Commissioned Essay: From a feminist perspective, has MLP:FIM changed the world?

Commissioned Essays are similar to the Elements of Harmony series in that they are commissioned by backers of my Kickstarter campaigns. However, they can be about any FIM-related topic, not just character studies. This essay was commissioned by a backer of My Little Po-Mo volume 2. Which is now on sale! See the Books page for details.

Sometimes, I look back at some of the things I wrote last year, when this project was new and my interaction with the fandom still in the honeymoon phase, and I cringe. There was a time when I believed that bronies actually might take to heart the principles presented in the show, might actually work toward building a more tolerant and caring world, and most importantly might actually accept that women are human beings.

I was so young and naive when I was only 32.

Hardly a week has gone by this year in which I do not see some example of misogyny, transphobia, or homophobia in the brony Facebook groups to which I belong. Anti-feminist and anti-“social justice warrior” sentiments are common. I have seen rape apologia and anti-abortion screeds, free and flippant use of derogatory terms for LGBT people, jokes about rape, defenses of people who joke about rape, defenses of the wage gap–the list goes on.

Today, as I write this, the most prominent intersection of feminist issues and pop culture at the moment is probably GamerGate, a campaign of harassment against women in and associated with the video game industry which has failed to convince anyone other than some of its own members that it has anything to do with journalistic ethics. Earlier today, feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian, one of the people targeted most by GamerGate harassment, tweeted about a death threat she received:

An October 25, 2014 tweet by Anita Sarkeesian.

Note the username of the person who sent the death threat. He’s clearly a brony. Of course the instinctive response of many bronies on having this pointed out will almost certainly be the same as with the convention molestation accusations: simply deny that it happened, because bronies have, as a group, a pathological inability to accept criticism or self-police. “Oh, he’s just pretending to be a brony because people think bronies are misogynists.”

Leave aside for the moment that that explanation makes no sense, he is making death threats against a woman he calls a “feminazi whore,” and therefore quite clearly doesn’t think being seen as a misogynist is a problem. Consider instead why bronies have a reputation for misogyny. The reason is the same as why GamerGate has that reputation: because a large enough number of bronies engage in misogynistic activity, and a small enough number try to stop or criticize them, to make it clear to outsiders that most bronies are either misogynistic or don’t care enough to oppose the misogynists.

And yet it isn’t true that Friendship Is Magic has failed to change the world, because the bronies are and have always been a sideshow, a demographically interesting distraction from the real spell the show is casting.

The Friendship Is Magic my little niece has been watching since she was two years old has storytelling, characterization, comedy, action, animation, design, and acting as good as or better than any other cartoon on the air, and from that she’s learning to expect that shows made for her will be as good as shows made for boys. In turn, from that she’s learning that she deserves as good as boys get.

The Friendship Is Magic my niece has been watching since she was two show women filling every role in society, from positions of political power to assistant bakers. It shows them in traditionally feminine roles like animal care and fashion, and traditionally masculine roles like stunt flying and research, and without making a big deal about it–without suggestion that there is a big deal to be made–gladly accepts all of them as normal. It depicts a wide variety of women with varied interests, goals, behavioral quirks, and personalities, and never suggests that any of them are more or less feminine than any other. It depicts a world in which people perform their gender in whatever manner they choose, and no one ever questions it or tries to apply restrictive norms about what is or isn’t “feminine” or “masculine.”

And because she is so very young, and because her family tries not to display or normalize the opposing, sexist attitude, she is very likely to internalize this view of the world. It will be challenged greatly as she gets older. Other girls will police her if she doesn’t conform to their standards of femininity. Boys will objectify her. Marketers will try to make her a sex object the moment she’s old enough to start dressing herself. But, critically, she will know, because brightly colored cartoon ponies taught her, that this is wrong.

She and hundreds of thousands of girls like her. Just statistically, some will fight back.

So yes, Friendship Is Magic has changed the world. We’re just going to have to wait a couple of decades before the change becomes visible.

Thoughts on Kill the Moon

So, uh, this latest Doctor Who episode has been a bit controversial, hasn’t it? Much of that controversy seems to fall into three camps:

  • The episode is taking a strong anti-abortion, misogynistic stance.
  • The episode is pro-choice, and emphasizing that pro-choice means pro-choice, in favor of people having options and making their own decisions.
  • The episode isn’t about abortion at all and people are getting upset over nothing. As in most debates, this seems to be the angriest group.

My own view? I think it comes down to how you choose to read a particular relationship that can be taken either way. We’ve got the creature hatching, the people of Earth, and the three women with the bomb, and they can be read at least three different ways. First, the creature hatching could be just another unknown alien who is wrongly feared and turns out to be harmless if left alone, putting the people of Earth in their usual position as angry xenophobes and the women with the bomb in the position of the Doctor and companions, advocating an ethos of wonder and life and all that good stuff–as usual, with one rejecting and having to be taught by the others. There are a couple of arguments for this read, which is the read in which the episode is not about abortion: first, that the alien is in the process of being born, and abortions do not normally occur during labor, and second that the creature is hatching from an egg, which means there is nobody (more accurately, no body) whose autonomy is being violated by its presence. The abortion read is thus an unfortunate implication in an episode that’s really about pretty much the same things as “The Beast Below” or any of umpteen other stories in Doctor Who‘s run.

However, there are counterarguments to both the arguments I just mentioned. First, late-term abortions are performed when the pregnancy is life-threatening, and there is a risk that the destruction of the Moon will cause serious damage to the Earth and its people, so neither of the arguments I cited in the previous paragraph necessarily hold. This leads to the second read, in which the creature is a fetus being incubated by the Earth, putting the people of Earth collectively in the position of its mother. They choose to abort, and are overruled by Clara, Courtney, and the scientist (was she even named? I never caught it if she was), who act in the position of the anti-abortion government and force the Earth to carry through the risky and difficult labor. The strongest support for this position are Courtney’s repeated declaration “It’s a baby!” and refusal to even consider killing it as an option, and Clara’s teary rejection of being given a choice as patronizing. Read this way, the episode is pretty clearly repeating the misogynistic arguments of anti-choicers, denying the agency and autonomy of the collective mother in favor of the moral judgment of a tiny minority.

But there are arguments against this reading, too, the biggest being that the first read makes both Clara’s final confrontation with the Doctor and her ensuing conversation with Danny afterthoughts, while the second badly misunderstands what Clara is saying in that confrontation–she’s not angry that the Doctor left her to make a choice on her own, she’s angry about him denying her information that would have been useful in making her choice and his general condescending attitude. Which brings us to the third way to understand the relationship between the three players: to see the hatching creature as a fetus threatening the well-being of the women on the moon, and the people of Earth as voters in a democratic government that nonetheless lacks the moral authority to tell those three women what to do in regards to a choice that impacts them directly. In this read, the episode is emphatically pro-choice, as it says not even a popular vote with (note the visual pun) one hundred percent turnout can legitimately tell a person what to do when their bodily autonomy is on the line.

And I do think this is the strongest reading, for a number of reasons. One is that visual pun, and another that shows up a bit later: the button Clara and Courtney press to cancel the bombing is, as indicated by the bombs’ display, the ABORT command. Further, the women standing around the bomb fall rather neatly into a couple of archetypes involving trios–and yes, I know I’ve been rather hard on archetypal readings in the past, but that’s because I find they are often used in constraining and limiting ways; I’m all for making characters serve as multiple contradictory archetypes simultaneously or otherwise using them in ways that multiply, rather than restrict, available readings.

One way to read the trio of women is as representing Women with the tired old “triple goddess” routine. They slide quite neatly into the roles: Courtney is a child, and hence the Maiden; Clara is the next-oldest and takes care of children for a living and the possibility that she has children on Earth in 2049 is floated, making her the Mother; the scientist is the oldest of them, starting to show wrinkles, and emphatically rejects the notion of having children, making her the Crone. It’s a reductive and excessively reproductive way of defining Women, but perhaps a reproductive approach is not entirely inappropriate when discussing reproductive rights.

Contradicting and coexisting with that read is one in which they represent a single woman via Freudian nonsense: “disruptive influence” Courtney serving as the id, the scientist–professionally rational and the one endorsing going with the judgment of society as a whole–as the superego, and Clara mediating between them as the ego. Again, a silly way to construct a person, but still a read reasonably well supported by the episode. In this read it’s interesting that the “It’s a baby!” attitude is associated with the unreasoning, over-emotional aspect, while “I fail to see the moral dilemma” is associated with the most rational aspect. This is pretty accurate where the abortion debate is concerned. Admittedly, the waters are somewhat muddied by Clara’s decision not to destroy the creature, but again, that’s because in this read the episode is attempting to navigate the nuance between being pro-choice and rejecting the anti-choice narrative that pro-choice activists are genocidal fetus-haters.

Ultimately, though, all three of these readings seem reasonable and supported by the text, as I’m sure are a multitude of others. This is a justified controversy, and I think a good one, as it seems likely to, in among the usual fractious debates, produce some conversations worth having.

Support for, concerns about #HeForShe

Edit: So as universalperson points out in the comments, Hugo Schwyzer is seriously awful an referring to him as a feminist ally is pretty inaccurate. On the other hand, I still stand by saying that he’s the strongest one Good Man Project had–he talked the talk while acting horribly in private, as opposed to actively attacking feminism and feminists. 

So, you may have heard about a speech Emma Watson gave at the UN recently, in which she went out of her way to emphasize the ways in which patriarchy hurts men and invite men into the feminist movement. Part of the purpose of the speech was to announce the launch of a new UN campaign, #HeForShe, encouraging men to pledge to speak out against instances of sexism and misogyny in their communities.

And this is, net, probably a good thing, which is why I have signed the pledge. Plus, you know, I was doing it already, and, as I said on Twitter, if Emma Watson and Lauren Faust are telling you to do something, it is probably worth at least checking out.

But at the same time, I’m a little cautious. I remember when the Good Man Project sounded like a great idea, a way to help repair the very real damage patriarchy and kyriarchy do to men and, in the process, help gain men as allies against the kyriarchy.

It didn’t work out that way. The year after its founding, the Good Man Project posted a series of anti-feminist articles by one of its founders, leading to the resignation of the strongest feminist ally among its regular contributors and resulting in its present state, a site where an article about the pain of being in “the friend zone” can share front page space with an article about using the pain of losing a friend to make one a better CEO, parenting and dating tips, but not a trace of politics, not a mention of, say, the behavior of men in creating #GamerGate or the moral obligation to not touch stolen nude pictures of celebrities or, I don’t know, the launch of #HeForShe? The entire site is predicated on the notion that it is possible to be a “good man” in isolation, that men’s issues can be separated from gender issues–that, in short, one can become a better man without thinking about women. And that’s when it’s not just being the watered-down diet version of the Men’s Rights movement.

Because that’s the thing: Yes, the patriarchy hurts men too. Hegemonic masculinity pressures men to avoid cultivating emotional intelligence, makes it difficult for them to form close friendships or seek help when in need. Male rape victims suffer the consequences of rape culture just as women do. Because the kyriarchy constructs masculinity as being about power, and particularly power over women, trans men are falsely seen as “starting as women” and barred from accessing that power or asserting masculinity; gay men are seen as unmasculine and threatening; men who do not particularly relish displays of power are seen as unmasculine and dispensable. Men are poisoned with false narratives and expectations about relationships, their place in the world, the source of their identity, and the nature of gender.

But all of this is collateral damage.

Supporting feminism because kyriarchy hurts men is like getting upset over a terrorist bombing because the resulting traffic jam made you late for work. Yes, that’s a negative effect, but focusing on it is self-centered and narcissistic.

Women are the targets of misogyny and sexism. They are the ones who face it day in and out, who see all of it, not just the bits that happen to men. They are the ones who can see the enemy, who know the enemy, who have no choice about being in this fight, because they are the ones being directly attacked.

We men are necessarily on the sidelines. So we can help. We can support. We can take action, discuss theory, even, if invited to do so, offer advice. But it must be women that lead, because a feminism that forefronts men’s concerns makes as much sense as a movement for racial equality that focuses on making whites feel better or a labor movement that emphasizes keeping managers happy; it’s inherently self-defeating.

If you want to see what a movement looks like that primarily focuses on the ways in which patriarchy hurts men, look no further than the Red Pill on Reddit, if you can stomach it. Men feel as if they’ve been robbed of something they’re entitled to, powerless, lost, purposeless, isolated because they’ve been taught by the patriarchy that their role is to exercise power, that certain emotions are “unmanly,” that women are their property and birthright. They feel powerless because they expect power, lost, purposeless, and isolated because they are emotionally stunted and unable to form healthy relationships, and robbed because they’ve been lied to about what they’re entitled to.

These are all problems that feminism can solve, because they’re all collateral damage of the war on women: all stem from a system of gender relations that defines “man” as “wielder of power over women.” But focusing on these problems puts the emphasis on the feelings of powerlessness and loss, pushing toward a “solution” of seeking to give men still more power over women. The result is to make the feeling being robbed worse, to stoke anger and resentment and hate. The result is MRAs and PUAs and, ultimately, rapes and mass shootings.

The focus, instead, needs to be on the underlying causes. Where feminism focuses on helping men, it needs to be about tough love–about helping men shed their entitlement, their expectations of power. Where feminism focuses on recruiting men, it should be about encouraging self-policing, about teaching men to teach men to be less entitled and to reduce unrealistic expectations of power. Then and only then can men work on healing the damage of patriarchy, after they’ve worked helping take it down.

And most importantly of all, men need to learn to help, not save. This is a theme I’ve hammered again and again in my analyses this past year, because it’s important. There’s a reason there’s a degree of controversy over whether men should even call themselves feminists, whether it might not be better to refer to themselves as feminist allies, and it’s because of the savior problem. Far too many men walk into feminist spaces because they want to Save the Women, imposing their own ideas–necessarily based on incomplete information, because no man experiences the entire reality of sexism as experienced by women–of what needs to be done, all in service of their own ego and self-image as a Good Person who will Rescue Those Poor People. It is a profoundly self-centered approach that infantilizes and dehumanizes the people one is seeking to save.

No, the proper role of men in a feminist movement is as helpers–our job is to say “What do you need?” and then either provide what’s asked for or get out of the way. Not because of any fundamental difference between men and women, but because that is the moral way and only really workable way to get involved in another person’s problems: to offer one’s resources and then allow the person in need to decide how to use them.

And helping isn’t easy. Trying to help is harder than trying to save. It means surrendering power and control, opening oneself up to rejection, and putting one’s own feelings and wants and ideas about what’s helpful second to the expressed needs of another person. Which is why, ultimately, I worry about #HeForShe in the long term. Getting involved in someone else’s equality movement to benefit oneself seems like very much the wrong reasons. A man who supports feminism to help himself, or to feel better, or to get praised, is pretty much guaranteed to be doing it wrong–and an entire international movement of people doing it wrong could do real damage.

So yes, I signed the #HeForShe pledge. And yes, I do encourage other men to do it as well. But I also encourage you to focus on the ForShe part. This isn’t HeForHe, isn’t about our egos and our needs. To return to my rather strained earlier metaphor, this isn’t about stopping traffic jams, it’s about stopping bombings. If the traffic jam is what it takes to get you involved, so be it–but the traffic jams cannot be priority one. They cannot be a priority at all; you’re just going to have to trust that the side effects will naturally fade as we tackle the core problem.

I don’t normally do this, but I feel this is an important conversation that needs to happen as part of #HeForShe, so: Please consider reblogging, sharing, and linking to this post.

Character Genders in New Smash Bros

A quick breakdown of character genders in the upcoming Smash Bros.,* which has been doing a really good job of being unusually inclusive of women for a video game.

  • Male: 24
  • Female: 10
  • Neither/Unknown: 3

So just to be clear on the situation we’re talking about, the fighting game doing unusually well at including women has them as just over 1/4 of the characters.

*Counting characters of unknown gender (e.g., Pokémon) as neither, characters where you can choose the gender as both, and alternate versions of characters that the game treats as separate characters (e.g. Link and Toon Link, Samus and Zero Suit Samus) as two separate characters. Also it’s kind of the whole point of Sheik that he has a masculine gender presentation (with some ambiguity as to whether the transformation alters him physiologically or cosmetically, but either way, it’s masculine presentation), so I’m counting him as male.

ETA: Corrected a math error. 10/37 is a bit over 1/4, not a bit over 1/3.

Good feminist-ally role models

So, Amanda Marcotte has a piece up where she takes Ross Douthat* to task for his claim that male film characters predating second-wave feminism were less prone to misogyny than modern male characters. She does a pretty good job of giving examples of appalling misogyny in characters played by famous leading men like John Wayne, Carey Grant, and Jimmy Stewart.

What I’m now wondering about is the opposite: What are some modern (let’s define this as 2000 and later, to put us firmly in the third wave) examples of male characters who are actually worth emulating, particularly from a feminist perspective? Not necessarily perfect, obviously, but basically decent men who aren’t sexists. I can think of a couple–Steve Rogers in the MCU, Big Macintosh in Friendship Is Magic–and I’m sure there must be more, but I’m blanking on them. Any suggestions?

*Fun fact: You may occasionally see me describe particularly vile people as “douchehats.” His name inspired me to coin the term. I have never pretended that I am not occasionally childish.

A Bit of a Pattern with Rarity

As if there needed to be more reasons to dislike “Simple Ways,” the inimitable Viga (whose gofundme is still running, by the way) pointed out a rather unfortunate pattern to me yesterday: Rarity has had three cases of having a crush on a pony, because she’s the “girly one” and romance “girly.” If we have to have romance in ponies (which, as I have made fairly clear, I’d very much prefer we didn’t, but that fleet of ships appears to have sailed), can’t we mix it up a bit and get one of the less “girly” ponies like Rainbow Dash or Applejack to fall for someone?

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.

Is Elsa too sexy?

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

I’m running a Kickstarter to fund my second book! Details here.

The feminist blog community seems to have mostly embraced Frozen, rightly so in my opinion: not to spoil, but ultimately it is a movie about sisterly love that subverts the typical Disney princess formula, and the villain could serve as a poster child for the destructiveness of hegemonic masculinity. The movie is far from perfect, but it is a massive step forward by a major cultural institution that is normally much more regressive, and that should be celebrated.

There is one shot that seems to have engendered some discussion, at the end of the film’s best musical number (despite the song being pretty awful, the sequence itself is brilliant):

At the end of a celebration of her newfound freedom to express herself emotionally and magically, Elsa transforms her gown and sashays sexily across the room, ending the song with what can only be described as a come-hither smirk. The question that naturally arises, then, is whether this is an instance of Male Gaze that undermines the freedom and self-determination in the rest of the song?

And I actually don’t think it is. It is an instance of the Male Gaze, yes, but look at Elsa in this moment: this is not her coming down from the peak of confidence and self-determination, but reaching that peak. She starts the song taking ownership of her emotions, continues by taking ownership of her powers, and this is her taking ownership of her body and sexuality. She is not a victim or object, here, but rather a powerful woman look out of the camera, directly at the audience, and saying “This is me, sexy, alone, in control, and not needing you.” Or, as she puts it, “The cold never bothered me anyway.”

It is, in other words, yet another subversion of the Disney formula, which has frequently subjected its princesses to the Male Gaze. Compare, for instance, the moment in Aladdin where Jasmine pretends to have been magically compelled to fall in love with Jafar. Jasmine is secretly in control of the situation, yes, but she presents as submissive, controllable, and controlled, with the camera assisting her in this presentation–and she still ultimately needs to be rescued by a man.

By contrast, Elsa is in no danger here. Breaking free of the “good girl”/”bad girl” dichotomy, she embraces her power and sexuality both, and becomes a challenging, almost mocking figure as she smirks at the audience. Rather than aiding Elsa in a presentation of emphasized femininity, the camera tries to trap her in one and she laughs it off; she is feminine, yes, but powerful, and her performance is for no one but herself. The song ends here because Elsa tells it to–the Male Gaze is ordered to get lost so that she can continue to explore her newfound power in peace.

Yes, this subversion would work better if Elsa were not so generically, conventionally attractive. And yes, there is a great deal of room to debate whether it is actually intended subversively or (more importantly) read as such by the audience. But I at least will continue to stand by the argument that it is a powerful and appropriate end to an empowering sequence.

Update 2/1/2014: This is now the second-most viewed post I’ve written, and I’m getting tired of deleting crude, crass, and trolling comments. As of now, comments are closed on this post.

Breaking Bad: Friendship Is Magic

The two TV shows I am most engaged with at the moment are Breaking Bad and My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, and they actually complement one another very well; the first is an all-out assault on hegemonic masculinity by depicting its disastrous consequences, and the latter an equally determined attempt to undermine emphasized femininity by showing a viable alternative.