This isn’t quite what I expected. (Dragon Quest)

Wait, which one’s Erdrick again?

It’s March 17, 2012. The top song is fun. featuring Janelle Monae with “We Are Young,” which from the title I expected to be a rage-inducing cover of Pat Benatar’s classic “Love Is a Battlefield,” but was pleasantly surprised to find is an actually pretty good song that, judging by the sound, fell sideways in time from an alternate universe where the late 90s and early 2000s never happened and pop music is still borderline listenable. No, this week it’s up to Hollywood to pick up the banner of unnecessary remakes of things that were moderately okay for their time, with 21 Jump Street.

In the news, the world’s population hits seven billion according to the U.S. Census Bureau, a fight breaks out at the U.N. Human Rights Council (which presumably is also the U.N. Commission on Irony), and Rick Santorum wins the Republican Presidential primaries in Alabama and Mississippi, which both tells you everything you need to know about Rick Santorum and everything you need to know about Alabama and Mississippi, and Encyclopaedia Britannica goes online-only because, honestly, encyclopedias were always hypertexts anyway.

“Dragon Quest,” written by Merriwether Williams and directed by James Wootton, is much like “The Mysterious Mare-Do-Well” in that it depicts serious flaws in the socialization of one of our culture’s two largest genders, but unlike the earlier Williams episode, this time it appears to be intentional.

Dragons have been repeatedly depicted as a dark reflection of ponies, most prominently in Season One’s “Dragonshy,” where the dragon served as a Jungian Shadow to Fluttershy. Here, however, they serve as a reflection in a different way; rather than the dark side of ponies, they are the masculine counterpart to the matriarchal society of Equestria. Every dragon Spike speaks to in this episode has a male voice, contrasting sharply with Spike, who is voiced by Cathy Wiseluck–a male character with a woman’s voice, just as Spike effectively declares himself in this episode to be a pony on the inside even as he is a dragon on the outside.

There is certainly much room for a trans* reading of this episode, given its theme that who you are is not dependent on the physical form you happen to take, however much others may judge or place expectations on you based on that form. However, the episode also contains elements that mitigate against a trans* reading, most notably that Spike continues to identify as a dragon after this episode. It can equally, and perhaps more strongly, be read as a rejection of gender roles outright: Spike will define for himself what it means to be a dragon (that is, masculine), and refuses to accept that it requires behaving like the vile older dragons (men) he has met.

At the heart of this reading of the episode is one of the most perfect depictions of hegemonic masculinity I have ever seen, the game of King of the Hoard, where dragons fight each other to reach the top of a mountain of treasure, throwing each other down as they ascend, until ultimately everyone falls and the treasure goes unclaimed. “Hegemonic masculinity” is a term coined by R.W. Connell to describe the relationship between gender and power in our society, and specifically the way in which, in a patriarchal kyriarchy, masculinity becomes defined by the possession and exercise of power.

Important here is the distinction between power and freedom, which can be summed up simply as such: freedom is the ability to make meaningful choices, while power is the ability to take freedom from others, to assert control. Take wealth as an example: for most people, wealth is a source of freedom, since it permits you to buy things you otherwise could not, adding new options. For the wealthiest of the wealthy, however, there is no longer an increase in freedom from wealth; you can only actually ride one jet or live in one mansion at a time, so buying a second is not much of an increase in freedom. However, the accumulation of wealth at that level allows you to build power–buying up voting stock in companies to make them do what you want, for instance, or using campaign contributions to get politicians to pass laws you favor.

All power is inherently anxious. Increased freedom invites resentment only from those who desire power over you, but increased power invites resentment both from those who desire power and those who desire freedom. If you have power over someone, it becomes difficult for them to exercise power over you, and so to increase in power is necessarily to take that power from another. The existence of power creates a hierarchy, and so long as one is not at the top of the hierarchy, there is anxiety about the potential of those higher to use their power on you. The higher one goes, however, the greater the number of those below, who naturally resent you for exercising power over them, and thus even to reach the top is no escape from anxiety. Heavy is the head and light the sleep of the one who wears the crown.

If masculinity is defined by power, then masculinity is inherently anxious as well. That can be seen in this episode; as one who lacks physical prowess, social standing, or the capacity to intimidate, Spike is rejected as not being a dragon at all. He is a “namby-pamby” (that is, weak and insipid) pony because he is small. The contests the dragons engage in are all tests of power, whether physical strength in the form of a tail-pulling competition, the use of violence to attain social dominance in King of the Hoard, or size and resilience in the lava dive. Even the belching contest is a demonstration of the ability to make noise and resist the social pressures of etiquette. While resisting social norms can be either a demonstration of power or of freedom, in this case it appears to be a declaration of the refusal to follow rules of any sort, which is a threat and therefore an assertion of power.

The ultimate declaration of power by the dragons, however, is the raid on the phoenix nest. The dragons appear to have no interest in the eggs as food–they tell Spike to smash the one egg he finds–but instead wish to destroy them simply for the sake of destroying them, because it is “fun.” To destroy is the ultimate assertion of power, because it not only constrains choices involving that which is destroyed, but eliminates all possibility of making any choice involving that which is destroyed. (Likewise, to create is the ultimate expression of freedom, since it not only gives access to preexisting choices but calls new options into being; that, along with her heavily emphasized femininity, is why Rarity is positioned as the anti-dragon in this episode.)

This is the final straw for Spike; he is unwilling to destroy for the sake of destruction, because he has no desire to wield power. If that is what it takes to be recognized as a dragon, then he will not be a dragon. If that is what it takes to be masculine, then he will not be masculine–but fortunately, that is not what it takes to be masculine. There are many ways to construct masculinity, and the show provides positive constructions of masculinity as diverse as the constructions of femininity it presents, most notably Big Macintosh and Fancy Pants in past episodes, and Shining Armor to come.

Spike, at the end of this episode, is not a pony. He is a dragon who has looked at dragon culture and rejected it, an outsider who makes a conscious decision between the groups to which he does not belong, who pursues one rather than another. He has struggled in the past, and will continue to struggle, with issues of entitlement and Nice Guy Syndrome, but he wants to acquire the good qualities he sees in the ponies, and reject the heavily gendered, power-driven culture that rejects him. Spike, more than any character we have seen before, more even than the Cutie Mark Crusaders, is a brony.

Next week: Honestly, this title would have been more appropriate for three episodes ago.

9 thoughts on “This isn’t quite what I expected. (Dragon Quest)

  1. Nope. It's close to one of Rarity's lines from that episode, but not identical. Also, this is a Spike episode, so I used a Spike quote. (I've broken that rule only once, using a line said by Cadence and Crysalis for the Best Night Ever article.)

  2. The “Reject that definition of masculinity and substitute his own” reading is especially helped by the (I think) next Spike-centric episode. In the intervening time he's come up with his own “dragon code”, basically his own definition of what he thinks being a dragon *should* mean. Looked at from the right angle it's sort of a cross between pony and dragon and something entirely his own invention.

  3. Excellent point! And for all that the “dragon code” is itself rather problematic, it's a major step in the right direction away from hegemonic draconicity.

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