|How Nice Guys ™ see themselves and women.|
It’s March 11, 2011. Lady Gaga’s still at number one in the pop charts, but Rango has been unseated by the brainless two-hour videogame cutscene Battle: Los Angeles. In real news since last episode, the misnamed Arab Spring continues with the Libyan civil war, protests throughout the Arab World (except in Saudi Arabia, which bans protesting) and in Wisconsin and Hong Kong, and the Space Shuttle Discovery makes its final landing. But all of this is largely forgotten when a massive earthquake and tsunami strike Japan the day this episode airs, killing hundreds and seriously damaging two nuclear reactors.
I’m struggling with the temptation to make a tasteless comparison to the utter disaster of an episode that is “Dog and Pony Show,” but there really isn’t any comparison. The earthquake was horrible, one of the worst in the last century, and there’s simply nothing in any media that could possibly be as bad as a natural disaster that kills hundreds and leaves thousands more homeless.
That said, let’s find a more tasteful comparison. I once saw a trailer for a movie called The Switch, the premise of which was so utterly, inhumanly horrifying on so many levels that it left me sputtering. Ever since, every time I see a bad movie or (more likely) a trailer for a bad movie, I have to ask myself, “Is it as bad as The Switch?” And the answer, happily, has always been no, it is not as bad.
For My Little Pony, I’ve recently acquired an equivalent: Is it as bad as “One Bad Apple?”
And no, “Dog and Pony Show” is not as bad as “One Bad Apple.” It’s still the worst thing Amy Keating Rogers has written for the show to date, and given my opinion of most of the rest of her work, that is saying something.
What’s so bad about it? Well, for starters, it’s simply not at all entertaining. It’s not particularly funny, except for a couple of moments, it doesn’t have any emotional punch, and it doesn’t tell us anything about any of the characters we didn’t already know, except for being the first in a large list of examples of Spike being a jerk. From that perspective, it’s like a slightly lower-quality version of “The Show Stoppers”: Nothing special about it for me to sink my teeth into.
It’s also spectacularly unoriginal and cliche. I mentioned last week that it’s based on O. Henry’s worst story, referring of course to “The Ransom of Red Chief.” Since then, however, I’ve done some research and learned that it’s actually ripping off an even older source, Child Ballad 278, “The Farmer’s Curst Wife,” collected in the late nineteenth century and dating back to medieval origins, possibly earlier.
In the ballad, the farmer gives his wife to the devil because she is “bad.” Eventually, the devil gets sick of her and sends her back because even he can’t stand her, and the farmer is thus stuck with her. At the end we get a horribly misogynistic “comedic” moral, because while male mass murderers and genocidal dictators are pretty bad, they don’t hold a candle to how bad women can be, amirite?
Rogers makes some changes to the basic story, including the very common change of having the “wife” kidnapped. Rarity is much more obnoxious to the “devil” of the story than she is to the “husband,” and it’s all part of an intentional plan on her part. However, Rogers leaves the underlying, misogynistic moral unchanged: even though Rarity is physically overpowered, nothing can withstand her womanly annoyingness!
Of course Rogers phrases it differently, that “Just because somepony is ladylike doesn’t mean she’s weak.” That sounds like a good thing, and Rogers is, as usual, probably well-intentioned with it. However, the very notion that there is such a thing as “ladylike” implies exactly the prescriptive model of femininity that Friendship Is Magic seeks to subvert. Additionally, Rarity is pretty obviously lying when she suggests her complaining and whining was all part of her scheme, because she had no reason to believe it would work until after her initial complaints caused physical pain to the Diamond Dogs. We have to conclude that Rarity–after we’ve seen her willing to get her hooves dirty to help clean up Twilight Sparkle’s house or work herself to exhaustion to finish dresses for her friends–is complaining because she’s as much of a spoiled brat as the kid in “Ransom of Red Chief,” too weak to do the work and too stupid to realize the Diamond Dogs could hurt her very badly if they chose. It’s a wildly out of character depiction, and further evidence that Rogers simply does not get Rarity.
The misogyny inherent in the depiction is probably not intentional; Rogers is clearly playing with cliches without paying close attention to their implications, so the misogyny with which our culture drips is leaking through. That seems to be what’s happening with Spike’s jerkassery in this episode, too.
Spike and Rarity begin the episode with a simple business deal: He digs up the gems she finds, he gets to keep some to eat. After he receives the payment, however, he starts getting creepy, choosing to keep it as a token of love rather than consume it. Once she gives it to him, it’s his property to do with as he wishes, of course, but he’s walking a dangerous line; she did not give it to him as a token of love, and his choice to treat it as one creates a serious danger of confusing his fantasy of Rarity with the actual Rarity, dehumanizing (depony-izing? her).
Once Rarity is kidnapped, he develops a fantasy of rescuing her and being rewarded with a kiss–a rescue, notably, that Rarity neither needs nor wants. This fantasy sequence indicates that, at best, Spike has a badly skewed notion of how romance works; he seems to be stuck on a transactional model, where one partner performs favors and services for the other, and receives affection in return. He does seem to genuinely care about her–he is overjoyed and seems to largely forget his fantasies the moment he is found safe–but this transactional model he’s employing is deeply worrisome, because it denies Rarity any internality or emotional life of her own, instead making her affection a prize to be won or a commodity to be bought.
Spike, in other words, is in the early stages of Nice Guy Syndrome. A few rejections by Rarity and he’ll be ready to start complaining about how he’s always such a nice guy (because that’s what nice guys do, passive-aggressively pretend to be someone’s friend out of ulterior motives while doing “nice” things nobody asked them for in expectation of reward) and mares seem to only ever date jerks (i.e., anyone who ever acts like anything other than a footstool).
This is the beginning of what will be a fairly consistent portrayal of dragons through the rest of the series. We began with the notion that ponies represent geek culture, and “Dragonshy” presented us with a dragon that functioned as a Jungian Shadow archetype to a pony. If that characterization stands, then dragons as a whole represent a collective Shadow of ponies as a whole, which is to say that they represent the dark side of geekery. That’s certainly true of Spike in this episode, since Nice Guy Syndrome is rampant in geek culture, likely a result of the way shyness and an analytical bent (two common geek traits, though by no means universal) can combine to create a person who craves and fears affection and gravitates toward mechanistic, transactional solutions even in cases where they’re not appropriate.
Unfortunately, nothing in the episode suggests that Spike’s model of romance is wrong. True, Rarity seems oblivious to his intentions throughout, but in general Spike’s fantasy sequences are treated as funny and harmless; the episode itself does not recognize the complete lack of respect for Rarity’s internality that his fantasies imply.
But again, that’s not a surprise. Spike is being a jerk here, but in a way that’s got extensive support in our wider culture; Nice Guy Syndrome is just what happens when you try to apply the rules of romantic comedy to real life and, instead of learning that those rules are bullshit, become bitter that nobody else is following them. Unless you are consciously and actively aware that society has a lot of toxic memes floating around and consider it important to try to identify them and keep them out of your own work, they will end up in your work. Rogers clearly is either not aware or doesn’t care.
Perhaps in a more interesting or entertaining episode the casual, blind misogyny of this wouldn’t be quite so apparent. Unfortunately, this is a decidedly mediocre episode, and thus there’s very little distraction from its blithe passing on of toxic gender roles to the next generation. All we can really do is hope that next week’s episode is better.
Next week: Thank Celestia, it’s Megan McCarthy exploring Rarity and Fluttershy’s relationship and the nature of fame.