TLC as in Tender Loving Care or Totally Lost Cause? (Flight to the Finish)

No. Really. The one on the bottom is the disabled one.
Not all disabilities are visibly obvious.

It’s December 14, 2013. The top song is Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball,” the video for which tries desperately to titillate but succeeds mostly in being gray and boring. The top movie is The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, which I didn’t bother to see on grounds of being bored by the first one.

So it is into a weekend of boredom that “Flight to the Finish” arrives, and at first glance it looks worryingly as if it ought to fit right in: the freshman effort of new writer Ed Valentine, it’s also a Very Special Episode in which Scootaloo gets teased for being disabled, and features the return of Ms. Harshwhinny and the Equestria Games arc from Season 3’s barely watchable “Games Ponies Play.”

Thankfully, the episode works well, and continues the (likely unintentional) theme of outside contexts breaking into the series. In this case, that context is fan speculation about Scootaloo. Supported by comments from Lauren Faust, fans speculated that Scootaloo is disabled and will never be able to fly even as well as Fluttershy, the weakest flyer seen among adult pegasi. Now this episode is precisely about her being bullied for that inability, with open acknowledgment that “normal” pegasi her age are able to fly. (Indeed, based on the animation models used, she seems to be about the same age Rainbow Dash was the first time she performed a Sonic Rainboom, which is to say the age of ponies at Flight Camp.)

Diamond Tiara here is a much more accurate depiction of a typical bully than Babs Seed ever was. Diamond Tiara is socially adept, skilled at identifying and exploiting her victims’ weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and she escapes without notice or punishment, as school-age bullies usually do. Once she sees that mocking the Cutie Mark Crusaders’ lack of cutie marks no longer particularly bothers them, she almost immediately switches tactics, focusing on Scootaloo’s disability instead. This is quite probably the single worst thing a pony has ever been depicted doing to another pony in the show, an act of heartless, malicious cruelty performed solely to crush Scootaloo’s spirit and ruin her and her friends’ chances in the contest.

And it works, wounding Scootaloo deeply–but here something else from the fandom is directly addressed by the show, namely the carnivalized depiction of pegasi in general, and Rainbow Dash in particular, from “Rainbow Factory.” There, Rainbow Dash valued flying ability over all else, even basic empathy and compassion; here, she is kind and gentle toward Scootaloo, telling her that she is “awesome” regardless of whether she ever learns to fly.

This is a measure of how much Rainbow Dash has changed over the course of the show. It is completely believably something the Rainbow Dash of “Wonderbolts Academy” or “Sleepless in Ponyville” would do. In turn, her actions in those episodes are completely believable in terms of her character in “Mysterious Mare-Do-Well” or “May the Best Pet Win.” And yet her coaching style here is a complete opposite of the competition she set up between the animals in “May the Best Pet Win.” This is well-executed, subtle character development at work: at every stage, her behavior is consistent with the stage before, and yet by the end of the process she is a notably different person than at the beginning. We see that her natural urge is to be enthusiastic and encouraging, not the harsh judge she was in “May the Best Pet Win,” and it is only Ms. Harshwhinny’s instructions to be “professional” that keep her from shouting praise of the Cutie Mark Crusaders’ initial performance.

Rainbow Dash, once the pony who harshly criticized Fluttershy for her timidity in “Dragonshy,” has become the supportive big-sister figure that Scootaloo needs to help her through being teased. Recall that, back when Lauren Faust was actively involved with the show, she responded to questions about whether Scootaloo was Dash’s sister by saying that, in her view, Dash would not be a good sister. This episode nonetheless shows that Rainbow Dash is an excellent sister–yet it does not contradict Faust. Rather, it is showing a much later stage in the character’s evolution, from someone self-centered, hyper-competitive, and harshly judgmental to someone who still likes to win, but also recognizes both her own limits and the limits of others. Like Fluttershy in “Dragonshy” and “Hurricane Fluttershy,” Scootaloo is not good at the things which Rainbow Dash is good at–but Rainbow Dash has reached the point where she can appreciate the things that Scootaloo is good at, and help Scootaloo to appreciate them as well.

Which, ultimately, Scootaloo does. It’s significant here that, as close as this comes to being the Very Special Episode about disability, it does not focus on a new character who is explicitly labeled as being disabled. Instead, it runs through all the stages with Scootaloo–being teased, responding by trying to do things she can’t, being inspired to instead do the things she can, and winning a victory as a result–a familiar character whose apparent disability has been commented on by viewers but never explicitly addressed in the show. Even here, the show never actually uses the term “disabled” or confirms that Scootaloo will never be able to fly. It forces the viewer to choose either to make that connection or not, and in so doing highlights the social construction of disability. Is Scootaloo disabled because other pegasi can fly and she can’t? Or is she simply someone whose talents lie in a different direction, since Ponyville is full of ponies who don’t fly?

The episode seems to lean in the direction of the latter, but by leaving viewers to make up their own minds, it highlights that the two are really different perspectives on the same thing. If the culture around Scootaloo is such that her flightlessness is not a serious disadvantage–which, so long as the vile behavior of ponies like Diamond Tiara is kept to a minimum, seems likely to be the case–then she is not disabled, anymore than a slow runner would be considered disabled in our society. But if she is held back by her inability to fly, either because the society implicitly or explicitly requires flight for full participation (as Cloudsdale does in “Rainbow Factory), or because she is subject to frequent and severe mistreatment by others because of it, then it becomes a disability. Put another way, she becomes disabled when Diamond Tiara teases her, and ceases to be disabled when Rainbow Dash talks her through it. Even though her physical condition does not change, the social universe within which she exists does, and it is the interaction between the two that defines disability.

So of course she high-fives Granny Smith, she of the artificial hip, walker, and possible beginnings of senility. It is a statement of solidarity; they are the show’s two recurring disabled characters, though it has never made a big deal about it in the case of either. The brief focus on Granny also helps mitigate the possible criticism that, by making clear that Scootaloo’s disability can be resolved by correcting the social circumstances that created it, the show is implying that this is a universal solution. Granny’s case makes it clear this isn’t so; the amount of change necessary to Ponyville society such that Granny’s physical ailments cease to be detrimental to her is almost unimaginably vast.

For Scootaloo, however, the solution is fairly simple. As with the Cutie Mark Crusaders in general, she needs to explore the avenues her talents and interests open to her, instead of focusing on what she can’t do or isn’t good at. It’s not enough, despite the episode-ending tease, to earn her her cutie mark; she has not found her calling. But she has found comfort with herself as she is; she has rejected being made to feel less-than because of someone else’s arbitrary standards for what a pegasus “should be.” This is a huge stride forward, as huge as the ones Rainbow Dash took to reach the attitudes she displays in this episode.

Next week: Wait, didn’t we already do ponies as superheroes? Oh well, it’s a fun concept.

0 thoughts on “TLC as in Tender Loving Care or Totally Lost Cause? (Flight to the Finish)

  1. When I saw the episode, I had to shout when I saw Scootaloo didn't get a mark after scooting halfway across the nation and still arriving in time to perform impeccably. Still, you've explained it in an entirely understandable, acceptable way. Well done.

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