Praising with Faint Damnation: A Defense of Spike

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.

Elements of Harmony 7: Cadance Is Best Pony

The Elements of Harmony series are commissioned essays in which I examine a character selected by the Kickstarter backer who commissioned the essay, and construct an argument on why that character is best pony.

For starters, Cadance has one of the best names in the series, and almost certainly the most oversignified. Start with the first name given for her, Princess Mi Amore Cadenza. Mi amore is, of course, Italian for “my love,” and likely a title indicating the nature and source of her power; much as Twilight Sparkle is the Princess of Friendship, Cadance is the Princess of Love. But cadenza has a very different meaning: it is a musical term, referring to an ornamental passage, usually a solo designed to show off the virtuosity of one musician, placed near the end of a work. This is very much Cadance’s role in her first appearance.

Let us go back, a moment, to the end of Season Two. It has been something of a triumph, with a number of episodes that stand among the series’ best: “The Return of Harmony,” “Lesson Zero,” “Sweet and Elite,” “The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000,” “Read It and Weep,” “It’s About Time.” Now, here at the end of the series, we’re introduced to a new character, Princess Cadance, and just as swiftly (a mere couple of minutes into “A Canterlot Wedding, Part Two”) introduced to the real Princess Cadance, bedraggled, scratched up, desperate to save Shining Armor. What follows can only be described as a virtuoso solo passage, as the two Cadances sing “This Day Aria.” It is easily the best song in the show to that point, alternating verses in which the true and false Cadance sing light and dark versions of each other’s lines, with the false Cadance, Queen Chrysalis, wanting to control and devour, while the true Cadance mourns the disruption of her special day and worries about the loss of her love, Shining Armor.

Chrysalis isn’t just disguised as Cadance; in a sense, she is Cadance, another side of the same coin. Their song together is an aria–a piece performed by one singer–not a duet, and their power is the same: love. Chrysalis devours while Cadance creates, yes, but such is the nature of love; it can be grasping, greedy, possessive, or it can be giving, nurturing, healing. Usually, it’s both at once. And within a universe where friendship is magic, love is pure power; Chrysalis is able to defeat Celestia in a direct battle of power against power, and Cadance in turn is able to empower Shining Armor to do what Celestia can’t, and drive the Changelings from Equestria. Because, of course, one lover alone can only be selfish; it’s when love is shared by two or more people that it becomes able to accomplish something good.

This is the power of love: connection, binding, bridging gaps, enabling sharing and cooperation. Cadance is, in more ways than one, a bridge. She is, for example, a unicorn that became an alicorn princess: according to Lauren Faust, Cadance was a unicorn, neither an alicorn nor a princess, when “A Canterlot Wedding” was first planned; sometime after Faust left, she became an alicorn princess. This, perhaps, is why she is so different from Celestia and Luna: less distant, smaller, more down-to-earth and approachable. She is a living bridge between “ordinary” magical ponies and the goddess-like Princesses of Sun and Moon, someone who has ascended extradiegetically, and thus traced the path for Twilight to do so extradiegetically a season from now.

But Princess Mi Amore Cadenza is only one of her names. She has two more: Cadence and Cadance, the former her name according to the credits and closed captioning of some episodes, the latter her name in other episodes, most merchandise, and the Elements of Harmony guidebook. Cadence has multiple meanings, all related to sound. First, it is a musical term, the sequence of chords that ends a passage, with different types of cadences used to different effects–deceptive cadence, for instance, generates a feeling of hanging incompleteness. (As something of a joke, “B.B.B.F.F. (Reprise)” in “A Canterlot Wedding” ends with a deceptive cadence, moments before Chrysalis-as-Cadance attacks Twilight.) It can also mean a particular style of speech or intonation, or a rhythm.

These latter meanings of the word resonate with Cadance’s second major appearance, in “The Crystal Empire.” Though she spends most of the episode sidelined, her role is tremendously important, as she is (with Shining Armor’s support, a nice reversal of their roles from the climax of “A Canterlot Wedding”) the one actually battling King Sombra; the entire plot of the two-parter is Twilight trying to find ways to help Cadance finish him off. She’s the obviously correct choice for the job; having already confronted her own dark mirror in Chrysalis, she is more than prepared to take on the Shadow. But there are subtler ways in which cadence permeates the episode. For example, the Crystal Ponies are marked by a particular cadence of speech, a dour and overprecise intonation that represents the repression of their past and their light. As the Crystal Faire frees them, they begin speaking with a more normal cadence and regain their full shine, only to lose it again to Sombra. Their light and their cadence are equated, and it is Cadence who brings both once she grasps the Crystal Heart, recovered by Twilight and Spike.

What is the connection between Cadance and the Heart? The Crystal Ponies seem to recognize her as the Crystal Princess, and after “The Crystal Empire” accept her and Shining Armor as their ruler. The Crystal Heart bears a close resemblance to Cadance’s cutie mark, and flares to life when when she takes it, after which she leads the Crystal Ponies in using its power to dispel Sombra’s Shadow for good. But she’s not a Crystal Pony: like the Mane Six, she sparkles only temporarily after the activation of the Crystal Heart, not permanently like the Crystal Ponies, and she clearly has no memory of their realm, so she’s not their millennia-lost princess. What she is, however, is Cadance, which is to say, cadence, a rhythm–and the most primal rhythm of all, one accelerated both by the love that is Cadance’s power and the fear that is Sombra’s, is the beating of a heart.

Which brings us to her third, and apparently official, name: Cadance. Which is not itself a word, but fusion of two, cadence and dance. Dancing is, of course, another activity closely associated with both rhythm and with love, but the name carries more meaning than that: Cadance, from her first appearance, has been a character who dances on the edge of the spotlight, doing important things but never being at the heart of the story. She is not a mentor like Celestia, nor is she someone who can serve as the focus character for an episode like Twilight or Luna; she is the friend, the loved one, the one who holds down the home fort while others go questing. This fits well with her personality, as one of the most grounded and down-to-earth characters in the series. In “Three’s a Crowd,” for example, she’s happy to go along with either visiting the Star-Swirl the Bearded Museum or going on Discord’s absurd quest with Twilight, while in “Games Ponies Play” she tries to get Twilight and the others to relax and accept events as they unfold. And, as already observed, she is a pony who works by empowering others.

Friend, lover, wife, mother, quest-giver. The balanced center around which all else revolves, a font of power which others wield, the beating heart of the Crystal Empire whose love is refracted across all Equestria. Bridge between the three tribes of ponies and the alicorns, between the everyday and the exalted. Yes, there is definitely a case to be made for Cadance as best pony.

Elements of Harmony 6: Twilight Sparkle Is Best Pony

The Elements of Harmony series are commissioned essays in which I examine a character selected by the Kickstarter backer who commissioned the essay, and construct an argument on why that character is best pony.

Because of course she is. It’s hardly even a question. Twilight has had more focus than any other pony, and is nearly always depicted positively. Even when her behavior is shown in a negative light, as in “Lesson Zero” or “It’s About Time,” she learns from it and improves—there is a steady decline in her neuroticism from the frantic panicking of those episodes, to the visibly manageable anxiety of “The Crystal Empire,” to the strength and determination of “Twilight’s Kingdom.” She is still worry-prone and detail-oriented, but in increasingly mature ways over the course of the first four seasons. So let us take it as a given that Twilight is best pony, and focus on Twilight as a character, on who she is and what role she plays.

Twilight’s role is right there in her name: she is a creature of liminal spaces and transitional moments. She balances on the edge between light and dark, night and day, most obviously in the sense that she is responsible for reuniting Luna and Celestia in the premiere, but in many other ways as well. Twilight moves from a tower in Canterlot to a tree in Ponyville, and later into a crystalline hybrid of tree and tower; towers and trees both act as bridges from Earth to Heaven, and so are deeply appropriate to a character whose storyline has been dominated by ascension.

And what an ascension it has been. Twilight began as the classic nerd character, grumpy, neurotic, and far more interested in the acquisition of data than in her relationships with others. Not that there is anything wrong with being inclined to scholarly pursuits, and the show has never shamed Twilight for that. She has never lost her love of learning, but it has gone from being the totality of her limited existence to one aspect of a more complete person. The premiere was an epiphany for her, opening her eyes to her own incompleteness, and over the course of the first two seasons she grew in her understanding of others. Most significant here was her transformation in “Winter Wrap Up,” where she discovered her organizational skills and slight tendency to arrogant certainty combined to make her a natural leader. From that point, the course of her evolution was effectively set: to master magic and social interaction alike, and ascend to princesshood.

But this was not, in itself, a destination. It is in the nature of twilight to be transitional, and so it is for Twilight; she is always evolving, always connecting realms. Almost immediately after her ascension, she found herself the bridge between two worlds, namely Equestria and the human world in Equestria Girls. Passing through a mirror, she entered the mirror realm, full of reflections of the ponies she knew, and there she encountered her own dark reflection, Sunset Shimmer—even their names are synonymous! This in turn opened a path to seeing Sunset Shimmer’s own reflection, the human Twilight Sparkle (as shown in Equestria Girls: Friendship Games), who never had the lessons she did and so remained incomplete. That Twilight, drunk on knowledge and magical power but lacking friendship to anchor her, nearly slid into a demonic transformation worthy of Nightmare Moon—but Sunset Shimmer helped bring her back to herself, closing the circle.

This is one of Twilight’s greatest powers and greatest gifts. In Friendship Games we see just how close she is to the darkness, how easily she could have become another Sombra or Nightmare Moon. But that liminal existence, that transition from darkness to light, is exactly what enables her to help others ascend. Twilight is the bridge between Luna and Celestia, which is why she was able to heal Nightmare Moon in the first place. She is not only one who ascends, but one who descends to help others.

This, too, is why she had to be the bearer of the powers of the other princesses in “Twilight’s Kingdom.” Luna and Celestia form a binary, light and dark, night and day, sun and moon, gold and silver. Cadance is an outlier, unconnected to either. It is Twilight who partakes in all three—in the obvious sense that twilight is both day and night, but also in the sense that, as the Princess of Friendship, her domain naturally overlaps with the Princess of Love. Her liminality also makes her the one most able to hold the vast quantities of magic involved, as it is in the liminal spaces that magic thrives—one encounters it most in the surfaces of mirrors and the deep woods, in caverns and the backs of cupboards, between sunset and moonrise.

Twilight stands between night and day, between darkness and night, so it is necessarily Twilight who serves as the first line of defense against the darkness. We rarely see Celestia or Cadance fight the terrors that haunt Equestria, and when they do, they are usually less than entirely successful, but Twilight and her friends regularly fight evil, because that is who she is and where she stands—“liminal” comes from the Latin for “threshold,” and it is on the threshold that Twilight stands, Equestria’s gatekeeper. Like her brother, captain of the guard, she is a defender against evils that try to enter the realm, be they dragons, creatures of chaos, or her own Shadow.

Discord in particular is a perfect foil for Twilight. She is nigh-obsessively organized, and he is chaos incarnate, so they naturally clash. At the same time, both stand on opposite sides of the threshold: as master of chaos (in itself a paradoxical concept, because by its nature chaos cannot have a master), a walking grotesque, Discord’s role is to disrupt the order Twilight protects, and in so doing demonstrate its weaknesses and flaws. It is the nature of the grotesque to transgress boundaries, and Discord does, constantly, his very appearance transgressing the boundaries between species, his actions transgressing against the boundaries laid down by the laws of physics, and his conception itself transgressing the boundaries between shows, a Star Trek character within My Little Pony.

So Twilight, in her role as gatekeeper, must face Discord, not just once but repeatedly. At the same time, she cannot simply drive him away, imprison him, or destroy him, because the chaos he represents, the transgression of boundaries, is essential to her liminal nature. She has no choice but to befriend him, and while it is Fluttershy who does the most work in persuading him to change and helping him adapt to his new roles after the change, it is Twilight who provides the key moment of transition from villain to ally.

So it is not just that Twilight is the show’s own straightforward pick for best pony. She is also the most magical pony, not merely in the superficial spell-casting sense, but in the sense of being the pony who transforms and is transformed, the one who walks across worlds, who ascends and returns with the power to help others ascend. She is the one who journeys through darkness to enlightenment, and in that sense, she is us all.

Commissioned Essay: Princesses as Celebrities in Equestria

Commissioned Essays are a series in which I write on MLP-related topics requested by Kickstarter backers. This is the last of the backer rewards for Volume 2. Which is on sale now! See the Books page for details.

There is a tendency among Friendship Is Magic fans–progressively less pronounced as the number of princesses increases–to treat alicorns as gods. There is some support for this: Nightmare Moon is clearly operating in a mythic register in the series premiere, specifically an eclipse myth, and so by extension Luna and Celestia also function as mythic beings. Celestia’s arrivals at the end of “Feeling Pinkie Keen” and especially “Lesson Zero” have the feeling of the divine descending to bestow blessings or, in the latter case, deliver judgment upon mortals. And of course Twilight’s transformation in “Magical Mystery Cure” is, as I have discussed previously, an apotheosis, with all the theological implications thereof.

But there is nonetheless quite a bit mitigating against this reading. First, there is the problem of Cadance and, apotheosis aside, Twilight: they simply are not treated with the awe and respect of the two sisters, nor are they mentioned in ancient legends of the ponies as the two sisters are. Second, they are materially present in a way gods generally are not. They are not spiritual entities, nor do they live on some distant mountaintop, a transcendent plane, or otherwise outside the normal physical space of Equestria. They are not merely imminent, but immediately available; they can touch and be touched at any time, without need to manifest themselves or be sought out. Third and perhaps most importantly, none of the princesses are treated as gods by the other ponies. There is no worship directed toward them, no one seeking blessings before a venture or making offerings. They are accorded the type of respect shown toward royalty, not the awe with which one approaches the gods.

But on the other hand, we see little actual political rule by them. Certainly Celestia and Luna have made occasional decrees with the expectation of being obeyed, such as when the former assigned Twilight to live in Ponyville or the latter first canceled and then reinstated Nightmare Night. But the day-to-day governance of Equestria seems largely to be handled on a much more local scale, if at all.

A third option is that the princesses are viewed as celebrities within the culture of Equestria, and that may well be the best fit. In our own world, though there were precursors centuries prior, celebrity as we understand first really emerges in Europe in the 18th century. As the system of patronage, in which individual artists received financial support for their work from individual wealthy or noble backers, broke down, artists increasingly had to rely on popular support, which in turn meant they needed to maintain a reputation with the general public. The rise of newspaper gossip columns, “hot spot” clubs, and similar accoutrements of celebrity soon followed, as artists (particularly within the Romantic movement) deliberately cultivated fame and notoriety as a means of attracting the audience necessary for their work. The simultaneous rise of the film industry and organized marketing and advertising campaigns in the early 20th century proved the perfect environment for the full development of the celebrity, as early movie stars became walking advertisements for their films, and in turn loaned that capacity to other products, cementing the celebrity as a keystone of marketing.

This form of celebrity is definitely present in Equestria, as we see in two episodes in particular. In “Green Isn’t Your Color,” Fluttershy is swept up in exactly the same kind of celebrity as supermodels in our world, with her face plastering magazine covers and billboards, expected to endorse products and pose for pictures and generally play the role which Photo Finish wants the public to assign her, a deliberate attempt to construct a persona for her which the public can enjoy. Something similar, but less organized, happens to Twilight Sparkle in “Twilight Time.” Here, there is no publicist involved, no deliberate marketing campaign. but the same forces are at work. Twilight is a mysterious and awesome figure to the young ponies, a Princess, not the ordinary pony they are used to seeing around town. The fact that she does ordinary things like eat at the local burger dive imbues those places with an echo of her status; rather than humanizing her, it elevates the burger bar.

Like a celebrity, and unlike a ruler, Twilight’s power in “Twilight Time” is contagious; the Cutie Mark Crusaders become popular just because they know her, much as the families and close associates of celebrities frequently acquire a degree of celebrity status as well. And most importantly, like a celebrity, it is constructed around her rather than created by her; while celebrities frequently do actively participate in creating their own status, ultimately it is bestowed upon them by gossip columnists, publicists, marketers, and the willingness of the general public to play along. This is where the phenomenon of “famous for being famous” arises: individuals who have done nothing of public interest, but who are frequently featured in the gossip columns, gradually become celebrities as the audience starts to follow their gossip-created personae, which in turn leads publicists and marketers to begin working with them to further craft and profit from these personae, which in turn makes them more famous.

The constructed nature of the celebrity persona is reflected in the dualism that seems pervasive to the established princesses (that is, all but Twilight). Celestia’s public persona is of a wise and caring, yet frequently stern, ruler, but in more private settings we often see signs of other traits. She shows a mischievous streak in “A Bird in the Hoof,” while in “Best Night Ever” she admits to finding the Grand Galloping Gala boring, and the flashbacks in “Princess Twilight Sparkle” show her sorrow and grief at having to banish her sister. These feelings, however, are not part of her public persona, and so she hides them most of the time. Similarly, Luna in “Nightmare Night” shows that she is actually fairly lonely and anxious, but by the end of the episode agrees to play into the public perception of her as monstrous and terrifying as a form of entertainment. For her part, Cadance is not particularly well know, but also shows signs of finding her role as a Princess constraining; in “Three’s a Crowd” she admits to finding going on an adventure with Twilight a relief from her role in running the Crystal Empire.

The Princesses are not perfect matches for celebrity. While they are famous for constructed roles, these roles do not seem to be the product of deliberate campaigns, but rather of the assumptions of the public. Of course, it’s possible that there are gossip columnists writing about the doings of the Princesses, but it seems unlikely. Still, they are subject to what might be called the paradox of celebrity, that everyone knows who they are but relatively few actually know them. It seems like a rather lonely existence; no wonder that Twilight struggles so strongly against being subject to it in “Twilight Time”! Hopefully, as the fifth season explores her new role as Princess of Friendship, she will continue to be able to be herself.

Commissioned Essay: From a feminist perspective, has MLP:FIM changed the world?

Commissioned Essays are similar to the Elements of Harmony series in that they are commissioned by backers of my Kickstarter campaigns. However, they can be about any FIM-related topic, not just character studies. This essay was commissioned by a backer of My Little Po-Mo volume 2. Which is now on sale! See the Books page for details.

Sometimes, I look back at some of the things I wrote last year, when this project was new and my interaction with the fandom still in the honeymoon phase, and I cringe. There was a time when I believed that bronies actually might take to heart the principles presented in the show, might actually work toward building a more tolerant and caring world, and most importantly might actually accept that women are human beings.

I was so young and naive when I was only 32.

Hardly a week has gone by this year in which I do not see some example of misogyny, transphobia, or homophobia in the brony Facebook groups to which I belong. Anti-feminist and anti-“social justice warrior” sentiments are common. I have seen rape apologia and anti-abortion screeds, free and flippant use of derogatory terms for LGBT people, jokes about rape, defenses of people who joke about rape, defenses of the wage gap–the list goes on.

Today, as I write this, the most prominent intersection of feminist issues and pop culture at the moment is probably GamerGate, a campaign of harassment against women in and associated with the video game industry which has failed to convince anyone other than some of its own members that it has anything to do with journalistic ethics. Earlier today, feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian, one of the people targeted most by GamerGate harassment, tweeted about a death threat she received:

An October 25, 2014 tweet by Anita Sarkeesian.

Note the username of the person who sent the death threat. He’s clearly a brony. Of course the instinctive response of many bronies on having this pointed out will almost certainly be the same as with the convention molestation accusations: simply deny that it happened, because bronies have, as a group, a pathological inability to accept criticism or self-police. “Oh, he’s just pretending to be a brony because people think bronies are misogynists.”

Leave aside for the moment that that explanation makes no sense, he is making death threats against a woman he calls a “feminazi whore,” and therefore quite clearly doesn’t think being seen as a misogynist is a problem. Consider instead why bronies have a reputation for misogyny. The reason is the same as why GamerGate has that reputation: because a large enough number of bronies engage in misogynistic activity, and a small enough number try to stop or criticize them, to make it clear to outsiders that most bronies are either misogynistic or don’t care enough to oppose the misogynists.

And yet it isn’t true that Friendship Is Magic has failed to change the world, because the bronies are and have always been a sideshow, a demographically interesting distraction from the real spell the show is casting.

The Friendship Is Magic my little niece has been watching since she was two years old has storytelling, characterization, comedy, action, animation, design, and acting as good as or better than any other cartoon on the air, and from that she’s learning to expect that shows made for her will be as good as shows made for boys. In turn, from that she’s learning that she deserves as good as boys get.

The Friendship Is Magic my niece has been watching since she was two show women filling every role in society, from positions of political power to assistant bakers. It shows them in traditionally feminine roles like animal care and fashion, and traditionally masculine roles like stunt flying and research, and without making a big deal about it–without suggestion that there is a big deal to be made–gladly accepts all of them as normal. It depicts a wide variety of women with varied interests, goals, behavioral quirks, and personalities, and never suggests that any of them are more or less feminine than any other. It depicts a world in which people perform their gender in whatever manner they choose, and no one ever questions it or tries to apply restrictive norms about what is or isn’t “feminine” or “masculine.”

And because she is so very young, and because her family tries not to display or normalize the opposing, sexist attitude, she is very likely to internalize this view of the world. It will be challenged greatly as she gets older. Other girls will police her if she doesn’t conform to their standards of femininity. Boys will objectify her. Marketers will try to make her a sex object the moment she’s old enough to start dressing herself. But, critically, she will know, because brightly colored cartoon ponies taught her, that this is wrong.

She and hundreds of thousands of girls like her. Just statistically, some will fight back.

So yes, Friendship Is Magic has changed the world. We’re just going to have to wait a couple of decades before the change becomes visible.

Elements of Harmony 5: Big McIntosh is Best Pony

The Elements of Harmony series are commissioned essays in which I examine a character selected by the Kickstarter backer who commissioned the essay, and construct an argument on why that character is best pony.

Speaking of, My Little Po-Mo vol. 2 is on sale, and contains among other things the first three Elements of Harmony essays, on Rarity, Applejack, and Zecora! Check the Books page for details! 

One of the oft-overlooked aspects of Friendship Is Magic is the way it approaches masculinity. It is, of course, not the focus of the show, which is as it has always been about showcasing and celebrating myriad ways of being feminine. But nonetheless it also depicts a variety of male characters, and many of them are presented in a way to suggest they are performing a similar function of showing varied, positive expressions of masculinity.

By far, the member of this group with the most screen time is Big McIntosh.

Big Mac is a fascinating figure to look at in terms of gender, because he very subtly undermines hegemonic masculinity–that is, the way in which our culture equates masculinity with power. At first glance he appears to be an expression of this concept. In particular, he is physically very strong, carries great burdens and responsibility, and speaks little, in most of his episodes saying little other than “Yup” or “Nope.” Nonetheless, he has hidden depths. He pounces lovingly on Twilight’s doll even after the spell of desire laid on it in “Lesson Zero” wears off. He is able to eloquently express his anger and disappointment to the Cutie Mark Crusaders in “Ponyville Confidential,” and he has an artistic side, singing as a member of the Pony Tones in “Filli Vanilli.”

He thus appears to be an instant of the Warrior Poet type, a man whose taciturn and violent exterior hides a sensitivity and creativity underneath. Rather than appearing weak or unmasculine as artists and performers are often depicted, he is doubly powerful, since he is able to express his power both through destruction, as violence, and creation, as art or nurturing.

But to read Big Mac in this way is an error, but within Friendship Is Magic masculinity is not hegemonic, and this reading depends on misunderstanding his strength as a form of power, when that’s not how he employs it. Power, remember, is always over someone or something; it is the ability to impose one’s will outside oneself. Strength can be used as power, but Big Mac is never shown employing it that way: he is never violent or destructive (except twice, in “Lesson Zero” and “Hearts and Hooves Day,” both cases where he was under the influence of behavior-altering magic), never uses his strength or size to intimidate, and most notably never tries to dominate others.

Key here is his relationship with Applejack. She very clearly is in charge of Sweet Apple Acres, but at the same time this is not so much a matter of dominance–there are times at which Granny takes the lead, and more rarely Big Mac, as in “Ponyville Confidential”–as it is each member of the family doing what they are good at. Applejack is more gregarious, so she does most of the work involving dealing with ponies, managing the farm and representing it to outsiders, while Big Mac is content to provide muscle and do repairs because that’s what he’s good at. He does not feel the need to be part of a hierarchy, does not need either to be pushed around or given orders, or to try to dominate or assert himself as being able to control his surroundings; he can simply be who he is and do what he does.

That is strength. He does not shirk his tasks, but neither does he feel the need–as made clear in his conversation with Applejack at the beginning of “Applebucking Season”–to prove himself by pushing past his limits. He does what needs to be done. He is not quiet because of some macho suppression of feelings, but because he speaks only when it is necessary to speak. As we see with his singing in “Filli Vanilli” and lecture in “Ponyville Confidential,” or for that matter his and Cheerilee’s bizarre love-talk in “Hearts and Hooves Day,” he is perfectly capable of expressing himself when he wishes to; he just usually doesn’t see the need.

And, importantly, he is nurturing. He does much of the farm work at Sweet Valley Acres, and so is as responsible for the health of its plant life as Applejack is. The way he plays with Twilight’s old doll in “Lesson Zero” and “Ponyville Confidential” also shows this side of him, but it is most clear in “Filli Vanilli,” where, with body language alone, he is shown becoming increasingly tense, uncomfortable, and sweaty during the repeated lip-synching performances, but calms down when he glimpses Fluttershy. The strong implication is that he is deeply uncomfortable with the deception inherent in lip-synching, but is willing to do it to help make his friend comfortable with singing and enjoying. In other words, he is putting himself through the risk of being caught in order to help her grow.

He is far from flawless, of course. He takes part in the family spat in “Pinkie Apple Pie” just as much as any of the Apples, and the way in which he tries to hide his doll in “Ponyville Confidential” suggests that he has some anxiety about being seen with it. However, the general lack of gender norms in pony society suggests that it’s not that he’s anxious about his masculinity, but about being perceived as childish.

More importantly, the doll represents the most important way in which he differs from the “quiet, but strong” type, the frontier farmer manly man who never makes a fuss and demonstrates his strength by adhering closely to (and enforcing) social norms: Big McIntosh does not deny his feelings. He enjoys what he enjoys, and while he may sometimes fear the humiliation of being caught playing with a doll or lip-synching, that won’t stop him from doing what he feels is right to do. Because unlike power, strength is not inherently anxious, does not have victims and therefore does not require vigilance against counterattack.

Big Mac is hardly the only positive model of masculinity in the series. Shining Armor, Mr. Cake, Cheese Sandwich, and Fancy Pants all come easily to mind as constructions of masculinity who vary almost as widely as the Mane Six do in their construction of femininity. But of all the models, he is the one who most clearly takes the essential defining element of toxic masculinity in our culture, anxious power, and gently subverts it into calm, quiet strength. He is, in other words, the easiest character for a male viewer trying to break free of our culture’s toxic gender roles to accept as an alternate model, yet still able to guide them away from that toxicity.

Elements of Harmony 4: Princess Celestia Is Best Pony

Yes, it’s the return of the “Best Pony” series, in which I write articles about why various characters in the show, selected by Kickstarter donors, are Best Pony.

Sorry about the last-minute switch from doing an episode essay. Busy with book-related stuff. Next weekend we’ll be back to episodes. 

Also,  sorry for lack of responses to comments in the past week. I can no longer access the front end of the site from work, Blogger does not allow commenting from the back end, and trying to use my phone gets the comments eaten more often than not. I have now gone back and commented on every comment in the past week to which I have a response.

As I have stated repeatedly in this series, the definition of “best” is generally quite fluid and flexible. However, if we are to consider whether the show itself treats a character as being “best,” a fairly solid answer emerges. There is one pony who is consistently regarded with respect, love, and awe by all non-villainous characters, who represents the pinnacle of power in every sense of the word, and who is also held up as an aspirational figure and role model for the closest thing the series has for a main character.

That pony is, of course, Princess Celestia. However, even if she weren’t named in the title of this essay, she is still quite recognizable from the description in the previous paragraph. Only Luna rivals her in terms of power, and even there Celestia is the more significant and powerful figure within the narrative. Only Pinkie Pie comes close in terms of being universally loved by non-villains, and even there she sometimes gets on other characters’ nerves, such as Rainbow Dash in “Griffin the Brush-Of” and Applejack in “The Last Roundup.”

But it is Celestia who commands universal respect and adoration, as we see in multiple episodes right from the start of the series. In the premiere, “Friendship Is Magic Part One,” her disappearance is treated with a stronger negative reaction by the crowd, an audible gasp, than Nightmare Moon’s appearance. An ancient evil is bad, yes, but for Princess Celestia to not appear when she promised? That is apparently far more shocking. Later, in “Friendship Is Magic Part Two,” we see that there is no question that she has the authority to order a pony to uproot her life and settle in a new town, though admittedly this is something the pony in question, Twilight Sparkle, very much wants. Later, in both “Swarm of the Century” and “A Bird in the Hoof,” her arrival in Ponyville is treated as a festival occasion, with decorations and special dinners.

However, she also commands significant awe. Nowhere is this clearer than in her appearance at the end of Season Two’s “Lesson Zero,” when her stern shout of “Twilight Sparkle!” immediately cows all of the Mane Six. Part of this awe, of course, is due to her sheer power. In “Lesson Zero,” she’s able to wipe out the effects of Twilight’s out-of-control magic in an instant. In “A Canterlot Wedding,” she is nearly able to single-handedly defeat Queen Chrysalis in a straight contest of power, at a time when Crysalis is gorged on the love energy generated by a relationship involving a pony whose special talent is literally love. In “Princess Twilight Sparkle,” we see her go toe to toe with Nightmare Moon and hold her own, though she ultimately needs the Elements of Harmony to defeat her, and in “Twilight’s Kingdom,” the combined power of the four princesses–of whom Celestia is consistently depicted as the most powerful–is shown as being on par with Tirek wielding the combined power of the entire rest of the population of Equestria plus Discord.

But what makes Celestia best pony is not just power, it’s the wisdom to use that power properly. The show repeatedly depicts and contrasts good and evil (or at least deeply flawed) versions of the same kind of power, such as the economic power of the Apples as opposed to the economic power of Diamond Tiara or the Flim-Flams, the speed and energy of Rainbow Dash as opposed to the speed and energy of Lightning Dust, or the love magic of Cadance as opposed to the love magic of Chrysalis. The consistent pattern is that good power is characterized by restraint and empathy. The Apples, despite being founders of the Ponyville and having control of two of its main products, live frugally and humbly, as opposed to Diamond Tiara’s power trips or the Flim-Flam Brothers’ grasping avarice. Rainbow Dash holds back to avoid risking harm to others, while Lightning Dust charges ahead recklessly. Cadance helps a fighting couple remember that they care about each other or works with Shining Armor to create magical shields against evil, while Chrysalis seeks to control and consume.

Within the show, Celestia is the paragon of this restraint and empathy. Right from the start, at the end of the premiere, she recognizes what Twilight Sparkle really wants and uses her authority to provide it. In “Lesson Zero,” she recognizes that the underlying problem is that Twilight has advanced to a new level in her studies, and changes the rules for friendship letters accordingly. In “The Crystal Empire,” she recognizes that it’s time for Twilight to be truly tested, and so sends her rather than (quite easily, one imagines) taking on Sombra herself. But perhaps the best example is in “The Return of Harmony,” when rather than using her power to fight Discord directly or even to break the enchantments on Twilight’s friends, she recognizes that Twilight has already written the spell that will free them, and sends it back to her through Spike.

For all that the fandom jokes about Celestia’s political authority and her occasional hints of the trickster mentor, she really does exemplify this quality of power restrained by empathy, which is most likely why she is such an important mentor figure for Twilight. The show makes quite clear that Celestia is Twilight’s role model, and has been for at least her entire adult life: the moment at which Twilight enters young adulthood is also the moment at which she becomes Celestia’s protege in “The Cutie Mark Chronicles.” Twilight’s most significant panics are at moments when she fears disappointing Celestia, most obviously in “Lesson Zero,” but also notably in “Swarm of the Century” and “The Crystal Empire.”

Recall that the series began, effectively, as the story of Twilight Sparkle learning to relate to other ponies. The only significant relationships she is shown to have at the start of the series are Spike and Celestia, and of the two it is Celestia from whom Twilight is explicitly learning. The implication is thus that Celestia possesses the knowledge that Twilight is seeking. Within the context of a show about learning, can there be any higher position than the teacher, the character who already knows the lesson?

Even as the series has expanded in its scope, so that it is all of the Mane Six rather than just Twilight learning and developing, they continue reporting their findings to Celestia throughout Season Two and Season Three, continuing her role as the “grader” of the friendship lessons, with the implication that she has already mastered them. Then in Season Three as Twilight begins to develop into a Princess, it is Celestia who takes the lead in administering her tests at the beginning and end of the season, and ultimately Celestia who appears to Twilight in her death-vision and explains to her that she has moved beyond Celestia’s capacity to teach. Even in raising Twilight to her own level, Celestia’s great wisdom is revealed: she has been watching Twilight since the beginning, as she tells us in song, which means she saw this potential in Twilight from the start. Her empathy is so great that she is able to realize capacities in Twilight that Twilight herself couldn’t see.

The living epitome of power tempered by wisdom. The role model. The universally adored leader. Celestia is all of these things, and yet at the same time is able to crack a joke, pull a prank, even be bored at the Gala in “Best Night Ever.” She is no goddess, no sorceress in an ivory tower; she is a pony, and as a pony, she is best pony.