Princess Cadance needs our help/Her magic will not last forever/I think we can do it/But we need to work together (A Canterlot Wedding)

Reminder: Since this is going up so late on Monday, there will be no Tuesday post. Regular posting resumes Wednesday.

“Yeah, man, like, we just wanna groove on all the love
you ponies are putting out, you know?”

It’s April 21, 2012. The top song continues to be fun’s “We Are Young” featuring Janelle Monae, who is high on the list of delightful things I’d never have discovered without this project. The Hunger Games maintained its top spot for the first of two weekends since the last episode, but slips to number three this weekend, with the top spot taken by something called Think Like a Man, which appears to be a battle-of-the-sexes romantic comedy.

In the week after the previous episode, Facebook buys Instagram, George Zimmerman is formally charged with the murder of Trayvon Martin, and terrifying theocrat Rick Santorum drops out of the Republican Presidential primary. In the week after that, the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic occurs, the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” is to be re-released for both its 35th anniversary and Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee in June, and two of Alan Turing’s papers are submitted to the British National Archives 70 years after publication.

On TV, we have “A Canterlot Wedding” by the almost-always-solid Meghan McCarthy (who, after overseeing a season all the scripts for which were complete before Lauren Faust stepped down, will next season be the unambiguous primary creative force behind the show), and directed by the team of Jayson Thiessen and James Wootton, co-directing for the first time since “The Return of Harmony.”

Other than both being two-part adventures featuring the introduction of a new villain, the two stories could not be more different. There is no narrative collapse here, no fundamental challenge to the underlying basis of the show–as we will see, the changelings could have been couched as such, but quite deliberately are not. Conversely, while “Return of Harmony” is a two-part adventure story with a clear villain throughout, “A Canterlot Wedding” falls neatly into two parts, dividing in the final scene of part one, between a character piece of the sort that we’ve seen many times before, and a fight-the-villain adventure of the type we have had only a handful of times–seven instances prior to this two-parter, and only that many if Ahuizotl counts.

Most of Part One is effectively a retread of “Lesson Zero” and “It’s About Time,” albeit with the addition of the simultaneously catchy and melancholic “Big Brother Best Friend Forever.” Twilight starts the episode upset that her brother is getting married without telling her in advance, and further upset that she’s (ostensibly) never met the person he’s marrying. Even after learning that “Princess Mi Amore Cadenza” is her old foalsitter Cadance, Twilight is not entirely mollified, mostly because Cadance appears to barely remember her. Twilight sulks through the next several scenes as her friends help out with the wedding, because Twilight apparently feels that she owns her brother and gets to decide who he marries.

Being savvy viewers, we can see where this is headed. Twilight will get more and more worked up, as she tends to do, letting her biased observations convince her that Cadance is evil, until finally she lashes out, nearly ruins the wedding, and must learn to trust the judgment of others where their own lives are concerned. Of course there are some oddities, most notably that having no friends appears to run in the family: every role in the wedding (except, initially, the bridesmaids, and even those are driven off) is fulfilled by Twilight’s friends. For Shining Armor that’s perhaps believable–as a guard, most of his friends are likely involved with defending Canterlot from the unspecified “threats” it’s received and therefore unavailable to help plan the wedding, but for Cadance–a princess with magical power over love, of all things–to have no friends of her own seems odd.

All is explained, of course, by the final revelation of the first part: Twilight’s worries were right. Cadance is up to something–specifically, as we learn early in Part Two, she is a Changeling, a creature that feeds on love by transforming into and replacing the object of that love. It is a creepy concept, but deployed in a very strange way.

The natural plot for an episode featuring an army of evil shapeshifters (largely traceable to the 1955 novel Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the 1956 film of the same name, although both owe a considerable debt to 1951’s The Puppet Masters, though the villains in that are mind-controllers rather than duplicates) is one rooted in paranoia: trust no one, because anyone could be One of Them. It is Us versus Them, and They look just like Us–in combination with the nonspecific “threats” of Part One it sounds suspiciously like the paranoid narrative of the War on Terror, itself a reapplication of Cold War attitudes toward communists. The enemy is amorphous and clandestine, and therefore must be guarded against at all times, in all places, so that all else becomes subsumed in that vigilance and the only reliable figures are, conveniently, the same authorities who tell you to be afraid.

But the show does not do that, because the Changelings do not follow the correct strategy for that story. Queen Chrysalis does, posing as Cadance, working her way into control of a captain of the Royal Guard, and then taking out Celestia as soon as she reveals herself, but once she brings down the shield the rest of the Changelings behave like a bog-standard invading army. Except for some brief moments in their fights with the Mane Six, they largely don’t even bother to transform into ponies, relying instead on physical force and the ability to shoot laser beams from their horns.

So if not terrorists/the Communist Menace/Anonymous, what are the Changelings? There is a fun, but somewhat mean-spirited, read in which they are bronies, appropriating the show from its rightful owners, feeding on the love and happiness that permeates it and replacing it with the violence and destruction of something like “Fallout: Equestria” or “Cupcakes.” The image of a changeling taking on the outward appearance of a beloved character and acting out a romantic relationship with another, without ever truly possessing the essence of that character, is one of the sharpest critiques of shipping in Western media.

But such a read runs into two major problems: First, it applies only to the second part, not to Chrysalis-as-Cadance in the first, and second, it seems uncharacteristic for McCarthy, who (if her Twitter feed is any sign) approaches the adult fandom with a mix of bafflement, amusement, and cautious appreciation. Of course the intent and attitude of the creator only goes so far, so anyone who wishes to is welcome to run with this reading; however, we shall pass over it and move to another.

Key to this reading is the song early in Part Two, “This Day Aria.” Effectively a duet between Chrysalis-as-Cadance and the real Cadance, the song recounts each of their motivations, including this from Chrysalis:

I could care less about the dress
I won’t partake of any cake
Vows–well I’ll be lying when I say
That through any kind of weather
I’ll want us to be together
The truth is I don’t care for him at all
No I do not love the groom
In my heart there is no room
But I still want him to be all mine!

Chrysalis, in other words, has no capacity for love, and no humanizing desires at all–not for the glamor of a dress, the taste of cake, or the comfort of companionship. All she cares about is power, to possess, control, and dominate others.

As we discussed in regards to “Dragon Quest,” power is inherently anxious. An individual with power can never truly trust anyone, and as such power is antithetical to real love, which can only exist between equals. However, this episode asserts, this antithetical relationship goes both ways; just as power can negate the possibility of love, love can lead to the overthrow of power.

The Changelings are creatures of power and manipulation, precisely the sort of people who benefit most from the environment of suspicion and mistrust of normally endorsed by shapeshifter narratives. Part One thus becomes critical to this read, because ultimately its twist ending suggests a moral of “Even if they have been wrong before, give your friends the benefit of the doubt.” This is explicitly not an environment in which one should Trust No One; it is an environment in which one should be very careful to trust the right people. There is a massive difference, most importantly that in a society devoid of trust, the only structures that can stand are power hierarchies, which neither permit nor require trust.

In an environment where trust is possible, however, Cadance (the real Cadance) and Twilight can rediscover their old, effectively familial love and work together to escape. Cadance’s love can reach Shining Armor, persuade him to break free of Chrysalis’ power, and together overthrow her and free Equestria. Love is a potent force against power.

What, then, to make of the hints last episode that emotions are socially constructed? If love is something we made up, and make up slightly differently for each person in each culture, how can Cadance have magical power over it? How can the Changelings feed on it?

To tackle the last question first, consider the way in which the Changelings feed according to the episode: They replace a person who is loved, and feed on the love felt toward that person. They are not the object of the love, and yet able to draw power from it anyway, because the victim believes the Changeling to be their loved one. This strongly suggests that, for all that it may be a physical force on which the Changelings can feed, love is nonetheless a construct, something thought into being by the lover.

The same goes for Cadance’s love magic. We see it used twice in the episode, once to remind two arguing lovers of their feelings (rather creepily cutting off their arguments) and once to enhance Shining’s Armor’s shield spell to drive all the Changelings from the city. In neither case does she create love (something which, as we saw in “Hearts and Hooves Day” and to a lesser extent in “Lesson Zero,” appears to be inherently dangerous and inadvisable), merely using love that is already present and recognized by the ponies involved.

There is, in other words, no contradiction: love is constructed, and it has real, potent effects in the world. Why should there be a contradiction? Power is just as much a construct, just as prone to vanishing as soon as those impacted by it stop acknowledging it, so of course love can meet it on equal terms.

We end the second season with one last call-back across time, a heart which forms to a variation of the original My Little Pony theme, but itself recalls nothing so much as the first use of the magic of friendship in the story-within-a-story of “Hearth’s Warming Eve.” That which created Equestria, both in the diegetic and extradiegetic senses, is now that which saved it.

And in both cases, that’s love: the love of a creator for the work created, the love of fans for the object of fandom, the love of friends for friends. It is a utopian dream, to say that love can overcome power–but it has happened, in a small and temporary way, so many times. So, I say, dream on.

Next week: But dreams have a way of turning into nightmares…

Sometimes it’s just really fun to be scared (MMMMystery on the Friendship Express)

Sergeant Sherlock Pie inspects the new recruits.

It’s April 7, 2012. The top song and top movie have not budged. In the news, less than 1% of the population of the District of Columbia votes in its Republican presidential primary, the 30th anniversary of the Falkland War occurs, and Sky News (part of the Rupert Murdoch empire along with a number of newspapers, Fox News, and some sheep ranches) admits to hacking email accounts, which would have fit well with last episode.


But this episode is “MMMMystery on the Friendship Express,” directed by Jayson Thiessen and written by a nigh-unrecognizable Amy Keating Rogers. None of her problematic signatures are on display here; there are no reflexively applied toxic memes or stereotypes, no Applejack worship (indeed, she’s barely in the episode), just some silly fun with Pinkie Pie being weird and lots of allusions. 

Most notable, of course, is Murder on the Orient Express, of which this episode is straightforwardly a parody. The most immediately obvious references are in the plot: a train suspiciously devoid of passengers unrelated to the story (in the novel, excuses are given as to why no one outside of one sleeper car could be involved, but the train nonetheless feels curiously small) becomes a crime scene. A skilled detective (Twilight in the show, Poirot in in the book) investigates, accompanied by an incompetent detective (Pinkie Pie here merges the characters of the doctor and M. Bouc) who falls for red herrings and makes accusations based on spurious reasoning. In the end, it turns out everyone is guilty except for the investigators themselves, but a solution is found so that no one is punished. One of the criminals even disguises themselves as a worker on the train, while another fakes leaving it while remaining on board!

More interesting, perhaps, are the structural similarities. “Friendship Express” does not match “Orient Express” beat for beat, even when one takes into account that the cast of the episode is half that of the book. However, both the book and the episode have an intricate, nested structure: a first part that introduces the characters; a series of short vignettes featuring each suspect in turn; a period of clue-gathering in which the incompetent detective is baffled and the competent detective confident and businesslike; and finally a denouement in whih the truth is revealed. The biggest differences are that the vignettes are the second phase in the episode and clue-gathering third, the reverse of the book, and the occurrence of a second crime in the episode, committed by all the characters Pinkie Pie falsely accused in the first. Additionally, the vignettes in both establish innocence for the characters featured in them, but in the show this is because they are falsely accused, while in the book they are providing alibis for one another. 

These vignettes, along with the scene where the lights go out, followed by the revelation of a new crime, and the fact that the second incident involves three simultaneous acts of vandalism, all recall the film Clue, itself a parody of the Agatha Christie-style upper-class closed-circle mystery of which Murder on the Orient Express is frequently upheld as a paragon. Rather famously, that film was released with three different endings, which were distributed to different theaters, but nearly twenty years on from that, the TV and home video versions are far more familiar, which play all three endings in sequence–each is shown, then immediately dismissed using silent movie-style placards, and the next is shown. In much the same way, each of Pinkie Pie’s accusations is shown, then dismissed by Twilight Sparkle–her first accusation is even done in a silent movie style!

There is quite a mix of media going on here, connecting a novel, two films (as the nearest source for the episode is not so much the Agatha Christie novel itself as the 1974 film based on it), and the board game from which Clue is adapted, and the episode reflects that, connecting styles and eras of film that deal with suspense and uncertainty. The episode as a whole, of course, references the closed-circle mysteries of the 1930s, while the griffin chef’s vignette references silent film, and more specifically the action serials typified by The Perils of Pauline. Doughnut Joe’s vignette is a 1960s martini-and-tuxedos spy thriller of the type today best remembered for James Bond, and the mule’s is a pastiche of the kung fu films of the 1970s.

We are back, in other words, on the theme of time, and in particular in the way in which different periods of pop culture expressed and experienced suspense and action–largely the domain of predatory figures in the silent film era and the 1930s, but a source of pleasure and excitement in later periods. It is a demonstration that even our feelings are subject to cultural shifts, can change their meaning from generation to generation.

There is an oft-repeated truism that the popularity of film genres shifts with the times: in times of war and economic turmoil, comedies and fantasies are more popular, while in stable periods of peace and prosperity dramas and thrillers are more popular. People who are afraid and stressed want to laugh and to escape; people who are comfortable and safe want pathos and adventure. What kinds of emotional states are experienced as pleasurable is in part dependent on the state of the culture, in other words.

It is a direct challenge to the season’s other major theme, love. If even our emotions are mere to signifiers, changing according to cultural context, does it not follow that love is a cultural construct? For all the claims that it conquers all, that it is eternal and can outlast time, can it really be just a matter of cultural programming that makes us regard it as one of the loftiest goals, where another culture might place duty, glory, responsibility, any of a host of other ideals? How far can this be extended? Is it possible to imagine a culture so boring that fear becomes the most sought-after emotion, so that horror movies and amusement parks become regarded as among the highest forms of art? Is it possible to imagine a culture where love is not desired at all?

Or, perhaps, are there limits? How we feel about feelings is clearly at least partially determined by the culture around us, yes, but is it a matter of influences tugging one way or the other on emotions that do have an underlying tendency to be viewed as positive or negative by most people? In other words, is love something that most people want regardless of culture, but culture influences how much they want it?

These are likely not questions that have solid, certain answers. We may never know the answer, but an answer can be assayed–and the show is about to do just that.

Next week: Amorivorous doppelgangers, giant glowing hearts, and some seriously excellent music.

Heheh. Who knows? (Ponyville Confidential)

Due to how late this post went up Monday, there will be no Tuesday post. Regular updates resume Wednesday.

Sweetie Belle has just discovered the awesome power
of coffee. Apple Bloom and Scootaloo are unimpressed.

It’s March 31, 2012, and the top song is still “We Are Young,” as it will be for the remainder of the season. The top movie is also unchanged, as The Hunger Games has its second of four weekends at number one. In the news, in the wake of a scandal surrounding wealthy donors paying for access to him, Prime Minister of Britain David Cameron publishes a list of the donors who did so; Visa and MasterCard have a massive security breach which potentially compromises more than 10 million credit card numbers; and the London Metropolitan police make a scandal of their own when a black man they arrested uses his cell phone to record them abusing him and using racial slurs.

On TV we have “Ponyville Confidential,” the antepenultimate episode of Season Two, written by M.A. Larson going unusually light on the outside references and directed by Jayson Thiessen. A Cutie Mark Crusader episode, it returns to their core motivation–where in their last episode they were motivated as much as or more by concern for Cheerilee as getting their cutie marks, here the cutie marks are their primary concern once more.

On the surface, this appears to be a fairly typical story of the “journalism is a corrupting and invasive industry that ruins lives for profit” ilk. (Are there any industries that don’t?) However, it contains a distinct oddity that makes it stand out both from other, similar stories and from the rest of the Cutie Mark Crusader episodes: at the end of the story, the CMC are still on the student newspaper, which neither collapses or continues on in villainy, but instead has a change of leadership and increase in outside guidance.

If not about the evils of journalism, then, what is this episode about? Generally speaking, a work can be said to be about (among other things) whatever it is that the core conflict is fought over and with. In this case, there are two major conflicts: first, between “Gabby Gums” and the townsfolk who are hurt by the stories she tells about them, and second between the CMC and Diamond Tiara, who blackmails them into continuing to work for her. In that light, it becomes rather clearer, since these are essentially the same conflict, between those who wish to establish their own identities and those who wish to control them–in other words, it is once again a conflict between freedom and power.

The descent of Gabby Gums begins innocently enough, with a funny, embarrassing story about Snips and Snails that the two foals are happy to have shared–indeed, they even try to recreate the incident later in the hopes of being at the center of attention once more. Some people seek out attention, whether by taking public office, pursuing fame, or committing crimes, and by so doing give up some of their right to privacy and self-definition. 
Most people, however, do not. Gabby Gums is soon revealing irrelevant stories about public figures (the mayor’s hair-dying “scandal”) and, worse still, exposing the secrets of private individuals (publishing Rarity’s diary, for example). Eventually, Gabby Gums crosses the line into outright making up stories about the citizens of Ponyville.
This may seem an odd choice at first. While they are both classic examples of journalistic malfeasance, there is not an obvious progression from invasion of privacy to libel. However, the inclusion of the second conflict makes the connection more clear. Blackmail, libel, and invasion of privacy all have something in common: they are all violations of the right to define oneself. Libel is the most obvious–publically lying about a person obscures the truth I who they are. However, blackmail or privacy violation is equally a violation of self-definition; what a person chooses not to reveal defines their public persona just as much as what they choose to reveal, and so blackmail is as much an attack on their public persona as libel. In this context, whether or not the information is true is secondary to whether it disrupts one’s ability to create an identity for oneself.
That is why this had to be a Cutie Mark Crusader story as opposed to, say, Twilight or Rarity getting involved in the local paper: because the CMC’s own quest is to figure out who they are, they are the perfect characters for a story about how easy it is to gain power by defining for others who they are allowed to be. 
Of course, like any rights, there are limits to the right of self-definition, determined by where it comes into contact with other rights. Printing that the mayor dyes her hair to look older than she is may be justifiable if she ever used he apparent age to imply greater experience in a campaign. Rarity snooping in Sweetie Belle’s bag early in the episode is unjustifiable, but once she has reason to suspect that Sweetie Belle may have stolen her diary, it becomes a more reasonable course of action. There is such a thing as too much freedom to self-define.

We live in an age where, paradoxically, privacy is increasingly difficult to maintain in the offline world, yet most of the social ills to be found online can be traced to an excess of anonymity. Given an unlimited freedom to define an identity, a small but virulent minority choose to define no identity at all, instead reveling in the ability to lie, troll, and generally disrupt any community in which they find themselves. This is known as the online disinhibition effect, and one of its major causes is precisely the dissociative anonymity that Gabby Gums provides the CMC: she is an invention, a cipher, that enables the CMC to engage in toxic activity they never would have dare undertake in their usual identities. The cure for such behavior, as the CMC themselves experience, is light: stripped of their anonymity, they come clean, apologize, and endeavor to do better going forward.

The balancing act, therefore, is between the need for privacy to create a space within which people can define themselves, and the need to shine light on people who abuse that privacy and anonymity. Consider the three news stories with which I began this article: neither the Prime Minister nor any of those credit card holders wished their information to get out, and I doubt the London police knew they were being recorded. All three involve taking away from someone the power to define what information about them is presented to the world. Yet instinctively we recognize that exposing malfeasance by those in power is a good reason to take that power, and stealing credit card numbers a bad reason.

The Internet has intensified both sides of the equation, creating both new ways to communicate anonymously and new ways to discover information about others. Ultimately, however, it is an equation that has already been solved. It might not be as simple as replacing the editor-in-chief and bringing in more teacher supervision, but the answers are out there.

Next week: Didn’t we already do pony Rashomon? Oh well, this is closer to pony Murder on the Orient Express anyway.

Don’t worry, old Fluttershy’s back for good. (Hurricane Fluttershy)

SNOWFLAME FEELS NO PAIN!

It’s March 24, 2012. The top song is still fun. and Janelle Monae with “We Are Young,” and the top movie is The Hunger Games. I think that’s the first time the top movie and song have both been good since I started this project.

In less good news, fighting continues to escalate in the Syrian civil war, and Rick Santorum wins the Republican primary in Louisiana. On the other hand, unemployment hits a four-year low in the U.S.

“Hurricane Fluttershy,” directed by Jayson Thiessen, is one of writer Cindy Morrow’s weaker episodes in Season Two, which says quite a bit for how much she’s improved since Season One. In that season, she was reliably mediocre, but her baseline in Season Two is a solid notch above that, with her best work of the season, “Read It and Weep,” one of the show’s true gems.

It is another character study of Fluttershy, and returns to the pattern of Fluttershy’s first focus episode, “Dragonshy,” by having her encounter a situation that involves one of her many fears, slowly learn to overcome that fear, and then save the day. However, in this case the enemy Fluttershy must overcome is not an externalization of her anxieties in the form of a monster, but rather completely internalized anxieties in the form of crippling flashbacks.

It’s thus important that Rainbow Dash and Twilight Sparkle be the other two main characters featured in this episode. Twilight Sparkle needs to be here, albeit primarily as an observer, because this is a companion piece to “It’s About Time.” In my article on that episode I wrote that the season’s study of time is largely over, but that’s not actually true. That episode completes the season’s study of time as a phenomenon, which means here, as well as in one other episode remaining this season, it can examine what happens when time is removed as a factor, when the past leaks into the present or the present rewrites the past.

In the case of this episode, it’s the former, which is why Rainbow Dash needs to be present. Fluttershy is held captive by her past, and specifically by an experience we have already seen she shared with Rainbow Dash, attending, and being teased, at Flight Camp when they were young. Notably, we’ve seen little sign that Rainbow Dash even remembers the teasing–her namecalling by the jock/bully ponies occurs only in Fluttershy’s flashback in “The Cutie Mark Chronicles,” while Rainbow Dash’s begins after the teasing has already occurred. It appears not to have been a significant for her.

For Fluttershy, on the other hand, the teasing that occurred at Flight Camp was psychologically shattering, to the point that engaging in any kind of competitive flying–even one where all the competitors are trying to beat their own best wing power ratings, not competing against one another–functions as a flashback trigger for her, causing her to relive the pain she felt as if the event is still occurring, and this trigger is compounded if she is laughed at or criticized during the event. Indeed, both her flashback (in the literary sense) to the event and her flashbacks (in the post-traumatic stress sense) depict the ponies laughing at her as genericized masks. The teasing has ceased to be a specific event in her mind, if it ever was an isolated event; there is every reason to believe it occurred repeatedly, since once children find that a peer is easily cowed by mass teasing, that peer tends to become a favored target.

The masks show that the teasing is no longer a particular memory of an event perpetrated by specific ponies, but an icon, a defining moment. Fluttershy has internalized the way she felt in that moment, made it a part of who she is, and so her fear that it will return becomes self-fulfilling. Overwhelmed by her terror of being laughed at, she locks up and is unable to fly well, even though we have at least once seen her outrace Rainbow Dash, in “The Return of Harmony.” As a result, she performs poorly and is laughed at, confirming her fears, triggering a flashback, and making it still harder for her to handle competitive flying.

For Rainbow Dash, this is incomprehensible. She has been shown confronting her fears before, most recently in “Read It and Weep,” and her approach has always been, well, confrontational. She deals with fear by meeting it head-on and getting to the other side, because Rainbow Dash’s self-image is that she is brave. When she is afraid, she instinctively responds (as most people do) in a way consistent with her self-image, and thus when she makes it through the scary experience this confirms to her that she is brave, making her even more confident the next time she encounters something that frightens her.

Rainbow Dash thus naturally assumes that the thing to do is to build Fluttershy’s confidence by forcing her through the frightening experience. Unfortunately, post-traumatic stress doesn’t work that way. It is a psychic allergy, in which a normally harmless stimulus becomes associated with trauma and therefore triggers an overreactive psychological defense that does more harm than good. Forcing Fluttershy to participate in the pegasi’s drills and eventual water funneling is not helpful for her any more than forcing someone with a peanut allergy to eat a Snickers bar would be. Rainbow Dash may mean well, but her behavior toward Fluttershy in this episode is quite aggressive and borders on the abusive.

What Fluttershy really needs, if she is to heal, is a safe and supportive environment in which to explore her fear in her own terms, allowing her to take back the control she lost to her childhood bullies. And of all people, it is Angel, leading a contingent of Fluttershy’s animal friends, who provides this for her. They comfort Fluttershy when she flees the training ground, hug her, groom her, and allow her a space to rest and recover, before they begin working with her in a way designed to specifically simulate not the triggers for her flashbacks, but the results–not the sound of laughter or the feeling of being mocked, but the laughing masks themselves. This is clearly uncomfortable for Fluttershy, given her expression during the training montage that ensues, but it is not itself a trigger–she does not (as she did at the training or when originally teased) see the faces multiply, look down on her, or laugh. The icon itself has no power; without the triggers and associated feelings they provoke, it is simply an image.

Fluttershy is thus able to put a crack in her negative self-image, and open the possibility of success. Unfortunately, her self-image is still that of a poor flyer. She soon learns that, despite massive improvement, she still has the lowest wingpower of the adult pegasi by a significant margin. She registers this as failure, where someone with an attitude like Rainbow Dash’s might see it as success. As I said, self-image tends to be self-fulfilling; evidence that confirms what we already believe tends to be more persuasive than evidence that contradicts it.

Only an overwhelming success that garners unanimous approval is enough to overcome Fluttershy’s belief in her poor self-image, and so it is only once she provides the critical final few points of wingpower needed to complete the water transfer to Cloudsdale that Fluttershy’s self-image shows signs of changing. Even then, it will need a lot of work to truly improve in the long term.

Fluttershy’s past invades her present, rendering her unable to clearly separate the now from the then; she was the filly who flew poorly and was picked on, and this leaks into and overwrites her present as the filly whose flying ability saved the day. Self-esteem cannot be built on anything other than genuine, meaningful accomplishment, but Fluttershy’s past reality overrides her present, erasing her accomplishments almost as soon as they happen. This is as much a time-loop episode as “It’s About Time,” and the only thing which can break Fluttershy out of the loop is love, support, and constant reminders that she does have accomplishments, until perhaps she can begin to accept and internalize them.

The episode, in other words, functions as a bridge between the two dominant themes of the season, a way in which love can triumph over time. The transcendence of love is not in the nonsensical, cliche sense of lasting forever–no feeling can exist without a mind to feel it, and as such love cannot outlive the lover. Rather, it is that Fluttershy is empowered by the love and support of others to recognize that she is not who she was, that her present can redefine her past rather than her past always defining her present. In that sense, we are (fittingly for one of the last few episodes of the season) returning to the season opener “The Return of Harmony,” when the love and shared experiences of the ponies defeated a returning ancient evil.

In the end, the episode is hopeful but inconclusive; Fluttershy seems happy, but we know as savvy viewers that future episodes will return to her timidity and low self-image. Like most of us, she needs to learn her lessons many times, in different ways, to have any hope of real change.

Next week: We haven’t had a CMC episode in a while. Satirizing the news media hasn’t been this adorable since Network. (Note: Network is not actually adorable. It’s cynical and depressing and vicious and very, very good.)

This isn’t quite what I expected. (Dragon Quest)

Wait, which one’s Erdrick again?

It’s March 17, 2012. The top song is fun. featuring Janelle Monae with “We Are Young,” which from the title I expected to be a rage-inducing cover of Pat Benatar’s classic “Love Is a Battlefield,” but was pleasantly surprised to find is an actually pretty good song that, judging by the sound, fell sideways in time from an alternate universe where the late 90s and early 2000s never happened and pop music is still borderline listenable. No, this week it’s up to Hollywood to pick up the banner of unnecessary remakes of things that were moderately okay for their time, with 21 Jump Street.

In the news, the world’s population hits seven billion according to the U.S. Census Bureau, a fight breaks out at the U.N. Human Rights Council (which presumably is also the U.N. Commission on Irony), and Rick Santorum wins the Republican Presidential primaries in Alabama and Mississippi, which both tells you everything you need to know about Rick Santorum and everything you need to know about Alabama and Mississippi, and Encyclopaedia Britannica goes online-only because, honestly, encyclopedias were always hypertexts anyway.

“Dragon Quest,” written by Merriwether Williams and directed by James Wootton, is much like “The Mysterious Mare-Do-Well” in that it depicts serious flaws in the socialization of one of our culture’s two largest genders, but unlike the earlier Williams episode, this time it appears to be intentional.

Dragons have been repeatedly depicted as a dark reflection of ponies, most prominently in Season One’s “Dragonshy,” where the dragon served as a Jungian Shadow to Fluttershy. Here, however, they serve as a reflection in a different way; rather than the dark side of ponies, they are the masculine counterpart to the matriarchal society of Equestria. Every dragon Spike speaks to in this episode has a male voice, contrasting sharply with Spike, who is voiced by Cathy Wiseluck–a male character with a woman’s voice, just as Spike effectively declares himself in this episode to be a pony on the inside even as he is a dragon on the outside.

There is certainly much room for a trans* reading of this episode, given its theme that who you are is not dependent on the physical form you happen to take, however much others may judge or place expectations on you based on that form. However, the episode also contains elements that mitigate against a trans* reading, most notably that Spike continues to identify as a dragon after this episode. It can equally, and perhaps more strongly, be read as a rejection of gender roles outright: Spike will define for himself what it means to be a dragon (that is, masculine), and refuses to accept that it requires behaving like the vile older dragons (men) he has met.

At the heart of this reading of the episode is one of the most perfect depictions of hegemonic masculinity I have ever seen, the game of King of the Hoard, where dragons fight each other to reach the top of a mountain of treasure, throwing each other down as they ascend, until ultimately everyone falls and the treasure goes unclaimed. “Hegemonic masculinity” is a term coined by R.W. Connell to describe the relationship between gender and power in our society, and specifically the way in which, in a patriarchal kyriarchy, masculinity becomes defined by the possession and exercise of power.

Important here is the distinction between power and freedom, which can be summed up simply as such: freedom is the ability to make meaningful choices, while power is the ability to take freedom from others, to assert control. Take wealth as an example: for most people, wealth is a source of freedom, since it permits you to buy things you otherwise could not, adding new options. For the wealthiest of the wealthy, however, there is no longer an increase in freedom from wealth; you can only actually ride one jet or live in one mansion at a time, so buying a second is not much of an increase in freedom. However, the accumulation of wealth at that level allows you to build power–buying up voting stock in companies to make them do what you want, for instance, or using campaign contributions to get politicians to pass laws you favor.

All power is inherently anxious. Increased freedom invites resentment only from those who desire power over you, but increased power invites resentment both from those who desire power and those who desire freedom. If you have power over someone, it becomes difficult for them to exercise power over you, and so to increase in power is necessarily to take that power from another. The existence of power creates a hierarchy, and so long as one is not at the top of the hierarchy, there is anxiety about the potential of those higher to use their power on you. The higher one goes, however, the greater the number of those below, who naturally resent you for exercising power over them, and thus even to reach the top is no escape from anxiety. Heavy is the head and light the sleep of the one who wears the crown.

If masculinity is defined by power, then masculinity is inherently anxious as well. That can be seen in this episode; as one who lacks physical prowess, social standing, or the capacity to intimidate, Spike is rejected as not being a dragon at all. He is a “namby-pamby” (that is, weak and insipid) pony because he is small. The contests the dragons engage in are all tests of power, whether physical strength in the form of a tail-pulling competition, the use of violence to attain social dominance in King of the Hoard, or size and resilience in the lava dive. Even the belching contest is a demonstration of the ability to make noise and resist the social pressures of etiquette. While resisting social norms can be either a demonstration of power or of freedom, in this case it appears to be a declaration of the refusal to follow rules of any sort, which is a threat and therefore an assertion of power.

The ultimate declaration of power by the dragons, however, is the raid on the phoenix nest. The dragons appear to have no interest in the eggs as food–they tell Spike to smash the one egg he finds–but instead wish to destroy them simply for the sake of destroying them, because it is “fun.” To destroy is the ultimate assertion of power, because it not only constrains choices involving that which is destroyed, but eliminates all possibility of making any choice involving that which is destroyed. (Likewise, to create is the ultimate expression of freedom, since it not only gives access to preexisting choices but calls new options into being; that, along with her heavily emphasized femininity, is why Rarity is positioned as the anti-dragon in this episode.)

This is the final straw for Spike; he is unwilling to destroy for the sake of destruction, because he has no desire to wield power. If that is what it takes to be recognized as a dragon, then he will not be a dragon. If that is what it takes to be masculine, then he will not be masculine–but fortunately, that is not what it takes to be masculine. There are many ways to construct masculinity, and the show provides positive constructions of masculinity as diverse as the constructions of femininity it presents, most notably Big Macintosh and Fancy Pants in past episodes, and Shining Armor to come.

Spike, at the end of this episode, is not a pony. He is a dragon who has looked at dragon culture and rejected it, an outsider who makes a conscious decision between the groups to which he does not belong, who pursues one rather than another. He has struggled in the past, and will continue to struggle, with issues of entitlement and Nice Guy Syndrome, but he wants to acquire the good qualities he sees in the ponies, and reject the heavily gendered, power-driven culture that rejects him. Spike, more than any character we have seen before, more even than the Cutie Mark Crusaders, is a brony.

Next week: Honestly, this title would have been more appropriate for three episodes ago.

The pony who holds my fate in her hooves (It’s About Time)

[insert joke about Past Twilight coming on to Future Twilight]

It’s March 10, 2012. The top song is back to Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger” and the top movie is still The Lorax, with the surprisingly good (if you accept it for what it is) John Carter at number two. In the news, China ups its defense spending by a whopping 11 percent, the U.S. government takes steps to extradite the founders of MegaUpload, beginning the end of that particular file sharing service, and on the day this episode airs, famed French comic artist Moebius dies.

While on TV, we have “It’s About Time,” by M.A. Larson and directed by Jayson Thiessen. Like “Feeling Pinkie Keen” in Season One, this is a Twilight-centric episode that has Pinkie Pie in a supporting role, and involves a series of misfortunes happening to Twilight courtesy of co(s)mic forces of fate. In this case, a visit from her rather beat-up future self (from the distant era of next Tuesday, a full two days beyond Next Sunday A.D.) cues Twilight to begin desperately trying to avert the disaster she sees coming. Of course, in a tradition dating back to Greek myth, everything Twilight does to avert the future serves only to bring it about, because she has misinterpreted the nature of the warning.

In my article on “The Cutie Mark Chronicles,” I discussed the way the show handles questions of fate, destiny, coincidence, and free will, questions on which I expanded in the chapter “Of Destiny and Doughnuts” in the My Little Po-Mo book. In the former discussion, I talked about the relationship between destiny and coincidence, arguing that the distinction between the two is purely subjective. In the latter, I discussed (within the context of cutie marks) whether free will can exist in a deterministic universe, arguing (following Daniel Dennett) that it can and does.

“It’s About Time” raises both questions within the context of an “ontological paradox” or “time loop.” Twilight had planned for a normal week, but the sight of her future self incites her to panic, and she takes a series of increasingly desperate actions to try to avert the disaster she believes is imminent, in the process steadily altering her appearance until she is a perfect match for her future self. At this point, she realizes that there was no disaster, just her own empty worries, and travels back in time to try to warn herself not to worry, but the sight of her future self incites her to panic…

The reason this is referred to as a paradox is because there seems to be no “origin” for Twilight’s panic. She panicked because she tried to tell herself not to panic because she panicked because… However, everything that happens is logically consistent. Events proceed in a circle, rather than a line, yes, but there is no contradiction–nothing that happens renders anything else that happens impossible. Indeed, there has been serious research by physicists on a simplified model of time travel, involving a computer model of a billiard ball encountering a “closed timelike curve” (presumably called that because “time warp” doesn’t sound science-y enough for the grant committee). Thus far, while they have been able to find scenarios where the ball travels back in time and knocks itself into the time warp, they have yet to find a scenario where the ball travels back in time and prevents itself from doing so. There is much reason to be skeptical, not least of which that no closed timelike curve has ever been observed, but it seems within the realm of possibility that it is possible to travel back in time to make yourself travel back in time, but not to travel back in time to prevent yourself from traveling back in time. Twilight, in other words, was always doomed to failure.

But what then of free will? Is future Twilight somehow compelled to say and do what she does, stripped of her freedom by the fact that she saw herself do it?

Much of the question comes from how we define “free will.” The construction I used in the book, and will continue to use here, can be expressed as “the capacity of an agent to identify potential courses of action, determine a preferred course, and act accordingly.” None of this requires mysticism, magic, or even a non-deterministic universe; even in a completely deterministic universe a specific agent can still identify the courses of action some other agent might take in the same circumstances, and reject that in order to take the action consistent with itself. This is, after all, the kind of freedom worth having–the freedom to act as one wishes to act, in accordance with one’s own values and preferences. Why would anyone want “free will” if it meant acting against oneself?

So, given that definition of free will, does Twilight have free will within the time loop? To put the question another way, is future Twilight destined to say and do what she does in order to perpetuate the loop, or is it a coincidence that the two ponies do what they did? To which the answer is, of course, yes–the distinction between the two is subjective, and so it is a matter of perspective.

Key to understanding this is to grasp that there are not two separate events, one in which past Twilight talks to her future self, and another in which future Twilight talks to her past self. There is only one event, one point in time and space which Twilight views from two different perspectives. Happily, the episode makes this obvious by allowing the audience to see the same event twice–and it is the same event, shot-for-shot identical. Nonetheless, like Twilight the audience has two different perspectives on the event. Although the position of the camera, the sound, the events depicted are identical in both scenes, the first time the scene plays we have been following past Twilight, and therefore experience it from her point of view, sharing her surprise at the sudden arrival of future Twilight and frustration at how little information she receives; the second time we have been following future Twilight, and so share her desire to see the past changed and frustration that past Twilight keeps interrupting with irrelevant questions.

Two perspectives, but one event. When Twilight encounters her future self, she acts in accordance with her own preferences and personality, bombarding her with rapid questions. When Twilight encounters her past self, she acts in accordance with her own preferences and personality, trying to get out important information but continually sidetracked by questions. These are the same event, and Twilight is acting freely in both.

Consider another perspective: there are three possible ways past Twilight’s morning could go. She could not encounter her future self, because her future self doesn’t travel back. Or her future self could travel back, warn her not to worry, and Twilight could agree not to worry, making sure in a few days’ time to go back and warn herself not to worry. Or, finally, the events we see could occur. Regardless, there is at most one encounter between the two Twilights, and they thus each get only one chance to choose their actions. Whatever they choose in that moment is what happened in that moment; since neither can do the moment over (traveling back a second time, if possible, would only mean three perspectives on the same event, not a new event), neither can choose not to do what she already chose to do.

It helps that the episode does not (unlike most time loop stories in science fiction) go around the loop multiple times, creating the illusions that the characters do as well. Instead, we see the event once from past Twilight’s perspective, and completely appreciate why she chooses to say and do what she does, and then again from future Twilight’s perspective, where again we can appreciate why she chooses to do and say what she does. Future Twilight is not trapped by anything other than herself, her own nature and choices–just because she happened to see her choices before she made them doesn’t change that they are her choices.

With this episode, the season’s exploration of time is largely over, given a fitting capstone in a return to the past of the series. At the same time, it lays the groundwork for the future; between “It’s About Time” and “Lesson Zero,” it is very clear to both the audience and the ponies that Twilight has a tendency to overreact and create disasters where none are needed. That knowledge of her character will be key to the season finale.

Next week: Unless of course referencing a 30-year-old game franchise counts as part of the theme of time.

But I was just… (A Friend in Deed)

This is not the face of someone planning to
respect the needs and wishes of others.

It’s February 18, 2012. The top song is Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger,” which is about as generic a post-breakup “I don’t miss you” song as it’s possible to get, and rooted in one of those sentiments that seems nice on the surface but quickly becomes utterly reprehensible once you did into it, namely that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” The top movie is Safe House, which once again I have not seen, but just to prove that I’m not completely incapable of watching movies, I can say with certainty that this is the weekend I saw Studio Ghibli’s Arietty, which was not up to their usual standards but still well worth watching.

In the news this week, the international community condemns the mounting violence in Syria, with the U.N., China, and the U.S. Senate weighing in; Whitney Houston’s funeral is held; and Greece agrees to cut government spending during a recession as a condition of being bailed out of its financial crisis by the rest of the European community. Because that’s not completely the opposite of how you deal with a recession.

On TV, fortunately, we have “A Friend in Deed,” a highly entertaining but troublingly problematic episode by (of course) Amy Keating Rogers and directed by Jayson Thiessen. Primarily this episode serves as a continuation of the theme of love from the last episode; “Hearts and Hooves Day” was about trying to create a new love, while “A Friend in Deed” is about lost love. There have been few images in this series as heartbreaking as the sequence in which Cranky wanders Equestria seeking Matilda, growing older and sadder as the montage continues until he is finally the angry, broken old donkey he spends most of this episode as.

It is Pinkie Pie who finally brings him and Matilda together again at last, of course; that’s what Pinkie Pie does. She is the social glue that holds most of Ponyville together, as the episode’s first of several musical numbers depicts. But as always “Party of One” casts a pall over everything Pinkie Pie does; though she is upbeat and cheery about her desire to “make all her friends smile,” the truth is that she desperately craves constant approval.

This is part of what makes Cranky a strong foil for Pinkie Pie. Recall my discussion of the two selves in regard to that episode: the experiential self desires pleasurable experiences in the present, while the remembering self wants to create good memories. In most people the two selves are more or less balanced, but in tension, but in our focus characters for “A Friend in Deed” they are wildly out of balance. Where Pinkie Pie sees the present as preferable to the misery of her upbringing on the rock farm and suppresses her remembering self, Cranky is fixated entirely on a happy memory, his one night with Matilda, and suppresses his experiential self. His cynicism and curmudgeonly attitude are defenses against a world that, as far as he is concerned, contains nothing of value. All he cares about are the physical reminders of his memories, which he literally drags behind himself everywhere he goes. Though Pinkie extends him a hand of friendship, he is no longer interested in such things; relationships in the present brings him no joy because all he cares about is reliving his memories.

None of which justifies Pinkie’s behavior in this episode. She is relentlessly thoughtless and self-centered from beginning to end, and as usual Rogers depicts this behavior comedically. As usual, Pinkie does not learn the lesson she (and increasingly Friendship Is Magic) desperately needs, that it’s okay to not be friends with everyone, instead learns the secondary lesson that people have varying friendship styles, and sometimes the nicest thing you can do for a person is give them some space. Which is a good lesson, and one Pinkie needs, but still ignores that she spends the entire episode running roughshod over Cranky’s repeatedly expressed wishes.

Instead, given Cranky’s transformation from unhappy and friendless at the beginning, to happy and friends with Pinkie at the end, it seems we have here the precise opposite of the lessons of “Green Isn’t Your Color” and “Lesson Zero.” Ignore the wishes and needs of others, this episode says, and force your “help” on them whether they want it or not. Since you know better than they what they need, it will all work out in the end.

For all that it is undeniably fun, this episode is based on a deeply toxic premise. I’ve cited Odd Girl Out before, and it is time to do so again: central to that book’s thesis is that telling children that friendship and “niceness” are mandatory renders them unable to express aggression openly, forcing them into deeply harmful alternative aggressions that can leave scars that last decades. Pinkie’s need to be friends with everyone leads her to some extremely unpleasant behavior in this episode, such as when she ignores Cranky and roots through his property. Ultimately, it leads her to destroy his most cherished possession, and it is only pure luck that allows her to make it up.

Cranky has a right to set boundaries. If he doesn’t want Pinkie around, he has every right to push her away. But ignoring those boundaries allows Pinkie to reunite him with Matilda, implying that he was in the wrong by setting boundaries and trying to push away a person that made him uncomfortable. The implications are horrible, considering how hard our society works to tell women and girls in particular that they are not allowed to set their own boundaries, that they must either conform to a self-contradictory and impossible standard or accept whatever happens to them.

Again, this episode is not at all poorly constructed. It is very clear that a great deal of thought has one into making it funny, visually appealing, and musically engaging. “Smile” has deservedly become one of the most popular songs from the show, and the visuals which accompany it are fun, funny, varied, and attractive. So it is all the more worrisome that apparently no thought was put into what this episode says about what is supposedly the core focus of the show, the basics of relating to one another. Pinkie is, frankly, completely out of control, both within the universe of the show and in terms of her ability to distort the narrative. She is apparently incapable of learning, incapable of listening, and determined to trample over others, but she is much too entertaining for the show to jettison or even minimize her role.

The question is, what could possibly force Pinkie Pie to change, to begin growing as a character in a way that could resolve this conundrum? She appears immune to consequences–but in a few episodes we’ll see that isn’t entirely the case.

Next week: Another character, another foil. Maybe there’s good reason she’s afraid of her own Shadow?