Holy guacamole! (Power Ponies)

Sorry this is so late. I was ill again this weekend, and spent much of it asleep as a consequence.

Twilight is all wrong here. Everyone knows, primary
colors are for heroes, secondaries are for villains!

It’s December 21, 2013. The top song is Eminem feat. Rihanna with the interestingly layered “Monster.” The top movie is still The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. In the news, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, while Ukrainians protest the ties between the two, a conflict which will only grow in the coming months. Same-sex marriage becomes legal in New Mexico and Utah. And Uganda passes its controversial and brutal anti-homosexuality law with heavy backing from U.S. right-wing Christian leaders; the law will be struck down by the courts on a technicality in the summer of 2014.

In ponies we have yet another case of interpenetration with an outside context with “Power Ponies,” written by Meghan McCarthy, Charlotte Fullerton, and Camp Lakebottom co-creator Betsy McGowen in her first and only Friendship Is Magic writing credit to date. The episode is largely an entertaining bit of froth, in which Spike (yes, the same Spike who defeated Sombra) is feeling useless and gets an opportunity to prove otherwise to himself, while maintaining a rather higher standard of good behavior than is the norm for Spike-focused episodes.

Despite said frothiness, however, the episode does continue the season’s exploration of its recurring theme of encountering the alien. In this case, rather like “Daring Don’t,” it’s an interaction with an alien setting and genre; however, where “Daring Don’t” tries to bring a tonally incompatible story-space into Equestria, “Power Ponies” sends the cast out into a new, ideologically incompatible story-space. In this respect it is rather more like “Read It and Weep,” down to using a book as the device which transports the readers into a new world; in this case, however, the book’s magic and resulting transportation is literal, rather than metaphorical.

Unlike the Indiana Jones-esque adventures of Daring Do, the Mane Six and Spike slot quite neatly into the superhero/comic-book world into which they are transported. First, their role within Equestria is arguably that of superheroes, protectors with access to a unique power that allows them to confront threats to the realm. Second, though both adventure serials and comic books arise from the pulp tradition, comics, particularly the Silver Age style which the titular Power Ponies seem to be evoking, are more brightly colorful, more prone to silliness, and more likely to leave their villains alive at the end of the story. In this respect, Batman has more in common with Friendship Is Magic than he does with Indiana Jones; both Batman and the ponies are largely unable to kill off their villains, Batman because of the general unwillingness of comics to let go of a potentially compelling character, and the ponies because murder is generally not something parents want their small children to see. The outcome is that both the ponies and Batman become defined, where their villains are concerned, by hope; just as the ponies keep stubbornly trying to show Discord what real friendship is, Batman keeps stubbornly returning the Joker to Arkham Asylum in the hope that this time he’ll reform.

But as I said above, there is still an underlying incompatibility between Friendship Is Magic‘s storytelling and a superhero comic, one ideological in nature. This is perhaps most clear with the figure of the Mane-iac, the Power Ponies’ nemesis. She is treated as a fairly standard Silver Age comic-book supervillain, which is to say that the explanation of both her motivation for destroying Maretropolis, and her convoluted scheme for doing so, is a vague “insanity.” Played simultaneously as comedic and destructive, this “insanity” consists of her concocting elaborate schemes around the theme of hair, stealing and destroying property, threatening the lives of the Power Ponies and citizens of Maretropolis, and laughing constantly. Contrast to the depictions of psychological distress elsewhere in the series; while at times generically “crazy” ponies have appeared as part of a brief gag, such as the “barking mad” pony in “Read It and Weep,” most of the depictions of psychological disorder have been much more sympathetic, usually involving the Mane Six themselves. These include Pinkie Pie’s pathological need for constant peer approval (“Party of One”), Twilight Sparkle’s destructive perfectionism (“Lesson Zero”), and Rainbow Dash’s learning disability (“Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3”). By contrast, the villains of the show have been largely free of obvious psychological disorder; they’re just selfish, self-centered, or mean.

This differing treatment of mental illness and villainy is an artifact of, as I have said, ideological differences between Friendship Is Magic and the genre of the superhero. To finally address those differences, the core conceit of the superhero is that the powers that be are lacking in strength, will, or ability, and thus cannot fully contain threats to the well-being of the people. Fortunately, a singular, heroic individual appears, superior not only in ability but also in will and morality, to the common folk and their leaders. This unelected hero is able to rise against the corruption within society, and enact justice and the will of the people outside any structures (or strictures) of law and the courts.

The superhero, in other words, is fundamentally a romantic conception. It is rooted in the notion that human society is corrupt, “the masses,” are base, but that there is nonetheless a pure will or spirit of the people–Hegel’s zeitgeist–which can be expressed through an individual ubermensch. It is inherently anti-democratic and anti-rule of law. Indeed, this particular expression of romantic ideology–the superior human who cuts through the necessary compromises of liberal society in order to enact a nebulous “will of the people,” not might makes right or right makes might, but might is right–is a passible capsule summation of the essentials of fascism.

Which is not to say that any superhero, or any of their creators, are themselves fascists! (Well, maybe Mr. A.) Rather, it is simply that by drawing on a similar philosophical tradition–the Continental romanticism of Hegel and Nietzsche–the superhero genre ends up necessarily sharing some concepts in common with fascism. Included within these romantic notions is an equation of beauty, health, and goodness. Evil is seen as a sickness, and by extension, sickness is evil. Superheroes and villains very often share similar types of origins–exposure to a vat of strange chemicals, for example. But because Barry Allen is a superior man, his strange chemicals make him the heroic, classically handsome, empowered Flash; the Joker is an inferior man, so his chemicals make him psychologically broken, ugly, and evil. Up until the 1960s and the beginning of a conscious effort to create flawed and vulnerable heroes, there were few exceptions to a general rule of superhero comics: heroes are noble, healthy, attractive, and strong, villains are bestial, broken, ugly, and flawed.

By contrast, Friendship Is Magic is set in a world where everyone has both something to contribute and something to learn. The very concept of the cutie mark and “super special talent” implies that every pony is heroically capable in some narrow field. As many or more episodes are spent dealing with the Mane Six’s neuroses and struggles with everyday life as are spent battling evil threats to Equestria. Ultimately this is rooted in a humanistic, Enlightenment worldview in which all people have value and can better themselves, in which the world is not divisible into “good” and “bad” so much as “enlightened” and “ignorant,” with the latter needing only to learn a few lessons in order to change. Goodness is not inherently connected to attractiveness or health, which are not inherently connected to each other; rather, all people have flaws and issues with which they struggle, but said flaws can be overcome by working together. The Mane Six are not superior because they can battle powerful evil; indeed, this is not even the source of their worth. Rather, they have worth because they are people, and they improve themselves and their world by exploring their own potential, which may or may not involve confronting villains (primarily depending on whether this is a season premier/finale or mid-season episode).

Ultimately, Friendship Is Magic is as far from fascism as one can get while still remaining within more-or-less modern ideologies. Namely, in its emphasis on self-discovery within a cooperative community, it takes a fundamentally socialist worldview. Each pony contributes what they can contribute, and explores ways to better themselves and thus contribute more. Because each pony is equally valuable, these contributions are thus also of equal value; Spike’s efforts, his desire to help, and most of all Spike himself are not worth less (let alone worthless) just because the rest of the Mane Six are able to take care of the task of cleaning the castle without him. Spike lives in a story where people have value regardless of the size of their contribution, and so he has value; Hum Drum, by contrast, lives in a story where one’s contribution to society is the source of one’s value, and so he is the smallest, least powerful, and least able to do good of the Power Ponies.

In the end, this incompatibility between the liberal values of Friendship Is Magic and the romantic values of a superhero comic reiterate the tensions often present in modern comics. Explorations of the fascistic roots of the superhero have become increasingly common in the last few decades, starting with the work of Frank Miller (who wallows in them) and Alan Moore (who exposes and uproot them) in the 1980s, and continuing as a thread down to the present day–the film Captain America: The Winter Soldier, for example, unites the heroic SHIELD and villainous HYDRA into a single organization dedicated to totalitarian control, making the titular hero complicit in the very fascist ideology he was created to fight.

Ultimately, Friendship Is Magic has no answer to this tension except to retreat from it, back into the safe and familiar space of its more humanistic worldview. But this notion of the Mane Six as heroes, a superior breed with the power and responsibility to protect others, will return. They undeniably do have power, in their own world just as much as in the comic. If not fighting villains, or not just fighting villains, what are they to use it for?

0 thoughts on “Holy guacamole! (Power Ponies)

  1. “First, their role within Equestria is arguably that of superheroes, protectors with access to a unique power that allows them to confront threats to the realm.”

    I totally agree, and feel that Twilight (and to an extent the others) has an unacknowledged role as Defender of the Realm, a traditional royal title. I thought of it during the S4 finale, in which she's uncertain what her role is supposed to be — but given how frequently the main six defeat monsters and villains, it really ought to be obvious.

  2. Yes, but does that really sound like something Twilight would WANT her role to be? Rainbow Dash, sure, she'd think it was awesome, but I don't think “use your violence on it” is what Twilight would want her contribution to be.

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