a commissioned post for the Phyre Family, who donated very generously to the My Little Po-Mo vol. 3 Kickstarter. They have very patiently waited without comment for the months it has taken me to figure out how to approach this article. Thank you!
It should come as no surprise to long-time My Little Po-Mo readers that I am not particularly a fan of Spike. I have in the past been quite harsh on him, probably unfairly so. So when I was commissioned to write an essay about Spike and bullying, with no further information on what was desired, I struggled to figure out how to approach it.
My immediate instinct was to write about Spike as a bully. After all, he frequently displays an entitled attitude, self-centeredness, and greed, and more than one of his focus episodes involves him either self-aggrandizing or taking advantage of a position of power. It should be easy to come up with examples of him bullying others, surely?
It wasn’t. It turned out, in fact, to be essentially impossible. Recall our discussion in regards to “One Bad Apple”: not all poor treatment of others is necessarily bullying. Following David Dupper, we defined bullying as utilizing a position of relative power to create an ongoing pattern of psychological or physical abuse against a victim who cannot defend themselves.
Spike has never done this. Oh, Spike has been in positions of power or authority which he abused, such as when he grew to enormous size in “Secret of My Excess” or foisted all the work involved in his pet-care business onto his unpaid interns, the Cutie Mark Crusaders, in “Just for Sidekicks.” But while he does in fact use this power to harm others and take what he wants from them, that’s not actually bullying.
At the core of bullying is a sense of entitlement to power and status over others. The abuse of others is simply a way of demonstrating or expressing the power that the bully believes is theirs by right. That’s not really what Spike is doing in either the examples above. In “Secret of My Excess” he is, first of all, not entirely in control of his behavior, and second, he’s driven not by a desire to demonstrate power he already possesses, but by a desire to take something others possess. Bullying is not, despite common folk-psychology to the contrary, actually driven by jealousy, but by a desire to put others in “their place,” to remind them that their hierarchical status is below the bully’s. A bully doesn’t steal another child’s lunch money because they want or need the money–or, at least, not solely or primarily because they want or need the money–but rather because they want to demonstrate that the other child possesses nothing the bully cannot take.
That’s simply not the motivation Spike expresses in “Secret of My Excess.” He’s after the possessions of others–actually motivated by greed and jealousy, in other words–not trying to set himself up above them. Likewise, in “Just for Sidekicks” he does mistreat the Cutie Mark Crusaders and the pets, but again it’s not out of a desire to demonstrate power over them, but rather a combination of laziness and greed: he wants to get as many gems as possible with as little effort as possible, and neglecting the pets and exploiting the Cutie Mark Crusaders is how he does it.
In other words, when Spike abuses or mistreats people he has power over, it’s in pursuit of something else, while for bullies, bullying is its own reward. Contrast to Spike the behavior of actual bullies, like Diamond Tiara (pre-“Crusaders of the Lost Mark”) or the dragons Spike encounters in “Dragon Quest” and “Gauntlet of Fire” (with the exception of Princess Ember). To take the latter case, the Dragon Lord is a classic bully. He doesn’t receive anything from the other dragons, isn’t exploiting them to gain anything; he simply uses his size and strength to intimidate them into obedience, and takes pleasure in that.
Garble in “Dragon Quest” is a little more complicated. At first, Spike has nothing he wants or respects, so Garble is dismissive and cruel for the sake of it, encouraging Spike to take part in activities Garble is certain he cannot handle, so that Garble and his friends can laugh at Spike’s humiliation. That’s straightforward bullying, but then when Spike is able to handle a bellyflop into lava without injury, Garble’s view changes. Now he sees Spike as “tough,” or at least not completely without toughness, which is to say that Spike has demonstrated a quality Garble values. Garble remains pushy and manipulative, but he is no longer bullying Spike when he takes him on the phoenix egg hunt, but rather trying to include Spike in an activity–he has accepted Spike as, if not an equal, at least someone who has value beyond being a tool for demonstrating Garble’s own superiority. This of course reverses when Spike refuses to destroy the phoenix egg and is defended by the ponies, which Garble interprets as weakness, negating the value he saw in Spike. Thus by “Gauntlet of Fire” Garble is back to bullying Spike, though that takes a backseat to the titular competition.
That competition gives us the key to Spike’s relationship with bullying and the best roles he can play as a character–and I’m using the word “key” deliberately as a reference to the Key episodes of the Season Four. Those episodes, along with Season Five’s Map episodes, involve the ponies taking up teacher or mentor roles, learning more about their Element of Harmony by teaching it to others. And at the end of Season Four, Spike was given a seat at the map table, implying that he would be taking on that role despite not having a (stated) Element of Harmony.
And sure enough, at the beginning of “Gauntlet of Fire” Spike starts glowing just as the Mane Six’s cutie marks glow at the beginnings of their Map episodes; “Gauntlet of Fire” is Spike’s Map episode, his opportunity to teach the lessons he’s learned to another. That other is clearly signposted as well: it is Princess Ember who has the clearest character arc over the course of the episode. What, then, is the lesson? What is it that Spike has learned over the course of the series, and now teaches?
Spike is the little guy, literally–he’s smaller than the other characters and the only male main character. He’s less skilled than the others, less experienced, lacks any obvious specialty. He is a prime target for bullying, and that experience means that he knows what it’s like to be bullied. Enter Princess Ember: smaller than the other dragons, the first girl in what the series had previously portrayed as very much a boys’ club–indeed, as I argued regarding “Dragon Quest,” the dragons are easily readable as a portrayal of toxic, fragile masculinity the series holds up in contrast to the healthy, stable femininity of the ponies. And Ember is definitely bullied by the dragons, and particularly the Dragon Lord: her gender, size, and relative lack of physical power are regarded as markers of inferiority, and she is thus denied participation in the Gauntlet of Fire, which is to say access to leadership positions and social power. She is being held down because she’s seen as inferior, as a means of ensuring the other dragons get to continue to feel superior, which is quite close to our definition of bullying above.
Spike then models for her what it takes to survive being bullied. He refuses to allow his power to be taken from him by participating in the Gauntlet, and helps Ember to make the same refusal. He even demonstrates for her how the ostensibly weak can overcome the powerful, by cooperation–a lesson which she gives every sign of having taken to heart in the episode’s closing. And just as the Mane Six’s Map episodes are as much about developing their characters as educating the guest stars, “Gauntlet of Fire” advances Spike significantly as well: he is no longer alone. Before, he was a new kind of dragon, a postdragon if you will, who embraced the pony way of life and experimented with combining it with his own concepts of what it might mean to be a dragon. Now Ember has learned from him, and stands in a position of power, a healthy feminine presence rising above the toxic masculinity of draconic culture. But she’s learned Spike’s lesson, and does not seek to forcibly impose herself or destroy the other dragons’ masculinity. Instead, she ends the episode using her authority to teach rather than force, to show a different way, to give the dragons the freedom to be themselves that was snatched from them by the toxicity and fragility of their conception of masculinity.
So what is the lesson Spike taught? It was the ability to take the best of others and incorporate it into yourself. The ability to transcend, adapt, evolve–ironically for a character who often struggles to retain his lessons from episode to episode, it turns out that Spike’s equivalent to an Element of Harmony is Change itself. He is a vision of a masculinity that starts toxic and fragile, that must dominate or shatter, but over time allows what it previously rejected as feminine into itself, and constructs a new form of masculinity that can deviate from a narrow path without losing itself.
The danger with Spike has always been that as he grew up he would become the monster from “Secret of My Excess,” the creature of power that can only take, never give, that crushed and destroyed and trampled. But now a new path has opened for him: he can grow up to be Big Mac instead.