My Little Po-Mo vol. 3 Book Launch!

My Little Po-Mo vol. 3 coverMy Little Po-Mo: Unauthorized Critical Essays on My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic Season Three and Derivative Works is now available for purchase!
Like them or hate them, the fans of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic have created a plethora of derivative works, from the typical fanfiction and fanart to long-running comics, audio dramas, video games, songs, and even animation! Not to be outdone, licensed derivative works have proliferated as well in the years since the series began. But is this a natural and healthy expression of fandom? Or appropriation by adult men of one of the few quality works not created with them in mind?
This third volume of essays adapted from the blog My Little Po-Mo combines a critical study of the third season of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic with analysis of both licensed derivative works and a selection of fanworks to explore these questions and the show which inspired them.
This volume includes:

  • Critical essays on every episode of the third season.
  • Additional essays on licensed works such as the IDW comics series and the Equestria Girls spin-off movies.
  • Analysis of more than a dozen fanworks, including Friendship Is Witchcraft, Ask Jappleack, “Rainbow Factory,” and Mega Pony!
  • A case study of Doctor Whooves as an instance of fan influence on the show.

And more!
You can buy it as an ebook on Smashwords (preferred–you get it in your choice of DRM-free formats, and I get more royalties than the other sites), the Kindle store, Barnes & Noble, or the iTunes iBook store!
Or if you prefer, get it in print on CreateSpace (preferred–this site pays the author more royalties) or Amazon–other stores to follow!
ETA: And if you’re interested in the first two books in the series, or my other books, you can find them here!

Gak (Equestria Girls)

If you average their expressions, you’ll basically
get what I looked like while watching this movie.

It’s June 16, 2013.The top song is the controversial “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke featuring T.I. and Pharrell, and the top movie is the dour Superman-as-kaiju flick Man of Steel. In the news, Edward Snowden is revealed as the source of the NSA leaks in the U.S. and defects to Hong Kong (he will ultimately end up living in Russia); Russia bans positive depictions of homosexuality; and it comes out that the Syrian government is using chemical weapons against its own citizens in the ongoing civil war there.

Meanwhile, the Friendship Is Magic movie Equestria Girls, written by Meghan McCarthy opens to a limited run of 200 screens. So let’s start with the obvious: This movie isn’t very good. The animation is not as much better than the show as one would expect for a theatrical release, the story is redolent with high-school drama cliches, and the songs are (deliberately, according to composer Daniel Ingram) modeled on contemporary girl-group pop, which is to say simplistic, autotuned to oblivion, and lacking in variety.

So let’s take that as a given, set it aside, and try to find something more interesting to say, because somewhere underneath the “new girl transgresses established high school factions, becomes darling of all” is the potential for a good movie about more interesting topics.

Consider the intense contrast between settings. Ponyville is practically defined by a lack of cliques or classes. Government officials of wildly differing rank, farmers, artists, artisans, and the apparently unemployed are fast and easy friends in this world, while different races of pony live together and interact harmoniously. Certainly there are circles of friends–the Mane Six themselves form one–but they are not as insular or exclusive enough to be cliques. Most of the Mane Six have friendships outside and distinct from the rest of the group, most obviously Pinkie Pie, but in addition Rarity has her friends in high society, Twilight has Cadence and arguably the other princesses as well, and Rainbow Dash’s interactions with the other pegasi in Ponyville are at least readable as implying friendship. The closest things to cliques in the show are, unsurprisingly, among the schoolchildren: the Cutie Mark Crusaders are very nearly one, with the exception that, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we can assume Apple Bloom and Twist are still friends. Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon, on the other hand, are definitely a clique.

By contrast, one of the first things Twilight Sparkle learns about Canterlot High is that it is defined by cliques, which operate as independent factions. Fluttershy outright states this (“Maybe it was different at your old school, but at C.H.S., everybody sticks to their own kind,”) and lists off several such cliques, including “the athletes, the fashionistas, the dramas, the eco-kids, the techies, the rockers…” and notes that Sunset Shimmer dominates over all of them. This is the familiar world of high-school cafeteria politics, but something interesting is very subtly implied later in the movie, when we learn this world’s versions of Fluttershy, Applejack, Rarity, Rainbow Dash, and Pinkie Pie were friends early in high school, before Sunset Shimmer split them up.

Look at that list of cliques again. Athletes? That’s Rainbow Dash. Rarity is definitely a fashionista, and Fluttershy would doubtless fit right in among the eco-kids. Fluttershy’s list doesn’t have a clique for every member of the Mane Five, but it’s not likely to be a complete list of cliques, either; what it does do is establish a pattern. Applejack and Pinkie Pie don’t really fit into any of the cliques she mentioned; it’s possible that they could be in some kind of baking-centric clique together, but the interactions of the Mane Five throughout the film suggest that they haven’t seen each other much in the years since Sunset Shimmer targeted them. More likely is that each of the five are in separate cliques (indeed, Pinkie Pie’s party-planning committee may be one)–which means that they initially had a strong, cross-clique friendship.

The existence of that friendship, in turn, implies that the school’s cliques were much less isolated prior to Sunset Shimmer’s arrival; more like the friendship circles typical of Ponyville, in other words, than the rigid and frequently hostile cliques of high school cliche. It is an outside force, a manipulator seeking control, who drove the Mane Six apart; it seems likely that she has done the same to the school, dividing and conquering.

The cliques, in other words, are artificial. They are constructs created specifically to divide the students, to prevent them from accomplishing what they could if they were united. This exploitation of the instinct for tribalism to divide people against their own interests resonates with many phenomena throughout our culture, particularly in the political arena, but let us follow the movie in keeping the focus on high school: where do cliques come from? They cannot be an instinctive and inevitable part of adolescence, though they are often depicted or implied as such–there’s little trace of such behavior being a particular and peculiar feature of youth in media before the 1950s or so, for instance. This is a recent cliche, which is to say a recent cultural phenomenon.

And as a cultural phenomenon, it is necessarily constructed by its participants. Cliques come from the students within those cliques, from the ways in which they choose to act on their attitudes and biases. For all that the “Help Twilight Win the Crown” sequence seems impossibly utopian even by Friendship Is Magic standards, the film has been quietly building an argument for it throughout: cliques are not inevitable. Students create and enforce them, and can choose to relax them if they wish.

Notably, it is Twilight who persuades–leads–them to do so. The film makes rather a point of contrasting Twilight’s initial discomfort with her wings to the necessity of adapting to bipedal locomotion and hands, with Twilight noting near the end of the film that adjusting to her wings should be much easier now. But those wings are simply a visual marker of her ascension to political authority, and her discomfort with them an echo of her uncertainty about her new role, a major theme of the coming Season Four. Likewise, her assumption of human form is a visual marker of the alien environment into which she is thrust in this film, high school. If she could climb to a leadership role there, and do a good job of uniting the students behind her in pursuit of a positive end, surely she can do it in the more familiar and convivial environment of Equestria.

Next Week: Season Four begins. And as I sometimes like to do, we’ll start with the ending–which is in itself a reflection of the past…

Ponify everything! (My Little Investigations Case 1: True Blue Scootaloo)

I mean, there’s definitely still Ace Attorney in its DNA.

It’s April 9, 2014. The top song is “Happy” by Pharrell Williams, and the top movie is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, arguably the best to date of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the news, the High Court of Australia takes a step in the right direction by establishing a third, “other” gender, while the U.S. Supreme Court takes another step toward plutocracy by overturning the limit on how much an individual can donate to a political campaign; pro-Russian activists in Donetsk, Ukraine declare an independent Donetsk People’s Republic; and on the day this game is released, a student stabs 20 people at a high school in Murrysville, Pennsylvania.

Friendship Is Magic is on a two-week hiatus before the final four episodes of Season Four, but pony fans have something else to occupy their time: after three years of development, the fan group Equestrian Dreamers releases the much-anticipated first installment in a planned series, My Little Investigations. The premise of this series is to combine the setting and characters of Friendship Is Magic with mechanics based on Ace Attorney Investigations, a spinoff of the Phoenix Wright series that focuses on investigating and solving crimes through point-and-click adventure game mechanics.

I have written before about Friendship Is Magic crossovers, and noted with both Doctor Who and Phoenix Wright that there is a tendency for said crossovers to consist of Friendship Is Magic characters having an adventure in the style of the other work in the crossover–that is, for the narrative structure of Friendship Is Magic to deform in order to fit into the other work, as opposed to the two meeting in the middle. In the case of Doctor Who I explained it in terms of that series’ flexibility and ability to emboit and absorb other stories; in the case of Phoenix Wright I pointed to the rigid, ritualistic structure of the series as necessitating Friendship Is Magic to change to match.

However, it is worth considering that Friendship Is Magic itself may be the cause of this phenomenon. The series has notably strong characters, clearly defined and with readily accessible, idiosyncratic personalities, but relatively less worldbuilding and continuity than most of the geek-culture icons that tend to show up in crossovers. The very strength and diverse personalities of those characters makes it both easy and appealing to imagine them in different settings or story types, such that, for example, it is easier to immediately imagine what Twilight Sparkle would do upon finding herself in Middle-Earth than to imagine what Frodo would do on finding himself in Equestria–and easier to imagine how Applejack’s response would differ from Twilight’s than it is to imagine how Pippin’s would differ from Frodo’s.

But this isn’t a crossover; it is literally an attempt to place the Friendship Is Magic characters into the structure and mechanics of another game. Why, then, does it feel more like Friendship Is Magic than any of the genuine crossovers I’ve looked at for this project?

Which is not to say that it perfectly emulates Friendship Is Magic‘s feel. It is very much a fan game–like “Double Rainboom,” it is at times more interested in depicting the characters as fanworks tend to than as they are depicted in the show. This is most notable with Pinkie Pie, who, rather than merely interacting with the medium or occasionally showing hints of knowledge she would not be expected to possess, instead flagrantly and directly addresses the player, makes references to being in a video game, and provides tutorials which, according to her, she learned by reading a walkthrough of the game. From the perspective of other characters, especially Twilight Sparkle, this comes across as typically incomprehensible Pinkie Pie behavior, but the player knows exactly what she’s talking about. The result is that Pinkie becomes predictable, her actions completely explicable, and therefore no longer funny.

But despite this gaff, it does feel very much like Friendship Is Magic‘s world and themes. Several familiar, but non-obvious, Ponyville locations are used, namely the town center, Carousel Boutique, and the Cutie Mark Crusaders’ clubhouse. By avoiding some of the more iconic and outlandish, locations, such as Golden Oak Library, Fluttershy’s house, or Rainbow Dash’s house, the game creates a real sense of Ponyville as a place where people live.

The story also feels like something that could be an episode. The premise of it is that Scootaloo accidentally rode her scooter through Rarity’s window while practicing stunts, and witnessed the theft of a large emerald called “True Blue.” However, since Rarity only saw Scootaloo there, that makes her the prime suspect, and the investigative team being sent from Canterlot is not known for competence. Twilight thus takes it upon herself to find Scootaloo, who has disappeared, clear her name, and solve the crime before the investigators arrive.

Much of the story is predictable from the opening scene; this is very much the sort of mystery story that the audience solves long before the detective, as is often the case in the Phoenix Wright series. It is fairly obvious that Scootaloo is hiding because she’s afraid of being punished for breaking Rarity’s window, and that the Diamond Dogs from “A Dog and Pony Show” are the thieves. Far more interesting, in the end, is why they stole that particular gem–and again, that seems fitting for Friendship Is Magic, with its strong emphasis on character.

The game even has friendship lessons–notably, ones broadly related to honesty and kindness, which is interesting because Applejack and Fluttershy are the only members of the Mane Six who do not appear. Indeed, in having two friendship lessons that play off of one another, it rather anticipates Season Four’s practice of doing precisely that. (Although it was released late in Season Four, the long development time makes it highly unlikely that Season Four had any influence on the game’s story.)

One of the game’s mechanics also enhances the feel of it being a pony game, rather than an Ace Attorney game with ponies in it: the Partner System. Introduced a little over halfway through the game, partners are characters that follow Twilight around and have up to two abilities, one passive and the other needing to be triggered by the player. The first partner available in this case is Apple Bloom, who has only a passive ability because she doesn’t have a cutie mark–namely, she causes interactions with the Cutie Mark Crusaders to change, because of her friendship with them. The second is Rarity, whose passive ability is to change interactions with Diamond Dogs because she intimidates them, and whose active ability, based on her gem-finding spell, triggers a sort of Hot and Cold minigame that can be used to find otherwise invisible clues.

This reliance on friends is a welcome addition to the standard point-and-click mechanic, and as I said works well with the Friendship Is Magic characters and setting. I imagine that future games will have puzzles that require switching between partners, which could be interesting.

Ultimately, My Little Investigations shows that it is at least possible to create a “crossover” that retains a strong Friendship Is Magic feel. Time will tell if more begin to appear in other media.

Next week: I guess I don’t have any choice, do I? There’s no legitimate way to skip discussing this.

RIP Golden Oak Library (The Elements of Harmony)

It is June 4, 2013. The top song is “Can’t Hold Us” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis featuring Ray Dalton, which from what little I can follow of the lyrics seems to be about hedonistic spectacle as a form of revolution. Appropriately, the song is overlong, but has a nice brass bit near the middle. The top movie last weekend was Fast & Furious 6, and the top movie next weekend is The Purge. You will know doubt be utterly unsurprised to learn that I know nothing about either of them; in my defense, I did watch three movies in May and June that all hit number one at the box office, just not either of these two.

In the news, the Obama administration expands sanctions on Iran; the trial of Chelsea Manning–at the time frequently misgendered and misnamed in the press as Bradley Manning–for leaking classified documents in the WikiLeaks scandal begins; and over three million people take part in the world’s largest gay pride parade in Sao Paolo. Equestria Girls comes out in two weeks.

And, the reason we are discussing this day in the first place, The Elements of Harmony: My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: The Official Guidebook by Brandon T. Snider. There is fairly good reason not to tackle this book. It is in many ways the anti-My Little Po-Mo, and official, hardcover, slickly produced, full-color, heavily illustrated guidebook. It is informative, straightforward, unpretentious, and unchallenging; this is not the sort of book whose author likely ever giggled to himself over the tricks his latest entry played on the audience.

Which is not to say it is entirely without tricks. The cover of the book is, quite cleverly, designed to mimic (other than the title and the Friendship Is Magic logo) the book which was the very first object seen in the series. The inside of the front cover and the frontispiece are filled with quotes from the show, in different colors, fonts, sizes, and orientations, which is reflected by a similar patchwork of (entirely different) quotes on the last page and inside back cover. The book is an island of order within the chaos of the show, a straightforwardly organized and neatly summarized guide to the messy, mazelike realm depicted by the quotes.

Which is to say, it is mostly far less interesting than the show itself. The majority of the book (pages 82-213 of a 255-page book) is taken up by quick summaries of every episode of the first three seasons, and most of the rest is a dramatis personae. There are occasional quotes from the writers and staff of the show, which can sometimes be quite interesting, and the attempts to quote friendship lessons in episodes that lacked letters to Princess Celestia can sometimes be entertainingly odd (Princess Celestia’s speech quoted in the entry on “Magical Mystery Cure” sums up to “Twilight is great”), the book is sorely lacking in production details or anything else not easily available in wiki form. This is odd, since the only people likely to purchase a book like this are adult or teen fans who probably already have access to the wiki.

The book is quite aware of those fans. The final chapter is a strange discussion of the fandom, shifting from the light, children’s book diction of the episode descriptions to a (213-250) patter that would fit right into a press release from Hasbro’s marketing department. Compare “At first, Twilight believed the spell had no effect, but now she knows it accidentally switched her friends cutie marks, causing them to do things they aren’t good at!” to “In a market flooded with animated programs and requisite toy lines, My Little Pony has excelled because of its combination of branding and substance.” Most curiously, although the final paragraph of the chapter is written as if it is the conclusion of an apologia for teen and adult, non-parent fans, the bulk of the chapter talks about the show empowering young girls and being a useful teaching tool for families. It sits strangely within the book, and it is perhaps appropriate that it is hemmed away from the rest of the book by song lyrics on one side, and the quote-maze of the back cover on the other.

By far the best parts of the book are the two segments where Lauren Faust is given space to speak. In her an interview near the middle of the book, she talks a little bit about process, about how she views the characters, and most interestingly, explains her thinking behind having some villains reform and others not, gesturing toward what I have noted before is one of the show’s most-needed lessons, that some people will never be friends and that’s okay. Even better is the foreword, where she talks about the magic of “frilly pink silliness.” It is well worth reading in its entirety, but the core of it is the penultimate paragraph, a justification of not only Friendship Is Magic itself but its fandom, this blog, and everyone who’s ever written thousands of words about “frivolous” entertainments:

If we give little girls a respectful treatment of the things they like–if we dare to take it as seriously as they do–we will see for ourselves that it’s not so silly at all. We can truly appreciate the merit they see in it. And, amazingly, we can enjoy it ourselves.

This is a silly book. It is an information-light guidebook to a series too simple to require one, easily dismissed as just a cash-grab from deep-pocketed fans in the lead-up to the show’s theatrical debut. But nothing is silly–which is to say, everything is equally silly. If this is a show worth taking seriously–and there are people who take it seriously, so it must be worth taking seriously–then it is a show worth having this sort of book for.

Glorious pegasus master race (Rainbow Factory)

Not even going to bother with excuses. I failed to make noon, just like everything else I’ve attempted in the last week. Hell, this wasn’t even supposed to be this week’s article, this was supposed to be next week’s. Unfortunately, the intended topic of this week’s article is sealed in a box full of poison that can’t be safely opened until Monday night. Anyway…

June is Derivative Works Month, where I take a break from analyzing episodes of Friendship Is Magic and instead analyze a mix of fanworks and officially licensed works other than the show using the same techniques.

Now witness the power of this fully armed and operational…
uh… factory. That makes rainbows. Pretty pretty rainbows.

 It’s August 11, 2011. The top song is LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” and the top movie is the surprisingly good Rise of the Planet of the Apes. In the news this week, the Arab League calls on the Syrian government to stop killing its own civilians, which Syria elects to continue doing; noted whackaloon Michelle Bachmann wins the first contest of the 2012 Presidential election, a poll regarding the Iowa  and on the day the song was released, the London riots of 2011 ended. Season 2 of Friendship Is Magic is a little over a month away.

On YouTube, user WoodenToaster posts the song “Rainbow Factory,” one of the most popular an explosion of brony music that to an extent is still ongoing. (At time of writing, the YouTube posting has over 1.9 million views, 17,000 “likes,” and 300 “dislikes.”) The song is dark, with heavy distortion on both instrumentation and the male singer (presumably WoodenToaster)’s voice. The subject matter is the Rainbow Factory, a feature of the city of Cloudsdale first seen in Season One’s “Sonic Rainboom,” where that city’s pegasus inhabitants convert pools of liquid color into the rainbows they distribute across Equestria. The song implies that there is some sinister secret to the factory; lines like “Now a rainbow’s tale isn’t quite as nice/As the story we knew of sugar and spice” and “In the Rainbow Factory, where your fears and horrors come true/In the Rainbow Factory, where not a single soul gets through” make it very clear that something awful is happening to make these rainbows, but leave precisely what up to the imagination of the listener.

However, I am not particularly qualified to analyze music (which is to say, I am even less qualified to analyze music than I am to analyze animation, hard as it may be to believe that such a thing is possible). Fortunately, there is a fanfiction based on the song, and implicitly endorsed by WoodenToast, seeing as the YouTube page for the song links to the fic.

So: It is December 27, 2011. The top song is Rihanna’s “We Found Love” and the top movie is Mission Impossible 4. In the news, Boko Haram engages in a series of attacks on Nigerian churches during Christian prayers, killing 39, and by New Year’s Eve, President Goodluck Jonathon declares a state of emergency in several cities; following the state funeral of Kim Jung-il, his son, Kim Jung-un, is acknowledged as Supreme Leader of North Korea; and Turkey accidentally kills 35 smugglers that they thought were guerillas during airstrikes on Kurdish militants. We are almost precisely at the midpoint of the three-week hiatus following “Hearth’s Warming Eve.”

“Rainbow Factory,” the story by AuroraDawn, is somewhat less popular than the song: 73,000 views, 2,000 “likes,” and 150 “dislikes.” Still, that is an impressive readership for a fic in a relatively small and young fandom, and an overwhelmingly positive response. Neither the story’s description on FIMFiction nor the story itself link to the song, but the debt is quite clear, not only in the title but in the use of lyrics from the song as section-heading epigraphs throughout the story.
However, the story departs from the song quite significantly, mostly by making explicit what the song only implies, as well as by having characters. It is primarily told from the perspective of Scootaloo, now a young adult just out of flight school. As it opens, she is taking her final exam along with a group of other ponies, all of whom believe that ponies who fail their exam are exiled to some distant city. After the first pegasus to attempt the test, Aurora Dawn, injures herself and fails, she is ignored and left to struggle with broken wings. Scootaloo’s friend Orion Solstice attempts the test as well, but abandons it to help Aurora Dawn, earning an automatic failure; this then distresses Scootaloo so much that she is distracted during the test and fails. The three ponies are thus, following an elaborate and seemingly pointless ruse in which they are escorted out of the city by ponies who don’t know where “exiles are sent,” then back into the city by Rainbow Factory guards, shipped off to the Rainbow Factory’s secret levels, where they learn that the most obvious and least interesting possible implication of the song is true: rainbows are made by painfully sacrificing ponies.

Scootaloo confronts the head of the program, who turns out to be Rainbow Dash, who in turn rejects Scootaloo and all the pegasi who fail the examination as being worthless and unworthy of the high standards of Cloudsdale. Scootaloo and the other two newcomers attempt to organize a mass breakout of the imprisoned pegasi, only Scootaloo makes it back alive, but she makes a wrong turn in her escape attempt and is recaptured and fed into the rainbow machine.

One has to act: what is this story for? If its purpose is to shock, it fails; it is fairly predictable throughout, with the only real surprise being Rainbow Dash, and even that is obvious in hindsight: this is a story of adults betraying their children, so of course if the story is told from the perspective of Scootaloo, the adult closest to her has to be the one in charge. The violence, while there is a great deal of it, never feels particularly visceral, and is nothing special for a gorefic, so it fails to be shocking in that sense, as well.

Mostly, though, it fails to shock because it is not horrible violence happening to or being perpatrated by characters we care about. The society depicted, in which the culture of Cloudsdale is defined by perfectionism justified by constant repetition of the glory and excellence of Cloudsdale pegasi, bears no resemblance to the Equestria we see in the show, and despite a handwave that years of running the Rainbow Factory has twisted Rainbow Dash’s elitism into extreme hatred of those she sees as inferior, the Rainbow Dash we see defending Fluttershy from bullies in flashbacks in “The Cutie Mark Chronicles” would never work with the factory in the first place. In addition, that the flight school teachers stand by and do nothing for the injured Aurora Dawn, and expect the examinees to do likewise, is utterly unlike the group behavior of ponies as seen in the show. On FIMFiction, this is marked as an “alternate universe” story, presumably in acknowledgment of precisely those issues–these don’t act like our Rainbow Dash or our pegasi because they’re not.

These choices, or at least choices like them, are probably necessary. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Rainbow Factory could have a dark and violent secret without at least some contradiction of the Equestria and characters depicted in the show. But unfortunately that means that these are not the familiar characters, and so the story cannot simply assume that we care about them before it starts slaughtering them. These aren’t the Rainbow Dash and Scootaloo in whose adventures I’ve become invested through years of watching the show; these are conglomerations of words who happen to have the same names and physical descriptions.

Which then raises the natural question raised by any alternate universe story: Why bother? Why not write an original story about original characters, rather than fanfiction with only a tenuous connection to the original work? For that matter, why bother with pony grimdark or gorefic to begin with? Certainly, if one has a taste for violence and darkness, they can be found in abundance in other media, so why add it to one of the few works where they are largely lacking?

One rather upsetting possibility lies in one of the main collective anxieties of the brony community, the fear of being seen as unmasculine or “gay.” Bronies are a largely (about 80 percent) masculine community centered on a decidedly feminine show, so there is a fairly widespread narrative within the brony community that “outsiders” will attack bronies for stepping outside of the masculine gender role. And, certainly, this has occurred–there are multiple well-documented cases of younger bronies being bullied using transphobic or homophobic slurs, with Michael Morones perhaps the best-known. One possible response is to try to make the show more masculine, and one way to do so in a culture that equates power, dominance, and masculinity is by adding violence, i.e. the expression of dominance through the exercise of physical power. Adding violence to the show is, in a sense, doing violence to the show, thus asserting masculine-coded dominance over it. It also handily provides fans a way to defend themselves from accusations of being insufficiently masculine by providing a counter-example, “See, it’s not all ‘girly’ friendship and feelings and being a better person, some it is hardcore ‘manly’ death and pain!” (The sad irony here is, of course, that the most common criticisms of bronies as a community have nothing to do with gender roles; the primary criticisms of bronies by non-bronies are that they’re  self-satisfied, over-aggressive, easily wounded, and misogynistic.)

A somewhat more generous reading is available, however, if we consider the theory of the grotesque. First explored by the critic Mikhail Bakhtin in the middle third of the twentieth century, the concept of the grotesque is intimately interconnected with another of Bakhtin’s concepts, the carnivalesque or carnivalization, which in turn is one of the core elements of postmodernism. One can thus argue that the grotesque is, in a sense, a mostly latent part of Friendship Is Magic‘s DNA, waiting to be activated in fanworks.

The grotesque is essentially a form of satire, using the distortion of the human (or in this case, pony) form to degrade that which is usually elevated, dragging the high down to the low. This is part of the aesthetic of carnival, in which social structures and ideologies are torn down and chaos and humor reign. The contradiction of the show’s values within the story can thus be read as deliberate, part of this process of tearing down in order to achieve a carnivalesque state in which those values can be interrogated.

But again, this violence is not occurring within something recognizable as the show, so whose values are it questioning? What authority is brought down and satirized by this grotesque violence?

The answer may lie in another question: In what community might one receive constant messages celebrating and asserting the excellence of all individuals in the community, while at the same time knowing that those who fail those standards of excellence will be thrown out? A community, further, devoted to the creation of a product, and which one must belong to or else be considered worthless and deserving of death?

Worded that way, it should be fairly apparent: this is not the Cloudsdale in the show because it is the Cloudsdale Corporation. The satire is not of the show as a work of art, so much as it is a satire of the show as a corporate product. The values being brought down are thus not actually the values of the show, but of Hasbro and all entities like it: profit, the mechanization and dehumanization of workers into human resources, and the greedy devouring of those resources by a system that is overseen and governed by the powerful elite but appears capable of acting on its own.

Rejected by the system for failing to measure up to arbitrary standards, the young adults of corporatist Cloudsdale are discarded as worthless. No one much cares what happens to them, and indeed the powers that be believe they deserve to die. This is exaggerated and melodramatized, certainly, but at the same time it is a rough description of how our society treats the unemployed, and the recent graduates who are both the most likely demographic to be unemployed and the most likely demographic to be bronies.

Other readings are of course available; this is simply an example of one. It is in the nature of the carnivalesque to tear down all ideologies, and the grotesqueries contained within can thus be read as satire of almost any aspect of society, according to the ideology of the reader and their preferred targets. The grotesque is thus, in a sense, a mirror held up to the reader.

Mirrors can be valuable things, so despite being distasteful, somewhat boring, and in need of a good proofread, a myriad of redemptive readings of the story “Rainbow Factory” are available. Or just listen to the song, it seems like it’s probably a good example of whatever genre it is, if that genre is your thing.