By disrupting that order–a way of surprising (I’m Not Afraid of Anything Anymore)

In one of the less-remarked instances of queer subtext in
Madoka Magica, Mami gives Charlotte head.

A reminder: My friend Viga is still trying to raise money for college. You can get art for helping! Details here, donation site here.

Sorry this is so late.

If nothing else (and it is much else), Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a meticulously structured series. Every moment of it is carefully placed to advance a complex story with extensive character development in a surprisingly small space. One example of that meticulous structure is the symmetry throughout the series, the way in which moments large and small repeat at precisely the right time to reflect one another.

Two episodes utterly transform the series. On a first viewing, these two episodes stand out as moments when what appeared to be a show about one thing suddenly becomes a different show entirely.  As in a mirror, they are at precisely opposite ends of the series, the third episode and the third-to-last. This is the first of these episodes.

The episode opens with hints to the second and longest of the series’ three major arcs, focusing primarily on Sayaka and Kyouko. Sayaka is visiting a boy, Kamijo, to give him the CD she and Madoka went shopping for in the first episode. As the two listen to it together, we see Sayaka remember her first encounter with true beauty and with the human power of creation, when she saw Kamijo perform when both were small. We never learn precisely what is wrong with Kamijo, only that he has lost some mobility in his hands and can no longer play the violin; regardless, what matters is that the beauty Kamijo could once create is now beyond his reach, trapped in the past. This is the earliest emergence in the series of one of its major themes, a clear marker of its Buddhist influences: the inevitability of decay and loss. The beauty Kamijo creates had to be lost sooner or later, because everything is; time is the destroyer of all. The loss of Kamijo’s music is not qualitatively different from Mami’s family’s death in a car crash or the destruction of the universe by the unrelenting march of entropy; they differ only in scale.

But thankfully, the opening credits are here to save us from such melancholy thoughts! This is still the false Madoka, after all, the safe, comfortable magical girl show with only occasional hints of darkness. Either the credits or Mami herself will always step in to save us before things get too dark.

But like teeth on the edges of the frame, darkness is creeping in around the show. Mami’s flashback to her wish, to save her own life, contains so much unstated: Mami lives alone, with no clear source of money, and she was clearly in the backseat of the car that crashed. She wished hastily, to live, and now she counsels Sayaka and Madoka to think carefully about their wishes and be absolutely certain they are wishing for what they want.

She wished to live, you see, when she could have wished for her whole family to live. The paratext (particularly the series guidebooks) suggests that much the same is true for Charlotte; she wished to share one last cake with her mother, when she could have wished for her mother not to die.

But Charlotte is far from Mami’s only parallel here. Last episode, we saw Mami’s magical girl transformation paralleled with Junko’s transformation into a different kind of warrior, the ambitious corporate climber. This episode, we see Junko laid low by an inevitable part of the life of the typical Japanese salary(wo)man: the after work drunken bender. As she staggers into the Kaname home, she both foreshadows that Mami will shortly fall to an inevitable part of the life of a magical girl, the messy death, and provides the impetus for A crucial conversation between Madoka and her father.

Madoka asks a natural question: why does her mother enjoy her life? What dream is she living out by being an ambitious cog in a profit machine? Her father explains that Junko’s dream is not to do something, but to be something; that she works for the sake of working, that what she values about the effort is the effort itself. 
This mirrors the critical question Mami asks Sayaka. Does Sayaka wish I help Kamijo, or to have helped Kamijo? Does she want something for herself, in which case she should wish for that, or is it truly the helping itself that she wants? Just as Madoka is interested in being a magical girl, while Sayaka wants to fight evil, here Sayaka is focused on what she wants to do, rather than on what state of being she wants to achieve. She assumes that her action will bring that state of being about, but she is still failing to express the wish he truly wants. 
Similarly, Mami reveals in her final conversation with Madoka that she hates the state of loneliness in which she finds herself as a consequence of her wish. Though she stated earlier that she prefers how things are now to the prospect of death, she still regrets that she couldn’t have made a better wish, and she still feels terribly, utterly alone. But just as she will at the end of the series, Madoka reminds Mami that she is not alone, and promises to become a magical girl to help support her.

This is the moment at which Madoka kills Mami. The joy that Mami feels at knowing she is no longer alone causes her to showboat even more than last episode. She underestimates the threat Charlotte represents, and in so doing ensures her death. More importantly, just as with Kamijo’s music, her joy cannot last. It must end, decay, turn sour, because that is the inevitable consequence of existing within time.

Except for one thing: cheese.

We know from the paratext and from the Rebellion film that Charlotte is obsessed with cheese, searching for it endlessly. And what is cheese if not something good and life-sustaining that comes out of decay? It is rotten milk, raised into both a culinary delight and source of sustenance. It is a perfect example of the alchemical concept of putrefaction, the physical and spiritual notion that death is a source of life. Decay is repulsive, and yet the ugly, squirming mass of mold and maggots is teeming with life, able to sustain more beautiful and lovable creatures; without that decay, there would be no life.

In devouring Mami, Charlotte finds her cheese. This death and decay brings forth a new life, because it is the moment at which Madoka Magica transcends the norms of its genre and begins to fulfill its potential. Only a few short minutes after Mami first attacks Charlotte, everything has changed: Mami is dead. Homura has saved Sayaka and Madoka. Kyubey offers no comfort as they sob in the hospital parking lot. And as “Magia” finally takes its place as the true ending credits, one thing is clear: Madoka Magica has begun.

Next week: Miracles cures and suicide pacts.

Sexism and Bronies

Sorry about the lack of post yesterday and snippiness in comments, I’ve been sick.

A not-at-all-bad essay has been floating around on the topic of sexism in the brony community. It’s actually got some of the same points I made in the book (indeed, one of the author’s correspondents seems to have used almost the exact same words to describe her experiences as when I interviewed her), but with a stronger focus on the downside to being a woman in the brony community. Slightly off-putting that the author keeps referring to “males” and “females” and at one point equates “having a vagina” with being a woman, but it appears to be out of pure cisnormative ignorance rather than actual transphobia. It’s obnoxious but adaptable to, is basically what I’m saying, and worth putting up with for the meat of the essay. Certainly it’s given me some interesting avenues to look into for Book 2.

Book Version: Doors are barred and shutters shut/Guess I should have stayed inside my hut (Bridle Gossip)

A reminder: My friend Viga is still trying to raise money for college. You can get art for helping! Details here, donation site here.

Looking back on past posts to create the book versions, some stood out as needing more improvement than others. Here, therefore, is the revised version of one of those articles, as published in My Little Po-Mo Vol. 1. Citations are numbered as in the book; unfortunately, Blogger doesn’t allow anchors or superscript so they have been implemented in a fairly primitive way.

It’s December 10, 2010, and Rihanna still wants to be the “Only Girl (In the World).” In film, the top movie is Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which holds a special place in my heart as the book which made me realize I despise C.S. Lewis and everything he holds dear. Needless to say, I have not seen the movie.

In real news, assorted countries led by the U.S. continue to try to shut down WikiLeaks, in apparent total ignorance of the Streisand Effect;(42) Somali piracy is still making headlines; WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gets arrested for sexual misconduct (which he probably did, proving once again that good things can sometimes be created by horrible people); and British students protest a massive tuition hike.

On TV, Amy Keating Rogers pens “Bridle Gossip,” which, in the online version of this essay, I called a “complete failure of an episode” and “a steaming pile of racist horse-s**t.” Neither of which is true, really. It’s an exceedingly mediocre episode, one of the show’s worst, but there are no truly bad episodes of Friendship Is Magic until well into Season 3. And while it is racist, its racism is a matter of lazily and uncritically repeating stereotypes, not active malice.

Nonetheless, on the internet, I correctly predicted how some people would respond: “And now everybody’s all upset, because calling something racist is the! Worst! Possible! Thing! you can say, worse by far than actually being racist, and how dare I say anything against Rogers, who you met at that one con and she seemed like a really nice lady and…”

Let me make something clear: This episode is not trying to incite hatred. I suspect it actually is well-intentioned, an attempt to add the first hints of a non-Western culture to Equestria. The reason I suspect this, is because I can easily believe that all the racist undertones and implications in this episode comes from the same source as the sexist commentary in “The Ticket Master”—namely that Rogers either can’t write certain characters, doesn’t understand them, or simply isn’t interested in them, and therefore takes a “shortcut” by writing them in conjunction with the most obvious stereotypes.

I have tried exceedingly hard to like this episode, and its attached character. Zecora is one of my friend (and cover designer) Viga’s favorite characters, and she dressed as her for both Halloween and several conventions. She’s argued for, and I can see, the good points here, most notably the attempt at inclusion. We live in a culture where white is treated as “default”—in other words, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, characters are assumed to be white. For example, while this has improved drastically in the past year, a Google Image Search on “humanized ponies” still returns mostly white ponies, and most group photos will have at most one “pony of color.”

The show itself has done nothing to cast doubt on that “default viewer” assumption. Quite the opposite: prior to this episode, we know that Rarity’s accent pegs her as a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) from the start, and Twilight Sparkle comes from a city modeled on Arthurian legend.

Later in the series we get confirmation that the rest of the Mane Six come from pony counterparts to European cultures as well: Pinkie Pie is apparently Amish (likely German); Applejack descended from settlers in the American West (Western, Northern, or Central Europe, primarily); and Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash come from a city that closely resembles Mt. Olympus as depicted in Disney’s Hercules.

So the introduction of a character obviously drawn from another culture could have been a much-needed breath of fresh air. Zebras could bring something very interesting to Equestria—a different set of traditions, different ways of doing magic, maybe even different languages.
The premise of the episode fits right in with this potential: An outsider with “different ways” (essentially a different “base culture”) comes to Ponyville, and the sheltered ponies, who have never before encountered representatives of other cultures, are initially afraid of her. After a round of misunderstandings, including allergic reactions to a magical plant which the main characters misinterpret as Zecora cursing them, they finally learn that Zecora’s a good pony with a different “way of life,” as deserving as anyone else of respect and friendship, smiles, hugs, and a good lesson to the kiddies.

The problem, and to be fair it’s one any writer would struggle with, is the issue of tokenism. If Zecora shows no trace of African or black culture, then this continues to erase non-European cultures from the show. But if Zecora is the only character on the show to signify Africa or black people, then any trait she possesses is possessed by all characters who signify black people. If any of those traits are even remotely stereotypical or problematic, then the show is universalizing them across all black people. The only way out is to add more zebras who signify black people or Africa in other ways, but given the toy-driven nature of the show that’s unlikely to be a possibility.

But this is Rogers, and as with Rarity, when presented with a character she isn’t comfortable writing, she writes a stereotype instead. We thus get a Zecora who is built to be generically “African”: named “zebra” in an East African language, wearing Southern African neck rings, and with a hut decorated in West African masks. The end result is a hodgepodge of cultural indicators and “artifacts,” taken from completely different cultural and filial groups, spread out over a large geographical region with likely little interaction between them.

Keep in mind, this is a show that has taken pains to give pegasi, unicorns, and Earth ponies extremely distinct architecture (and, in later episodes, clothing, both modern and traditional) that reflects their cultural origins: Classical Greco-Roman for the pegasi, fairy-tale Western European for the unicorns, and a blend of nineteenth-century Old West and medieval European thatch-roofed cottages for the Earth ponies. The one zebra, on the other hand, gets a blend of African elements separated by a greater distance than the distinct cultures used to make each of the three Equestrian tribes.

Somewhere, an anthropologist is lamenting this disparity in five different local dialects.

The only explanation for this is simple, old-fashioned Eurocentrism: everything from the entire continent of Africa goes into a pot labeled “African,” while more familiar European cultures are seen as distinct. To make matters worse, Zecora has an Ojibwe (a Native American tribe) dreamcatcher over her door, making clear that she’s not only the generic “African,” but the generic “tribal” pony, too.

The episode thus not only lumps all of Africa together, which is appalling (not to mention misinformed) enough, but all of humanity outside of a small circle of European-descended cultures. These “other” cultures then get depicted as primitive and crude: Zecora’s cutie mark is more abstract and less colorful than the others on the show; her masks have chunky outlines suggesting rough-hewn handmade carvings compared to the polished, manufactured look of most pony decorations; and she cooks over an open flame rather than on a stove.

Of course, as is often the case for “primitive” characters in fiction, Zecora gets to be “wise”—she is allowed knowledge about topics such as nature and healing (but not in any sort of scientific way), can dispense good advice (but at the same time lacks social awareness, such as in her apparent belief that all the shops just “happen” to be closed each time she comes to town), and shows every sign of having a higher “emotional intelligence” than the rest of the cast. However, this only heightens the impression that she is a “closer to earth,” “noble savage” type of character, which is to say misjudged through paternalist and imperialist notions, as opposed to more actively hateful and violent racism.
Put another way, she falls victim to the polite, upper-class sort of racism that enslaves cultures and burns its way across continents in the name of “Manifest Destiny” or “bringing civilization,” as opposed to the rude, working-class kind that organizes lynch mobs.

Now, to be fair, it’s not entirely clear how much of this was Rogers’ doing. Zecora was intended from the start as a recurring character, so at least some elements of her characterization are doubtless the product of the entire Friendship Is Magic creative team and probably Hasbro’s toy designers as well. But that only strengthens my core contention, which is not that Rogers is a racist, but rather that this episode and Zecora’s character uncritically draw on stock character traits rooted in misguided stereotyping.

But if we’re going to be fair, we have to be fair in both directions: what little documentation I’ve been able to find suggests that Zecora speaking in rhyme was entirely Rogers’ idea. Because she wasn’t typecast badly enough already, she needs to speak like she has some sort of bizarre compulsion, or possible brain damage.

Again, I really don’t think Rogers hates black people or anything like that. The impression I get is that it simply didn’t occur to the makers of this episode that there could be implications here other than what is directly stated. For example, there’s a scene in the episode where Spike makes fun of the other pony’s curses, even though at least a couple of them are potentially life-threatening (especially Rainbow Dash’s and Applejack’s), and Twilight’s could doom the entire town (given that she saved it from destruction just a few episodes ago). All of their curses are at the least very hurtful for the pony suffering it. And yet Spike not only laughs at them, he lies to them; he tells them he’s working on a cure, and instead spends his time coming up with more jokes at their expense.

All of this is played for laughs; we are supposed to join Spike in laughing at the ponies. In a sense, that’s okay; the ponies are fictional characters, and have no actual feelings to be hurt. Laughing at them is certainly no worse than watching characters die for our entertainment in an action movie or suspense thriller. Also, as this is an episodic comedy-adventure cartoon for small children, we know that, unless there’s a “Part One” in the episode title, odds are very high the characters will all be perfectly fine by the time the credits roll. As I’ve said before, in an adventure the primary question is not “Will they get out of this one?” but rather “How will they get out of this one?”

However, within a diegetic context, this scene is very much not okay. Spike is being actively hurtful here, and nothing ever comes of it. Further, I’m not sure it occurred to anyone involved in making this episode just how much of a bully Spike is being, since no character calls him out on it, and he suffers no consequences. Rogers is failing utterly at basic empathy, what the show itself will later term “Lesson Zero”: the recognition that the feelings of others exist and are always legitimate, no matter what they are.

Sadly, the show itself fails at this lesson in one key respect. This episode is one of (to date) two that attempt to depict someone from a non-Western culture, and the other one is just as laden with stereotypes. For all that it tries (and usually succeeds) at being a feminist show, for all that it is clearly made with the best of intentions, Friendship Is Magic doesn’t deal well with race.

Zecora’s later appearances are, thankfully, few and brief, but always painful to watch, because they represent a sort of rot in the heart of the show. This is supposed to be a show that celebrates community and bringing people together. It is a show that celebrates the “many ways of being a girl” and, since there is no statement true of all women that is not true of all humans, by extension the many ways of being human.

As long as your ways of being human fall within Western norms or descended from European cultures, anyway. Otherwise, you’re an Other, and the creators apparently expect you to count yourself lucky that you get one heavily stereotyped token to represent you.

Which isn’t to say that Friendship Is Magic is a bad show. Other good shows have struggled with race and tokenism before, and it’s at least one notch better than erasure. Nonetheless, race remains a sore point for the show, a topic it never manages to address successfully, and that’s sad.

42. That is, the tendency of efforts to suppress information to instead result in increased publicity for that information, particularly where the Internet is concerned. See Andy Greenberg, “The Streisand Effect.” Forbes (May 11, 2007).

MLP Liveblog Chat Thingy: Three’s a Crowd

A reminder: My friend Viga is still trying to raise money for college. You can get art for helping! Details here, donation site here.

How to participate in the liveblog chat:

Option 1: Whenever you watch the episode, comment on this post as you watch with whatever responses you feel like posting!

Option 2: Go to Enter a nickname, then for the Channels field enter ##rabbitcube, and finally fill in the Captcha and hit Connect! We’ll be watching the episode and commenting there starting at just before 2:00 p.m. EST. After the chat, I will update this post with a log of the conversation.

[14:14] <Froborr> Okay, I guess it’s just the two or three of us.
[14:14] <Froborr> Starting in about 30 seconds…
[14:15] <Froborr> Go.
[14:15] <CharlesM> I’ve started
[14:16] <Froborr> More evidence that Fluttershy is a park ranger equivalent.
[14:16] <CharlesM> Indeed
[14:16] <CharlesM> Very used patio furniture
[14:16] <CharlesM> Theme song
[14:16] <Froborr> Yep.
[14:16] <Froborr> Love the new visuals.
[14:16] <CharlesM> Love how many ponies are in the photo now
[14:16] <Froborr> Yeah.
[14:17] <Froborr> OMG Fluttershy in hat adorableness off the scale!
[14:17] <Froborr> Ooh, Meghan McCarthy ep.
[14:17] <CharlesM> Co-written
[14:17] <Froborr> Yep yep.
[14:17] <CharlesM> Oh something floaty. 🙂
[14:18] <Froborr> More Starswirl stuff.
[14:18] <CharlesM> Sounds like Twilight’s perfect day
[14:19] <Froborr> Whoa, the Crystal Empire train is BAD. ASS.
[14:19] <CharlesM> Ooh, crystal train.
[14:19] <CharlesM> Yep
[14:19] <Froborr> Look at that evil locomotive.
[14:19] <CharlesM> Much bigger than the ponyvile train.
[14:20] <Froborr> Space aliens?
[14:20] <Froborr> Discord?
[14:20] <CharlesM> Discord
[14:20] <Froborr> *Sick* Discord?
[14:20] <CharlesM> Blue?
[14:20] <CharlesM> What a pity Fluttershy isn’t here…
[14:21] <Froborr> lol, house floating away
[14:21] <Froborr> Everyone looks at Rarity.
[14:21] <Froborr> Does Discord even have a home?
[14:21] <CharlesM> Love the tissue flying away.
[14:22] <Froborr> lol, yep
[14:22] <CharlesM> Good point, we don’t know where Discord lives.
[14:22] <CharlesM> Aw, Fluttershy writes to Discord!
[14:22] <Froborr> Fluttershy and Discord are penpals?
[14:22] <CharlesM> Yep
[14:22] <Froborr> That’s adorable!
[14:22] <CharlesM> Yes!
[14:23] <Froborr> “Not it!” Zoom!
[14:23] <CharlesM> And Rainbow Dash is off.
[14:24] <Froborr> Is “I was born on a Tuesday” a reference? It seems familiar.
[14:24] <CharlesM> Doesn’t ring any bells with me.
[14:24] <Froborr> Discord, you troll.
[14:24] <CharlesM> Might be that I’m just not getting the reference.
[14:25] <Froborr> Look at all the cosplayers!
[14:25] <Froborr> “Maritania?” lol
[14:25] <CharlesM> Nice shield
[14:25] <Froborr> Yeah, Cadance is good at those.
[14:26] <Froborr> But… she’s NOT Discord’s friend!
[14:26] <CharlesM> Discord is being manipulative.
[14:26] <CharlesM> You’re right she’s not.
[14:26] <Froborr> I really hope this is where we finally get the “Friendship isn’t transitive” lesson the show so desperately needs.
[14:27] <Froborr> …He’s looking for the journal, isn’t he?
[14:27] <Froborr> He’s SINGING
[14:27] <Froborr> DISCORD IS SINGING
[14:27] <CharlesM> YES!
[14:28] <Froborr> Harry Potter costumes!
[14:28] <CharlesM> Yes
[14:28] <CharlesM> I’m loving these lyrics.
[14:29] <Froborr> This is great.
[14:29] <CharlesM> It really is.
[14:29] <Froborr> “Inadequate hoof and claw washing.”
[14:29] <Froborr> I don’t know why, that has made me laugh harder than any other joke this season.
[14:30] <Froborr> …Hunter S. Thompson!?
[14:30] <Froborr> Okay, so he’s not looking for something in her house.
[14:30] <CharlesM> No
[14:30] <Froborr> Equestria Badlands-equivalent.
[14:31] <Froborr> Nifty!
[14:31] <CharlesM> The flower is giant.
[14:31] <Froborr> lol
[14:31] <CharlesM> Nice, using magic together.
[14:31] <Froborr> Yep.
[14:31] <Froborr> …That is a FREAKY monster!
[14:32] <Froborr> What IS that?
[14:32] <totient> Nidhogg says hi
[14:32] <Froborr> Wasn’t Nidhogg the squirrel?
[14:32] <Froborr> No, you’re right, the squirrel was Ratatosk.
[14:32] <Froborr> …But shouldn’t Nidhogg be hanging around the Tree of Harmony?
[14:32] <Froborr> How many axis mundi does Equestria have!?
[14:33] <Froborr> Axes mundi?
[14:33] <Froborr> Whatever the plural is.
[14:33] <CharlesM> And Discord is no longer blue.
[14:33] <Froborr> Risky Business Discord!?
[14:33] <Froborr> His Thinking Tree is straight out of Dr Seuss!
[14:34] <Froborr> Twilight IS too good for you, Discord!
[14:34] <Froborr> lol at the necklaces
[14:34] <CharlesM> That friendship test is horrific.
[14:35] <Froborr> The concept of a freindship test is horrific.
[14:35] <Froborr> *friendship
[14:35] <CharlesM> Exactly
[14:35] <Froborr> I’m actually really enjoying this season’s interpretation of Discord, where he’s still evil, but trying to make trouble in a deniable way.
[14:35] <Froborr> Comeuppance!
[14:35] <CharlesM> Yes
[14:36] <CharlesM> I’m loving the way they’re using Discord this season too.
[14:36] <CharlesM> Nice one Rarity.
[14:36] <Froborr> That was a really good episode! This season is seriously solid!
[14:37] <CharlesM> Tat was a really good episode.
[14:37] <Froborr> And next week we get the Big Celebrity Guest the kiddies have never heard of.
[14:37] <CharlesM> *That
[14:37] <CharlesM> That’s true.
[14:37] <Froborr> On the other hand, the parents of the target audience are EXACTLY the right age to be excited by a Weird Al appearance.

[14:38] <CharlesM> I did wonder last week when Derpy walked in whether any non-fans watching would have been left wondering who she was and whether or not we were supposed to recognize her.
[14:38] <Froborr> What I noticed about her appearance was that they were very careful never to say her name or have her speak.
[14:38] <CharlesM> But you’re right Weird Al is targeted towards adults rather than fans.
[14:38] <CharlesM> Yes.
[14:39] <CharlesM> But they framed her entrance so you recognised who she was.
[14:39] <Froborr> I think even most bronies are too young to remember when Weird Al was big.
[14:39] <Froborr> That they did.

Flame Wars!

Somebody commented the other day asking if I watch Madoka subbed or dubbed, so I figured I might as well just jump into several flame wars simultaneously:

  • Star Trek, because it isn’t single-handedly responsible for convincing Hollywood and a distressing number of watchers that there is only one way to tell a story.
  • Deep Space Nine, because it makes humans something other than the Mary Sue people from the Mary Sue planet, and adds in some moral complexity. (Except the last episode going all black-and-white good-vs-evil, what the hell guys?)
  • Subs, because most American voice actors doing anime aren’t actually very good. Obvious exception for Disney translations of Miyazaki films and a few other standouts.
  • They have wings if and when they want to, because like all Maiar except Sauron, Morgoth, and the wizards, they’re shapeshifters.
  • As there is no empirical experience within this universe that can distinguish between divine entities existing or not existing, the two alternatives are logically equivalent, and the question becomes purely normative.
  • It should be legal, period, no restrictions whatsoever.

Anime recs?

So, the most recent anime I’ve watched to completion is AKB0048; the second-most recent is Madoka Magica. I gave Attack on Titan the 3-episode test and found it boring. (Please don’t bother telling me it gets better later on; I’m not a student anymore, so if it takes more than three episodes to get good I don’t have time for it.)

What anime of the last couple of years should I be watching? Nothing more than 30 episodes please, see aforementioned time constraints.

Just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career (I Think That Would Be Truly Wonderful)

My friend Viga is still trying to raise money for college. You can get art for helping! Details here, donation site here.

“Yo, this be Puella Magi turf. You best not be steppin’.”

The magical girl transformation sequence has a curious history and function, which makes the recapitulation of Mami’s transformation a fitting opening for Madoka‘s second episode. The sequence originates in Go Nagai’s 1973 manga and anime Cutie Honey, itself interesting for being originally intended as a shonen (i.e., “for boys”) action series, retroactively considered a magical girl show by fans and critics. By Sailor Moon, the transformation sequence is firmly established as a key visual element of the genre, serving in that show, and most other magical girl shows that follow, as a purely extradiegetic (note that no villain ever interrupts a transformation sequence to attack) scene that references both the Cutie Honey and sentai elements in the show’s DNA and saves money by allowing the use of stock footage.

Within most magical girl shows, the transformation sequence serves a number of functions. The traditional sequence (epitomized by Sailor Moon) involves colored silhouettes of apparently nude characters, on whom the magical girl costume forms. The magical girl frequently takes a sequence of poses as the camera spins around her, creating the effect of a lone nude girl dancing in the center of a multitude of Male Gazes. In story terms, this is an empowering moment, and the music that accompanies it usually evokes a similar feeling, but the camera simultaneously asserts the character as an object to be looked at; she is, in other words, empowered, but not too empowered. She is still performing femininity and submitting herself to masculine hegemony. The sequence thus serves to say, more or less, “Yes, this young woman is a powerful protector, but she is still not going to threaten the patriarchal status quo or your fragile male ego; she is here for your enjoyment.” There is a reason the magical girl genre is associated with the stereotypical basement-dwelling pervert.

Mami’s sequence is tamer than most, seeing as she never loses her school uniform, but still lingers on breast and buttocks, emphasizing her body and costume rather than her face. Mami is a feminine figure, maternal and kind, even as she quite violently blows away the familiar threatening Madoka and Mami. This transformation is paralleled only a few minutes later by Junko, who starts her only scene of the episode in a mothering role, gently, kindly chiding Madoka for staying out late the previous night. As soon as she finishes putting her makeup on, however, she becomes the steely, ambitious executive, weighing her allies and options in a potential bid for dominance of her company. In both cases, the transformation sequence serves as a gateway from the traditionally feminine role of schoolgirl or mother to a traditionally masculine role as warrior or conqueror.

For Mami in particular, the transformation sequence serves as a way to interrupt the strangeness of the witch’s labyrinth with a normative element of magical girl shows that reinforces both the norms of the genre and the social norms of patriarchal society. Notably, however, when she transforms again near the end of the episode there is no such sequence, just a quick burst of light and ribbons after which Mami is in her magical girl costume. Where the full transformation sequence emphasizes that the schoolgirl exists within the magical girl, this abbreviated sequence does the opposite, reminding the viewer that the warrior exists within the woman. Rather than reinforcing the social order, it undermines it, creating the suggestion that maybe the magical girl doesn’t need to perform for a masculine audience or emphasize her femininity to gain their permission to fight; perhaps all she needs is a cause.

Certainly that seems to be enough for Sayaka. She is drawn in immediately by Mami’s role as protector of the innocent, willing immediately to cheer for Mami and hate Homura. For Sayaka, the magical girl represents an exciting conflict between a clear good and a clear evil, one Sayaka is eager to join on the side of good. She wants to become a magical girl so she can fight for justice and stand by Mami’s side, hence her decision to bring a weapon to the witch-hunting session. By contrast, Madoka is more interested in the experience of being a magical girl; she wants to understand Mami and Homura both, to make friends with them. She wants to become a magical girl so that she can feel “cool” and special and be like Mami, hence her focus on designing a costume. Put another way, Sayaka is focused on doing and Madoka is focused on being. Sayaka is active, but unfocused; Madoka is centered, but passive.

Regardless of their different interests in becoming a magical girl, both girls struggle with the question of the wish. Surprisingly for such young girls, the two meditate briefly on how privileged their lives are; as children, they have no real influence on the quality of their own lives, and so must acknowledge that the fact that they are safe, healthy, fairly well-educated for their age, members of their society’s dominant ethnicity, good-looking, and well-off (Sayaka appears to be somewhat less wealthy than Madoka, whose house is enormous, but based on later interactions with Kyoko, neither appears to have experienced food or housing insecurity) is down entirely to their luck in being born to their particular parents, not any special effort on their part. It is Sayaka who articulates this problem; as we will see later, she has seen in Kyousuke how easily random chance can derail a life. However, Madoka shares her sentiments; both girls feel that they are simply too well-off to have any wishes worth the price Kyubey charges.

There is an underlying theme throughout this episode that posits magical girls as part of an ecosystem of sorts. Kyoko will state this outright in a few episodes, but already we have the basics: witches predate on humans, and magical girls predate on witches. Within this ecosystem, Kyubey is a scavenger, feeding on the byproducts of the predation, but socially he is pure predator, picking out the most vulnerable members of the group to target and use for his purposes. Based on Mami’s, Homura’s, and Kyoko’s flashbacks to the circumstances of their contracts, it is clear that he seeks out girls who are in pain and despair, and thus likely both to be willing to take the contract and to turn relatively quickly into witches. Madoka and Sayaka’s slowness to accept his offer is a product of their fortunate circumstances; it is quite difficult to manipulate someone who doesn’t need anything.

This is usually not an issue with magical girls. Kyubey seeks consent from the girls who fight his war, and within the context of these first two episodes thus comes off looking rather better than his equivalents in Cardcaptor Sakura and Sailor Moon. Neither Sakura nor Serena was offered a choice in their respective shows; the former was told that as the one who released the Clow cards, it was her duty to recover them, and the latter simply informed that she was destined to become Sailor Moon. As is often the case in both media and real life, women are expected to simply accept that they will fulfill certain roles, regardless of their consent. (Which is not to say that this doesn’t happen to men, just that men in media are more likely to be offered a choice and more likely to resist their fight. Shinji in Neon Genesis Evangelion struggles constantly against his destiny as an Eva pilot; Serena just goes along with being a magical girl.)

Knowledge of later episodes, of course, makes Kyubey’s duplicity obvious. He is not seeking informed consent at all, but rather tricking and manipulating women in truly appalling ways. Even within these initial episodes, familiarity with stories of trickster genies and deals with the devil (emphasized by the graffiti quoting Faust that the witch victim walks past) suggests that Kyubey is not what he seems and not to be trusted. Madoka and Sayaka are not living in Cardcaptor Sakura (no matter how much Madoka’s waking at the beginning of the episode mirrors the second episode of that show) or Sailor Moon, and the world of the magical girl will soon seep into and corrupt their safe, comfortable, privileged lives whether they make the deal with Kyubey or not.

Mami may seek to protect the innocent and maintain the norms of the magical girl genre, but she will fail. Though she transforms Sayaka’s bat into a pink, cartoonish scepter of the sort that might appear in the typical magical girl show, the bat is useless against the witch at the end of the episode, and serves only as a means to temporarily lock Sayaka and Madoka away from it while Mami fights. “Magia,” the harbinger of the dark version of Madoka, plays throughout this fight, as the witch imposes its surreal labyrinth onto Madoka’s world. Mami is able to defeat it once again, but it puts up an admirable fight that reveals both her overconfidence (as she falls for the butterfly rope trap) and constant awareness of her audience, for whom she is clearly performing, rather than focusing on the battle.

Mami, by the end of this episode, has firmly positioned herself as a protector and mentor to Sayaka and Madoka. So long as she is around, she will keep the “Magia” version of Madoka confined and at bay, preventing it from overwhelming what might be called the “Mata Ashita” (the ending theme of the home video versions of the first two episodes) version of the show; that is, she will keep the emotional intensity, complexity, and menace of the witches back and maintain the stability and comfort of Madoka’s happy, safe-for-preteen-viewers little life. It is no longer merely clear that Mami must go for the show to move on; it is clear how she will go, as a victim of her own confidence and tendency to showboat.

Next week: Cheese, cake,  and Prozac.

Maybe something less over-the-top and not so super-hyper (Too Many Pinkie Pies)

My friend Viga is still trying to raise money for college. You can get art for helping! Details here, donation site here.

Sorry this is so late. Regular posts resume tomorrow.

Paul Dukas, eat your heart out.

It’s November 17, 2012. The top movie is The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part Two, enjoying the first of its three weeks on top, and the top song is still Maroon 5’s “One More Night,” a boring and heavily auto-tuned song, the video of which manages to be almost interesting by dint of showing a woman deciding to leave her husband/boyfriend/whatever while the song is clearly being sung by a man trying to work up to leaving his wife/girlfriend/whatever. In the news, after four days of fighting, Egypt brokers a truce in fighting between Israel and Hamas, which lasts all of a day before rocket exchanges resume; the death of a woman in an Irish hospital due to the hospital refusing to perform a medically necessary abortion provokes international outcry and condemnation; and Hostess files for bankruptcy, choosing to blame union strikes rather than the fact that their alleged “food” products taste like styrofoam. Classy.

Meanwhile, “Too Many Pinkie Pies,” written by David Polsky and directed by Jayson Thiessen, returns us to questions that have been left largely unaddressed since “Party of One.” Specifically, it examines the flatness of Pinkie’s usual portrayal, but where “Party of One” did so via character collapse, which ultimately is an attempt to find depth, “Too Many Pinkie Pies” has Pinkie herself confront avatars of her flat persona in the form of her duplicates.

This confrontation has the side effect of making the episode also function as a critique of Pinkie Pie’s portrayal in fanworks, which tend either to depict her as a pure fun-seeker with no interior life to speak of or a completely deranged avatar of chaos, with the latter going as far, in some depictions, as violent and disturbed. This ultra-violent “Cupcakes”-style Pinkie Pie is fairly obviously an intentional departure from the character and values of the show undertaken for pure shock value, and thus requires no critique, nor could the show ever seriously acknowledge the existence of such a depiction. Thus, the episode leaves it out, and instead has Pinkie Pie confront duplicates who both are pure fun-seekers and bring chaos to Ponyville.

At the beginning of the episode, Pinkie Pie is functioning in her usual persona as someone who exists purely in the moment and seeks immediate gratification. As I discussed in my article on “Party of One,” Pinkie Pie can be understood in terms of Daniel Kahneman’s theory of two selves: she has a fully developed and functional experiential self (that is, the aspect of the self that lives in the moment and seeks experiences that provide immediate, positive stimuli), but a stunted and suppressed remembering self (the aspect that lives in the past, plans for the future, and seeks experiences that build good memories). One of the consequences of this stunting is that Pinkie Pie’s sense of well-being is extremely unstable, as she cannot draw on good memories of the past to get her through less-than-pleasant moments in the present. Here she takes this behavior to its logical extreme, finding herself trapped between two potential fun experiences because she can only pick one, and cannot bear giving up either.

The Mirror Pool that she uses is clearly quite dangerous. Other than Granny Pie (who is not only a grandmother, but the grandmother of the Fool, and thus doubly privy to sources of knowledge beyond the ken of the merely wise), the only source of information on it appears to be a book sealed away in Twilight’s library. This is not surprising; the danger of a mirror is that it reflects surfaces only, and so the mirror creates simplistic, flat Pinkie Pies who do not have stunted remembering selves, but rather no remembering selves at all. They must be taught the names of Pinkie’s friends, and are incapable of delaying their pursuit of fun in order to prevent negative consequences, such as the destruction of yet another of Applejack’s barns. They have no memory, and care nothing for the future.

In short, they are the standard-issue depiction of Pinkie Pie in fanworks such as the Lunaverse or “Forever!” Oblivious, silly, cartoonish, and annoying, this version of Pinkie Pie is not too dissimilar from her party-obsessed outer persona as seen in the earlier segments of “Griffon the Brush-Off,” “Party of One,” or “A Friend in Deed.” However, it ignores other elements of Pinkie’s character, the hints of greater depths, such as her collapse in “Party of One,” or her Fool-like access to special knowledge, as in “Swarm of the Century,” “Feeling Pinkie Keen,” and this episode. Above all, it ignores that Pinkie truly does love everyone, to the point of keeping up with the lives of every citizen of Ponyville well enough to be able to talk to each and every one of them.

Still, Pinkie has probably the shallowest character of the Mane Six (though Applejack and to a lesser extent Rainbow Dash can make claims to that character; certainly Twilight, Fluttershy, and especially Rarity have received significantly more development than the other three up to this point in the series). Her stunted remembering self means she has little answer to the question of who she is; she has (somewhat deliberately) shed most of her past, and thus has little in the way of roots or grounding. As I discussed in my article on “Party of One,” the price of escaping her difficult and dreary past is that she has no stable sense of self-worth, being utterly dependent on constant validation by her friends because her past achievements have no meaning for her. She lacks a stable sense of identity for much the same reason; she cannot be “the filly who grew up on a rock farm,” “the pony who taught the Elements of Harmony to laugh at danger,” “the pony who taught Luna that it can be fun to be scared,” or even “the pony who reunited Cranky Doodle and Matilda,” because those occurred in the past. Nor can she identify herself by her goals, because she has none. All she is is “the pony who is friends with everyone,” and thanks to delegating that to her duplicates, she is no longer even certain of that. Her identity crisis in this episode is thus inevitable; surrounded by living Pinkie Pie memes, she is no longer even sure that she is the real Pinkie Pie.

It is thus no surprise that the final test to identify the real Pinkie and weed out the duplicates relies on both Pinkie’s love for her friends and her ability to forgo immediate gratification in exchange for getting to stay in Ponyville, something she desperately wants. The former element of the test depends on a strength that Pinkie possesses that is frequently overlooked in her caricatures, including the duplicates, namely her capacity for love and devotion to her friends. The second element, however, is a strength Pinkie generally lacks, being the hallmark of the remembering self. Her devotion to her friends, however, translates into a determination to stay, and thus for their sake she is able to endure boredom in the present to maintain in the future that which she valued in the past.

In discussing “Party of One,” I noted that Pinkie Pie ultimately learned nothing because the structure of the show at the time–in which Twilight and only Twilight writes friendship lesson letters–meant that no one else had room to learn and grow. Here, more than a season later, Pinkie finally gets that chance at growth. Forced to use her remembering side to keep her identity and friendships intact, she has been reminded that she has a remembering side. It has grown just that little bit stronger, and therefore so has Pinkie Pie.

Next week: Please no. Not yet. It’s too soon! …So I’m going to delay a week. Next week, something special and My Little Po-Mo related, week after, the next episode.