I don’t get it. How can somepony not become instant best friends with me? (Griffon the Brush-Off)

Pinkie Pie pilots a pedal-powered peppermint plane
The Technology Exchange Treaty was not as productive
as Princesses Celestia and Bubblegum had hoped.

Ponies are geeks.

I don’t mean bronies. That bronies are geeks is fairly obvious, and not particularly worth commenting on. I mean that the fictional ponies, the stars and background characters from the shows, are geeks.

We saw a little of that in the first episode, when they used the Elements of Internet Culture at Its Best to weaponize their network of friends. There have also been nods to this in the episodes since, such as Fluttershy’s desire to go to an enormous party so that she can ignore the party entirely and look at the animals next door.

But I mean more than that the individual characters of the show are, individually, geeks. When I say ponies are geeks, I mean that Equestria is geekery itself; pony culture is a reflection of geek culture.

Consider one relatively positive construction of geekery: Geeks are people who construct their identities primarily around their passions. In other words, geeks define who they are in terms of their strongest interests and hobbies; rather than identifying primarily according to demographic identity (ethnicity, cohort, social class, and so forth), geographic origin, nationality, or political ideology, a geek who is passionately interested in, say, the sciences identifies first and foremost as a science geek, one who is interested in anime identifies as an anime geek, and so forth. Of course there is more to any given geek than their geekeries, but geeks identify themselves first and foremost by their geekery; all else comes after.

Put another way: Ask a geek and a non-geek to tell you about themselves. The non-geek will most likely start by talking about what they do for a living or where they’re from; the geek will start by telling you about their hobbies or entertainment choices.

Compare this to the ponies. Each pony has a cutie mark which identifies their unique special talent, about which more in later articles. For our purposes this week, all that matters is that for each of the mane six, and presumably for most or all ponies, their cutie mark also symbolizes their passion: Applejack’s farm work, Rarity’s pursuit of status and beauty (in her person and her art), Twilight’s quest for knowledge, Fluttershy’s love of animals, Rainbow Dash’s speed and flashiness, and Pinkie Pie’s parties.

We will see in later episodes that the acquisition of a cutie mark is both a rite of passage into adulthood and a moment of profound self-discovery. For ponies, finding one’s passion and figuring out one’s identities are one and the same, and they wear these passions/identities on their flanks for all to say. Ponies are people who construct their identities primarily around their passions; ponies are geeks.

It works for less flattering constructions of geekery, too. Consider what we might call the Big Bang Theory construction of geekery: Geeks are people who compensate for a lack of social skills by forming associations defined entirely by common interests. (Note that these two constructions are not at all contradictory; they are two perspectives on the same phenomenon.) Many geeks are not particularly well socialized; a typical geek story is a more-or-less ostracized child and teenager, who thus fell further and further behind their peers in social skills but had plenty of time to focus on developing passions and hobbies, and then as a young adult found that associating exclusively with people who shared those passions and hobbies was much easier than developing the skills needed to bond with people with disparate interests. The result is an adult, fully capable of holding an adult role in society, who nonetheless occasionally shows alarming gaps in their ability to deal with other people–who needs periodic friendship lessons, in other words.

Which brings us to November 12, 2010. Megamind is still tops at the box office, and Far*East Movement still needs to get off my lawn. The Queen of England signs up for Facebook, but no one is allowed to friend her, rather missing the point, Mario turns 25, and Somalian pirates overwhelm international efforts to control them.

In Ponyville, we have a passable but not hugely impressive episode in “Griffon the Brush-Off,” Cindy Morrow’s first episode for the show. She’s another writer who can be a bit hit or miss, but compared to Rogers (who by my count has had three good episodes, four forgettably mediocre ones, and three stinkers, of which “The Ticket Master” was the first and least bad), Morrow’s misses tend to be more mediocre than actually bad, and her hits, while less good than Rogers’ best, are more numerous (my count gives her five good episodes and three mediocre ones).

Although this episode, taken in isolation, is not all that interesting, it does work very well with a theme this blog is ultimately going to spend a lot of time on, which I hinted at in the first two posts and can finally state explicitly (earlier than I expected when I started, actually): My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is a show about bronies. Of course on one level, this early in the show’s run, it’s impossible for this to be true: Bronies barely exist yet, and so of course the writers cannot be intentionally writing about them. (If you need proof the writers haven’t yet noticed the online fanbase, take a look at a certain gray pegasus mare just before the 1:45 mark, and note the complete absence of a certain memetic animation error.) However, just like anything and everything else outside the show itself, we only care about the writers’ intentions if it can make our reading of the show more interesting. In this case, the show is more interesting if we ignore their intentions and knowledge and just look at the outcomes: Read as a show about the brony subculture in particular and geeks in general, MLP works really, really well.

That’s why I spent so much time at the beginning of this post writing that ponies are geeks, because what this episode is about, ultimately, is a friendship lesson geeks need to hear as a culture. Specifically, it’s about something Michael Suileabhain-Wilson identified in a rather famous blog post a decade ago: Geek Social Fallacies.

For example, the intent of the cold open is probably Pinkie Pie as the annoying younger sibling who thinks Rainbow Dash is the coolest thing ever, and desperately wants to spend time with her. However, we can equally read this as the poorly socialized geek suffering from an interaction between Fallacy 3 (friendship uber alles) and Fallacy 5 (friends do everything together). At the intersection of these two fallacies we can find Pinkie’s logic: “Rainbow Dash is my friend, therefore she must want to spend time with me, regardless of what else she’s doing.”

Rainbow Dash is no better, however; throughout the first part of the episode, she is clearly annoyed by Pinkie but unable to tell her to go away, because RD suffers from the intersection of Fallacies 1 (ostracizers are evil) and 2 (friends accept me as I am). In combination, these fallacies mean that RD cannot ask Pinkie to change her behavior, because that would not be accepting her as she is, and cannot tell her to go away, because that would be ostracism.

Basically, we have here a situation where RD and Pinkie have very different wants, and are unable to effectively communicate this to each other. Fortunately, they soon find a common interest (pranking) which allows them to bond despite their inability to communicate otherwise. Of course, this doesn’t do anything to resolve the underlying issue that neither of them is very good at being a friend to the other, but it does handily obscure the problem for a while.

Not a very long while, of course, as Gilda shows up soon after to “steal” RD from Pinkie. RD describes Gilda as her best friend from flight camp, but it quickly becomes clear that their relationship is very similar to RD’s relationship with Pinkie Pie, based on a common interest in flying rather than any true bond.

It may seem, incidentally, that I am being rather hard on geek friendships here, and to an extent I am. However, I want to draw a distinguish between friendships that begin out of common interests and then grow into something more meaningful, and friendships that begin out of common interests and never grow. People who pursue their hobbies together or talk about their favorite shows are buddies; friends are people who trust one another, who have insight into one another, who are willing to sometimes put the other’s needs first, and who can rely on one another for emotional support. This is not a binary–a relationship can be both, either, or neither–but equally they are not the same thing.

But not one out of Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, and Gilda trusts or understands either of the other two, and none of them is willing to put the needs of one of the others first for a moment. Certainly it’s hard to imagine anyone turning to any of these three for emotional support, at least not without knowledge of future episodes.

Gilda suffers from the Geek Fallacies as much as the others, particularly a nasty form of Fallacy 4 (friendship is transitive). Specifically, she acts on its logical converse: If Pinkie Pie is Rainbow Dash’s friend, and Gilda is Rainbow Dash’s friend, then Pinkie Pie is Gilda’s friend. Gilda doesn’t like Pinkie Pie; therefore Pinkie Pie isn’t Rainbow Dash’s friend. Pinkie’s own nasty case of Fallacy 5, which leads to her trying to join in Gilda and RD’s flying even though she isn’t physically capable of doing so, just exacerbates Gilda’s determination to sever the Pinkie-RD relationship.

Pinkie, for her own part, suffers a more straightforward form of Fallacy 4: She is RD’s friend, Gilda is RD’s friend, and therefore Pinkie must find a way to like Gilda. She struggles, as Gilda is revealed to be worse and worse: Her pranks are more mean-spirited than Pinkie’s and RD’s, and she isn’t as careful about who she targets, and she steals from a produce stand, but Pinkie still tries to find a way to like her.

However, Gilda then commits the Unforgivable Sin, the Equestrian equivalent of human transmutation or blaspheming the Holy Spirit: she is mean to Fluttershy. You may think I’m kidding or exaggerating because Fluttershy is my favorite pony, but I’m completely serious: villains who leave Fluttershy alone get a chance at redemption; villains who are mean to her do not. Nightmare Moon did nothing to Fluttershy (the two do not interact until the second season), and at the end of her two-parter she is restored to being Princess Luna. Discord was mean to Fluttershy in an attempt to break her spirit, and when that didn’t work, he used magic to brainwash her; at the end of his two-parter he was turned back to stone. The dragon was mean to Fluttershy’s friends, but not Fluttershy herself, and he is allowed to apologize and leave; Gilda was mean to Fluttershy, and she loses her friendship with RD and departs in unrepentant anger and shame.

Gilda has unwittingly doomed herself, but the instrument of that doom will continue to be the Geek Social Fallacies. Pinkie’s solution is precisely what the original blog post warns against with Fallacy 4: She throws a big party and invites everyone. The party is, of course, a disaster, and Gilda proves to be a prankster who cannot handle being the target of pranks, which is certainly one way of describing a bully. (Another is “willing to be mean to Fluttershy,” and no, I’m not going to let this go. Being mean to Fluttershy is like kicking a kitten or stealing from small children. It’s just not cool.)

On her departure, Gilda employs Fallacies 2 and 3 to assume that RD will accept Gilda’s bad behavior and put her friendship ahead of all the others. To her credit, RD manages to get over her initial case of Fallacy 1 and realize that sometimes, excluding someone from friendship is justified. She tosses Gilda deservedly out on her ear, presumably to go hang out with those two pegasi who taunted Fluttershy at flight camp (“The Cutie Mark Chronicles,” and if you need to ask whether a couple of ponies whose attitudes and cutie marks clearly mark them as archetypal jocks are redeemable, you clearly weren’t listening when I explained that Equestria is an entire civilization of geeks.)

Next week: Giant bears, Tall Poppy Syndrome, and the first pony writer since Lauren Faust I consistently like.

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