|Who knew so many ponies were angry drunks?
When I was a kid, the one cartoon that stood out above all others was Ducktales. If you know the history of American TV cartoons, or you’ve read my book, then you know there’s a reason for this; to make a long story short, Ducktales was a strong contender for best (English-language) cartoon of the 1980s, the beginning of the end of the “Wasteland” period of children’s television, and the proof that syndication (soon to be succeeded by cable) made it possible for a cartoon to make a profit without sacrificing production values, paving the way for the Silver Age of Animation that runs from the 1990s through today.
But Ducktales itself was very much a creature of the 1980s. Scrooge McDuck is, in many ways, the ultimate capitalist, conservative hero. He is “self-made,” rising from poverty-stricken immigrant to richest duck in the world entirely through his own efforts (or so, thanks to the utter invisibility of all but a few of his employees, we are led to believe). In the present, we see him already colossally wealthy, his business empire functioning apparently with little input from him while he gallivants about the globe having adventures and hunting for treasure, creating the impression that his wealth still comes from his own efforts; in flashbacks he is depicted young and poor, working hard and alone to earn his original fortune. Glossed over in between are the long years (almost a century!) between the Klondike Gold Rush and the present of the series, during which he must have grown his business empire in the usual way–hiring workers to produce products or provide services, charging customers more for those products and services than it costs to provide them, paying the workers less than the customers are paying, and using the resulting profits to expand into new areas, promote the business, and so forth. This is undoubtedly what Scrooge means when he (repeatedly) insists that he made his money “square”: He kept his promises, abided by his contracts, and did not overtly lie to his customers and employees, which is to say he followed the ethical standards of business.
McDuck is depicted as strict, judgmental, quick to anger, slow to pity, convinced he has attained his fortune by being “smarter than the smarties and tougher than the toughies.” In other words, he sees his wealth as proof of innate superiority, and Ducktales is by and large happy to support this view of himself; Scrooge McDuck is simply stronger and harder, a duck above and apart from the rest of the world’s people, and his lack of compassion and charitable impulse is depicted as a quirk, a comedic flaw that doesn’t actually impede him or make him less likeable.
Ducktales‘ success caused Warner Bros. to create its own syndicated cartoons in co-production with Amblin, which in turn caused Ted Turner’s fledgling Cartoon Network (founded basically to give him something to do with the large libraries of classic cartoons he’d just bought) to start pursuing original programming, which in turn begat the career of Lauren Faust and, ultimately, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.
And now it’s January 28, 2012. The top movie is Liam Neeson vehicle The Grey, and the top song is still “We Found Love” by Rihanna featuring Calvin Harris. In the news, the Syrian civil war continues to rage, the national state of emergency in Egypt is dropped just shy of a year after the revolution began, and the city of Oakland arrests 200 Occupy protestors.
On TV, we have yet another Applejack episode, M.A. Larson’s “The Super-Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000,” directed by James Wootton. The episode quickly became very popular, primarily because of its very fun, catchy, complex song (also called “The Super-Speedy cider Squeezy 6000,”), modeled heavily on The Music Man, though commenting fans more often recognized it as reminiscent of “Monorail” from The Simpsons. Both of those possible homages are songs that start as a con man giving his pitch, and evolve into crowd songs as the assembled townsfolk fall for it, and the song in this episode is no different, though it adds the twist of having two con men, brothers, whose different vocal ranges and tendency to finish each other’s lines make the song more complex and possibly even catchier.
The Flim-Flam Brothers are most definitely liars, cheats, and frauds, that much is clear from their facial expressions during the songs, their names (flim-flam is a term meaning “deception, trickery, nonsense,”) and the fact that they switch identities: at about the 5:30 mark of the episode, the brother with the lower voice and mustache says “He’s Flim,” and the higher-pitched, clean-shaven brother says “He’s Flam”; after they’ve got the town mostly convinced, at about the 8:30 mark, the clean-shaven pony says “He’s Flim” and the other says “He’s Flam.” But what’s deeply odd about this episode is that their actual plan involves them telling the truth and keeping their promises–at no point do they engage in anything Scrooge wouldn’t consider “square.”
Their initial offer seems to be completely legitimate: they have a machine that can produce cider much more quickly and efficiently than the Apples can, and offer to make the cider for the Apples in exchange for three-quarters of the takings. Applejack rejects this offer, because she’s afraid the Apples will no longer be able to make enough money from cider sales to keep their farm going. The next day, Flim and Flam show up with the cider they made in their demonstration the previous day and start selling it to the ponies who didn’t get any Apple family cider. An argument ensues over whether the Flim-Flam Brothers should be allowed to sell it, since it’s made from Apple family apples, and ultimately they hold a competition for sole rights to sell apple cider in Ponyville.
To this point, from a modern, Western, capitalist perspective, Applejack appears to be entirely in the wrong and a terrible businesswoman to boot. She has failed to provide enough cider, and rather than try to make more by hiring temporary workers, or reduce demand by raising prices, she is artificially attempting to suppress competition and block the introduction of new, more efficient techology for cider-making. The story shifts from The Music Man to John Henry, and we know how that ends, with technology triumphant and our hero crushed by the grinding gears that drive the inevitable march of progress.
But Applejack brings in her friends. She begins making cider faster and faster, and the Flim-Flam Brothers abandon their quality controls to win the contest. This is the key moment of the episode, when Rainbow Dash (as always our voice of modernity and cynicism) suggests that the Apples do likewise, and Applejack refuses. The Flim-Flam Brothers win the contest, but after the townsfolk taste their cider, they’re driven out of town, and thanks to the contest there’s enough Apple family cider for everyone.
At no point do the Flim-Flam Brothers lie. At no point do they cheat or steal or break a promise. Under the rules of business ethics they have done nothing wrong. And yet as I said their introductory musical number depicts them as con men, and the episode as a whole is clearly structured with them as villains. This moment is the reason why: Because unlike Applejack, they are good at business, and as such they are completely willing to sacrifice quality (or anything else) at a moment’s notice. They are rational in the economic sense, willing to do what it takes to get what they want, and what they want is to make money and to win.
Put another way: Applejack is a farmer who uses money as a means to maintain her farm, to the end of producing products such as cider. The Flim-Flam Brothers are businessmen who use cider as a means to make money. They are alienated from the product of their work (and yes, I am aware of the irony that this is not only despite but because they own the means of production), caring neither about its quality nor the happiness of their customers so long as they can get money out of it. Remember again Scrooge’s invisible army of employees, the fact that he never seems to engage with the actual work his businesses do, but rather goes off to microscopically increase his wealth with treasure hunts that take weeks and probably do not involve more than a couple of million in profit per trip, a fraction of a percent of what a single large-scale contract could earn him, and contrast to this Applejack, who gets her hands dirty, who values her creation not for what it can get her, not so that she can swim in a big bin of money, but because it is, in itself, a thing of value and worth.
The villainy of the Flim-Flam Brothers is that they value nothing for itself, only for what it can get them. They are the essence of capitalism, the price of setting a price for everything–a core assumption of capitalism is that everything has a monetary value and can be substituted for something else of equal monetary value, so there exists some quantity of potatoes worth giving up all your dreams for. So of course, in the end, we cannot have the moral spelled out for us. We must have Applejack simply declare that she learned nothing, because she really did know it all along, as we all do: business ethics aren’t ethical. Honesty alone is not enough to be good; it must bring in its friends, such as kindness and generosity and loyalty and laughter–it must involve compassion, caring about what you’re doing–to balance itself.
The fundamental difference between Equestria and our world is not magic, it’s not the talking animals, it’s not even the filter of self-censorship necessary in making a show for children. It is simply that in our world, the Flim-Flam Brothers are in charge.
Next Week: A less depressing episode, as Rainbow Dash is temporarily crippled in an accident and utterly cut off from everything she loves.