|There is a dark and terrible alternate universe in
which this episode is a raunchy comedy about
Fluttershy being traumatized to realize she’s horny.
It’s March 3, 2012. The top movie is The Lorax, because Hollywood (not to mention, sadly, moviegoers) has yet to figure out that Dr. Seuss doesn’t work at feature length and remaking Chuck Jones is a mortal sin. The top song is Katy Perry’s “Part of Me,” which is yet another generic “you’re a jerk and I don’t need you” breakup song, but the music video juxtaposes it with what amounts to a recruitment video for the U.S. Marines. The results are more interesting than good, but at least it’s interesting. In the news this week, a silent film (The Artist) wins the Best Picture Oscar for the first time since 1927, Mitt Romney emerges as the frontrunner in the Republican Presidential primaries, and Maryland legalizes gay marriage.
In ponies, we have the first Fluttershy vehicle of the season, “Putting Your Hoof Down,” written by Charlotte Fullerton and Merriwether Williams and directed by James Wootton. Their effort is a pretty standard “be careful what you wish for”/”don’t change to please others” story, but it does confirm past episodes’ insights into Fluttershy’s character and provides something of a corrective to last week’s implications of mandatory friendship.
The danger of mandatory friendship is that school-aged girls in our culture, especially middle-class white girls, other girls to a lesser extent, and sometimes middle-class boys to a still lesser extent, have imposed on them this notion that aggression is inherently wrong and everyone should get along with everyone else at all times. This is, quite simply, impossible. No two people can get along perfectly with one another forever, even if they are the best of friends, and it is all the more impossible to have large groups of people interacting with one another (as in a school setting) without rivalries, resentments, and misunderstandings creating ill feelings that can only be resolved by a constructive expression of aggression. As Rachel Simmons explored in Odd Girl Out, which I’ve referenced a few times before, the inability to express aggression openly through the usual means of yelling, arguing, and in extreme cases fighting does not cause aggression to disappear. Instead, girls express their feelings through what Simmons terms “alternate aggressions,” such as ostracizing, spreading rumors, and cyberbullying. It does no good, in other words, to tell girls they have to be nice to everyone; more helpful by far is to teach them to manage their aggressive feelings and express them constructively, or at least minimally destructively.
Suppressed, aggression festers and builds until it must burst out. From the start of the series, it’s been pretty clear that Fluttershy has a great deal of pent-up aggression, and when she does express it, it’s always been in the form of snapping and lashing out. Sometimes the results are positive, as when she stares down the dragon in “Dragonshy” or chases down Rainbow Dash in “The Return of Harmony,” but it can also be extremely destructive, as in “Best Night Ever.”
In Fluttershy’s case, however, her aggression is not suppressed due to social norms and expectations as in our culture’s girls. This much is clear from the willingness of Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Rarity, and Twilight to appropriately (and occasionally inappropriately, as in “The Mysterious Mare-Do-Well”) express anger, disagreement, and criticism of one another and others. Instead, it appears to be a result of her avoidant personality; because she so hates and fears the disapproval of others, she cannot bear to express aggression for fear of how others will react. She avoids conflict at any cost, with the result that her aggressions emerge explosively and en masse when her limits are reached.
This episode, however, takes a different approach to Fluttershy’s underlying aggression. First, it puts a set of pressures on her we’ve not seen before, namely other people taking advantage of her tendency to immediately surrender in the face of any possibility of conflict. The episode does not shy from showing the dangers (albeit in a way relatively accessible to children) of excessive conflict avoidance: Angel, her bunny, is stubbornly picky and even slaps Fluttershy when she feeds him the wrong food, which, reading this episode in isolation, comes across as a fussy, demanding pet or child being bratty. Unfortunately, given the frequency with which Angel is depicted as a sort of caretaker or life coach for Fluttershy (for example, in “The Ticket Master” and “Bird in the Hoof” in Season One and “Hurricane Fluttershy” later this season), it reads disturbingly naturally as an abusive relationship, not the last time such a reading will be near the surface of a Fluttershy-centric episode. But in a way, though its resolution is off (making dinner “correctly” might get your abusive husband to not hit you tonight, but he’ll find an excuse soon enough–a better resolution would have been for her to kick Angel out), the abusive reading is the stronger one.
Abuse is never the victim’s fault. The moral responsibility for any event lies with the agent who chooses to create the event, and that is always the abuser’s choice to abuse. However, there are weaknesses which abusers seek out, and extreme conflict avoidance–“meekness,” one might say–is one such trait. It is no accident that Fluttershy keeps finding herself in abusive relationships, though again, that is not to say that the abuse is therefore her fault or that she deserves to be abused.
Fluttershy is subjected to repeated humiliation or outright ignored by the other ponies in town as they shove her aside to go about their business, and she does nothing to stand up for herself. Again, the fault for Fluttershy’s mistreatment is the other ponies, but the episode points out that her friends won’t always be around to help her, and the only other pony with any motivation to help her is her. It is unfortunate, but often that’s the case–the person who ends up having to clean up any given mess is usually the person most impacted by it, not the person who caused it. Encouraging people to help one another and treat each other kindly (which is not the same as “always be nice to everyone” by any means) is an unmitigated good, but sooner or later you have to stand up for yourself. In the words of Rabbi Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
So it is that Fluttershy ends up seeking out yet another predator, the “self-help guru” minotaur Iron Will, accompanied by a creepy pack of goat servitors. (Not to imply that there are non-creepy goats.) Iron Will preaches selfishness, self-centeredness, and rudeness under the guise of “assertiveness”; what he is actually teaching is aggression and intimidation. But due to her terror of disapproval, Fluttershy has never learned any method of restraining or channeling her aggression other than suppression and avoidance; remove that fear by giving her a supporter that approves of aggression for its own sake, and she will morph rapidly into a bully.
Fluttershy has always totalized aggression. Any aggression directed at her, even the tiny, appropriate or day-to-day aggressions of criticism and disagreement, is interpreted as overwhelming aggression; she cannot comprehend moderate anger or light criticism because she experiences them as soul-destroying disasters when directed at her. As such, and egged on by Iron Will’s terrible advice, once she starts expressing aggression she does so massively disproportionately: she jumps directly from disagreeing with her gardener to dousing him with his own hose, from politely asking garbage-hauling ponies to move their carts to overturning the carts and covering the ponies in filth.
Ultimately, her lashing out hurts her friends, and the intense sensitivity to the feelings of others that is her core strength and weakness reasserts itself. That empathy is what enables her to say exactly the words that will hurt Rarity and Pinkie Pie the most, transforming their own core strengths into weaknesses Fluttershy belittles, and it’s what destroys her when she recognizes almost immediately what she’s done. Her empathy causes her to feel, intensely, the hurt she’s caused them–that is what empathy does, after all– and, once again totalizing the situation, she decides to shut herself away before she can hurt anyone else.
She finally does manage to find a middle ground when Iron Will forces his way in to collect payment for his seminar. When he starts bullying her friends, just as with the dragon she steps in to protect them, but this time she does so with moderated aggression. She does not intimidate Iron Will or use her Stare (as she eventually does to make Angel eat his food), but simply stands her ground, refuses to pay, and reasons that his “satisfaction guaranteed” pledge means she doesn’t owe him anything–reasoning which, reluctantly, he accepts. He is disappointed, but doesn’t bear any ill will to Fluttershy–she has discovered that she doesn’t automatically lose any conflict, and that it is possible to end a conflict with no ill feelings resulting.
As I said above, this episode provides a much-needed corrective to last week. It’s not necessary or even right for everyone to be friends with everyone, but just because someone doesn’t belong in your life or you conflict with them, that doesn’t mean you have to be enemies. It’s a big world; we can share it with people we disagree with and even people we don’t get along with, without our conflicts necessarily having to be destructive.
Next week: Destiny, time, Tuesday next and last.