Book Version: We brought this blizzard to our home by fightin’ and not trustin’ each other. Not it’s destroyin’ this land, too. (Over a Barrel)

My Kickstarter campaign to fund My Little Po-Mo volume 2 is here!

And as long as you have your wallets out, you can help Viga pay for art school (and earn some custom art in the process)!

Looking back on past posts to create the book versions, some stood out as needing more improvement than others. Here, therefore, is the revised version of one of those articles, as published in My Little Po-Mo Vol. 1. Citations are numbered as in the book; unfortunately, Blogger doesn’t allow anchors or superscript so they have been implemented in a fairly primitive way.

It’s March 25, 2011. Lady Gaga is on top for her third straight week, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Roderick Rules is number one at the box office, though only just ahead of the inane Sucker Punch. That latter is something of an achievement, though, as it marks the only time anyone has ever both written and directed a movie using only one hand.

In global news, the U.S., France, and several other countries intervene on the rebel side of the Libyan civil war, Egypt holds a constitutional convention, and the death toll for the Japanese quake is now nearly 10,000, with over 15,000 missing.

This week, Dave Polsky gives us his last episode until the third season. “Over a Barrel” suffers from a problem that will come up a lot in Season 3, namely that it’s trying to tell a story that cannot be told within the limitations of a My Little Pony show.

Lindsey Ellis, in her web-show The Nostalgia Chick, gave an excellent explanation of why Disney’s Song of the South is horrifying: “Imagine if someone made a musical set in Auschwitz in 1950, and it opened with a Jewish chorus singing ‘Nothing bad has ever happened here!’” That’s what this episode is like: it takes a horrifically violent period of American history, a time of genocide, biological warfare, and forced marches, and turns it into a pie fight.

Let’s take a step back, and examine how else this episode could have gone. Take the premise as a given: Friendship Is Magic is going to do an episode about the westward expansion of the U.S. and the conflicts between Native Americans and settlers. Is there any conceivable universe in which this is a good idea? The core values of the show are love, tolerance, and friendship, which means it is obligated to depict both sides as fully human and fully complex. However, this is also a half-hour show intended to be suitable for children, which means the conflict has to be entirely defanged. Of course, that defanging is in turn incredibly disrespectful to the entire peoples systematically slaughtered, and ignores that, by modern standards of morality, the settlers were entirely and completely in the wrong.

Admittedly, the episode does make a good effort in some places. The first few minutes, up until the arrival in Appleloosa, are straight-up hilarious. Fluttershy’s “I’d like to be a tree” is one of her funniest lines in the series. The buffalo, meanwhile, are pure obnoxious stereotype, a genericized representation of the Native inhabitants of the Great Plains, but at least we get to see representatives of the young people on both sides (Little Strongheart for the buffalo and Braeburn for the ponies) who don’t want to be drawn into the conflicts of their elders, but find themselves swept up in it anyway.

This doomed attempt to by the young to reject ethnic conflict echoes a repeated pattern in similar conflicts. In the American Old West, the rise of the Ghost Dance was explicitly an attempt to rekindle respect for and interest in Native American culture in younger generations, who were gradually assimilating into Eurocentric culture.(63) Modern ethnic clashes often also see such a difference, with many young people (often sharing in a quasi-global youth culture of pop music and television) initially taking less hardline stances than their parents, only to be drawn into the conflict as they suffer losses due to it.

But the conflict of their parents is frequently real, and where there is a clear aggressor (which is rarely the case, but does from time to time occur), it is within that aggressor’s power alone to end the conflict. The settlers and Native Americans did fight, and the respective causes for specific battles or skirmishes varied, but ultimately it was the choices of the settlers (and the United States government) that led to the conflict.

The core of the conflict were two incompatible beliefs. On the one hand, the Native American peoples believed that they had a right to live, to continue to occupy the lands of their ancestors, and to maintain their distinct and diverse cultures (which, like Zecora’s apparent cultural ancestry, were more nuanced than a single interpretation would suggest). Far from being “savages” (as they were frequently referred to and characterized as), the native peoples had constructed their own nations, beliefs, and systems of governance, which were often overlooked by the settlers, who hid behind their government, with little-to-no regard for indigenous peoples and their way of life.

On the other, the consensus of the settlers and the United States government was that American settlers both possessed, and were required to exercise, a “manifest destiny” to spread their culture across the entire North American continent,(64) which to modern ears sounds indistinguishable from Britain’s “White Man’s burden” or Germany’s lebensraum: a transparent excuse for land-hungry nationalists to conquer other people’s homes on the sole grounds that they’d very much like to. The justification for this expansion, at least in the eyes of most Americans of the time, was the American experiment in democratic self-rule;(65) that spreading this ideal involved the imperialistic conquest and forcible assimilation of entire cultures seems to have occurred to few.

The buffalo in this episode, as mentioned, seem to be modeled on the Plains Indians, against whom the U.S. fought a series of wars throughout the nineteenth century. These wars were vicious, with atrocities committed on both sides, and the first victim was frequently the sense of proportion. For example, on August 17, 1862, a group of Dakota killed five white men and women in a raid on a farm, then stirred up a larger group of Dakota soldiers to drive the whites off Dakota lands, leading to a series of murders of white farmers and their families across Minnesota.(66) The U.S. military responded in force, but after defeating the militant Dakota, uprooted the entire Dakota people—militant and peaceful alike—from their lands and force-marched them to a new reservation,(67) described by one survivor (who witnessed the murder of her mother by soldiers en route) as “a horrible nightmarish trip.”(68)

This was hardly an isolated incident. Earlier, the government, acting under the auspices of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, emptied the southeast of its native populations of Cherokee, Choktaw, Chickasaw, Seminole and Muscogee—known at the time as the “Five Civilized Tribes”—along what would later be referred to as the “Trail of Tears.” While this acknowledged atrocity might on the surface appear different from the encroachment of settlers along the Great Plains, it was still a massive, organized movement and manifest destiny imposing its will upon the autonomous populations of the Deep South (calling itself a “cultural transformation”), and would form a “blueprint” for later efforts, including the forced removal of the Dakota and the establishment of the reservation system. The main difference? The “Five Civilized Tribes” had been “pacified” by long-term associations with the European settlers (culminating in a series of eventually broken treaties). The Plains Indians, bereft of this history, weren’t about to take what amounted to an invasion lying down.

Besides manifest destiny, a major root of the conflict was the differing attitudes regarding land ownership and use between Native Americans and settlers. The dominant view among Plains Indians was that social groups held occupancy rights to large regions, not that individuals held ownership rights over small ones. In initial treaties between the cultures, Native Americans believed that they were showing hospitality to new neighbors, while settlers believed they were purchasing the land on which they lived outright, with neither side understanding the others’ beliefs well enough to correct the mistake (69)—a mistake which does not change or justify that the settlers were choosing to try to expand into land that was already occupied by someone else, and prepared to use force if the Native Americans did not agree peacefully to settlement.

This is the fundamental problem at the heart of the episode: by using a single incident as a stand-in for the entirety of the Plains War, and possibly for the entirety of all the wars and injustices that blacken the history of race relations in the United States, “Over a Barrel” loses the ability to distinguish between the root causes of the conflict as a whole and any given instance of strife. In so doing, it also loses the ability to distinguish between a momentary solution and a systemic one, treating a mere bandage as a panacea.

In the end, the solution arrived at by the ponies and buffalo is no solution at all. The immediate source of conflict—the juxtaposition of the settlers’ orchard with the buffalos’ stampede grounds—has been resolved to mutual satisfaction, but the underlying cause remains. The ponies still believe that they can walk onto buffalo land and take it for themselves, and now that they and the buffalo have come to a peaceful settlement, the ponies have no reason to think they won’t get away with doing it again. This agreement even has real-life historical precedent, as an inversion of the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, in which representatives of a number of tribes agreed to allow American settlers passage across their land to reach California on the far side, in exchange for limits on the numbers of settlers and compensation to the affected tribes. The U.S. never enforced the settler limits, and several tribes never received their payments.(70) From a real-world perspective, it is only a matter of time before the ponies encroach on buffalo territory again.

Further, aren’t “friendship” and “getting along” the pony equivalent to democracy, in the sense of being their justification for a belief in the superiority of their culture? Certainly in this case it seems to be applied similarly, with the Mane Six splitting into two groups, one of which befriends each side of the conflict, and then using their superior capacity of friendship and the assistance of Braeburn and Little Strongheart to broker a peace that is massively lopsided in favor of the settlers, who not-so-coincidentally are fellow ponies. The repeated insistence that both sides are being stubborn and must put aside their differences amounts to declaring that invaders and the invaded are equally at fault for conflict, and that the invaded have a responsibility to seek compromise with their attackers. Such dedication to peace is perhaps admirable, but adopted as a global policy it seems likely to work mostly to the benefit of aggressors, and thus encourage aggression.

Which is not, once again, to state that each and every individual settler in the Great Plains was a villain or each and every Native American a saint. There are real, understandable motivations for all combatants on all sides of all conflicts. No one ever picks up a gun and shoots another human being unless it seemed like a good idea at the time. While from the vantage point of history it’s easy to tell that the Native Americans were victims and the settlers were aggressors (admittedly, the reality was a little more complicated than that in specific cases, but it’s a good first-order approximation of what generally occurred), at the time everyone on both sides had what seemed like good arguments that they were “correct.” Unfortunately, those arguments, especially on the side of the settlers, were rooted in the violent, hateful elements of human nature, in greed and pain and rage, and these are things which must not and cannot exist in Equestria.

The result is, necessarily, a pie fight.

But then what is the show to spend its transformative energies on, if not addressing real-world conflicts? The answer lies in the previous episode: it can spend its transformative energies on its viewers. Change every person in a society, and you change that society. Change a society, and you change every event in which that society is involved. To change one person for the better, even a little bit, is thus to take a step closer to a better world.

“Over a Barrel” isn’t a great episode, but not out of any particular failures in its execution (though the depiction of the buffalo was fraught with issues). Rather, it fails because this is an entirely wrong direction for the show to be taking. However, it may be that this was a necessary wrong direction; certainly, it will be quite some time before the show attempts any similarly doomed premises. With this wrong step behind it, it can return to the theme of transformation with new confidence and a more direct approach than its past oblique passes.

63. James Mooney, Ghost Dance Religion and Wounded Knee, (New York: Dover Publications, Inc, 1973).
64.    Norman A. Graebner, “Introduction,” Manifest Destiny (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1968).
65.    Ibid.
66.    Thomas G. Shaw, “Prologue,” Trails of Tears: Minnesota’s Dakota Indian Exile Begins, Mary H. Bakeman and Antona M. Richardson ed. (Roseville, MN: Prairie Echoes Press, 2008).
67.    Mary H. Bakeman and Alan R. Woolworth, “The Family Caravan,” Trails of Tears: Minnesota’s Dakota Indian Exile Begins, Mary H. Bakeman and Antona M. Richardson ed. (Roseville, MN: Prairie Echoes Press, 2008).
68.    Elsie Cavender, “Army Brutality Marked Death March to Fort Snelling After Indian Uprising in 1862,” Granite Falls Tribune (February 9, 1956). Reprinted in Trails of Tears: Minnesota’s Dakota Indian Exile Begins, Mary H. Bakeman and Antona M. Richardson ed. (Roseville, MN: Prairie Echoes Press, 2008).
69.    John D. McDermott, A Guide to the Indian Wars of the West (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1998)
70.    N.G. Taylor et al., Report to the President by the Indian Peace Commission, January 7, 1868 (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1868). http://facweb.furman.edu/~benson/docs/peace.htm

Book Version: Doors are barred and shutters shut/Guess I should have stayed inside my hut (Bridle Gossip)

A reminder: My friend Viga is still trying to raise money for college. You can get art for helping! Details here, donation site here.

Looking back on past posts to create the book versions, some stood out as needing more improvement than others. Here, therefore, is the revised version of one of those articles, as published in My Little Po-Mo Vol. 1. Citations are numbered as in the book; unfortunately, Blogger doesn’t allow anchors or superscript so they have been implemented in a fairly primitive way.

It’s December 10, 2010, and Rihanna still wants to be the “Only Girl (In the World).” In film, the top movie is Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which holds a special place in my heart as the book which made me realize I despise C.S. Lewis and everything he holds dear. Needless to say, I have not seen the movie.

In real news, assorted countries led by the U.S. continue to try to shut down WikiLeaks, in apparent total ignorance of the Streisand Effect;(42) Somali piracy is still making headlines; WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gets arrested for sexual misconduct (which he probably did, proving once again that good things can sometimes be created by horrible people); and British students protest a massive tuition hike.

On TV, Amy Keating Rogers pens “Bridle Gossip,” which, in the online version of this essay, I called a “complete failure of an episode” and “a steaming pile of racist horse-s**t.” Neither of which is true, really. It’s an exceedingly mediocre episode, one of the show’s worst, but there are no truly bad episodes of Friendship Is Magic until well into Season 3. And while it is racist, its racism is a matter of lazily and uncritically repeating stereotypes, not active malice.

Nonetheless, on the internet, I correctly predicted how some people would respond: “And now everybody’s all upset, because calling something racist is the! Worst! Possible! Thing! you can say, worse by far than actually being racist, and how dare I say anything against Rogers, who you met at that one con and she seemed like a really nice lady and…”

Let me make something clear: This episode is not trying to incite hatred. I suspect it actually is well-intentioned, an attempt to add the first hints of a non-Western culture to Equestria. The reason I suspect this, is because I can easily believe that all the racist undertones and implications in this episode comes from the same source as the sexist commentary in “The Ticket Master”—namely that Rogers either can’t write certain characters, doesn’t understand them, or simply isn’t interested in them, and therefore takes a “shortcut” by writing them in conjunction with the most obvious stereotypes.

I have tried exceedingly hard to like this episode, and its attached character. Zecora is one of my friend (and cover designer) Viga’s favorite characters, and she dressed as her for both Halloween and several conventions. She’s argued for, and I can see, the good points here, most notably the attempt at inclusion. We live in a culture where white is treated as “default”—in other words, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, characters are assumed to be white. For example, while this has improved drastically in the past year, a Google Image Search on “humanized ponies” still returns mostly white ponies, and most group photos will have at most one “pony of color.”

The show itself has done nothing to cast doubt on that “default viewer” assumption. Quite the opposite: prior to this episode, we know that Rarity’s accent pegs her as a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) from the start, and Twilight Sparkle comes from a city modeled on Arthurian legend.

Later in the series we get confirmation that the rest of the Mane Six come from pony counterparts to European cultures as well: Pinkie Pie is apparently Amish (likely German); Applejack descended from settlers in the American West (Western, Northern, or Central Europe, primarily); and Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash come from a city that closely resembles Mt. Olympus as depicted in Disney’s Hercules.

So the introduction of a character obviously drawn from another culture could have been a much-needed breath of fresh air. Zebras could bring something very interesting to Equestria—a different set of traditions, different ways of doing magic, maybe even different languages.
The premise of the episode fits right in with this potential: An outsider with “different ways” (essentially a different “base culture”) comes to Ponyville, and the sheltered ponies, who have never before encountered representatives of other cultures, are initially afraid of her. After a round of misunderstandings, including allergic reactions to a magical plant which the main characters misinterpret as Zecora cursing them, they finally learn that Zecora’s a good pony with a different “way of life,” as deserving as anyone else of respect and friendship, smiles, hugs, and a good lesson to the kiddies.

The problem, and to be fair it’s one any writer would struggle with, is the issue of tokenism. If Zecora shows no trace of African or black culture, then this continues to erase non-European cultures from the show. But if Zecora is the only character on the show to signify Africa or black people, then any trait she possesses is possessed by all characters who signify black people. If any of those traits are even remotely stereotypical or problematic, then the show is universalizing them across all black people. The only way out is to add more zebras who signify black people or Africa in other ways, but given the toy-driven nature of the show that’s unlikely to be a possibility.

But this is Rogers, and as with Rarity, when presented with a character she isn’t comfortable writing, she writes a stereotype instead. We thus get a Zecora who is built to be generically “African”: named “zebra” in an East African language, wearing Southern African neck rings, and with a hut decorated in West African masks. The end result is a hodgepodge of cultural indicators and “artifacts,” taken from completely different cultural and filial groups, spread out over a large geographical region with likely little interaction between them.

Keep in mind, this is a show that has taken pains to give pegasi, unicorns, and Earth ponies extremely distinct architecture (and, in later episodes, clothing, both modern and traditional) that reflects their cultural origins: Classical Greco-Roman for the pegasi, fairy-tale Western European for the unicorns, and a blend of nineteenth-century Old West and medieval European thatch-roofed cottages for the Earth ponies. The one zebra, on the other hand, gets a blend of African elements separated by a greater distance than the distinct cultures used to make each of the three Equestrian tribes.

Somewhere, an anthropologist is lamenting this disparity in five different local dialects.

The only explanation for this is simple, old-fashioned Eurocentrism: everything from the entire continent of Africa goes into a pot labeled “African,” while more familiar European cultures are seen as distinct. To make matters worse, Zecora has an Ojibwe (a Native American tribe) dreamcatcher over her door, making clear that she’s not only the generic “African,” but the generic “tribal” pony, too.

The episode thus not only lumps all of Africa together, which is appalling (not to mention misinformed) enough, but all of humanity outside of a small circle of European-descended cultures. These “other” cultures then get depicted as primitive and crude: Zecora’s cutie mark is more abstract and less colorful than the others on the show; her masks have chunky outlines suggesting rough-hewn handmade carvings compared to the polished, manufactured look of most pony decorations; and she cooks over an open flame rather than on a stove.

Of course, as is often the case for “primitive” characters in fiction, Zecora gets to be “wise”—she is allowed knowledge about topics such as nature and healing (but not in any sort of scientific way), can dispense good advice (but at the same time lacks social awareness, such as in her apparent belief that all the shops just “happen” to be closed each time she comes to town), and shows every sign of having a higher “emotional intelligence” than the rest of the cast. However, this only heightens the impression that she is a “closer to earth,” “noble savage” type of character, which is to say misjudged through paternalist and imperialist notions, as opposed to more actively hateful and violent racism.
Put another way, she falls victim to the polite, upper-class sort of racism that enslaves cultures and burns its way across continents in the name of “Manifest Destiny” or “bringing civilization,” as opposed to the rude, working-class kind that organizes lynch mobs.

Now, to be fair, it’s not entirely clear how much of this was Rogers’ doing. Zecora was intended from the start as a recurring character, so at least some elements of her characterization are doubtless the product of the entire Friendship Is Magic creative team and probably Hasbro’s toy designers as well. But that only strengthens my core contention, which is not that Rogers is a racist, but rather that this episode and Zecora’s character uncritically draw on stock character traits rooted in misguided stereotyping.

But if we’re going to be fair, we have to be fair in both directions: what little documentation I’ve been able to find suggests that Zecora speaking in rhyme was entirely Rogers’ idea. Because she wasn’t typecast badly enough already, she needs to speak like she has some sort of bizarre compulsion, or possible brain damage.

Again, I really don’t think Rogers hates black people or anything like that. The impression I get is that it simply didn’t occur to the makers of this episode that there could be implications here other than what is directly stated. For example, there’s a scene in the episode where Spike makes fun of the other pony’s curses, even though at least a couple of them are potentially life-threatening (especially Rainbow Dash’s and Applejack’s), and Twilight’s could doom the entire town (given that she saved it from destruction just a few episodes ago). All of their curses are at the least very hurtful for the pony suffering it. And yet Spike not only laughs at them, he lies to them; he tells them he’s working on a cure, and instead spends his time coming up with more jokes at their expense.

All of this is played for laughs; we are supposed to join Spike in laughing at the ponies. In a sense, that’s okay; the ponies are fictional characters, and have no actual feelings to be hurt. Laughing at them is certainly no worse than watching characters die for our entertainment in an action movie or suspense thriller. Also, as this is an episodic comedy-adventure cartoon for small children, we know that, unless there’s a “Part One” in the episode title, odds are very high the characters will all be perfectly fine by the time the credits roll. As I’ve said before, in an adventure the primary question is not “Will they get out of this one?” but rather “How will they get out of this one?”

However, within a diegetic context, this scene is very much not okay. Spike is being actively hurtful here, and nothing ever comes of it. Further, I’m not sure it occurred to anyone involved in making this episode just how much of a bully Spike is being, since no character calls him out on it, and he suffers no consequences. Rogers is failing utterly at basic empathy, what the show itself will later term “Lesson Zero”: the recognition that the feelings of others exist and are always legitimate, no matter what they are.

Sadly, the show itself fails at this lesson in one key respect. This episode is one of (to date) two that attempt to depict someone from a non-Western culture, and the other one is just as laden with stereotypes. For all that it tries (and usually succeeds) at being a feminist show, for all that it is clearly made with the best of intentions, Friendship Is Magic doesn’t deal well with race.

Zecora’s later appearances are, thankfully, few and brief, but always painful to watch, because they represent a sort of rot in the heart of the show. This is supposed to be a show that celebrates community and bringing people together. It is a show that celebrates the “many ways of being a girl” and, since there is no statement true of all women that is not true of all humans, by extension the many ways of being human.

As long as your ways of being human fall within Western norms or descended from European cultures, anyway. Otherwise, you’re an Other, and the creators apparently expect you to count yourself lucky that you get one heavily stereotyped token to represent you.

Which isn’t to say that Friendship Is Magic is a bad show. Other good shows have struggled with race and tokenism before, and it’s at least one notch better than erasure. Nonetheless, race remains a sore point for the show, a topic it never manages to address successfully, and that’s sad.

42. That is, the tendency of efforts to suppress information to instead result in increased publicity for that information, particularly where the Internet is concerned. See Andy Greenberg, “The Streisand Effect.” Forbes (May 11, 2007). http://www.forbes.com/2007/05/10/streisand-digg-web-tech-cx_ag_0511streisand.html

This day was going to be perfect/The kind of day of which I dreamed since I was small (The Best Night Ever)

Let’s talk about evolution. No, not the inexplicably controversial–despite being as close as any model can get to solid fact–biological theory; I mean something more basic. Specifically, let’s talk about the difference between evolution and change.

Frequently, talk of evolution implies some ideal of progress, but that’s not really accurate to the concept; certainly biological evolution has no sense of going from “bad” states to “good” ones. Likewise, the evolution of a character might make them less appealing to the audience (to use one definition of “bad” character) or involve a decent into villainy (to use another). The real definition of evolution is simply cumulative change, that is, a series of changes, each building upon the last.

Some characters evolve within their stories, while others merely change. To use pony examples,within the first season Applejack does not evolve. She changes in “Applebucking Season,” but her change is circular: ultimately she returns to the state she was in before the episode. Twilight Sparkle, on the other hand, evolves. She is a different pony after “The Elements of Harmony” than at the beginning of “The Mare in the Moon,” and she retains these differences after. She changes again in “Winter Wrap-Up,” and again retains elements of those changes for the rest of the series.

As I’ve mentioned several times before, transformation and change are recurring themes in the first season. There’s several non-exclusive reasons why this should be the case, but one is particularly notable here at the end of the season: The show itself has been evolving, and many individual episodes reflect this continual change.

No, really, it’s not a magical girl show after all.

It’s May 6, 2011.Katy Perry’s “E.T.” is back at the top of the charts, and while still not great, it’s a massive improvement over last week. Speaking of massive improvements, we have an actually good movie dominating the box office for the first time in what seems like ages: Thor, which is exactly as gloriously silly and overwrought as a movie about a Norse god (who’s actually a space alien) becoming a superhero ought to be. In the news, the biggest story broke Sunday with the announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden, Sony’s in trouble again with the news that hackers may have stolen the account information of nearly 25 million Sony Online users, and the Canadian elections create a Conservative majority, because when times are tough people like strong, decisive leaders who will do everything in their power to make things worse.

The final episode of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic‘s first season is unquestionably Amy Keating Rogers’ best, the aptly titled “Best Night Ever.” At heart, it’s about disappointment and recovery; about planned and hoped-for events going awry, yet ultimately turning out as good or better than planned.

Obviously, the Grand Galloping Gala itself is such an event, at least for our main characters. The episode depicts its development into and beyond disaster as effectively an evolutionary process. The Mane Six enter the Gala with certain expectations, but events shatter those expectations. A period of chaos ensues, forcing the ponies to come up with something else that turns out to be just as good as what they planned–at least for the Mane Six themselves, Spike, and Celestia. Granny Smith will have to find another way to pay for that new hip, and all the other Gala attendees had their evening ruined, but then it wouldn’t be a Rogers episode without some failure to think through the implications or empathize fully with out-of-focus characters–and it wouldn’t be a My Little Po-Mo article about a Rogers episode if I didn’t complain about it. (Also: While this is, by far, her least bad attempt, I still hate how Rogers writes Rarity. There, anti-Rogers quota achieved.)

The episode opens with an elaborate musical number which (besides being the best song of the season) neatly encapsulates the series’ evolution so far. Back in “Elements of Harmony,” Pinkie’s musical number was tongue-in cheek and the responses of the other ponies suggested that they were not only aware of the prevalence of musical numbers in cartoons, they were familiar enough with the trope to be sick of it. It was a moment for the show’s makers to demonstrate that while they may be doing a musical number in My Little Pony, they’re still cool and detached. By contrast, “At the Gala” is an enormous production number unironically indulged, a celebratory moment shared by every pony on the screen. There is no effort to be cool here; it is gloriously emotive and sincere.

As a general rule, musical numbers are nondiegetic, which is to say that they are not “real” from the perspective of the characters. A musical number is a narrative technique to convey a character’s emotions to the audience, not a part of the plot; it is generally safe to assume that anything that happens in a musical number isn’t real unless something in the show signals otherwise. “The Elements of Harmony,” however, signaled otherwise from the beginning of the first musical number of the show, making it clear that Pinkie Pie was really singing, the other characters knew she was singing, and they were as weirded out as any of us would be on encountering a musical number in real life. For the rest of the early first season, Pinkie Pie was the only pony who sang, and the audience could assume all her songs were diegetically “real.”

“Winter Wrap-Up,” along with all the other changes it initiated, had the entire population of Ponyville singing a song together. On the one hand, this musical number (also called “Winter Wrap-Up”) has to be at least somewhat nondiegetic; there is no way ponies across town from each other could coordinate their timing to trade off verses as they do in the song. On the other, groups of laborers often use music to coordinate their efforts, so it’s entirely plausible that the song is at least somewhat diegetic. As the season has gone on, however, we’ve gotten more songs from non-Pinkie Pie characters, such as Rarity’s “Art of the Dress.” Here in “Best Night Ever,” we have no less than three songs, which is quite a few for a 22-minute cartoon. It’s not quite a full-fledged musical episode, but it’s close enough to make clear that this is no longer a show that’s too cool for musical numbers. Musicals, after all, are on the surface silly, sincere, and endearingly cheesy–an excellent description of My Little Pony‘s appeal.

But “silly, sincere, and endearingly cheesy” is not the show we began with twenty-five episodes ago. Oh, those elements were all present in the series premiere, but they shared the stage with an attempt to be cool. To judge by the series premiere, we were watching an unusually funny magical girl show, a spiritual successor to The Powerpuff Girls that shifted the anime influence from the character designs to the plots. The natural expectation would have been for the majority of episodes following to involve battles with monsters and villains, ending with an encounter with some kind of uber-villain or major crisis in the season finale. Certainly a comedy or character-building episode here and there, and of course there’s no getting away from the friendship lessons that are the show’s raison d’etre, but the original conception of the show seems likely to have been driven by sanitized violence. Perhaps a preschool version of the greatest Western magical girl show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Mane Six would have battled monsters that symbolize the challenges of growing up, drawing power and support from their friendship with one another, and “Dragonshy” would have been a typical episode rather than an interesting one-time experiment.

That might have been a good show, but it didn’t work out that way. Immediately after the premiere, we started focusing on the characters themselves, without symbolic monsters to act as crutches. Unable to be My Little Buffy, the show cast around for other things it could be, and a season of evolution began. It spent a few episodes exploring the characters and discovering its capacity for sincerity in a world where even the children’s shows are cynical and bitter, but found itself trapped in the tension between being a utopian idyll that stayed true to its characters, and a meme fountain and growing pop cultural icon. That crucible triggered its alchemical transformation into a new kind of show, and it has spent the latter half of the first season trying to figure out just what kind of show exactly that is.

“The Best Night Ever” doesn’t try to answer that question. Instead, it ruminates and reflects on the journey thus far, which in itself is a partial answer. The show My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic started as would have ended its first season with some kind of massive conflict with a major villain, probably one threatening a narrative collapse–something not too different from the second season premiere. That’s just how TV shows–especially ones that earn a geek cult following–work in the 2000s. Instead, we have an episode entirely devoid of antagonists, where the only conflict is that between the unrealistic expectations of the characters and the reality of what occurred.

It never occurred to me, the first time I watched this episode, to be disappointed in it. But in a sense it is a failure to fulfill a promise given when Nightmare Moon was defeated. All the rules of normal television say that this episode should have involved a battle with an even bigger villain and ended with another use of the Elements of Harmony. That’s what we’ve been trained to expect, and therefore to want, by the last decade-and-a-half of television, by everything from Buffy to Teen Titans to even Adventure Time. There’s nothing wrong with this structure, per se. It’s appealing and it works and there’s lots of variety in how it can be done–but it’s not the show My Little Pony evolved into.

The show My Little Pony evolved into ends its first season with a rumination on where its been. We get a mini-character collapse from Fluttershy, we get a deflated (albeit less literally this time) Pinkie Pie desperately trying to get a party going, we get a glimpse of why Twilight Sparkle might not have thought much of social interaction in Canterlot. It’s something like a greatest-hits album of the season, touching on an essential element of each character lightly and then moving on (except, of course, with Rarity, but at least she gets to tell someone off fairly impressively).

But this isn’t a clip show, even in spirit. It does actually have something to say. The Gala is a constraining structure that traps the ponies, forcing them into paths they don’t want to take, and only by unleashing chaos can they break free and change it. This is no less true of the series. Last time they made a major change, it required a complete alchemical transformation. Now a new challenge is looming, because last week proved something utterly devastating to the premise of the show: Twilight can’t learn a friendship lesson every episode. It’s too constraining, and it prevents the other characters from meaningfully evolving if their crises and their character-building episodes must conclude with Twilight learning a lesson.

There’s also the issue that, if Twilight has to learn a new lesson about friendship every episode, sooner or later the writers are going to have to start either teaching lessons Twilight never needed to learn or repeat old lessons. Either way, it undermines Twilight’s evolution and forces her into mere change.

To break free of the constraints of Twilight’s friendship lessons is a major challenge. It’s a core element of the premise of the show–I referred to it above as the raison d’etre, and from the Hub’s point of view that’s true. Part of the purpose of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is to fulfill the Hub’s obligation to provide educational programming; remove the thirty seconds of “Today I learned…” from the end and it no longer fulfills the requirements.

There is, of course, the solution of having the other characters learn lessons as well, but within the show that runs into the issue that Twilight was assigned to Ponyville to learn friendship lessons. It’s her job, and she can’t just let others do it for her.

The show appears to be trapped, just as Celestia was trapped by the constraints of the Gala. And just like Celestia, the solution is to invite in an outside element that brings chaos. This element has many names, but at its core it is the essence of change. It is time and entropy and death and rebirth, that which laughs at constraints and dissolves the old order so that a new may arise. It is chaos, and it is dangerous and tricky.

Pinkie Pie called it by name last week, invited it in: “Okie doki, Loki.” Possibly unintentional on the part of the writers, to be sure, but Pinkie Pie can walk through end-of-episode irises and hang off the top of the frame; she can tell where the show is headed. It needs an injection of chaos, a narrative collapse that permits a new narrative to be built from the ruins. The problem is that chaos is rarely cooperative. That’s why it’s so frequently depicted as a Trickster–once invited in, it does what it wants, and we have to be prepared that what we get might not be what we expected, even if odds are good that it’ll be as good or better.

The show is going to try to get that injection of chaos; it’s going to get a big ol’ storm instead. Discord is coming.

Next week: To celebrate finishing off the first season, I’m taking a break from episode analyses for a month. But that doesn’t mean an end to My Little Po-Mo articles! Instead, April is going to be Fanworks Month. Every Sunday I’ll apply the same techniques I use for the episode analyses on a different fanwork. Some might be major fan favorites, others my own idiosyncratic preferences; some might be video, others fanfics or comics–every week will be something different. Then in May we’ll pick up where we left off with the beginning of the second season.

So what fanwork am I doing next week? I’ll give you a clue: All the way across the sky. What does it mean? Find out April 6!

All I really need’s a smile, smile, smile/From these happy friends of mine (Party of One)

Who knew Jackson Pollock was a brony?

It’s April 29, 2011. The top song is Rihanna and Britney Spears singing “S&M,” which is exactly as repetitive, brainless, and tawdry as you’d expect from the singers and song title. The top movie is Fast Five, so also repetitive, brainless, and tawdry. In real news, WikiLeaks releases files that confirm that everything we thought was happening in Guantanamo Bay is, in fact, happening in Guantanamo Bay, renowned crazy person Ron Paul (not to be confused with his even crazier son, Rand Paul) announces his intent to run in the increasingly wacky Republican Presidential race, and the Playstation Network implodes.

Meanwhile, Megan McCarthy brings us the best episode of Season 1, “Party of One.” There is so much greatness in this episode it’s hard to keep this post from degenerating into incoherent squeeing noises. The jokes are solid, and the visual gags come thick, fast, and funny. The animation is as good as first season gets, the lighting is inspired, the use of backgrounds is incredible–the episode simply hits on all cylinders.

Like “Applebucking Season,” it’s a character collapse. In a character collapse, circumstances force a character (in this case Pinkie Pie) outside of their normal role. That’s just good character writing, however; to be a true character collapse, the character must respond by inverting elements of their own personality and undermining their own goals or well being. In short, a character collapse is a process of transformation by which a character, through their own choices and in-character responses to circumstances, becomes their own foil.

Up to this point, Pinkie Pie has been a cartoon character. Of course, this is a cartoon, so every character is a cartoon character, but Pinkie Pie is by far the cartooniest of the bunch. With her random outbursts, tendency to break the fourth wall, and general happy-go-lucky bouncy attitude, she’d fit right in on Animaniacs or some of the less cynical Looney Tunes shorts. Like Roger Rabbit, she can do basically anything as long as it’s funny. Even when she’s not doing anything in particular, her bright color and characteristic bouncing motion liven up any shot that contains her. While that motion is reminiscent of Pepe Le Pew, her friendly, fun-loving demeanor, innocent-prankster mischievous streak, and above all her ability to pull anything she needs out of nowhere recall the classic, and sadly now nearly forgotten, Felix the Cat.

Pinkie is also a cartoon in the negative sense of the word, or at least she is at the beginning of this episode. True, she is colorful and animated, but she is also flat, two-dimensional, and more caricature than character. All Pinkie wants, it seems, is to receive immediate gratification of her desire for the pleasures of parties, friends, and sugar.

There is a concept in psychology, originating with the work of Daniel Kahneman, that we can construct a person as two selves in the same body, tugging in different directions. The experiencing self lives in the moment and wants to do things that are pleasurable now, while the remembering self lives in the past and wants to do things that will create good memories. Because of its focus on remembering the past, the remembering self is capable of planning for the future; it wants to do now what will bring it pleasure in the future. Often they are at odds: for example, hard work to overcome a challenge isn’t very pleasurable and so the experiencing self dislikes it, but it can create very good memories, so the remembering self loves it.

We have seen no trace of Pinkie Pie’s remembering self. She always lives solely in the moment, and seems to never look back. She indulges her every impulse to pursue pleasure, and seems to have no interest in accomplishing anything, no goals, no memories she wants to create. She is literally lacking a dimension all the other characters possess, which is another way of saying that she’s a flat character.

And then Meghan McCarthy comes along to collapse her. It’s quite a feat, collapsing a character that’s already flat, and this episode is a testament to just how good McCarthy is when she’s at the top of her game. Throughout the first two acts, Pinkie Pie sticks to behaviors we’ve seen her use before, albeit from other characters’ perspectives. As in “Griffon the Brush-Off,” she pursues Rainbow Dash relentlessly, somehow managing to already be wherever Rainbow Dash goes, despite Rainbow Dash being the fastest pony in Equestria. And as in “Green Isn’t Your Color,” Pinkie lurks inside innocuous objects such as a haystack and a bell.

In those other episodes, Pinkie’s behavior was portrayed from the point of view of Rainbow Dash or Twilight Sparkle, and came across as purely humorous. In this episode, her behavior is portrayed from her own point of view, and while still funny, it has an edge of desperation that casts her past actions in a new light. In “Green Isn’t Your Color,” Pinkie expressed a belief that friendships are fragile and can easily be damaged by a broken promise, and dedicated herself to paranoically pursuing Twilight to ensure that she didn’t do so. Now in “Party of One,” Pinkie’s behavior is again a paranoid pursuit of her friends, and again based on her belief that friendships are fragile. Her behavior in “Griffon the Brush-Off” was comically annoying, but driven by a desire to spend time with her friend; now we see that it is not a desire but a desperate need.

With only her experiential self to draw on, Pinkie has no resources to draw on when alone. Her self-esteem and self-image are based entirely on how much fun she is having at the moment, how much attention her friends are paying to her, and how much she is entertaining others. She has no accomplishments or achievements to think back on proudly, no future goals and therefore no progress to be proud of. She doesn’t have Applejack’s or Rarity’s career successes, Twilight’s ever-growing magic and knowledge, or Rainbow Dash’s competitions. In this respect she is most like Fluttershy; both ponies place their sense of self-worth entirely in their ability to please others, with opposite, but equally shattering, effects: Fluttershy feels inadequate when she is around others because she fears earning their disapproval, and Pinkie Pie feels inadequate when she is alone, because she can no longer earn approval.

For all the silliness of Pinkie Pie’s resulting behavior, her distress speaks to a very real problem with being defined solely by one’s relationships rather than by the totality of one’s person. We live in a society where women in particular are likely to be defined by their relationships alone. President Obama, for example, frequently uses a “wives, daughters, mothers” framing when discussing women’s issues, which has the effect of making it seem like he’s talking to men about women and of making it seem like women are only worth something to society because of their relationships to others, as opposed to having the intrinsic worth that, for instance, wealthy straight white cismen are assumed to possess. When Shakesville’s Melissa McEwan started a petition asking him to stop using that framing, it failed to reach the required number of signatures, and some people, such as National Review’s Patrick Brennan, argued that people should be defined by their relationships.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with being partially defined by your relationships. Relationships are like food: there’s no one food you absolutely must eat,, but a wide variety of food is essential to a healthy diet, and if you have no food, you will die. Likewise, there’s no one absolutely essential relationship, but to be a fully realized human being you must have relationships of some sort with others, and a wide variety of different types of relationships is much healthier than just one type of relationship. I don’t think anyone is arguing against that; the problem is with being defined entirely by relationships, which undermines self-worth and leads a person to, like Pinkie Pie, be unable to function without constant support from others.

Pinkie Pie’s breakdown, once she believes her friends have abandoned her, is swift and unsettling. It’s a testament to McCarthy that this episode never stops being funny, even though Pinkie is suffering what amounts to a psychotic break in the third act. Everything her “new friends” say is directly from Pinkie’s own thoughts, and quite telling: she is furiously angry at her friends, which speaks to how badly hurt she feels. Without access to her remembering self, she cannot remind herself of all the signs that her friends love and care about her; all she feels is their current absence, and that feels like a betrayal.

Why doesn’t Pinkie Pie have a remembering self? Or more accurately, since everyone has a remembering self, why is hers so overpowered by her experiential self? We got the answer just two weeks ago, in the “Cutie Mark Chronicles.” Her story in that episode has “unreliable narrator” written all over it, but it seems the core of it is true: Pinkie Pie grew up in a joyless environment of emotional isolation and repression, and had no good memories for her remembering self to take pleasure in. When she discovered her gift for partying, she found something to feed her experiential self, and all of her growth since then has therefore gone to that self; her remembering self is stunted. As far as Pinkie is concerned, there is nothing to be gained from remembering the past, and therefore nothing to be gained by caring about the future, by pursuing goals or trying to accomplish anything. She just wants to throw parties and enjoy herself every waking moment of every day, to be loved by everyone and never have to worry about anything, because working hard reminds her of her unhappy childhood. She has swung from one extreme to the other, and utterly missed health in the middle.

Friendship sustains and nurtures her, but the only cure for her desperate lack of self-worth is meaningful accomplishment, something which Pinkie finds an abhorrent reminder of her miserable upbringing. She’s trapped, and it doesn’t seem likely that anyone except either a very good therapist or Pinkie herself can unravel this snare. Friendship is magic, it seems, but not even magic can do everything.

At the end of the episode, Pinkie Pie is bouncing and happy again, because she’s reassured that her friends love her. But has she actually learned anything? Twilight writes the letter to Princess Celestia, not Pinkie, and it seems that from Pinkie’s perspective, the problem was that her friends appeared not to like her, and the solution was discovering they did like her. She still has no self-worth outside her friends’ approval; in short, there’s nothing to prevent something like this from happening to her again.

Fittingly, as the pony most likely to interact with the medium, Pinkie’s collapse has demonstrated the seams in the show itself. Friendship may be magic, but not even magic, it seems, can fix everything. But if that’s true, then what is this show about? What is it for, if not to evangelize to children about the magic of friendship?

Yet again, as it has been doing all season, the show must reinvent itself, and Pinkie Pie has spoken the name of the force of change it requires. As before, it will take several episodes to fully transform, but the collapse of Pinkie is where it truly begins.

Next week: Things fall apart. The center cannot hold.

Twilight Sparkle. I mean seriously, I can’t even work with that. (Owl’s Well That Ends Well)

Spike’s true colors revealed!

It’s April 22, 2011. The top song is still “E.T.,” and the top movie is still “Rio.” In real news, there’s not much going on: Government crackdowns on the Arab Spring protests are getting more violent, Anne Robinson leaves The Weakest Link, leading to its cancellation, and Apple and Google are revealed to be keeping a massive database (presumably called Skynet) tracking the movements of smartphone owners.

In ponies, Cindy Morrow gives us a predictably mediocre outing with “Owl’s Well That Ends Well.” The episode has some good laughs, an extremely annoying running gag, and a creepily adorable new pet for Twilight.Unfortunately, it’s also heavily focused on Spike, who is at his absolute jerkiest until second season’s “Secret of My Excess,” and while it does a fairly good job of making his behavior laughable and pathetic, there are a couple of odd missteps.

Spike’s jerkassery in this episode is most definitely a play on the Nice Guy Syndrome he was displaying in “Dog and Pony Show.” As I mentioned in that article, Spike is stuck on a transactional model of relationships: he is “nice” (that is, subservient and self-effacing) to a pony, and expects affection and companionship in return. It’s a simple exchange that has the slight flaws of being incredibly passive, easily prone to turning passive-aggressive, and not remotely resembling how real relationships actually work. The advantage for the “Nice Guy” (who should never be confused for a genuinely nice person, but always is in both his own mind and mass media) is that since he never expresses what he actually wants, he never has to deal with being rejected.

The typical progression of Nice Guy Syndrome is cyclical. Its early stages are that transactional relationship; the self-described “Nice Guy” awkwardly and uncomfortably latches onto a woman, continually offering gifts, services, and emotional support, as opposed to taking an honest approach which might allow her agency and thereby risk rejection.. The woman may be aware of how strange this all is, and respond with statements of gratitude but underlying discomfort, or she may think the “Nice Guy” is being genuinely nice and treat him as a good friend, unaware that he has an underlying ulterior motive. Eventually, the woman starts dating someone. Since the “Nice Guy” cannot handle the notion that women has agency, because that in turn implies the possibility of rejection, he cannot deal with the notion that the woman is capable of making good decisions for herself, and therefore concludes that this new person must be a jerk. Any behavior which is less than entirely passive and submissive is taken as evidence of jerkiness. Eventually, the “Nice Guy”–possibly based on repetitions of this cycle or evidence from talking to “Nice Guy” friends–concludes that “women only date jerks” and becomes increasingly bitter and more vocally misogynistic. At this point, they can either grow up and stop being weaselly little passive-aggressive jerks, or they can start throwing money at “pick-up artist” scams and become even more bitter and misogynistic. Sadly, most choose the latter.

“Owl’s Well That Ends Well” depicts the point in Spike’s cycle where the object of his poorly expressed affections brings a new man into her life, the point where his self-centered and idiotic approach to relationships hits inevitable failure. Twilight becomes close to a new male character, Owlowiscious, and Spike’s fragile Nice Guy ego immediately concludes Owlowiscious is somehow evil. The episode mostly does a good job of showing how the exact same behavior is viewed as harmless or neutral by Twilight Sparkle, but menacing and untrustworthy from Spike’s, and to that end here’s a new My Little Po-Mo vlog showcasing the different points of view.

Unfortunately the scene at the end of the vlog suggests that there is at least some objectivity to Owlowiscious’ menace, a suggestion which has no support in the three seasons of the show so far (indeed, after this episode Owlowiscious’ appearances can be numbered on one hand). That suggestion of objectivity weakens the depiction, but to an extent that’s made up for by Spike cavorting in a mustache, cape, and top hat, making it abundantly clear who the villain of this scenario is. (It’s hard to see what other purpose that costume could serve; his retrieval of it is framed like a joke, but it’s not actually funny, and endures for several shots too long to be just for that attempt at a gag.)

Regardless of that one moment, it’s pretty clear that Owlowiscious is a problem only in Spike’s mind. Spike never considers whether Twilight Sparkle might be capable of making her own informed decisions about who to relate with; he projects his own insecurities regarding his position as her assistant and friend into a scenario of being her protector, much as he fantasized about unnecessarily rescuing Rarity in “Dog and Pony Show.” White Knight-ism and Nice Guy Syndrome are frequently closely intertwined, so it’s no surprise he concocts a way to reframe his possessiveness of Twilight as a need to “prove” to her that she’s making a mistake in regards to Owlowiscious’ character.

At no point does Spike consider talking to Twilight. He could, in theory, just tell her how he sees their relationship. He could tell her about the fears that Owlowiscious provokes, reveal his insecurity, and be reassured and comforted. He will never do this, however. The reason he tells himself is that it’s a “burden” on Twilight, because he likes to envision himself as supporting and protecting her, and sees the support-for-affection and service-for-gratitude relationships as flowing in only one direction. The real reason, however, is simply that he lacks the courage to make himself vulnerable. There is a chance that Twilight might respond in a way that he finds hurtful, or reject him, and he is too fearful of that possibility to risk it.

The result is that he utterly denies that Twilight has any agency in this situation. He does not permit her to make any informed choices about her relationship with Spike, because he doesn’t want her to have the power to hurt him. In so doing he sets himself up to forget that she has her own unique interior life, her own needs and wishes and feelings, and tries to engineer situations that force her feelings about Owlowiscious to match his own. In short, he aggressively denies Lesson Zero, and then acts surprised when, on figuring out that he’s doing this, Twilight responds with anger and confusion.

As she herself says, in this episode Spike isn’t the person Twilight thought she knows and loves. That’s because Spike’s transactional model is (as any transactional model must be) highly conditional. If Twilight doesn’t keep up her end of the bargain she never made and doesn’t know about, then in Spike’s mind the deal is off and Spike’s behavior drastically changes. Unfortunately, while a new unstated bargain forms at the end of the episode, there’s little evidence that Spike has learned the underlying lesson, which is the same lesson the series has been repeating for a few episodes now: Relationships require openness and honesty. Don’t assume you know how others feel, and don’t presume to dictate how they “should” feel.

The series is continuing to build up to something, a realization that is still a few episodes away and in another season, but we can see the shape of it now. There is something underlying all friendships, all healthy relationships with other people. Something without which kindness, generosity, honesty, loyalty, laughter, and friendship become twisted parodies of themselves, and that something has to do with recognizing the interiority of others.

The groundwork is laid for what may be the best and most important episode of the entire series. But to get there will require challenging the structure and premise of the show itself, and in the logic of television, that requires a season break. We must therefore put it aside for a little while, knowing that sooner or later, it must be addressed.

Next week: The ablation of Ms. Pinkamena Diane Pie.

From all of us together: Together we are friends. With the marks of our destinies made one, there is magic without end! (The Cutie Mark Chronicles)

This is the story of a fandom…

Bronies were born in the depths of 4chan, like a rose growing in a swamp, or a party pony raised on a rock farm. They began with the intent of hating the show, of watching it ironically, with all the bitter cynicism that passes for appreciation in the Internet Hate Machine.

They fell in love. Ponyvangelists spread rapidly across the Internet, posting about their love of ponies wherever they could: All over 4chan itself, on Facebook and Tumblr, big fora like Something Awful and TVTropes, small fora like the Front Row Crew Forum and Slacktivist–bronies quickly became inescapable, at least in the geekier corners of the Internet.

4chan tried to kick them out, and more or less succeeded for a time; eventually it caved, and bronies returned. You can’t go to an anime convention without seeing humanized pony cosplayers. Pony fanart is all over DeviantArt, and pony videos and music are all over YouTube.

It hasn’t always been a happy fandom. Derpygate divided us, bitter factions arguing over what did or did not constitute ableism or censorship. Twilicorn Sparkopalypse divided us again. I know fans who still refuse to watch the Season 3 finale because Twilight becoming an alicorn disturbs them so much, and other fans who are still complaining about it. Many fans complained about it right up until the episode, and changed their minds because they liked the episode after all; other fans didn’t like the episode and found it rushed. Still others never had a problem in the first place.

Throughout, the fandom has dealt with outsiders and “neighsayers” who don’t understand, who look askance at teen and adult men and women watching a cartoon for young children. But we live in a cynical age, and we need light and joy and love.

I remember the 1980s, barely; people who remember them better than I do frequently comment on how no one really expected to survive the decade. That was supposed to be the end of the world, in a fiery nuclear conflagration–and yet the 1990s happened. We’ve been holding our breaths for the apocalypse for more than 20 years, and instead all we’ve gotten is a long slow decline into economic and environmental ruin.

Bronies see a better world. We look at Equestria and we see a world where obsessing over everything that could go wrong is a neurotic flaw, not a universal trait. Where the profit motive marks you as a Flim-Flam Brother whether you make a quality product or not, because we all know you’ll cut the quality and screw the local farmers if you have to in order to win. Where you can be who you are without being afraid of being judged against some artificial standard of what your gender is “supposed” (by whom?) to be like. Where love and peace and friendship have the power to change the world for the better.

Wanting a world like that marks you as childish, in our world. It didn’t always; Judaism calls it “tikkun olam.” Christianity calls it “the Kingdom of Heaven.” Ethicists call it optimal utility. It’s what civilization was invented for in the first place.

All over the world, a generation is waking up and realizing that the we aren’t bound by an inevitable destiny; we can shape our own. The world isn’t ending; we’re going to inherit it, and we need to decide what we want it to be. Equestria has flaws, and reasons it would never work in the real world–but it’s not a bad picture to keep in our minds, either.

This is the story of an animator…

Born 1974, Lauren Faust grew up loving the My Little Pony toys and playing with and having adventures with them, but absolutely despising the show. This is the sort of detail biographers love to put in, because it helps turn the chaos of living a life in the real world into a nicely organized, neat little narrative full of foreshadowing and recurring themes. “See?” this detail seems to say. “She was always destined to revolutionize the show. Of course if she never touched the toys, you could accomplish the same foreshadowing by pointing out how everyone around her liked My Little Pony and she didn’t, while the foreshadowing if she loved both toy and show would be obvious.

She became an animator, and worked on several high-profile shows for Cartoon Network in the late 1990s with her eventual husband Craig McCracken. The first was Powerpuff Girls, created by McCracken. Faust started as an animator, and worked her way up to directing and writing episodes, including writing the theatrical prequel movie. Despite its bright colors and adorable female main characters, PPG broke the mold for girls’ shows. It had a lot of action, the girls had not only distinctive hobbies and quirks, but their own strengths, weaknesses, dreams–in short, distinct personalities–and were able to be little girls while also being completely badass superheroes. It proved to be so popular that it’s now coming back to Cartoon Network after nearly 15 years off the air. She had a larger role from the start in Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, also created by McCracken. Faust was the character designer, head writer, and a storyboarder.

A feminist, Faust repeatedly tried to pitch a show with an all-female cast to Cartoon Network, and was repeatedly told such a show couldn’t succeed. (Note that this is after Powerpuff Girls was a smash hit.) Then, after Hasbro bought half of Discovery Kids and started looking for content to fill their new network, she tried approaching them; they turned down her initial idea, but countered with an offer to helm a new My Little Pony series, with the intent of creating a new toyline based on the show. Faust set out to combine what little good there was in the old cartoons with her own sensibilities; she has said at different times her goals were to create a show for little girls and their parents that both could enjoy, and to create a show that explored many different ways to be a girl.

This is the story of an evolving show…

Here we have Rarity demonstrating how to
reject something as not being your destiny.
Thank you, Rarity, you’re a lesson to us all.

It’s April 15, 2011. The top song this week is still Katy Perry’s “E.T.” The top movie is Rio, which while not as bad as the last couple of movies we’ve seen in the top spot, is still pretty bad. The news is mostly more of the same, with military killing protestors in Egypt and Syria, among other places, and Japan getting hit by more aftershocks and evacuating more people from the area around the Fukushima nuclear plant. One bright spot: On the day this episode airs, Australian and Japanese researchers successfully teleport information-carrying “packets” of light.

This week’s episode is a stunning tour de force by M.A. Larson, “The Cutie Mark Chronicles.” The most ambitious episode yet, it uses a complex structure of interconnected flashbacks to address questions of destiny. This is a brilliant approach, since we are used to thinking of destiny as a linear thing, a (rather depressing, and entirely at odds with our sense that we do, at least sometimes, make meaningful choices) notion that our lives are a straight line determined by our trajectory at birth. This episode, however, is anything but a straight line. Applejack’s flashback, for example, begins well before anyone else’s, and depending on the travel time between Manehatten and Ponyville, either it or Pinkie Pie’s flashback ends last. Rainbow Dash’s and probably Twilight Sparkle’s flashbacks take place entirely within Fluttershy’s, Rarity’s ends later that night, and Pinkie Pie’s the next day–if Pinkie Pie’s even happened.

It’s an interesting conceit, to have a single central event tie together the lives of the Mane Six before they ever knew each other. This episode was clearly set up far in advance, both overtly (Rainbow Dash’s previous comment that, prior to “Sonic Rainboom,” she’d succeeded in creating one exactly once) and subtly (Rainbow Dash’s dismissive attitude towards Fluttershy in “Dragonshy” makes more sense–and becomes a clumsy attempt to protect her, rather than evidence of dislike–if Rainbow Dash has been protecting Fluttershy since they were foals).

However farfetched it may seem, it makes more sense as a result of the Texas sharpshooter fallacy: If you fire a bunch of bullets at a wall, and then draw the target where the bullet holes are clustered, you may well come out looking superhumanly accurate. Likewise, if you look hard enough for something that coincidentally ties together a randomly selected group of people, you will find something. Though it is interesting that the sonic rainboom coincides with their discoveries of their callings in all of the stories, it’s still perfectly believable as a meaningless coincidence.

But then, what is the difference between meaningless coincidence and destiny, except that destiny is meaningful and coincidences are not? If we insist that meaning must come “from” somewhere other than ourselves, then there is no destiny, only meaningless coincidence. But in these parts we take as given that meaning is constructed, that we create it ourselves and in concert with the surrounding culture, which means that no coincidence is meaningless unless we choose it ourselves. We can choose what counts as destiny and what counts as coincidence.

This is the story of a fan…

A couple of years ago, Viga saw a thread about ponies someone created on the Front Row Crew forum. Initially, she thought it was a troll, but with time enough people on the site gave the show a shot to make it a brony-friendly place. Viga loved the show herself, and as official Pusher Robot of our circle of friends, nagged me to watch it.

Eventually I did. I had little in the way of preconceptions regarding the show–vague memories of seeing the G1 movie with Tirek, nothing more. The first episode seemed to me to be the best attempt by Westerners to imitate what I like about magical girls since Joss Whedon did it, but then the next few episodes after that failed on that promise.

And then “Dragonshy” happened, and I realized that I am Fluttershy and she is me. I have never identified with a character as strongly as I do her, never felt that their experience portrays my own, but Fluttershy is not just me. She is me at my best, a better version of me. Even as I watch her grow in the show, I realize that I have in me the capacity to be much of what is good about her, and to borrow the things she learns about herself.

I love My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. I’m passionate about it. I devote massive amounts of energy to my love for it, and I receive a great deal in return. It’s not really something that can be described to someone who’s never been a geek about something, but I feel like it’s a part of who I am now. I was always destined to be a brony–and yet if Viga had not happened upon that thread on FRC, or if I had continued to refuse to watch the show, I would never have been one.

Case in point: Two of my closest and oldest friends are gigantic bronies. They started watching before I did, and discussed with each other whether to recommend the show to me. They decided I probably wouldn’t like it and it was better not to bring it up. I came this close to never seeing the show.

But I did watch it, and now I write thousands of words a week about My Little Pony, and I’ve seen every episode at least four times (except “One Bad Apple,” because it sucks). What a fragile thing destiny can be.

This is the story of a franchise…

In 1982, designer and illustrator Bonnie Zacherle, together with sculptor Charles Muenchinger, created a design for a girl’s toy: a brightly colored plastic horse with combable mane and tail. Hasbro marketed the toy, which proved extremely popular, and in 1986 launched a tie-in cartoon. This was the wasteland of 1980s children’s television, when half-hour toy commercials ruled the world, and My Little Pony was very much Transformers for girls. It mapped neatly onto the gender stereotypes: nifty mechanically complex toy involving robots and cars, and an adventure cartoon with lots of different personalities engaging in exciting action, versus brightly colored inarticulate toys with pretty hair that were horses and had cloyingly sweet, mundane quote-unquote adventures with only one personality shared among the bunch. Because according to toy manufacturers and childrens programming directors, little boys are people and like active things and excitement, little girls are identical ciphers and like passivity and sweetness. There was some exception in the first incarnation of the cartoon, with villains of the week and adventures, but still indistinguishable characters, not to mention the terrible animation typical of 1980s TV cartoons.

But things changed for cartoons in starting around 1987. The rise of syndication meant a degree of creative freedom relative to network television, and Disney’s Ducktales proved it was possible to create a syndicated cartoon that was popular, profitable, and actually good! The Warner Bros.-Amblin team followed closely on their heels with Tiny Toon Adventures, and the next few years were a golden age for syndicated cartoons. The 1990s, on the other hand, saw the rise of cable TV, where restrictions were looser still and a new generation of artists like John K, Mike Judge, Genndy Tartovsky, and Craig McCracken had the creative freedom and budgets they needed to shine. The merchandise-driven era of animation gave way to the creator-driven era, and the animation and writing of the best cartoons of the 1990s and 2000s were leaps and bounds above the efforts of the 1970s and 1980s, able to stand proudly among the greats of the 40s and 50s.

But while the rest of TV animation improved, MLP stayed the same or got worse. Second and third generations of the toy lines followed, and new versions of the cartoon. 1992’s My Little Pony Tales was the second cartoon associatd with the G1 toys. Because the demographic was growing a little older, it was aimed more at preteens: the ponies went to school, and were interested in makeup and boys, and while you started to have differences between the characters in terms of attitude and hobbies, every problem for every character could pretty much be solved by a makeover. Generation 3 had its own direct to video shorts and features from 2003-9. These were aimed at toddlers, but pandered so much even babies might have a hard time enjoying them. All the ponies were indistinguishable pallette swaps, the the animation was terrible, the writing was terrible, the cartoons were, simply, terrible.

As 2010 dawned, My Little Pony was shorthand for the worst of pandering, low-quality entertainment, the go-to example for people who argued that shows marketed to girls sucked.

This is the story of us all…

Every life is a chain of coincidences; very few events are the result of some agency or purpose. But it is up to us to decide which of those coincidences are meaningful and which are not, which to embrace, which to bemoan, and which to discard as unimportant. If I choose to interpret my life that way, then yes, I was always destined to be who I am now. Or, if I prefer, I can choose to read my life differently and claim another destiny as my own.

The random intersections of people’s lives and stories, those coincidences and connections, are what make everything in our culture–in any culture–possible. Is it a meaningless coincidence or destiny that Faust played with ponies as a child, or that I can remember the G1 movie? Meaningless coincidence or destiny that 4chan got wind of the coming show?

It doesn’t matter. What matters is that we all live in the same world, and everything that exists affects everything else that exists. We are all connected, and we pick and choose from these connections to grow our lives, art, politics, philosophy, everything shaped all along by these meaningless coincidences, this multitude of interacting destinies. Everything we do and are, everything we create and love, is shaped by these encounters and intersections, these coincidences and destined encounters, these connections and interactions.

And that’s how Equestria was made.

Next week: Of the final five episodes of the first season, four are simply excellent, outstanding examples of what My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic can do at its best. Next week’s… isn’t.

I’m just good with animals. It’s my special gift, you know. (A Bird in the Hoof)

The single most disturbing image in the entire series.
You could add Slenderman looking in through the window,
and it still wouldn’t be any creepier than it already is.

It’s April 8, 2011, and the number one song is Katy Perry featuring Kanye West with an obnoxious nerdboy power fantasy, “E.T.” The top movie, meanwhile, is Hop, a disorganized, idiotic mess typical of the same wave of CG-live action hybrids that gave us Alvin and the Chipmunks, Marmaduke, and The Smurfs. Real news is just as bad as the entertainment world: since last week the Arab Spring has grown steadily more violent, as governments crack down on protestors and the Libyan Civil War continues; experts confirm that the nuclear reactors damaged by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami are leaking radioactive materials into the water–just in time for an aftershock that kills nine people and injures hundreds; a flurry of tornadoes and heavy storms strike the U.S.; and Idaho bans abortion of fetuses older than 20 weeks.

Thank goodness we have ponies to distract us–and what a delightful distraction Charlotte Fullerton gives us this week! “A Bird in the Hoof” is a charming little story, and full of those wonderful details that make this show such a joy to watch. There’s the marvelous variety of facial expressions, like Princess Celestia’s indulgent, motherly smile when Pinkie Pie eats her cupcake or Fluttershy’s pupils dilating hopefully before she breaks into a big grin during Philomena’s aromatherapy. There’s the pill Fluttershy gives Philomena, recognizably the broad-spectrum antibiotic tetracycline hydrochloride. Or my personal favorite, the wheelchair-bound mouse that Fluttershy gently treats and then returns to his family in their hole in the wall–which means she even takes care of the vermin that chew holes in her house!

But this episode is more than a diversion, it’s a continuation and refinement of themes we’ve been seeing through the series. Most obvious is the rebirth motif inherent in the symbol of the phoenix. Philomena dies and is reborn in fire, and thus is the perfect pet for the sun goddess Celestia. Rebirth is often closely associated with the sun, which not only dies each night and is reborn each day, but dies and is reborn on the Winter Solstice and during every total solar eclipse, too. Rebirth has been a recurrent theme throughout the series, starting back in the very first scene of the first episode, which as I pointed out back then is an eclipse myth. Celestia’s disappearance throughout that episode, and her reappearance at sunrise, is a similar death-and-rebirth to Philomena’s in this episode, and at the same moment we get the death of Nightmare Moon and rebirth as Luna.

I’ve already addressed the death and rebirth of the series itself, its alchemical transformation from “Swarm of the Century” to “Suited for Success.” Transformation and rebirth are, ultimately, the same thing–something was, and no longer is, but is made new. It’s therefore fitting that “A Bird in the Hoof” is the first episode as flawless as “Suited for Success” was. Indeed, at this point there would be very little evidence against the claim that Charlotte Fullerton is the series’ best writer–but wait a few more episodes on that one.

Including transformations as part of the rebirth theme, we must therefore add the Cutie Mark Crusader-centric episodes to our list; what they seek is to initiate the transformation of adolescence, to die as children and be reborn as adults. Arguably, transformation is the central theme of the show to date; at the very least, it has been the central theme of this blog.

What’s interesting about this episode, however, is that it’s a subversion of the rebirth motif. Sure, Philomena burns and emerges from the flames beautiful and healthy, but she’s still the same mischievous prankster she was before she burned. Celestia is still patient and gentle, Fluttershy is still kind, easygoing, and timid, and Twilight Sparkle is still neurotic and anxious. The only transformation here was the least interesting kind, the literal and physical.

It’s a very postmodern thing to do, actually: after an entire season of transformations and rebirths, we finally get a phoenix to lampshade it, and then the episode calls the entire motif into question by giving us no transformation at all. Instead, it focuses on a similar issue to the last Fluttershy-centric episode, “Green Isn’t Your Color,” and critiques the misapplication of kindness.

In feminist circles, this concept is known as Intent Isn’t Magic (sometimes with an added f-bomb for emphasis). It doesn’t matter if you intended to help the other person; true kindness (like true generosity, true loyalty, and true friendship) aren’t about you, they’re about the other person. Before you can help someone, you have to know whether and how they want to be helped, and the only way to accomplish that is clear and open communication. A lot of people have a serious problem with this; they do things that they think are helpful, and then when the response is not gratitude, they get upset. Here, Fluttershy becomes upset and frustrated not because of a lack of gratitude, but because her efforts to help aren’t accomplishing anything. The underlying cause, however, remains the same; she didn’t bother to ask what help was needed, and just assumed, with the result that her “help” was actually useless and possibly harmful (I doubt immersing a dying phoenix in water is a good idea). Just as in “Green Isn’t Your Color,” the lack of open communication, despite everyone involved having the best of intentions, results in completely avoidable heartache for the characters.

The temptation I repeatedly struggle with, in writing this blog, is to look at episodes in isolation. The show is extremely episodic, especially in the first season, to the point that some have argued that the weird behavior of the seasons implies that the season’s airing order is not the chronological order of events in Ponyville. This episode, however, is one of the reasons I don’t think that’s possible. Fluttershy’s character has an arc this season; at first she’s too timid to do much of anything, but she successfully faces her dragon and gains enough confidence to stand on stage as a model, but not enough to confront Rarity about her feelings. In this episode she has more confidence still, enough to outright snatch the ruler of Equestria’s pet because she feels it isn’t being well cared for. Her behavior at the Grand Galloping Gala is the next step from here; the Fluttershy of earlier episodes would have given up long before her freakout.

Viewing this episode together with the rest of the season, and in particular in light of the previous episode, it becomes clear that we have another mini-arc on the theme of undesired help, lack of communication, and that Friendship, not Intent, is Magic. We start with Dog and Pony Show, where (as I discussed) in the article on that episode, Spike is in full-on obnoxious Nice Guy mode. This pattern of behavior, again, is all about being “nice” (that is, having intentions that can at least be interpreted as good by someone very, very generous and biased in the Nice Guy’s favor) while not caring at all about the internality of the other person. Nice Guy Syndrome is an excellent, real-world example of the way real, genuine friendship (that is, knowing and caring about the other person) can form meaningful bonds as opposed to the awful behavior “nice” intentions create in its absence.

Next up is “Green Isn’t Your Color,” which we’ve already discussed at length. In this case Rarity and Fluttershy’s intentions are genuinely good and unselfish, but again, they neglect to take into account the internality of the other, and that it differs from their own.

“Over a Barrel” suffers the most from the tendency to view it in isolation. Viewed in the context of the episodes around it, the read of it as a satire of modern proxy imperialism I briefly mentioned in the article becomes much stronger. Modern neoliberal imperialism (so called because it was invented by Kennedy-era liberals, but now present in both sides of the political divide) is essentially a rehash of White Man’s Burden: our culture is better and free-er than theirs and democracy is objectively the best and most moral form of government, so we should go in and liberate those poor people suffering under oppressive regimes, whether they’ve asked us to or not. This has the effect of escalating every local conflict into a clash of opposing superpowers, but when the dust settles all those Western corporations have new markets to sell to and new resources to exploit. Don’t dare suggest that was ever part of the motivation, though. Obviously the Old West setting obscures the satire somewhat, as Manifest Destiny was a completely different, more savage, and far more honest excuse to go into other people’s land and kill them; specifically, it was the two-year-old’s attitude of “I want that, therefore it’s rightfully mine.” That the satirical elements of the episode would have worked better without it is just another in the long, long, long list of reasons the Old West setting was a terrible, terrible idea.

But mostly we’re here to discuss “A Bird in the Hoof,” which is the culmination of the theme. “Over a Barrel” showed where the attitude of “I have good intentions, and therefore can do no wrong,” leads on a cultural level. This episode shows where it leads on a personal, relational level, which I see as a much more effective approach to getting people to stop doing it–especially this show’s two main audiences, children and geeks, who are often isolated from the larger culture and unlikely to see its failings as their own.

On the level of interpersonal relationships, the Intent Is Magic attitude leads to some truly horrific behavior. In the episode we have a long (and very funny) montage of Fluttershy trying and failing to solve Philomena’s problem, and while it’s frustrating and distressing for Fluttershy, it looks like sheer torture for Philomena. The high level of slapstick absurdity in this episode’s animation helps obscure and make palatable the suffering Philomena is put through, but she is roasted, frozen, plunged into water that causes her to swell terribly, given ointments that make her break out in hives, and force-fed a pill she’s already rejected. We are quick to label as selfish a person who focuses solely on their own wants and needs, and ignores what others want and are able to give. The inverse is just as true, however; the person who focuses solely on what they want and are able to give, and ignores the wants and needs of others, is exactly as selfish.

Children necessarily live on the receiving end of that every day. Because we are born ignorant and have to learn as we grow, children often don’t know their own needs very well, and their wants tend to be unrealistic. Parents must sometimes do what their child needs as opposed to what the child wants, and that’s unpleasant for everyone; worse still is when, due to the child’s still-evolving communication skills, the parent doesn’t understand what it is the child needs and, with the best of intentions, does the wrong thing. Though normally the ponies are the point of identification for the viewer, in this case Philomena is; she is the child who cannot express what she needs, and Fluttershy the well-meaning parent who doesn’t stop to try to work it out. It’s not intentional self-centeredness on Fluttershy’s part, but then, as we said, Intent Isn’t Magic.

Friendship is, however. Truly knowing and understanding another person, being open enough with them that you can ask after their needs and wants, and they can tell you if you’re missing the mark, without fear. That’s the point, when you recognize another’s internality, that true kindness becomes possible; any charity before that is at best flailing in the dark, and at worst actively harmful.

Next week: Rainbows and cutie marks and transformations for everyone! Plus we get to see the Mane Six as kids! Does it get any better than this? Amazingly, yes, yes it does.