Good gravy, girl! What’s wrong with you? (Applebuck Season)

Applejack's goofy expression distortedly reflected in a trophy
Next season’s creepy Twilight smile has nothing on this.

It’s November 5, 2010. The top song this week is Far East Movement’s “Like a G6.” At my fiancee’s urging, I’m actually listening to these now; I made it to 1:11 before I gave up. Top at the box office this weekend is Megamind, which is an awesome movie as long as you haven’t seen the second trailer.

In other news, I attend the satirical Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington, D.C. There is the usual round of bombings, violence, and death in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy responds to reports that he’s sleeping with a 17-year-old girl by saying that it’s better than being gay, and the Republicans make major gains in the U.S. House of Representatives.

But hey, even with all the horrors of war, pedophiliac homophobes, and Republicans, we have ponies to cheer us up, right? So here’s our latest episode… by Amy Keating Rogers, flying solo this time. Joy. And it’s an Applejack episode. Double joy.

And yet, somehow… it is joyous. This episode actually works, and it points toward a type of story that Friendship Is Magic suits extremely well. You see, there are basically two main types of Friendship Is Magic episodes, adventures and character studies. (Binary alert! Expect to see this shattered by the end of January at the latest.) In adventures, the Mare in the Moon/Elements of Harmony two-parter, for example, the ponies deal with some kind of external threat, usually a monster. Adventures, as the name implies, tend to be more exciting, and they also tend to be rich in information about the world of Equestria. Character studies, such as “The Ticket Master” and this week’s episode, involve one or two ponies dealing with an internal or interpersonal conflict. Again as the name implies, character studies tend to be rich in information about one or two characters.

Last week’s episode was a particular subtype of character study in which we learn more about the characters by seeing how they handle conflicts with each other. We’ll see more of that type later.  This, however, is another subtype; it’s the first episode in which we learn more about a character by watching her slowly descend into comedic madness (hereafter called character collapse stories). Meghan McCarthy, who is probably the show’s best writer, will largely earn that title by absolutely mastering this structure with episodes like “Party of One” and “Lesson Zero,” so it’s perhaps a bit surprising that its first instance isn’t her work, but Rogers’.

It’s also surprising that the first real character study is about Applejack. I said last week that Rarity is in some ways the hardest character to write, but an argument could be made for Applejack being just as hard. The problem with Applejack is that she’s hardworking, honest, dedicated to her family and friends, athletic–all perfectly good traits, but not particularly funny or exciting or dramatic to watch. The challenge with Applejack is thus to make her interesting.

This episode manages that by making her fall apart, and put that way Applejack becomes the obvious starting point for descent stories. Of course the sturdiest, most reliable, most staid and boring pony is the funniest to watch stumbling around in a daze! And once that’s established, it makes sense for Rogers to be the one to write it; as hard as I was on her last week, she does have her strengths: she’s good at comedy, and those characters she writes well, she writes very well, namely Applejack and Pinkie Pie. Given that the point of this episode is to transform Applejack into a well-meaning force of pure chaos who babbles incomprehensible things in response to other ponies–into Pinkie Pie, in other words–Rogers is the natural choice.

In a character collapse, we see the character’s strengths and persona (here meaning something close to its original Latin meaning of “mask”–the face a person wears to interact with others) stripped away to reveal the underlying flaws. That in itself is fun, but a well-done character collapse does more: as the layers of the character’s persona burn away, we can see which are more integral to who the character is because they take longer to ablate. Then, once the character is completely destroyed, they can be rebuilt with a fresh understanding of who they are–not a retcon, ideally, but a new perspective. Further, by showing how other characters react to the collapse, the show tells us about what matters to them, as well.

Consider the progression of Applejack’s breakdown in sequence: First, she’s late for her own award ceremony, right after Rainbow Dash asserted that Applejack is never late. This suggests, first of all, that while Applejack is normally extremely punctual it’s not actually that important an element of who she is. More importantly, it suggests that receiving an award is not that critical or important to her. It’s hard to imagine Rainbow Dash, even in the early stages of a breakdown, not being on time for an award ceremony in her honor, but Applejack is different. (Not better or worse, mind you, just different. And yes, I know, “The Last Roundup,” but there Applejack’s shame wasn’t that she came in second, but that because she came in second, she couldn’t keep her promises to help the town out with the prize money.)

Next, at that same award ceremony, we see that she is frazzled, silly, and messy–her face and mane a mess, dropping apples everywhere, and laughing at her reflection with Pinkie Pie. Each of four characters respond differently: Twilight Sparkle with nonspecific but intense concern, Fluttershy notices Applejack’s clumsiness, Rarity her unkempt appearance, and Rainbow Dash her exhaustion. Put another way, Twilight Sparkle notices something is wrong and frets about it but can’t correctly identify the problem or appropriate response, because she’s a natural worrier verging on neurotic. Fluttershy has a more specific concern, that Applejack is clumsy, i.e. likely to accidentally hurt herself or others. It’s again a very appropriate concern for the character, because Fluttershy is fearful of precisely that, and thus moves and speaks with exaggerated caution and care.

As for Rarity… well, as I said in the last post, I think Rogers doesn’t have a good grasp of Rarity’s character, and tends to write her as shallow and judgmental. I suspect that’s what’s intended with Rarity’s line here, and certainly it’s where the comedy comes from. However, look at Rainbow Dash’s comment. Rainbow Dash is disturbed by seeing her normally energetic friend so tired, because Rainbow Dash’s own boundless energy, her sped and athletic ability, are core elements of her identity that she protects fiercely (hence the constant naps). Rainbow would never allow herself to become that tired unless something were very wrong, and therefore she finds it the most worrisome aspect of Applejack’s behavior.

We can use the same observations to give Rarity a much more sympathetic (albeit probably unintentional) read of this scene: Rarity values status. It is important to her to be thought well of by other ponies, and she accomplishes this by carefully controlling how she appears. This is not in itself a shallow concern–it is, ultimately, the same thing Rainbow Dash is seeking. The only difference is that Rainbow Dash wants to gain status and accolades within the sports world and join the elite Wonderbolts, while Rarity wants to gain status and accolades within high society and join the elite known as the elite. For Rarity to make a public appearance looking as unkempt as Applejack in this scene would be a sign of something deeply wrong with her, and thus her statement is not a judgment, but an expression of concern for Applejack just as much as Rainbow Dash’s.

We next see Applejack struggling to buck apples. She is pretty much already incompetent at her job at this point: She spills apples everywhere and keeps falling into microsleeps. She’s far too exhausted to work, but continues trying. We can thus see how the collapse converts her strengths into flaws: her determination to finish her task is stronger than her desire to do it well, and thus she enters a cycle of working, messing up, and cleaning up her mess that probably takes a lot longer than if she just got in a nap and then got back to work. Although Applejack is often depicted as the “sensible” member of the group, her determination can override her sensibility, which at this point is clearly gone. As she talks to Twilight in this scene, however, she quickly perks awake when she believes she’s been challenged, showing us that even stronger than her determination (which keeps her working, but not awake) is her competitiveness. This is a dangerous combination, and becomes the stubborn pride that undoes her throughout the episode; she rejects help because her desire to “win” against her exhaustion is greater than her determination to complete the task.

The next few scenes (with one exception, which we’ll get to in a bit) serve as set pieces to reiterate the concerns the other ponies showed previously: with Rainbow Dash Applejack is late (i.e., slow) and fails at athletic tasks, while in the bunny sequence Applejack ignores Fluttershy’s cautions and herds the bunnies sloppily and clumsily, resulting in a sublimely ridiculous sequence of bunnies stampeding through Ponyville that achieves its apotheosis of nonsense in an aerial shot of the bunnies stampeding around a fainted pony, all scored and shot as if bunnies are a serious and terrifying threat. As I’ve said, for all her faults, Rogers knows comedy. (Director James Wootton and composer William Kevin Anderson also deserve credit for the hilarity of this scene, but they are the director and background composer for every episode of the first two seasons; Rogers is the element special to this episode.)

After each Applejack-causes-disaster set piece, we get a Twilight-confronts Applejack set piece that carries on Twilight’s thread from the initial award scene. In that scene, we established that Twilight is unable to correctly diagnose or respond appropriately to Applejack’s problem, and that continues here. Twilight identifies the problem as Applejack overworking, but that is a symptom, not a cause; the real problem is that, while Applejack’s exhaustion has cleaved away her competence, self-control, and ability to retain consciousness for extended periods, it is still not strong enough to overcome her determination to keep her promises and competitive drive to win. Twilight attempts to use her default tools of reason and communication to solve Applejack’s problem, but all this accomplishes is setting herself up as another competitor, a foe to defeat and naysayer (neighsayer?) to prove wrong, giving Applejack’s competitiveness even more power to overcome her exhaustion.

Of course, one pony expressed no concern about Applejack in the first scene: Pinkie Pie. Her scene is thus a little different from the ones on either side. It does carry on a theme from the award scene, but not the response of another pony to Applejack’s distress, since Pinkie Pie had none. Rather, it continues the implications of Applejack transforming into Pinkie Pie by having her out-Pinkie Pinkie. Applejack introduces non sequiturs into the recipe, makes bizarre leaps of logic (how do go from “wheat worms” to “earthworms?”), and casually accepts the utterly bizarre (muffins with worms in them?) while maintaining a positive attitude, resulting in chaos. However, where Pinkie Pie’s chaos is generally silly and fun, Applejack’s is destructive, to the point of even poisoning Pinkie Pie (the first of a very short list of occasions on which anything manages to hurt Pinkie Pie, who is normally indestructibly cartoony). Applejack has now replaced Pinkie Pie as the primary source of chaos in Ponyville (note that Pinkie Pie does not appear again until Applejack returns to normal), and disaster ensues.

Each of the four scenes in which Applejack goes to Ponyville steadily ratchet up the degree of disaster her ongoing character collapse creates: in the award scene, she embarrasses only herself; practicing the trick with Rainbow Dash, she does slapstick comedic damage to both of them and Twilight’s house; with Pinkie Pie she poisons a couple of dozen ponies; and with Fluttershy she causes a stampede that terrorizes the entire town. (For all that the scene is played for laughs, we are clearly supposed to read the ponies’ fear as genuine.) However, Applejack is still unwilling to face the damage her stubbornness is causing, because none of these things–the physical and emotional well-being of others, her own skills, her social standing, reason and efficiency, pleasing others–are as important to her as her competitiveness (especially with Twilight repeatedly enflaming it) and determination. A character collapse cannot end until the character is completely destroyed–one must first die to be reborn–and so there must be an ultimate disaster before the episode can resolve, an event that is, for Applejack at least, the worst possible thing that could happen. This ultimate disaster tells us what lies at the absolute core of the character, because it removes that absolute core and thus destroys the character completely.

For Applejack, the final straw is discovering that all her work has only harvested a fraction of the apples on the farm; acres of orchard still remain. Remember what event in the pilot gave Twilight the clue that Applejack was the Element of Honesty: Applejack promised Twilight it was safe to let go, and Twilight instinctively knew to trust her. Applejack keeps her promises. When all else is stripped away and she is staggering around Sweet Apple Acres failing even to hit the trees, Applejack still will not stop if there is a promise to be kept. The ultimate disaster is thus the discovery that she cannot keep her promise, the realization that she was wrong to make the promise in the first place and Big Macintosh was right that it’s impossible. Her competitiveness and determination find themselves in conflict, she breaks her word, and her collapse is complete.

Of course, the moment she ceases to exist as a character, she is no longer an obstacle to the other ponies helping her and no longer able to harm herself. She gets the rest she needs, Pinkie Pie returns both to the screen and to being Ponyville’s resident force of chaos, and right is restored. Having stripped away who Applejack is layer-by-layer, the writers can put her back all at once with new understanding of why she does what she does. In turn, this means she can be used to explore other characters by comparing and contrasting them with her; while “Look Before You Sleep” and “Fall Weather Friends” would still be quite doable if this episode didn’t exist, “Applebuck Season” adds a lot of texture to those later Applejack-and-Somepony-Else character studies.

Next week: A griffon earns a place in that special hell reserved for people who are mean to Fluttershy.

I never thought it would happen. My friends have turned into complete JERKS! (The Ticket Master)

Spike holds two golden tickets
The Spike your Spike could smell like has two tickets to that thing you like.

It’s October 29, 2010. Bruno Mars continues to top the music charts. If this goes on another week, I might have to actually break down and listen to the damn song. The top movie this weekend is Saw 3D, unsurprisingly given that it’s Halloween weekend.

In less entertaining news, in the week since our last episode Wikileaks’ revelations about the Iraq war continue to make waves, a campaign begins in Britain to bring legal challenges against the gay marriage ban, and Sony stops selling cassette Walkmen. The Emperor of Exmoor, a deer believed to be the oldest living animal in Britain, is killed. Scientists discover a new kind of monkey and the most massive neutron star to date, and a British man goes to prison for trolling Facebook memorial pages.

Meanwhile, in Equestria, we have “The Ticket Master,” a problematic but overall good-ish episode co-written by Amy Keating Rogers, who I’ll just say up front is probably my least favorite writer on the series.

Since I’ll be tossing around that word a lot, I should explain what I mean by “problematic.” The first thing to clear up is that it doesn’t mean bad. A lot of very good art is problematic, and so is a lot of art I like (some of which is also good–they’re two different things). When I say a work is problematic, I mean exactly that and nothing else: It displays the effects of problems. They could be problems in the work itself (an episode that suffers from flaws in the show’s premise, for example) or they could be problems in the creators’ worldview (see Moffat-era Doctor Who, gender essentialism in) or the society around the show.

To say that a work is problematic in its treatment of, say, race is not to say that the work is racist or that the writer is racist. Instead, it means that the work contains elements which are uncomfortably easy to read as racist, which may or may not be balanced by other elements in the work.

It’s that last one that mostly haunts “The Ticket Master.” For a series that did such an excellent job, last week, of giving us six very different young women with six very different personalities while nonetheless remaining very clearly young women, this week’s episode is…

Well, look. I don’t want to say it. I love this show. This isn’t my favorite episode, but it’s not a bad episode by any means. And it does do a lot of things right, and it’s way better than most shows, especially kids’ shows, out there.

But, I’m sorry, “The Ticket Master” is just a little bit sexist.

Most obviously, Spike is very gender-essentialist in this episode. He rejects the Grand Galloping Gala, which is fine–I don’t care for parties either, especially the snooty high-society type–but he does so explicitly because they’re for girls, and he’s a boy dragon: “I don’t want any of that girly, frilly, fru-fru nonsense.”

True, it’s subverted near the end, when he’s disappointed he doesn’t get to go and then overjoyed when a ticket turns up for him; however, nothing in that scene would have been any less funny if Spike’s disinterest in going was presented as a personal thing, rather than a sweeping declaration about half the population of the world.

It’s especially unfortunate because of the timing. As I said at the beginning, it’s October 29, 2010. Ten days ago, Amid Amidi’s article “The End of the Creator-Driven Era in TV Animation” appeared on Cartoon Brew, and inadvertently created bronies. The story goes that the article got a link on 4chan, inspiring the notorious user base of that site to watch the show with the intent of mocking it. Instead, they found themselves embracing it, and formed a core of a rapidly growing, mostly male online fandom. So here we have, in what is very likely to be the first episode seen by the early-adopter bronies (except for the earliest of early adopters, of course), Spike announcing that there are girl entertainments and they’re just for girls–telling the newly arrived male viewers, in other words, that this girly, frilly, fru-fru show isn’t for them, and Applejack saying of him “Isn’t that just like a boy. Can’t handle the least bit of sentiment.” Thank goodness they’re both wrong!

Now, in isolation this isn’t that bad. Compared to the level of gender essentialism present in most television, it’s not that bad, and it does get nicely subverted. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist in isolation; it exists within the rest of “The Ticket Masters,” which is to say surrounded by less obvious, but worse, bits of feminism-fail.

For starters, we have Rarity. Now, Rarity is an interesting character. I think in some ways she must be the hardest Friendship Is Magic character to write, because she’s the closest to a traditional girls’ cartoon protagonist. Her interests are unquestionably “girly”; of all the characters, she is the most interested in fashion, the most interested in social status, the most interested in etiquette and decorum, and the only one to demonstrate any interest in pursuing romantic relationships. She also has the most traditionally feminine skillset: fashion, home decor, manipulation, and gossip. She’s “the girly one” of the group, more or less–or, to put it another way, she’s every character in Trollz.

(One can make a case for Pinkie Pie and especially Fluttershy also being quite traditionally feminine. The difference is that, confronted with an obstacle, Pinkie Pie overcomes it by Rule of Funny, Fluttershy either befriends it or intimidates it into submission, and Rarity either befriends it or manipulates it. Of these, Rarity is clearly the one that most easily slips into toxic depictions of femininity, and those are the depictions that concern us here.)

In the hands of a careful writer who makes an effort to avoid the pitfalls of her character (Charlotte Fullerton or Meghan McCarthy, for example), Rarity can be an excellent character. Her interest in fashion becomes the passion of an artist for her medium. Her manipulative side and status-seeking are tempered by a high social intelligence, innate generosity, and willingness to make sacrifices. (Seriously, watch “Suited for Success.” Has any other pony ever been willing to work herself to that level of exhaustion to please her friends? Applejack doesn’t count, for reasons we’ll discuss next week and, oh… how’s next June looking for you?)

But in the hands of a writer who doesn’t get the character, like Rogers or M.A. Larson, Rarity becomes a shallow, manipulative social climber. Rogers’ difficulty writing Rarity is on full display here as Rarity describes her vision of attending the Gala:

It’s where I truly belong, and where I’m destined to meet him!… I would stroll through the Gala, and everyone would wonder, “Who is that mysterious mare?” They would never guess that I was just a simple pony from little old Ponyville. Why, I’ll cause such a sensation that I would be invited for an audience with Princess Celestia herself, and the Princess would be so taken with my style and elegance that she would introduce me to him! Her nephew, the most handsome, eligible unicorn stallion in Canterlot! Our eyes would meet, our hearts would melt, our courtship would be magnificent. He would ask for my hoof in marriage, and of course I would say, “YES!”

Because when chicks try to create something or improve their social standing, it’s all about snagging a husband, amirite? Gag.

More subtly troubling is the premise of the episode itself. Last week these characters forged a friendship in the midst of crisis, trusted and depended on each other, and created a bond powerful enough to overcome a goddess. This week they’re trying to bribe Twilight because they want her tickets?

The resonant concept here is the frenemy–a relationship based on lies, a friendship based on ulterior motives that covers over an underlying hostility. Now, admittedly there’s an arc to this season, where at the start the other five main characters are newly friends with Twilight, but the only other pony that’s friends with all of them is Pinky Pie. There are some extent friendships among the remaining ponies (most notably Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash), but much of the season involves them slowly developing friendships between pairs of ponies who would likely have little or no interaction if not for mutual friendship with Twilight Sparkle (most obviously in “Look before You Sleep,” where it is the main driver of the plot, but there are also several episodes where it exists as a background element). Still, this episode is a terrible place to start, because it implies that every character except Twilight has the capacity to fake friendship to get something they want. That’s astonishingly cynical for a show that is popular in large part because it’s the only straightforwardly sincere thing on television.

Why am I categorizing this as feminism-fail? Well, I mentioned toxic femininity above, and here’s a good place to explain exactly what I mean. Toxic masculinity is a fairly well-defined term; basically, it’s where the gender essentialist notion that some behaviors, activities, and feelings are “masculine” and some “feminine” combines with the classically sexist notion that men are better than women. The typical result is a man who is desperate to demonstrate that he is a Real Man by doing Real Man things and denigrating womanly things. When Spike rejects “girly, fru-fru nonsense” he’s suffering from a minor case of toxic masculinity; more serious cases can lead to some very ugly behavior indeed.

Toxic femininity is less well-defined; a Google search of the term reveals about a fifty-fifty mix of serious discussion by intelligent people and frothy-mouthed ranting by idiot MRAs and the like. I like to define it as being the interaction of three ideas. The first two are the same as in toxic masculinity, and the third is that women need male approval to be validated. The combination can result in several different behavior patterns. For example, Rarity’s dream in this episode is a form of toxic femininity: as the “girliest” pony, she needs male approval in the form of marriage to validate herself, and it needs to be a high-status stallion so that she can acquire that status–no thought of earning it for herself through her art and people skills, as she does in “Sweet and Elite.”

Another version of toxic femininity is a major source of the frenemy phenomenon: for a variety of reasons, our culture codes social and emotional intelligence as feminine, and therefore as bad–instead of highly emotionally and socially intelligent people being depicted as community builders, successful leaders, or understanding caretakers, they are more often depicted as weak, “sissy,” duplicitous men and manipulative, deceptive, backstabbing women. Toxic femininity also forces women into competition for status and approval, while also requiring them to try to look like “good girls.” Put the two results together and you get women competing viciously and manipulatively while maintaining a surface appearance of innocent friendship.

So, of course, given six young women who have just formed a friendship, the first story it occurs to anyone to tell is a story of them competing to see who can best manipulate Twilight Sparkle with excessive niceness out of ulterior motives. Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, and Rainbow Dash blatantly admit to it, but they all do it, and the only one remotely justified is (of course, since Rogers is writing) Applejack, who at least is doing it for her family as well as herself.

Of course, that just serves to make Twilight look as bad as her friends–given a choice between getting Granny a new hip and Pinkie Pie wanting to play Pin the Tail on the Pony, how indecisive do you have to be to not reject Pinkie Pie on the spot?

Don’t get me wrong, there’s good here. Fluttershy’s “hummingbirds that really hum and buzzards that really buzz” and Pinkie Pie’s “Oatmeal? Are you crazy!?” are pure nonsensical gold. There’s some great imagery, like Rarity’s “wheedling” pose and expression, Twilight’s eyes dilating as she looks at Applejack’s proffered food, and Twilight unimpressed as Pinkie throws her in the air the third time. It’s a nice touch that each character’s imagination of the Gala matches their personality–Applejack envisions a place that looks pretty much like Ponyville, Rainbow Dash expects an arena, Pinkie Pie has a musical number at a carnival, Rarity imagines a storybook-like series of almost-stills, and Fluttershy dreams of a park.

The ending also helps a lot. The typical ending for this kind of story would be for Twilight to tell off the other ponies and go with Spike, because he didn’t try to manipulate her, thus learning a valuable lesson that those ponies who pretended to be nice just for her ticket aren’t her real friends. Instead, they apologize and everyone gets to go.

In the end, that’s what saves this episode, and makes it merely problematic, rather than bad (there’s only one bad episode this season, and we won’t be getting to it for a while): The characters, ill-behaved as they are, learn to behave better. Rather than depicting frenemies as the norm for relationships between women, the episode shows them as an aberration to be corrected. Cynicism and bigotry wither in the face of friendship and sincerity; this is still Equestria. Celestia’s in her heaven and all’s right in the world.

Next week: The most boring pony and most problematic writer on the show team up to invent the best subgenre of pony stories. Wait, what?

Hiiiiiiiiii Giiiiiiiiiirls… (Mare in the Moon/Elements of Harmony)

Celestia fires rainbows and bubbles at Nightmare Moon
Celestia used Bubble Beam! It’s super effective!

Before we get to the ponies, let’s start by fixing our position in time.

It’s Sunday, October 10 through Friday, October 22, 2010. Bruno Mars, whoever that is, tops the Billboard charts both weeks. The top movies at the weekend box office are, consecutively, The Social Network, Jackass 3-D, and Paranormal Activity 2. The first of those is going to matter in a couple thousand words.

In other news, anti-gay protestors and police clash at Serbia’s first gay pride parade in a decade. The Nobel prize winners for the year are announced. The U.S. lifts a temporary ban on deep-water oil drilling, which was started in response to the Deepwater Horizon spill six months prior.The last of the Chilean miners trapped in the Copiapo accident is rescued. President Obama promises to end the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and allow gay and lesbian Americans to serve openly in the military. Australia gets its first saint, Mary MacKillop. The Chancellor of Germany speaks against multiculturalism, which isn’t at all worrisome. And most importantly for our discussion today, WikiLeaks releases secret documents that reveal U.S. war crimes in Iraq, including the torture and execution of POWs and the murder of hundreds of civilians. No, really, that has something to do with My Little Pony. Bear with me.

Anyway, in TV Land, fledgling network the Hub innocently airs the first two episodes of its new show, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, with apparently no idea of the force it has unleashed.

It’s worth taking a moment to consider what it means that the Hub was a young network at the time–it launched the same day that “Mare in the Moon” aired, as a matter of fact. Young networks often struggle to find enough programming to fill the schedule, and generally respond in two ways: snatching up rerun rights oldie-but-goodie syndicated shows that, for one reason or another, have fallen into bargain-price territory, and greenlighting risky or experimental shows at which more established networks would turn up their noses. In the Hub’s case, the highlights of the first category included Doogie Howser, M.D., The Wonder Years, the live-action Batman series, Batman the Animated Series, and Batman Beyond. The highlight of the second category was, well, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.

But wait, you say. How can MLP:FIM be considered experimental or risky? It’s a revival and a reboot in the midst of an age of revivals and reboots, backed by a major corporate powerhouse, and tied to an ever-popular, thirty-year-old toy line!

The short answer: It doesn’t suck.

Even though it really, really should. It has all the elements for a complete disaster: It’s a blatant cash-grab, remaking a show about a major 80s toy pretty much entirely because Michael Bay’s craptacular Transformers movies made bank. It’s a show designed around a toy line, instead of the other way around, a strategy which, in the entire history of children’s television up to 2010, produced non-sucky results exactly once (Pokemon, if you were wondering). Plus, since children’s television executives appear to be utterly convinced that interest in dramatic conflicts, action, humor, and varied characterization are all functions of the Y chromosome, cartoons for girls almost always suck, too.

And yet, from the moment the cold opening of “Mare in the Moon” starts, MLP:FIM announces for all the world to see that it’s doing something new: Barely animated storybook images accompany a narrator as she recites the ponies’ eclipse myth: the Moon Goddess, angered by the failure of the ponies to show her proper respect and appreciation, becomes a dark and terrible being who briefly imprisons the Sun Goddess and plunges the world into darkness. She is Fenrir devouring the sun, the cave that swallows Amaterasu, the primordial terror that the sun has vanished and will never return. She is Nightmare Moon… and she is coming back.

That’s not a story that Jem or Trollz could ever even dream of attempting. It’s a story previous incarnation of MLP might flirt with, but they could never do it justice. As daring openings for a cartoon go, this is up there with Avatar the Last Airbender starting us off with genocide, or Batman the Animated Series‘ famous opening “credits” in which the name of the show is never stated or shown and its main character is shown for only seconds.

That opening gives way to a credit sequence that, for a moment, seems like a return to typical MLP form, reiterating the sweet, gentle song from the first cartoon and pairing it with a balloon drifting through a blue sky with white fluffy clouds–but after the first two lines, Rainbow Dash smashes through the clouds and the music switches to a much more energetic, modern pop song that emphasizes fun and adventure. From there we get a short scene of Twilight Sparkle walking through Canterlot, ignoring friendly overtures from other ponies while she ponders the myth she just read.

As I said in the introduction, one of the things any work must necessarily be about is itself. This sounds trivial, but here is one of the cases where it’s important: Part of the job of a series premier is to attract viewers who will stay with the show. To accomplish this, the premier has to tell the viewers what kind of a show this is going to be. The first few minutes of “Mare in the Moon” accomplish this admirably, switching from eclipse myth to reference to the original show to new theme song to a small, but very effective, character scene. In other words, this is a show that can do a grand, myth scale when it wants to, but grounds itself in its characters first and foremost. It is a show that respects those elements of past MLP that deserve respect, but is unafraid to break out on its own. And most importantly, it is a show willing to take risks.

As “Mare in the Moon” and “Elements of Harmony” continue, they accomplish the basic job of a premier: Introduce the characters to the audience and each other, give them a crisis to resolve, and show their relationships form. The episodes perform these tasks admirably and with an attention to detail that will characterize the series from here out. I’ll point out just a couple of examples of wonderful details that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere, because if I flagged everything we’d never get to The Social Network and WikiLeaks:

  • In response to learning that Twilight Sparkle is from Canterlot, Rarity reveals that she loves Canterlot and always dreamed of going there. What we can see of Rarity’s shop in these shots is purple and gold, and Rarity herself is white. The color scheme of Canterlot at the beginning of the episode? Purple, gold, and white.
  • In the first episode, the only times we see the Mane Six gathered together, Pinky Pie is in the center of the shot. This makes sense, as she is friends with everyone in Ponyville and therefore a friend to all the others, while we know from later episodes that they were not all friends with each other before this episode (at the very least, Rarity and Applejack were not friends). By the end of the second episode, Twilight Sparkle is at the center of all group shots, showing that she is now the one who is friends with all of the other five.
  • In the tale of Nightmare Moon, we see Luna and Celestia forming a yin-yang symbol. This foreshadows the resolution of the story, in which balance is restored not by destroying Luna/darkness, but by reuniting her with her sister Celestia/light.

One apparent beautiful detail is actually much more: At the climax of the second episode, Twilight Sparkle activates the Elements of Harmony in a sequence that draws heavily on the iconography of magical girls. Specifically, the way the ponies pose, the spinning motion of the stone shards, the way new clothes (well, jewelry) materialize on the ponies, and the fact that Nightmare Moon just stands there off-camera while all this is happening is strongly reminiscent of the typical magical girl transformation sequence.

For those not familiar with anime, “magical girls” is a genre in which adolescent girls with magical superpowers fight evil, empowered by attributes Japanese culture associates with femininity, such as love, friendship, and beauty. The most famous magical girl shows in the United States are, of course, Sailor Moon and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Both shows belong to a subgenre in which the magical girl is part of a very closely knit team of friends, and able to magically weaponize those bonds of friendship to defeat evil (often  metaphorically, but sometimes explicitly, as in the fourth season of Buffy).

Most magical girls (though not Buffy) have a recurring “transformation sequence” in which they activate their powers and their superhero costumes coalesce from light around them, just as happens with the ponies’ Elements of Harmony in the show. And of course, weaponizing friendship is exactly what the Elements of Harmony do.

In most times and places (the 1980s, for example), depicting friendship as a magical force that spits rainbows and defeats evil would be unbearably cheesy and twee. In 2010, however, it’s actually a very powerful statement, because of what’s happening in the world and what’s about to happen.

Consider the Elements of Harmony: Honesty, Laughter, Generosity, Kindness, Loyalty, and Friendship. (Yes, I know it’s Magic. But the title of the show tells us Friendship Is Magic, so we’re substituting it in.) Let’s unpack how each of these manifest in the second episode:

  • Honesty is open communication that can be trusted.
  • Laughter is a positive force that keeps otherwise overwhelming terrors at bay.
  • Generosity is a willingness to help strangers out of a primarily aesthetic sense that things should be better than they are.
  • Kindness is a desire to understand others, learn their needs and struggles, and comfort them based on that knowledge.
  • Loyalty is not to a cause or a nation but an obligation to individuals.
  • Friendship is a powerful force that binds together individuals in communities and networks, and both transforms them and empowers them to transform the world around them.

Is there any better statement of the values which define the Internet generation at its best? Webs of people, friends of friends of friends stretching across the world, in constant communication, willing to extend a hand of friendship to a total stranger halfway around the world. Trying to understand one another, trying to make the world a better place because it should be better, using tools like e-mail, texting, Twitter, and Facebook (told you The Social Network would show up again) to connect, form and maintain friendships, spread ideas, and organize grassroots like never before.

And these lines of informal communication, in 2010, are rapidly becoming one of the most powerful forces in the world. Technology created to let friends share pictures of their cats also allows secrets to pass quietly from hand to hand until they can at last be passed into the light by WikiLeaks. Activists and protestors can pass messages from friend to friend to friend and build movements tens of thousands of people strong. Two months after Twilight Sparkle and her friends stop Nightmare Moon, the Arab Spring begins. Weaponized friendship brings down the governments of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. A year after “Elements of Harmony,” the same power of weaponized friendship, in the form of Occupy Wall Street, forcibly yet nonviolently transforms the American political conversation from deficit reduction to job creation.

As I said in the last post, any work is necessarily about the world in which it was created. “Mare in the Moon” and “Elements of Harmony,” by siding with the power of weaponized friendship against the darkness, stand with WikiLeaks against torture and murder. They stand with the Middle Eastern revolutions before they even happen. They stand with Occupy. They stand, in short, with the revolutionary arm of the Internet generation, with the networked, young, and liberal, against the entrenched, the old, the conservative, and the powerful.

Heady stuff for a bunch of candy-colored ponies made to entertain five-year-old girls and their parents, isn’t it? But nonetheless it is there in the premier, waiting for anyone who cares to look.

Magic can be defined as the power of symbols, words, and ideas to change the world. If so, then here the ponies present us with a great truth. Here we have the first reason why so many young adults embrace the show so enthusiastically.

In this time, in this place, for us, friendship really is magic.

Dear Princess Celestia… (Introduction)

My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic logo
Clearly cleverly calculated to appeal to the male 18-35 demo.

So, there’s this kid’s show–more of a family show, really–and it’s really popular with adults. It’s one of the biggest fandoms out there right now, and one of the best shows on TV. So one day, this guy decided he would make a blog where he goes through every episode and analyzes it as a work of postmodern art.

And he called it… TARDIS Eruditorum.

And then I discovered it, and devoured it hungrily. When I was caught up, I said to myself, “Hey, I could do this.” I mean, probably not nearly as well–he’s a freakin’ Ph.D., all I’ve got is a measly B.A.–but I can certainly take a crack at it.

And so today, on what happens to be the second anniversary of the premier of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, I bring you My Little Po-Mo: Analysis Is Magic.

Why Ponies?

Why not? I love MLP:FIM. It’s got stellar production values, a great cast, sparkling art, engaging characters, and a fun story.

But everyone knows that. You can’t toss an e-rock (or iRock, if you’re on a Mac) without hitting a dozen sites all about how great MLP:FIM is, plus four fanfictions and three fanart sites (at least one of them pornographic; this is the Internet, after all).

What’s quite a bit harder to find is anything that goes deeper than the surface. What is MLP:FIM? What is it about?

And don’t say “nothing.” Nothing’s about nothing. It’s impossible to create creative work that isn’t about at least three things: itself, its medium, and the world in which it was made. So at the very least, digging deeper into MLP will tell us more about MLP, animation, and America at the moment of transmission. Further, all exploration is to some extent self-exploration, and thus exploring MLP should tell us more about ourselves.

But again, we could do that with any work. Why MLP? Ultimately, the only reasons to explore anything: Because it’s there. Because as near as I can tell, nobody else is doing it. And because it seems like it’ll be fun.

Po-What Now?

What do I mean by MLP being postmodernist, or that I’m trying to look at it from a postmodern perspective? Well… that’s complicated. Postmodernism is difficult to define; indeed, some people claim it’s impossible to define, preferring instead to give examples of the kind of stuff that falls under the heading of postmodernism. But if I’m going to be wildly overambitious anyway…

Postmodernism is rooted in the idea that the way in which we perceive and understand reality is shaped by social constructs–systems of ideas that society collectively creates. Our constructs enable us to draw connections and find patterns in the world around us, but they also make it harder to see different patterns, like trying to hum one song while listening to another. Most of the time, we are unaware of the constructs that shape our reality, so postmodern works try to draw attention to the constructs in play, usually by subverting them.

MLP does this all the time.

For instance, one of the simplest types of social constructs is the binary. Simply put, a binary splits the world into two opposited: good/evil, male/female, light/dark. Binaries are good tools for making quick assessments, but they also blind you to a lot. For example, a black/white binary denies the existence of grays, forcing you to pick a more-or-less arbitrary dividing line being black and white. But, more importantly, it obscures the existence of color: not only is red neither black nor white, but if you draw a line from black to white, red is nowhere on it. That might seem like not such a big deal, but consider something like the gay/straight binary, which denies the existence of bisexuals (which is bad enough), but obscures the existence of other types of sexuality that are on a different spectrum entirely (asexuality, for instance). That can be a serious problem if you identify as one of those obscured groups, and have to convince people you exist when their picture of the world has no room for you.

There’s a few binaries that MLP likes to subvert, and I’m sure we’ll find more as we continue, but the two most obvious are boy/girl and child/adult. Simply put, MLP is a show for little girls with a large audience of grown men. This is mindblowing if you’re wedded to those two binaries. Read pretty much any article about bronies in the mainstream press; they pretty much all hover somewhere on the border between astonishment and contempt.

Another way to draw attention to the constructs in play in a work is by playing with genre: stretching genres, mashing them up together, pulling ideas from one context and putting them in another. MLP loves to do this, as we’ll see when we go episode by episode. It is a show that can do a typical sit-com plot (babysitter with no childcare experience bites off more than she can chew), then interrupt it with a horror movie about a monster attack–and then have the resolution to the horror plot solve the sit-com plot, too.

The Plan

The plan right now is to have one post dedicated to each story–so, for example, “Mare in the Moon” and “Elements of Harmony” get one post to share, while “The Ticket Master” gets one post of its own. These are not going to be summaries or reviews in the regular sense–they will be written with the assumption that everyone has already seen the episode in question–but rather critical essays that try to read the episode in terms of what it might tell us about MLP:FIM, animation, or the world. My goal is to make each essay about 2000 words (that is, about twice the length of this post), and have one up each Sunday. Given that there are already 49 stories in the first two seasons, and season 3 will be well over by the time I finish the first 49, this project should last us a good long time.

See you this Sunday for eclipse myths, ancient evils, and magical girls!