|Wait, you mean this ISN’T a nuance and respectful
treatment of a culture tragically villainized and nigh-
eradicated by European aggression? But it
looks SO much like one!
It’s March 25, 2011. Lady Gaga is on top for her third straight week, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Roderick Rules is number one at the box office, though only just ahead of the execrable Sucker Punch. That latter is something of an achievement, though, as it marks the only time someone has ever both written and directed a movie with only one hand. In real news, the U.S., France, and several other countries intervene on the rebel side of the Libyan civil war, Egypt holds a constitutional convention, and the death toll for the Japanese quake is now nearly 10,000, with over 15,000 missing.
This week, Dave Polsky gives us his last episode until the third season, and it’s not exactly great. “Over a Barrel” suffers from a problem that will come up a lot in third season, namely that it’s trying to tell a story that cannot be told within the limitations of a My Little Pony show.
I once heard a very good explanation of why Song of the South was horrifying, and I wish I could remember where it was so that I could cite this: “Imagine if someone made a musical set in Auschwitz in 1950, and it opened with a Jewish chorus singing ‘Nothing bad has ever happened here!'” That’s what this episode is like: it takes a horrifically violent period of American history, a time of genocide, biological warfare, and forced marches, and turns it into a pie fight.
But let’s take a step back, and examine how else this episode could have gone. Take the premise as a given: My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is going to do an episode about the westward expansion of the U.S. and the conflicts between Native Americans and settlers. Is there any conceivable universe in which this is a good idea? The core values of the show are love, tolerance, and friendship, which means it is obligated to depict both sides as fully human and fully complex, but it is a half-hour show intended to be suitable for children, which means the conflict also has to be entirely defanged. Of course, that defanging is in turn incredibly disrespectful to the entire peoples systematically slaughtered, and ignores that, by modern standards of morality, the settlers were entirely and completely in the wrong.
Admittedly, the episode does make a good effort in some places. The first few minutes, up until the arrival in Appleloosa, are straight-up hilarious. Fluttershy’s “I’d like to be a tree” is one of her funniest lines in the series. The buffalo are pure obnoxious stereotype, but at least we get to see representatives of the young people on both sides (Little Strongheart and Braeburn) who don’t want to be drawn into the conflicts of their elders, but find themselves swept up in it anyway.
This doomed attempt to reject ethnic conflict by the young echoes more recent, similar conflicts. I’m not particularly aware of any major generational divide in attitudes toward the conflicts in the American Old West, but modern ethnic clashes often see such a difference, with many young people (often sharing in a quasiglobal youth culture of pop music and television) initially taking less hardline stances than their parents, only to be drawn into the conflict as they suffer losses due to it.
A case in point, and one that seems to have informed “Over a Barrel,” is the 60-plus-year-long conflict between Israel and Palestine. (Not thousands of years; up until the mid-twentieth century, Jews and Muslims had historically gotten along with each other much, much better than either group got along with Christians.) Said conflict, always at least on the back burner, has steadily heated throughout the months that the series has been on the air, and several exchanges of rocket fire occurred in the week this episode aired. A short examination of the similarities between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the central conflict of “Over a Barrel” is thus evocative, if not actually proof that the creators had it in mind.
A point of due diligence before we continue: I am a leftist Israeli-American non-practicing Jew who thinks it was a mistake to put the Jewish state in Israel. Patagonia or Alaska (both of which were floated as possibilities when the state was founded) would have been a lot less disruptive to the surrounding peoples and led to a lot less conflict. Depending on who you talk to, that biography and opinion means I am horribly biased, though which way I am biased is a matter of some debate.
On with the similarities:
First, both conflicts are between relatively newly arrived settlers and natives, but both have seemingly legitimate claims to call the land their home. Notably (and unlike the American West as far as I know), the settlers have positioned themselves across the middle of the buffaloes’ territory, forcing them to cross settler territory to get from one side of their land to the other, just as modern-day Israel divides the West Bank from the Gaza Strip–and, as in modern-day Israel, the settler ponies initially refuse to allow the buffalo to cross the orchard.
Applejack is another point of similarity; she provides resources to her ally among the settlers, and then serves as a voice shoring up the hardliners on the settler side, which of course she is free to do, having nothing to lose if the conflict escalates. Her behavior is not too different from that of the American right wing, which likewise fuels the conflict by shoring up the hardliners on the Israeli side and raises money for the settlers. One of the tragic unintended consequences of the founding of the state of Israel is that it has largely ended the historical alignment of Judaism with the left; in the U.S., in particular, the Jewish right is a potent political force doing its part every day to make life worse for almost everyone (this being the purpose of right-leaning political factions) in both the U.S. and Israel.
On the opposite side we have Spike and Rainbow Dash, who fill the role of neighboring Arab powers that serve a similar function in funding and shoring up hardliners on the Palestinian side. And in the middle we have Pinkie Pie, whose well-meaning attempts to spread peace and brotherhood just annoy everyone, much like the attempts by Western leftist groups (at least those view which don’t just blindly align with the Palestinians out of a misguided assumption that underdogs never commit war crimes) to get involved.
The only real hope for ending the conflict lies in Braeburn and Little Strongheart–in other words, for those not yet embittered by conflict to serve as voices of reason, and find a solution by which neither side wins, but both sides are satisfied. In the cartoon, of course, this is achieved with almost comical ease; the reality is a bit harder. Much like the settler ponies and buffalo, the Israelis and Palestinians could work together to make a better world for both; an economic alliance or even a political federation could serve Israeli and Palestinian interests far better than continued conflict, while one side “winning” and successfully driving out the other would be an unmitigated disaster for that faction. Unfortunately, the wounds of past conflict make future conflict nigh-inevitable, because people are not ponies; even those willing to forgive, to move on, and to build are held back by fear of the unwilling on both sides.
The show strains against its limits, here, but it cannot overcome them. For all of the transformative power it has built up through its own alchemical magnum opus, it cannot transform the political realm directly, and its suggested solution rings incredibly false and unrealistic. By attempting to tell a story that resonates with real-world conflicts (current or historical), it runs headlong into the problem that people are much messier than ponies.
There are real, understandable motiviations for all combatants on all sides of all conflicts. No one ever picks up a gun and shoots another human being unless it seemed like a good idea at the time. Though from the vantage point of history it is easy to tell that the Native Americans were (mostly) victims and the settlers were (overall) unjustified aggressors, at the time everyone on both side had what seemed like good arguments that they were right. Unfortunately, those arguments are rooted in the violent, hateful elements of human nature, in greed and pain and rage, and these are things which must not and cannot exist in Equestria.
The result is, necessarily, a pie fight.
But then what is the show to spend its transformative energies on, if not addressing real-world conflicts?
The answer lies in the previous episode: it can spend its transformative energies on its viewers. Change every person in a society, and you change that society. Change a society, and you change every event in which that society is involved. To change one person for the better, even a little bit, is thus to take a step closer to a better world.
“Over a Barrel” isn’t a great episode, but not out of any particular failures in its execution (though the depiction of the buffalo was a massive failure). Rather, it fails because this is an entirely wrong direction for the show to be taking. However, it may be that this was a necessary wrong direction; certainly, it will be quite some time before the show attempts any similarly doomed premises. With this wrong step behind it, it can return to the theme of transformation with new confidence and a more direct approach than its past oblique passes.
Next week: And what better place to start than with the phoenix?