|The single most disturbing image in the entire series.
You could add Slenderman looking in through the window,
and it still wouldn’t be any creepier than it already is.
It’s April 8, 2011, and the number one song is Katy Perry featuring Kanye West with an obnoxious nerdboy power fantasy, “E.T.” The top movie, meanwhile, is Hop, a disorganized, idiotic mess typical of the same wave of CG-live action hybrids that gave us Alvin and the Chipmunks, Marmaduke, and The Smurfs. Real news is just as bad as the entertainment world: since last week the Arab Spring has grown steadily more violent, as governments crack down on protestors and the Libyan Civil War continues; experts confirm that the nuclear reactors damaged by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami are leaking radioactive materials into the water–just in time for an aftershock that kills nine people and injures hundreds; a flurry of tornadoes and heavy storms strike the U.S.; and Idaho bans abortion of fetuses older than 20 weeks.
Thank goodness we have ponies to distract us–and what a delightful distraction Charlotte Fullerton gives us this week! “A Bird in the Hoof” is a charming little story, and full of those wonderful details that make this show such a joy to watch. There’s the marvelous variety of facial expressions, like Princess Celestia’s indulgent, motherly smile when Pinkie Pie eats her cupcake or Fluttershy’s pupils dilating hopefully before she breaks into a big grin during Philomena’s aromatherapy. There’s the pill Fluttershy gives Philomena, recognizably the broad-spectrum antibiotic tetracycline hydrochloride. Or my personal favorite, the wheelchair-bound mouse that Fluttershy gently treats and then returns to his family in their hole in the wall–which means she even takes care of the vermin that chew holes in her house!
But this episode is more than a diversion, it’s a continuation and refinement of themes we’ve been seeing through the series. Most obvious is the rebirth motif inherent in the symbol of the phoenix. Philomena dies and is reborn in fire, and thus is the perfect pet for the sun goddess Celestia. Rebirth is often closely associated with the sun, which not only dies each night and is reborn each day, but dies and is reborn on the Winter Solstice and during every total solar eclipse, too. Rebirth has been a recurrent theme throughout the series, starting back in the very first scene of the first episode, which as I pointed out back then is an eclipse myth. Celestia’s disappearance throughout that episode, and her reappearance at sunrise, is a similar death-and-rebirth to Philomena’s in this episode, and at the same moment we get the death of Nightmare Moon and rebirth as Luna.
I’ve already addressed the death and rebirth of the series itself, its alchemical transformation from “Swarm of the Century” to “Suited for Success.” Transformation and rebirth are, ultimately, the same thing–something was, and no longer is, but is made new. It’s therefore fitting that “A Bird in the Hoof” is the first episode as flawless as “Suited for Success” was. Indeed, at this point there would be very little evidence against the claim that Charlotte Fullerton is the series’ best writer–but wait a few more episodes on that one.
Including transformations as part of the rebirth theme, we must therefore add the Cutie Mark Crusader-centric episodes to our list; what they seek is to initiate the transformation of adolescence, to die as children and be reborn as adults. Arguably, transformation is the central theme of the show to date; at the very least, it has been the central theme of this blog.
What’s interesting about this episode, however, is that it’s a subversion of the rebirth motif. Sure, Philomena burns and emerges from the flames beautiful and healthy, but she’s still the same mischievous prankster she was before she burned. Celestia is still patient and gentle, Fluttershy is still kind, easygoing, and timid, and Twilight Sparkle is still neurotic and anxious. The only transformation here was the least interesting kind, the literal and physical.
It’s a very postmodern thing to do, actually: after an entire season of transformations and rebirths, we finally get a phoenix to lampshade it, and then the episode calls the entire motif into question by giving us no transformation at all. Instead, it focuses on a similar issue to the last Fluttershy-centric episode, “Green Isn’t Your Color,” and critiques the misapplication of kindness.
In feminist circles, this concept is known as Intent Isn’t Magic (sometimes with an added f-bomb for emphasis). It doesn’t matter if you intended to help the other person; true kindness (like true generosity, true loyalty, and true friendship) aren’t about you, they’re about the other person. Before you can help someone, you have to know whether and how they want to be helped, and the only way to accomplish that is clear and open communication. A lot of people have a serious problem with this; they do things that they think are helpful, and then when the response is not gratitude, they get upset. Here, Fluttershy becomes upset and frustrated not because of a lack of gratitude, but because her efforts to help aren’t accomplishing anything. The underlying cause, however, remains the same; she didn’t bother to ask what help was needed, and just assumed, with the result that her “help” was actually useless and possibly harmful (I doubt immersing a dying phoenix in water is a good idea). Just as in “Green Isn’t Your Color,” the lack of open communication, despite everyone involved having the best of intentions, results in completely avoidable heartache for the characters.
The temptation I repeatedly struggle with, in writing this blog, is to look at episodes in isolation. The show is extremely episodic, especially in the first season, to the point that some have argued that the weird behavior of the seasons implies that the season’s airing order is not the chronological order of events in Ponyville. This episode, however, is one of the reasons I don’t think that’s possible. Fluttershy’s character has an arc this season; at first she’s too timid to do much of anything, but she successfully faces her dragon and gains enough confidence to stand on stage as a model, but not enough to confront Rarity about her feelings. In this episode she has more confidence still, enough to outright snatch the ruler of Equestria’s pet because she feels it isn’t being well cared for. Her behavior at the Grand Galloping Gala is the next step from here; the Fluttershy of earlier episodes would have given up long before her freakout.
Viewing this episode together with the rest of the season, and in particular in light of the previous episode, it becomes clear that we have another mini-arc on the theme of undesired help, lack of communication, and that Friendship, not Intent, is Magic. We start with Dog and Pony Show, where (as I discussed) in the article on that episode, Spike is in full-on obnoxious Nice Guy mode. This pattern of behavior, again, is all about being “nice” (that is, having intentions that can at least be interpreted as good by someone very, very generous and biased in the Nice Guy’s favor) while not caring at all about the internality of the other person. Nice Guy Syndrome is an excellent, real-world example of the way real, genuine friendship (that is, knowing and caring about the other person) can form meaningful bonds as opposed to the awful behavior “nice” intentions create in its absence.
Next up is “Green Isn’t Your Color,” which we’ve already discussed at length. In this case Rarity and Fluttershy’s intentions are genuinely good and unselfish, but again, they neglect to take into account the internality of the other, and that it differs from their own.
“Over a Barrel” suffers the most from the tendency to view it in isolation. Viewed in the context of the episodes around it, the read of it as a satire of modern proxy imperialism I briefly mentioned in the article becomes much stronger. Modern neoliberal imperialism (so called because it was invented by Kennedy-era liberals, but now present in both sides of the political divide) is essentially a rehash of White Man’s Burden: our culture is better and free-er than theirs and democracy is objectively the best and most moral form of government, so we should go in and liberate those poor people suffering under oppressive regimes, whether they’ve asked us to or not. This has the effect of escalating every local conflict into a clash of opposing superpowers, but when the dust settles all those Western corporations have new markets to sell to and new resources to exploit. Don’t dare suggest that was ever part of the motivation, though. Obviously the Old West setting obscures the satire somewhat, as Manifest Destiny was a completely different, more savage, and far more honest excuse to go into other people’s land and kill them; specifically, it was the two-year-old’s attitude of “I want that, therefore it’s rightfully mine.” That the satirical elements of the episode would have worked better without it is just another in the long, long, long list of reasons the Old West setting was a terrible, terrible idea.
But mostly we’re here to discuss “A Bird in the Hoof,” which is the culmination of the theme. “Over a Barrel” showed where the attitude of “I have good intentions, and therefore can do no wrong,” leads on a cultural level. This episode shows where it leads on a personal, relational level, which I see as a much more effective approach to getting people to stop doing it–especially this show’s two main audiences, children and geeks, who are often isolated from the larger culture and unlikely to see its failings as their own.
On the level of interpersonal relationships, the Intent Is Magic attitude leads to some truly horrific behavior. In the episode we have a long (and very funny) montage of Fluttershy trying and failing to solve Philomena’s problem, and while it’s frustrating and distressing for Fluttershy, it looks like sheer torture for Philomena. The high level of slapstick absurdity in this episode’s animation helps obscure and make palatable the suffering Philomena is put through, but she is roasted, frozen, plunged into water that causes her to swell terribly, given ointments that make her break out in hives, and force-fed a pill she’s already rejected. We are quick to label as selfish a person who focuses solely on their own wants and needs, and ignores what others want and are able to give. The inverse is just as true, however; the person who focuses solely on what they want and are able to give, and ignores the wants and needs of others, is exactly as selfish.
Children necessarily live on the receiving end of that every day. Because we are born ignorant and have to learn as we grow, children often don’t know their own needs very well, and their wants tend to be unrealistic. Parents must sometimes do what their child needs as opposed to what the child wants, and that’s unpleasant for everyone; worse still is when, due to the child’s still-evolving communication skills, the parent doesn’t understand what it is the child needs and, with the best of intentions, does the wrong thing. Though normally the ponies are the point of identification for the viewer, in this case Philomena is; she is the child who cannot express what she needs, and Fluttershy the well-meaning parent who doesn’t stop to try to work it out. It’s not intentional self-centeredness on Fluttershy’s part, but then, as we said, Intent Isn’t Magic.
Friendship is, however. Truly knowing and understanding another person, being open enough with them that you can ask after their needs and wants, and they can tell you if you’re missing the mark, without fear. That’s the point, when you recognize another’s internality, that true kindness becomes possible; any charity before that is at best flailing in the dark, and at worst actively harmful.
Next week: Rainbows and cutie marks and transformations for everyone! Plus we get to see the Mane Six as kids! Does it get any better than this? Amazingly, yes, yes it does.