Sure I could tell you I learned something about how my friends are always there to help me… (The Last Roundup)

“And remember,” said Fluttershy softly, “if you ever
try to leave again, we’ll break your legs.”

It’s January 21st, 2012. The top song is once again Rihanna featuring Calvin Harris with “We Found Love,” and the top movie is Underworld Awakening, another installment in the vampires-vs.-werewolves action series. For the record, we won’t be getting an episode that coincides with a No. 1 movie I’ve actually seen until “Hurricane Fluttershy” two months hence.

In the news, the Syrian government is killing its own people, provoking international outcry. (Yes, I’m still talking about January 2012.) Protests against draconian anti-piracy legislation being considered by the U.S. Congress include a day-long shutdown of the English-language Wikipedia and successful efforts by the hacker group Anonymous to shut down the U.S. Department of Justice website; by the end of the week, the legislation has been postponed indefinitely. And News International, the British branch of the same Murdoch empire as Fox News, pays out settlements to 37 people whose phones it illegally hacked.

With ponies, we have Amy Keating Rogers writing and Jayson Thiessen directing “The Last Roundup,” our four hundred billionth Applejack-centric episode in a row, or at least that’s how it feels. Oddly, though, it’s actually the first Applejack-centric episode all season, and arguably (depending on whether one considers “Over a Barrel” to be an Applejack episode) the first since “Fall Weather Friends” 27 episodes ago.

So why was my immediate reaction to this episode–both when I watched it on its initial airing, and on realizing it was next in line for this project–to groan in dismay at “yet another Applejack episode?” It’s not just my natural apathy (not antipathy–I find her boring, not objectionable) toward Applejack. Although she has not been in the central position of an episode for quite some time, she has been prominent in rather more than her share of episodes: she is of course a significant presence in the ensemble episodes “The Return of Harmony” and “Hearth’s Warming Eve,” has large roles in both “Sisterhooves Social” and “The Cutie Pox,” and while she is not on-screen for much of “Family Appreciation Day,” given that it gives the history of her family it is difficult not to feel her presence looming just off-screen.

And while a very good episode might be able to overcome that overload and do something interesting with Applejack and the Apple family, this is not that episode. (Next episode, on the other hand…) Which isn’t to say it’s a bad episode by any means; simply not particularly interesting or engaging. There is a reason that a single scene that has next to nothing to do with the story (but does feature a fan-favorite character with some controversial voicing) is pretty much all the fanbase talked about in this episode’s aftermath–there is honestly very little else worth talking about here. Nonetheless, because the only options are to spend an entire article talking about the controversy that scene engendered or to spend an article talking about the actual episode, I am going to have to attempt the latter.

The episode is, to be honest, quite appropriate to Applejack, which is to say that it appears to have its heart in the right place but provides zero character development, and thus is rather boring. Even the lesson Applejack learns at the end, to trust her friends and not try to take everything on by herself, is a repeat of development she ostensibly had way back in episode 4, “Applebuck Season.”

The problem with a boring episode is that, unengaged, the mind seeks ways to make things more interesting. One tries to look at the episode in other lights, and what one finds, quite often, is unintended and unfortunate implications. This episode is no different.

Consider the perspective of the other members of the Mane Six. They know Applejack has not returned, and provided very little explanation as to why. Now naturally, it is reasonable for them to worry that she’s in some kind of trouble and come looking for her–they have all been in more than their share of trouble since meeting, after all! However, once she makes clear to them that she is not in trouble and is staying in Dodge Junction of her own free choice, their attitude takes a curious and unsettling turn.

The response of the other Mane Six basically amounts to a claim of ownership over Applejack. They make quite clear: she is not allowed to start a new life elsewhere. It doesn’t matter that she actually is making bad choices for fairly silly reasons, because until the end of the episode the other ponies don’t know that; all they know is that their friend is choosing to move away and break off ties with them, which she has every right in the world to do. But their response shows that they believe otherwise; they believe that because they like Applejack and consider her their friend, she must continue to live in their town, associate with them, and share her thoughts and feelings with them.

They are way, way past any recognizable concept of friendship. If someone is actively running away from you when you try to talk to them, you are no longer their friend, you are a stalker. In her excellent book Odd Girl Out (which also provides some disturbing insight into darker readings of “The Mysterious Mare-Do-Well,” but should probably have some trigger warnings for victims of bullying and especially passive-aggressive bullying), Rachel Simmons investigates the culture of adolescent girls (most middle-class white adolescent girls) and finds that a prevailing attitude that one must always be (or appear to be) selfless and “nice” creates a host of what she terms “alternative aggressions” in the form of vicious-yet-subtle bullying through social manipulation.

What the other five ponies do to Applejack in this episode is not quite the same as in Simmons’ book, but it is still most definitely a form of aggression. Despite appearing like an attempt to preserve an endangered friendship–despite most likely being, in the minds of both the ponies involved and the writer, intended as an attempt to preserve an endangered friendship–it is an attempt to control another, to prevent them from being able to make their own decisions and pursue their own path in life.

Young girls, Simmons argues, get told in many ways and in many places that nothing is more important than friendship and niceness. Like Applejack, they are told that they cannot leave their friends behind to pursue other opportunities. Applejack’s reasons for doing so in this episode are, admittedly, frivolous and rooted in misunderstanding and misplaced pride, but they are still her reasons. What if Rainbow Dash gets a chance to become a Wonderbolt, but has to leave for extended training? What if Twilight’s continuing education requires her to return to Canterlot to take up new duties? What if Rarity is invited to spend a year designing a clothing line for important clients in Manehatten? Will they be allowed to go?  Or will their friends pursue them, stalk them, pull them back?

Girls already get told enough that they have to put friendship above all else–that friendship is so fragile that it cannot survive the existence of other priorities or the pursuit of any kind of self-interest. Where is the lesson for the other ponies that they have to let go?

Next Week: Yes. That’s right. Another one.

I couldn’t face the truth, so I started tellin’ lies. Can you ever forgive me? (Hearth’s Warming Eve/Family Appreciation Day)

Liars, every one of them.
Except maybe the one in the middle.

It’s January 7, 2012. The top song is LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It,” which works as a parody of the songs we’ve mostly had this season, and the top movie is The Devil Inside, about which I know nothing. In real news this week, the death toll of the Syrian uprising passes 5,000, Iran successfully tests two long-range missiles, and the U.S. Republican Presidential primary is officially underway, with Mitt Romney winning Iowa and Michele Bachmann dropping out. Also, it’s my mom’s 63rd birthday.

As a general rule, any time you have a story within a story or a narrator who refers to themselves in the first person, I recommend keeping an eye out for any tricks they’re playing on you; odds are there is some unreliable narration afoot.

“Hearth’s Warming Eve” is no exception. Some of the story the Mane Six perform for the audience (both in-story and out) is extremely unlikely, and there are clues throughout the episode that it may be more feel-good legend than accurate depiction of Equestrian history.

The term “unreliable narrator” was coined by Wayne C. Booth, who also gave us “implied author” and is just generally amazing if you have any interest in literary theory, in 1961. However, the concept has been in use for much longer: Poe, for instance, made great use of highly emotive and outburst-ridden narratives to help make the reader unsettled and show the severity of what occurred to the narrator. Lovecraft combined narrators who would normally be assumed by readers of the time to be reliable (highly educated scions of “good families”; members of high-knowledge professions such as doctors and scientists) with narration similar to Poe’s to create narration that the reader was both inclined to trust and yet could not credit, paralleling his placing of monstrous fever-image creatures in familiar New England settings. But the technique is much older than that; Hamlet, for example, is either “mad” or pretending to be, and either way some of his pronouncements can be believed by the audience and others cannot. Examples of unreliable narrators go all the way back to ancient Greek drama.

How do we know that Granny Smith is unreliable? One of the first things she does, after the opening credits, is admit that she has difficulty remembering things. Memory gaps are a major red flag for a narrator’s reliability–how can we know that what she does remember is accurate? That she isn’t confusing different events? But beyond that we have her behavior. The requirements she reveals for making Zap Apple jam, such as dressing in rabbit costumes and hopping in circles while singing, or painting pink polka dots all over the house, are the sorts of things Pinkie Pie would come up with. Indeed, between her silliness, apparent obliviousness to Apple Bloom’s attempts to get rid of her, and the inevitability of her return, she resembles Pinkie Pie very strongly in this episode. As a result, can her “And that’s how Ponyville was founded” be trusted any more than Pinkie’s “And that’s how Equestria was made?”

And she does have motive to make up the story. For all her apparent obliviousness, and whether we regard her as reliable or not, Granny Smith shows real hidden depths in this episode. She tells exactly the story that’s needed to resolve Apple Bloom’s difficulties, which suggests she isn’t anywhere near as oblivious as she seems (so she has memory problems and is actively putting up a front–the reasons not to take her story at face value continue to mount). She has watched at least one child of her own grow up (possibly more, if Applejack has aunts and uncles, which seems likely), as well as Applejack and Big Macintosh. She is no doubt aware that Apple Bloom is at that age where she is trying to establish her identity as her own person, independent from her family, and therefore finds everything her family members do intensely embarrassing. Even if she is only intuitively aware of the psychology–even if she doesn’t know it at all–she sees Apple Bloom hiding from Diamond Tiara during the shopping trip. During the trip she uses her oblivious front to prevent Apple Bloom from denying her family (which, as matriarch of a family as clannish as the Apples, is no doubt a serious infraction in her eyes). She knows she still has to address the underlying problem, however, so she needs to make Apple Bloom appreciate her family and (perhaps more importantly for a young adolescent) see that her peers appreciate her family, too.

So we have a motive for the story-within-a-story to be constructed a particular way, and reason to suspect its author(s) aren’t being (or can’t be) entirely truthful. But that alone is not enough to declare unreliable narration; there must be some contradiction within the story itself, either internally or between the story and our own knowledge.

And the contradictions are most definitely there, up to being built into the story. Specifically, the tale of Equestria’s founding we see is structured like a fairy tale, with its “once upon a time” beginning, stock characters, quest, and “harmony ever after” ending. This is notable, because one of the major distinctions between fairy tales and other forms of folklore is that, unlike legends or myths, fairy tales are not meant to be believed by the audience; they are intentional fictions. At the same time, unlike fables and parables, fairy tales are not primarily pedagogical; they are meant to entertain, not necessarily to instruct. A fairy tale may have a moral, but it is generally not the main focus of the story. This story of the founding of Equestria, however, does have a heavy-handed moral bent that serves as the main focus of the story, somewhat belying its fairy tale structure. In short, its Christmas-pageant-like setting is not a place one would expect to hear history, it is not structured or presented like history, appears to be a cross between a fairy tale and a fable, and extremely vague about when it happened. It seems likely the only reason fans have embraced this as a “true” history of Equestria is the lack of information from any other source. None of this is proof that it is (diegetically) false; simply that it is not structured like a true story.

But leaving structure aside, are there any real contradictions within the story itself? Actual presented facts that contradict facts we’ve had established elsewhere? And yes, if one looks closely such contradictions do appear.

It makes no sense for apparently quite good growing land, like Ponyville, to be within sight of the capital and yet uninhabited, even given the nearby Everfree Forest as a deterrent. In additions, it’s highly unlikely that Granny discovered something as complex as the Zap Apple jam recipe in what’s implied to be only 70-90 trial-and-error iterations, especially if she was making something good enough to be a major draw to the town within its first years of operations (as suggested by the fact that she doesn’t visually age between discovering the apples and Stinking Rich first selling them–she is still a young filly, probably just past getting her cutie mark).

An unreliable narrator is not necessarily a bad narrator. There are many reasons to employ the technique, and the exact effect largely depends on what the truth is, and what the narrator’s apparent motivations in concealing it are. So what is the likely truth, and what do the changes tell us about the narrator?

Most likely, this story is complete fiction. Remember that some time after its founding, Discord ruled Equestria; the true story of its founding was probably lost. However, given that Equestria is dominated by a feudal structure (as opposed to the military structure implied by the pegasi having a general or the republican structure implied by the Earth ponies’ chancellor), it seems likely that Equestria was initially dominated by unicorns, perhaps even by means of conquering the other tribes. Regardless of the mechanism, the unicorns seem to have been dominant at first, and it seems likely that (given they share the role given to the unicorns in this story) Celestia and Luna were originally unicorns. It is thus all the more admirable that Equestria has achieved harmony between the three tribes, and such lies are unnecessary. We can only hope that the true story is out there and taught in schools, and this is just a bit of historical fiction for entertainment.

Liars, every one of them.
Except maybe the one in the middle.

It’s December 17, 2011. The top song is still the same Rihanna, and the top movie is Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, which I thought was pretty good but paled against the first. In real news, Time names “The Protester” as its Person of the Year, the 2010 U.S. Census results show one in two residents of that country is low-income or poor, and in its first report on the subject, the U.N. calls for the worldwide protection of LGBT rights. Also it’d be my dad’s 70th birthday, if he were alive.

As a general rule, any time you have a story within a story or a narrator who refers to themselves in the first person, I recommend keeping an eye out for any tricks they’re playing on you; odds are there is some unreliable narration afoot.

“Apple Family Reunion” is no exception. Some of what Granny Smith tells Apple Bloom (and by extension the audience) is extremely unlikely, and there are clues throughout the episode that, while more or less honest, she may not actually be a great source for information.

The term “unreliable narrator” was coined by Wayne C. Booth, who also gave us “implied author” and is just generally amazing if you have any interest in literary theory, in 1961. However, the concept has been in use for much longer: Poe, for instance, made great use of highly emotive and outburst-ridden narratives to help make the reader unsettled and show the severity of what occurred to the narrator. Lovecraft combined narrators who would normally be assumed by readers of the time to be reliable (highly educated scions of “good families”; members of high-knowledge professions such as doctors and scientists) with narration similar to Poe’s to create narration that the reader was both inclined to trust and yet could not credit, paralleling his placing of monstrous fever-image creatures in familiar New England settings. But the technique is much older than that; Hamlet, for example, is either “mad” or pretending to be, and either way some of his pronouncements can be believed by the audience and others cannot. Examples of unreliable narrators go all the way back to ancient Greek drama.

How do we know that the play is unreliable? The first clue is that Spike narrates it–the same Spike whose point of view was used to make adorable Owlowiscious seem evil. He’s already been established as an unreliable narrator, in other words. The format in which the play is presented also suggests unreliability; Christmas pageants are not known for their adherence to strict historical accuracy, after all. Beyond that, there is the vagueness–the legend of Nightmare Moon at least specified a timespan of a thousand years. This story gives us no idea how long ago it takes place, which seems immediately suspect for history, or how long the blizzards lasted–was it one extremely bad winter? A steadily worsening climate over decades? We don’t know. Of course this is a performance, meant to entertain rather than teach history, so we shouldn’t expect citations–but its status as a performance is precisely what makes it suspect!

And there is a strong motive for this story to be less than entirely accurate. As the title says, friendship and cooperation are powerful sources of magic in Friendship Is Magic. Equestria is a realm beset by frequent monster attacks; it needs all the magic it can get, and so the powers that be have a vested interest in discouraging racism (one of the most striking differences between Equestria and our own civilization, where resentments between linguistically and ethnically distinct segments of the population are exploited to prevent an alliance of the lower and middle classes against the upper). Suggesting that widespread ethnic conflict, even nonviolent conflict, will attract Windigoes and bring about horrible blizzards serves this purpose well. But even beyond that, as we will see when we dig into this story’s contradiction, there are hints of unpleasantness in Equestria’s past that this story helps to paper over, serving a function similar to the U.S. Thanksgiving narrative, which emphasizes cooperation between newly arrived settlers and Native Americans, ignoring the bloody and violent history of genocide and forced relocations that followed. Note that none of this is a motivation for Spike or the Mane Six; they are simply performing the show they were given, which is at least implied to be a traditional part of Hearth’s Warming Eve. No–the true unreliable narrator here is the unseen author of the play they perform.

So we have a motive for the story-within-a-story to be constructed a particular way, and reason to suspect its author(s) aren’t being (or can’t be) entirely truthful. But that alone is not enough to declare unreliable narration; there must be some contradiction within the story itself, either internally or between the story and our own knowledge.

And the contradictions are most definitely there, up to being built into the story itself. Granny Smith’s story, despite being ostensibly true, has all the hallmarks of a “tall tale,” a genre prevalent in the rural U.S. where speakers take turns trying to outdo one another in a virtuosic exercise of telling the most elaborate, outlandish, ridiculous tale they can. The traditional tall tale starts with a relatively mundane circumstance or activity, and then escalates, becoming more and more absurdist as it continues, employing exaggeration, hyperbole, and puns to create humorous, outlandish scenarios. Granny Smith’s story is no different, progressing from the fairly believable notion of a nomadic family receiving a land grant and having a tough first year, to exaggerations such as an entire meal consisting of three peas each, to pun-based absurdities such as the timberwolves, and from there to the completely over-the-top such as magic trees that grow instantly and apples that disappear (not fall or get eaten by wildlife, magically vanish) after five days. Now, many of these details are actually confirmed as true in this or later episodes, but that should enhance our suspicion: This story is structured as a tall tale, so there must be something in it that’s false. If not the exaggerated details, then what?

But leaving structure aside, are there any real contradictions within the story itself? Actual presented facts that contradict facts we’ve had established elsewhere? And yes, if one looks closely such contradictions do appear.

The most obvious one is that the personalities of the characters in the play are suspiciously apropos to their actors: Rarity and Rainbow Dash’s characters are self-aggrandizing and overconfident, while Applejack’s and Twilight Sparkle’s are hardworking and put-upon, and Fluttershy’s is a doormat. This could just be good casting, if not for Pinkie Pie’s character, who is as cartoonishly “crazy” as she is and would have been overthrown in a real crisis. In that respect, at least, the play is clearly false–but there’s another contradiction. If Equestria was founded equally by all three tribes, why do its leaders have the same title as the unicorn expedition’s leader?

An unreliable narrator is not necessarily a bad narrator. There are many reasons to employ the technique, and the exact effect largely depends on what the truth is, and what the narrator’s apparent motivations in concealing it are. So what is the likely truth, and what do the changes tell us about the narrator?

It seems likely that Ponyville was inhabited, though perhaps sparsely, well before Granny Smith’s family moved there. In turn, it could be that Zap Apples were already somewhat known. Granny likely (at a fairly young age, which is still pretty  impressive) perfected a recipe that was already out there, and that led to Ponyville growing from scattered small-hold farmers to a true town with a name. Her story is not an outright lie–if it were, one would think Cheerilee would have both the knowledge and motivation to object–but an exaggeration and simplification to make Apple Bloom appreciate her family more and get the other kids to stop teasing her about Granny. It’s a legend and a lie-to-children, but ultimately not a harmful one. Granny Smith’s heart is in the right place, and the kids will doubtless learn better as they continue in school; no real harm is done, although Apple Bloom will likely be embarrassed again when she learns the truth.

      The power of an unreliable narrator is its ability to add density to a story. It allows exposition and character development to be folded together, so that the manner of giving the exposition becomes a form of characterization, and it allows characters to become more complex–or, in the case of revealing a traditional narrative to be unreliable, entire societies. These two episodes, paralleled and intertwined, remind us that even a children’s show can achieve complexity through such techniques.

      Next week: Hey, an Applejack episode! We haven’t had one of those in a while. *weeps*

      That’s four “ever”s. That’s like… forever! (Baby Cakes)

      On the one hand, EWWWWWWWW. On the other, it’s nice
      that Mr. and Mrs. Cake share the childcare duties, and this is
      treated as so normal that it’s never even remarked upon.

      It’s January 14, 2012. The top movie is Contraband, about which I know nothing, and the top song is still LMFAO’s very funny “Sexy and I Know It.” In the news this week, Mitt Romney wins a second primary, in New Hampshire this time, and Scotland and England conflict over whether Scotland is allowed to hold a planned referendum on independence in 2014, but the main story is a revolt in Chechnya and ensuing fighting between Chechnyan militants and Russian troops.

      This week’s episode, written by Charlotte Fullerton and directed by Jayson Thiessen, is the quite fun “Baby Cakes,” a terrifying and extremely accurate warning against making the terrible mistake of having or accepting responsibility for children, because they will exhaust you, terrify you, force you to do humiliating and disgusting things, and then use their evil mind-control powers to make you want to keep doing it.

      But I kid (except for the part where I am 100% completely serious that that is what children do, their evil mind-control powers are a documented fact). Really, this episode is a continuation of a theme that started last episode (or is that next episode?) involving exploring the various ways in which past, present, and future can influence one another. Indeed, while that theme is not fully realized until the eleventh episode (either one of them), playing with and exploring time has been as common a theme thus far this season as transformations were last season:

      • “The Return of Harmony”: an ancient evil returns for revenge
      • “Lesson Zero”: Twilight is racing the clock
      • “Luna Eclipsed”: The traditions surrounding Luna (both her own old-fashioned ways and the beliefs other ponies have about her) clash with the realities of the present
      • “Sisterhooves Social”: Sweetie Belle is motivated entirely by her desire to spend more time with her sister
      • “The Cutie Pox” and “Secret of My Excess”: Young people grow up too fast, with disastrous consequences
      • “Sweet and Elite”: Rarity is torn between making time for her new friends and making time for the old
      • “Family Appreciation Day” and “Hearth’s Warming Eve”:  The power of stories of the past to change how we view the present

      “It’s About Time” indeed. Children are symbols of both the future and the past. The past because we often seek signifiers of our ancestors in the features of children: “he has his mother’s eyes” or “she has her granduncle’s ears.” Additionally, children are a reminder of when we ourselves were children, which of course is in the past. At the same time, they signify the future because they will (if all goes well) inherit that future when we are gone. If, then, last week was about the power of the past to reshape the present, this week is about the responsibility of caring for those who will carry that past into the future.

      So of course that responsibility falls to Pinkie, our spirit of chaos, our mini-Discord, complete with a flour- and water-based echo of Discord’s transformation to stone. The result is almost a clip show: Hey, remember back in Season 1 when Pinkie Pie used to perform unambiguously diegetic musical numbers out of the blue? Remember Twilight obsessing over reports to the Princess? Applejack having to buck her entire farm before a deadline? Pinkie’s terrible puns from the series premiere? A troublesome guest whose refusal to eat is an early sign that the caretaker is in over her head? Pinkie’s hair going limp? Twilight trying to persuade someone to accept her help, and saying exactly the wrong thing in a way that convinces the other pony to reject help? A babysitting job turns into a horror movie, and is ultimately resolved by the babysitter playing a card from the standard sexist depictions of women?

      All here.

      Except this isn’t a clip show. The scenes I refer to resemble events of past episodes, some very closely, but they are not actual repeats and there is none of the usual framing of a clip show: no characters stuck somewhere and reminiscing to pass the time, no Troy McLure hosting a fake documentary, no trial sequence in which a character has to justify their past actions. Instead, the past recurs not as a fragment to be repeated, but fully absorbed and transformed, an integrated part of the present.

      This is actually a common technique of postmodernism. The literary theorist Ihab Hassan describes this as part of the postmodern tendency to hybridization; just as postmodern art tends to merge genres, it also tends to bring the past into the present so that it can play with and recontextualize it. This is neither rote repetition of the past nor an ahistorical denial that the past is the past, but a declaration that the relationship between past and present is not a one-way street.

      Put another way: a clip show simply repeats the past while saying “this is the past.” A formulaic show repeats the past while saying “this is new.” This episode does neither; it repeats the past while saying “this is different now than it was then.” Applejack is still determined to harvest all her apples, but there is no suggestion just she would refuse help. Twilight is writing a report to Princess Celestia that summarizes her reports to Princess Celestia, but she’s not panicking and frankly, given the number of reports she’s doubtless written by this point, probably useful. The horror movie-sitcom hybrid is handled more artfully than in “Stare Master.” The past is present, but altered.

      One of the more interesting examples is the repetition of Twilight unintentionally persuading someone to refuse her help. In “Applebucking Season,” Applejack initially refused to admit she needed help, was solidified in that refusal of help by Twilight’s accidental insult, and ultimately broke down and admitted she needed help. Here, Pinkie Pie initially wants the help, but changes her mind in response to Twilight’s accidental insult, and ultimately discovers she didn’t need the help, as once she earns the babies’ sympathy they start behaving.

      With the exception of distant stars viewed through telescopes, we cannot perceive the past directly. All we can do is try to reconstruct it. Memory reconstructs our personal pasts; history reconstructs the pasts of cultures; sciences such as paleontology and geology reconstruct the past of our world; astronomers and cosmologists reconstruct the past of the universe. The past, in other words, is a construct, and like any construct it can be deconstructed, decontextualized, hybridized, and generally played with.

      Which is not to say that the results are always necessarily good. “Stare Master” presents Fluttershy’s standard-issue stereotypical sitcom-mom power as an expression and extension of her close observation of body language and behavior, which is easily readable as an effort to reclaim the trope from its problematic roots. Pinkie Pie’s crying, however, is a straightforward (albeit unintentional on at least the character’s part) expression of the stereotype that women use their tears manipulatively, a troubling note in an otherwise enjoyable episode.

      Regardless, the constructed nature of the past means that, as much as the past creates the present, the present also shapes the past. How we construct our pasts is in large part a product of our present. Depressed people have difficulty recalling happy memories. The Great Man theory of history gives way to theories based on sweeping large-scale forces, such as Marxist history, and these in turn give way to fashionable ideas about contingency that synthesize the two.

      The present contains the past, in other words, but does not repeat it perfectly. Our lives are neither clip shows nor formulaic repetitions; the past is present but fluid, transforming to fit the shape of its container, the present.

      And if we don’t like that shape? Dump a bag of flour on its head, have a good laugh, and move on; it will be shaped differently tomorrow.

      Next week: Derivative Works Month begins! First up, a post I’ve been itching to write for months. Oh, this will be fun…

      And that’s how Equestria was made (Family Appreciation Day/Hearth’s Warming Eve)

      Sorry this is a few minutes late. This one’s a bit unusual with the formatting. I had to fight a lot with Blogger, and it’s still not entirely right. Let me know if you have any suggestions to improve it.

      Thanks to KPShadowSquirrel for all the coding help, without them this post wouldn’t exist!

      She watches. And waits. And bides her time.

      It’s January 7, 2012. The top song is LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It,” which works pretty well as a parody of the top songs we’ve had for most of this season, and the top movie is The Devil Inside, about which I know nothing. In real news this week, the death toll of the Syrian uprising passes 5,000, Iran successfully tests two long-range missiles, and the U.S. Republican Presidential primary is officially underway, with Mitt Romney winning Iowa and Michele Bachmann dropping out of the race. Also, it’s my mom’s 63rd birthday.

      On TV, Cindy Morrow writes and James Wootton directs “Family Appreciation Day,” a cute but unremarkable little story that is mostly noticeable for (assuming the source for the story-within-a-story is reliable) dramatically increasing our knowledge of the history of Ponyville.

      She watches. And waits. And bides her time.

      It’s December 17, 2011. The top song is still the same Rihanna, and the top movie is Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, which I thought was pretty good but paled against the first. In real news, Time names “The Protester” as its Person of the Year, the 2010 U.S. Census results show one in two residents of that country is low-income or poor, and in its first report on the subject, the U.N. calls for the worldwide protection of LGBT rights. Also it’d be my dad’s 70th birthday, if he were alive.

      On TV, Merriwether Williams writes and James Wootton directs “Hearth’s Warming Eve,” a cute but unremarkable little story that is mostly noticeable for (assuming the source for the story-within-a-story is reliable) dramatically increasing our knowledge of the history of Equestria.

      Putting aside that possibility of an unreliable narrator, the use of stories of the past to defuse present conflict provides an interesting contrast to the real world, where such stories often serve more to fuel conflict than resolve it. Lawrence LeShan, in The Psychology of War, builds an argument that societies often engage in warfare as part of a process of mythologizing reality. History and national legend serve as tools to identify “the bad guys” as a monolithic, dark force that can be heroically resisted. Note, for instance, the frequent comparisons between Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler in the run-up to the Iraq War; by identifying the present enemy with a past foe, it becomes possible to other both into a monolithic Enemy, a monstrous entity that can be opposed without applying the normal moral constraints on violence.

      Now, this episode does not involve a war per se, but it does involve a conflict between ponies in the present that resonates with a past relationship between their ancestors. Specifically, the ongoing bullying and teasing of Apple Bloom by Diamond Tiara is contrasted with the congenial relationship between Stinkin’ (later Filthy) Rich and Granny Smith. Now, this episode does not involve a war per se, but it does involve a conflict between ponies in the present that reiterates a past relationship between their ancestors. Specifically, the rather petty squabbling between the Mane Six in the present is deliberately paralleled with the conflicts between their ancestors in the story of the founding of Equestria.

      Notably, however, the history being told here is not the history of a conflict or an enemy defeated. The creation of a new order is here the result of understanding, magic, and unity, which is to say more of an alchemical transformation than the violence of a founding myth that rests in revolution or the exploits of a legendary hero.

      Like any town, Ponyville is built of families. Connections between these families, their histories and rivalries and alliances, form the unwritten history of the town, invisible to the uninitiate. Unaware of their families’ history, Diamond Tiara and Apple Bloom feud and fight. Ignorant of economics, Diamond Tiara knows that her father is well-dressed, that he provides her with sparkling accessories and a big cutecenera, and owns the biggest store in Ponyville. She equally knows that Apple Bloom has to do chores, that her family works a farm and does not have particularly refined manners or tastes.

      To her, Apple Bloom is a member of a lower class to be mocked, but her worldview is challenged by the discovery that the Apples are the founders of Ponyville. This is unsurprising–their land holdings are massive in “Applebucking Season,” and this episode and “Super-Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000” together reveal that the Apples hold monopolies on two of Ponyville’s major products, Zap Apples and cider.

      Based on timing, this is the Christmas episode, and the decorations (especially Rarity’s Christmas tree hat) and hymn-like musical number both support that interpretation. Interestingly, then, the story of Equestria’s founding bears no plot resemblance to the Christian tale—no foals born in mangers or guiding stars here, and the three rulers from distant lands are neither wise nor traveling together.

      Thematically, however, this is a story about fellowship and unity emerging from the coldest, darkest part of winter and beginning the journey toward light and warmth, and thus like “Winter Wrap-Up” before it this is an excellent Yule story, with all the old pagan implications fully intact.

      The Yule tradition, Christmas included, is ultimately about celebrating the solstice. In the heart of winter, the longest night occurs, and thereafter the day lengthens–the sun is beginning to come back. It is a celebration about emerging from the ice and restoring warmth.

      Exposed to stories of the past, ponies are forced to re-evaluate their opinions of one another and their interactions. These founding myths serve as instructions for life in the present as much as they tell the story of the past; like many legends, folk tales, and family stories, or Friendship Is Magic episodes for that matter, they have a moral to impart.

      Granny Smith may appear to be a senile old mare, and Apple Bloom, while initially excited to help with the Zap Apple jam, is eventually persuaded by Diamond Tiara’s teasing that Granny and her traditional rituals are embarrassing. However, with her story Granny not only reveals that Diamond Tiara’s family’s wealth is founded on reselling Apple family products; she also reveals herself as more trickster than fool. Her rituals, though they may seem arbitrary, are actually purposeful, part of an arcane ritual that Granny herself discovered and developed, based on her decades of experience with Zap Apples.

      The elderly, traditionally, serve as the repository of a community’s knowledge. Before the rise of other forms of record-keeping, such as writing, the stories and reminiscence of a community’s elderly were its only record of the past; indeed, there is reason to believe that this is the evolutionary reason that humans are able to live so far past reproductive age. Granny Smith is keeper of both the origins of Ponyville and the methods for making one of its major products.

      True, that method appears arbitrary, but magic always does to the uninitiate. Meaning is contextual; without that context, the meaning is unavailable. Granny’s actions only appear nonsensical because we lack that context, just as, without the knowledge to interpret it, the graphs and equations in a scientific paper are incomprehensible.

      It’s interesting that we have here the backstory for long-lasting racial grudges between the three tribes of ponies, and yet there is no evidence for them in the present day of the series. Instead, it appears the moral of this story has been taken thoroughly to heart by succeeding generations of ponies (and given that this story must have taken place before Nightmare Moon’s rebellion a thousand years ago, that is likely to have been quite a few generations).

      There’s a notable similarity of the magic unleashed by the three second-in-commands to both the Elements of Harmony and the love magic Cadance and Shining Armor use in the season finale. Like the Elements of Harmony, it is triggered by the companionship of multiple ponies and restores the “natural order” disrupted by the episode’s villains (as opposed to simply driving the villains away, as the love magic does), but visually it strongly resembles the love magic from the finale.

      The spell here thus appears to be the basal magic that both later workings derive from. Companionship and unity between those who are different is, after all, at the root of both love and friendship. Only in cooperation can harmony arise–and cooperation does not have to mean abandoning oneself; harmony is the mingling of distinct voices. Centuries later, the three tribes are still distinct.

      Magic, ultimately, is nothing more or less than a system of manipulating symbols. Science is magic that works in the world. Stories are magic that work in our minds. The stories of the past can transform the present and our selves.

      Next week: A pony volunteers to babysit, and finds herself beyond her depth. This sitcom plot then collides straight into a pile of horror tropes. …Is time broken or something?

      You are a natural! A natural disaster! (Secret of My Excess)

      People continue to argue with me that I’m misunderstanding
      Spike and he’s actually not a jerk at all. Sure he isn’t.

      Apologies for the lateness, all. It’s been a rough weekend.

      It’s December 10, 2011. The top song is still the same bland Rihanna thing, and the top movie is a romantic comedy called New Year’s Eve, but then again this is the worst weekend for theater attendance since 2008, so don’t feel bad that you’ve never heard of it. In the news, the board of Olympus Corporation, a Japanese company known mostly for their cameras, announce that they will be resigning over an accounting scandal; the CEO of MF Global, an international commodities brokerage, testifies to the U.S. Congress that he doesn’t know what happened to hundreds of millions of dollars in missing customer money; and the European Union struggles desperately with the sovereign debt crisis, part of the ripple effects of the banking collapse of 2008.

      On TV, we go from a standout episode to one of Season 2’s top candidates for worst episode, “Secret of My Excess,” written by M.A. Larson and directed by Jason Thiessen. This episode has a pretty bad reputation, in large part because it’s fairly boring. Spike’s falling intelligence as he gets larger and more aggressive, coupled with the fact that he spends most of the episode with spindly misproportioned limbs, undercuts any menace his rampage might have presented. At the same time, since Spike has already been depicted as a jerk more often than not, the fact that his transformation entails him behaving like a jerk isn’t any real loss–“Spike spends an episode acting like anything he wants is his because he wants it” works as a description for most of the Spike-centric episodes.

      Now, there is a possible redemptive reading here. It’s not a particularly persuasive one, mostly because it requires reading Spike as something that he’s never signified before and or since. However, before we get to that, let’s make an attempt to catalog what this episode needs to be redeemed from.

      What’s most troubling about this episode is the suggestion of biology-as-destiny. Spike is, among other things, an adopted child. He is culturally a pony, and yet this episode suggests that his only options are to grow up as a dragon and abandon all of his pony upbringing, or remain a baby and a pony; his biology prevents him from being an adult pony-shaped-like-a-dragon.

      We live in a culture that frequently acts like biology is destiny. Scam artists sell “seduction manuals” on the claim that personality and preference are defined by possessing or lacking a Y chromosome. Trans people are openly discriminated against because society privileges genitalia over brains in defining gender. Movies like Man of Steel and Gattaca predicate their plots on an absurd notion that you can predict someone’s life based on their DNA, as if your genes determine what infections you get or what interests you happen to discover. Can you be genetically predetermined to be a pianist if you never encounter a piano?

      Meanwhile, actual biology tells us that matters are much more complex. A newborn infant’s physical body and personality are determined by the interplay of genetics and uterine environment, and from that starting position, in the absence of major genetic disorders future development is mostly determined by environment, which in turn is partially shaped by the person’s own choices and the choices of people around them. Even in the case of a genetic disorder (many of which require environmental triggers, particularly the psychiatric ones), the course of the disorder and how the person responds to it is heavily influenced by environment and choice.

      That our lives aren’t determined by our biology should be obvious. How could a being whose behavior is defined by its genes learn a language? That the same human being can, depending on which environment it finds itself immersed in, learn any of hundreds of different languages, with their own associated vocabularies, grammars, and patterns of thought, proves the plasticity of the brain, its capacity to take different shapes.

      That Spike’s brain will apparently lose that plasticity if he ever grows up is horrifying. It is one thing to have an inclination to greed, and quite another to lose the capacity to choose to follow another inclination over it, especially as it seems that adult Spike will lose his intelligence and capacity for articulate speech with it. Admittedly, at the end of the episode Spike manages to remember Rarity and return to his previous self, but in the process he must also give up his physical maturation.

      It’s one thing to say, as the first two Cutie Mark Crusader episodes did, that one should enjoy being a child and not try to grow up too fast. It’s quite another to advise never growing up at all! It’s especially troubling because Spike is the only prominent male character, and as such this is easily readable as a suggestion that men are inherently greedy, stupid, or self-centered (an implication made stronger by the similar subtext of the later episode “Dragon Quest”). This is an unfortunately common claim by the media, which I have dubbed Sitcom Sexism after the genre in which it’s most common. It’s a particularly toxic form of gender essentialism which manages the peculiar feat of being simultaneously sexist against both men and women, the former obviously because it depicts them so negatively, and the latter because it suggests that boorish behavior by men isn’t really their fault and places the burden on women of civilizing men.

      Even as Spike returns to normal, it’s the supposed civilizing power of loving a woman that restores him, because telling little girls that a selfish, destructive monster will become a cute, doting little guy once he’s in love is a great, responsible message that won’t get those girls into any trouble later in life. This is toxic filth, but as with Amy Keating Rogers’ episodes it’s pretty obviously toxic filth absorbed from the larger society and repeated without malice aforethought, or indeed a forethought of any kind. Still, if not for the fact that the rest of the episodes he wrote range from “good” to “excellent,” Larson would be joining her on the list of writers whose names make me worry whenever I see them at the beginning of an episode.

      I mentioned before that there was a possible redemptive read for this episode. While it doesn’t negate any of the points I’ve made so far, there is a read that could at least explain what they were going for, and it brings this episode into thematic alignment with Larson’s next, “The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000.”

      Consider this: Is there a type of entity that can be quite nice when small, but must devote itself to greed in order to grow bigger? That inevitably becomes greedier as it grows, and necessarily loses touch with its humanity? Until ultimately, it cannot help but be a monster, or else return to being small?

      Spike is a corporation. He starts out small and capable of forming interpersonal connections, just as a small mom-and-pop business has little or no distance between the people making the decisions and the people doing the work; the CEO (more likely called an owner at this stage) sees the customers and workers every day, directly witnessing the impact of their decisions. However, if the company is to grow it must pursue profit–act on greed, in other words. As it grows, the decision makers become more and more separated from the people on the ground. Policies are determined by senior managers who will never meet the people those policies impact due to insulating layers of supervisors and junior and middle managers, consultants and subcontractors. It is virtually impossible for most people to generate significant empathy for distant strangers–while we might be able to muster a few dollars for starving people in other countries, most of us are not willing to significantly alter our lives for their benefit, the way we might be willing to help out a friend or family member–and as such this distance enables those senior managers, board members, and investors to base their choices on the pursuit of profit without regard for the well-being of those impacted by the decision. It is hard to fire someone you’ve worked with for years, but easy to lay off ten thousand people you’ve never met; hard to put poison in the food of the child in front of you, but easy to poison thousands by bribing inspectors in another state. So it is that large, powerful corporations become essentially Lovecraftian monsters, beings with names like Hasbro, Monsanto, Yog-Sothoth, and Newscorp, unconcerned with the individual humans beneath their feet, casually trampling us as they go about their business. There is no malice here; it simply never occurs to them to notice or care; real evil is almost always more callous than malicious.

      Spike, in his final form, tromps about Ponyville without ever noticing the damage he’s causing. He simply takes what, in his mind, is his, because he wants it and he’s not capable of any motivation other than greed. The only solution, it seems, is for someone to speak to him directly, to remind him that once he had other motives–and even then he must be stripped of his size and power, because his greed and callousness are a direct and necessary consequence of his strength.

      It’s not a bad primer on the problems of capitalism for kids, but a little obtuse, and the toxic, sexist reading is the more accessible of the two. Fortunately this won’t be the last stab Larson takes at the topic.

      Next week: Flashbacks, secret origins, and the power of history to shape the present. And you still don’t know whether I’m going in production order or broadcast order…

      I simply cannot let such a crime against fabulosity go uncorrected. (Sweet and Elite)

      You realize this means there was a pony version of Dali, right?
      Has anyone drawn him? I want a drawing of him.

      It’s December 3, 2011. The top song is still Rihanna, and the top movie is still Breaking  Dawn, but at least the The Muppets are at a close number two, so theaters at least aren’t completely devoid of joy. In the news, scientists develop an artificial bone scaffold that can be made with a 3D printer, leading to speculation that we may someday be able to print artificial bone for injured people, Egyptians take to the polls in the first elections since they overthrew their government early in the year, and Herman Caine drops out of the U.S. Presidential race, disappointing fans of avant-garde performance art everywhere.

      On TV, Meghan McCarthy writes and James Wootton directs the aptly named “Sweet and Elite,” an astoundingly good episode that sadly tends to get overshadowed because it’s in a season full of astoundingly good episodes. This is Rarity’s star turn in more ways than one, as the second (and last to date) time she is sole focus of an episode, coinciding with her entry into Canterlot high society, which is only everything she ever wanted.

      What we get is effectively a high school drama–a kid who isn’t normally in the popular crowd joins and forgets abouther unpopular friends. Then she has to choose between popularity and her friends, and chooses to bring the two together, shattering the high school class system. It’s basically the plot of Mean Girls and countless other films and Very Special Episodes, which isn’t at all surprising; high society and high school are both cases of forced association between people with very little productive work to do, so they turn to petty internal politics instead.

      What’s interesting about Rarity is a character is that she is equally readable as the villain of a high school drama: she is (to judge by the reactions of other characters) beautiful, status-conscious, fashion-obsessed, materialistic, and judgmental. She is a classic “Queen Bee” character familiar from countless stories set in high school, and in many such stories would be the bully picking on our Everygirl heroine, who would probably resemble either Twilight Sparkle or Rainbow Dash.

      But that’s what makes Rarity one of the most fascinating characters in the show; in McCarthy’s hands she evades that stereotype. Even when she prioritizes associating with Canterlot society over finishing Twilight’s birthday dress, she never stops caring about Twilight. She does not at any point blow off her friends. Even when she pulls the sitcom-cliche “two parties/dates at once” she never actually admits to her friends that she’s embarrassed by them.

      Take Mean Girls for an example, as it’s probably the best recent version of this story type. Cady starts that film as one of the outcasts, which this episode clearly positions Ponyville as being equivalent to. After she is accepted into the popular crowd, however, she quickly absorbs those attitudes and begins rejecting her former outcast friends, up until the end of the film when she finally turns on the Plastics and helps bring down the school’s clique system.

      Rarity does basically none of that. She never turns on her friends; we neither get a scene where she attacks or betrays the Mane Six nor one where she tells off the society ponies. Quite the opposite; though some of the society ponies are initially horrified or amused at the antics of the Mane Six and Rarity’s association with them, Fancy Pants sways them to accept her. High society stays intact, and Rarity find herself able to move between worlds.

      Which, honestly, is far more realistic than the usual story. Cliques are an inevitable result of people having little real power and too much time on their hands, which is why you see them so often among high school students, trophy spouses of rich people, and noble courts. When people have actual work to do, there are always a few petty people who play political games, but by and large most people just want to get stuff done and work together to accomplish it. Adult life, in my experience, has vastly fewer cliques than high school, and for most people part of growing up is accepting that.

      It sometimes seems like the people who have the hardest time letting go are the people who were at the top and, surprisingly, the bottom of the high school hierarchy. I think sometimes it’s hard to accept that a bad experience is actually over; I know for me I was out of high school for more than a decade before I realized that in college, there were just too damn many kids for their to be a popular crowd; we all split off to do our own things and left everyone else alone. There were factions, sure–I was on the newspaper staff, and the underground newspaper saw us as rivals while we ignored their existence–but there was no hierarchy per se. Every club and group had its members and allies, who generally thought they were awesome, and its detractors, who obviously didn’t, but most students were just too busy to give a rat’s ass about any group they didn’t belong to. That’s largely remained my experience in adult life, with two exceptions: bigotry, which is a different (albeit massive) problem entirely, and those rare occasions where petty people and bullies are encouraged to get together and assume power (one very poorly managed workplace; the condo board/housing association everywhere I’ve lived that has one).

      Really, in adult life, when people of very different interests and goals encounter one another the reaction is hardly ever horror, especially if (and, as I said, it’s a big if) bigotry is left out of the equation. Case in point: I work in a government office. It is a place of Very Serious People ranging in age from late 20s to early 60s. My ringtone has been “Smile, Smile, Smile” since before I started working and I’ve kept a Lyra Heartstrings figure on my desk. My desktop wallpaper is a rotating set of images including schematics of the TARDIS, Starfuries in flight past Babylon 5, Kanata from the first-season opening credits of AKB0048, Lina Inverse, and a screencap from the second Gurren Lagann movie. No one has ever cared.

      I know not everyone’s so lucky. Some people are stuck in situations where the people around them are unusually judgmental and conformist, or the levels of background pettiness are high enough that cliques happen. If you’re in such a situation, please accept both my sympathies and my assurance that not everywhere is like that. Most people really do have too much going on to give a shit that your dress is a simple design from a shop in Ponyville–and sometimes the people you least expect will turn out to actually like it.

      Next week: Remember how I said Season 2 was full of outstandingly good episodes? Yeah, this ain’t remotely one of them.

      I’m not talking about my performance, I’m talking about yours! That feeble cheering… (The Mysterious Mare-Do-Well)

      Wait, is she holding that baby by the…
      Ewwwwwwwwww…

      It’s November 26, 2011. The top song is and top movie continue to be Rihanna and Breaking Dawn. In the news, the Egyptian revolution continues, with violence mounting in Cairo, where dozens have been killed and thousands injured. Six people, three of them children, die in a plane crash in the Superstition Mountains. And a “supercommittee” within the U.S. Congress fails to agree on budget cuts, making the sequester–massive across-the-board budget cuts that will do extensive long-term economic damage–inevitable.

      We need a hero. Fortunately writer Merriwether Williams and director Jayson Thiessen are here to give us one with “The Mysterious Mare-Do-Well,” which blends a Rainbow Dash character episode with the introduction of Ponyville’s first masked hero as a foil for her. The episode functions in part as a way to try to move Rainbow Dash’s character forward. Thus far, while she’s certainly loyal to her friends, she’s also lazy, not mindful of others’ feelings (as demonstrated by her impatience in “Dragonshy” and pranking in “Griffon the Brush-Off” and “Luna Eclipsed”), and more flash than substance. At the same time, the episode is a chance to celebrate some classic superhero-cartoon moments, with Rainbow Dash flying in the iconic Fleischer Superman pose and using a variant of Spider-Man’s catchphrase, Mare-Do-Well posters reminiscent of Batman the Animated Series, and Mary-Do-Well’s costume strongly resembling both the Shadow and Disney’s Batman parody Darkwing Duck.

      But for some reason, this episode is extremely unpopular, often coming last in episode-ranking polls (although now “Magical Mystery Cure” gives it a run for its money in the unfairly-disliked-episodes sweepstakes). Williams is overall something of a punching bag among bronies–her episodes tend to have a lot of dread built up before them–but the criticisms of both her in general, and this episode in particular, are unfounded. As this is the most widely disparaged of her episodes, it’s here that I’ll make my stand against the haters.

      Like the last widely disparaged episode I defended, “Feeling Pinkie Keen,” one of the most common complaints about this episode is its friendship lesson, which can be summed up as “don’t brag.” For some reason, a lot of fans take this as an extreme position of “don’t show any pride or do anything that makes you stand out, or your friends will smack you down.” That’s ridiculous; it is neither explicitly stated in anywhere near such extreme terms nor implied by the events of the episode.

      Rainbow Dash is obnoxiously full of herself right from the cold open–the dividing line, I’d say, is somewhere between accepting people’s accolades and suggesting ways for them to praise you. When she saves the foal stuck in the well, on the other hand, her behavior is fine–she is appreciative of the praise, nothing wrong with that, but doesn’t milk it. After she saves the baby, though, she’s awful. She implies that a baby was hurt–scaring the town and no doubt panicking that baby’s poor mother–just so she can make a joke and garner more cheers. Think about it from that mother’s point of view: Seconds ago she was no doubt terrified that her baby was going to die. She gets a few seconds of relief, only for Rainbow Dash to tell her something is wrong with the baby–it’s a surprise she didn’t either faint or try to murder Rainbow Dash! Twilight Sparkle says she can think of a few new words to describe Rainbow Dash, and Applejack says modesty isn’t one of them. I can provide a new word to describe her behavior here, too: complete and total dickweasel.

      By the time Mare-Do-Well appears, it is blatantly obvious that Dash is more interested in her newfound celebrity status than actually helping anyone. She is, after all, willing to spend time signing autographs rather than saving the pony in the crashing balloon. Note that she was wrong about how much time she had–she missed the balloon, so if Mare-Do-Well hadn’t already saved that pony, they would have died due to Rainbow Dash’s negligence and fame obsession.

      Her friends are not overreacting in the slightest. They do not even show up until Rainbow Dash pulls her assholery with the baby, and don’t enact the Mare-Do-Well plan until it’s very obvious that Rainbow Dash needs to be brought down a peg before she gets someone seriously hurt. Their plan is an excellent way of doing so because it involves doing nothing but good. Mare-Do-Well doesn’t taunt or lecture Rainbow Dash, doesn’t set out to humiliate her; Mare-Do-Well just saves people and leaves. It’s Rainbow Dash that ruins Rainbow Dash’s reputation, not Mare-Do-Well, because she is simply unable to handle not being the center of attention, and her attention-seeking aggravates everyone around her.

      The second major complaint I see about this episode is that the characters are behaving out of character. Again, I don’t see it. Rainbow Dash’s personality is being dominated by the negative aspects, true, but not in a way that contradicts the behavior we’ve seen from her before. This isn’t like “A Dog and Pony Show,” where someone previously willing to enter the Everfree Forest and kick a manticore is suddenly dirt-phobic; this is a pony who has consistently been depicted as a show-off and somewhat prone to callousness in regards to others’ feelings. If anything, the episode it most resembles is “Lesson Zero,” where Twilight’s long-standing worry-prone, neurotic nature comes back to bite her. In the same way, this episode is Rainbow Dash’s long-standing self-centered, prankster nature coming back to bite her.

      The rest of the Mane Six are not out of character either. Applejack in particular has been shown to have little patience for Rainbow Dash showing off, and none of the others seem likely to object to a plan that consists of them doing nothing worse than serving as a better example. They’re not being overly harsh or judgmental; Rainbow Dash is presenting herself as a hero, but really she’s just seeking attention. That’s dangerous, and she needs to be taught a lesson. Now admittedly, it may seem a little odd that they don’t just talk to her. On the other hand, there’s that scene in Sugar Cube Corners where she offers them a chance to be in her ghostwritten autobiography. That could easily be read as them trying to talk to Rainbow Dash, but giving up when they see how far into her celebrity persona she’s gotten.

      I understand why this episode had a backlash. This episode does not portray Rainbow Dash in the best light, but that’s necessarily going to happen from time to time now that the show is willing to depict characters other than Twilight Sparkle developing. There is no way to depict a character as growing without first depicting them as needing to grow. That’s all that’s happening here.

      And Rarity makes Darkwing Duck costumes for everypony! How can anyone not love this episode?

      Not so much. The word “fierce” comes to mind. (May the Best Pet Win)

      Teenage helicopter tortoise
      Teenage helicopter tortoise
      Teenage helicopter tortoise
      Tortoise with a rotor
      Tortoise power!

      It’s November 19, 2011. The top song is still Rihanna featuring Calvin Harris with “We Found Love.” Last week I forgot to replace the generic placeholders for the artist and title, which is actually hilariously appropriate for this song. The top movie for the weekend is Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part One, the latest installment of a series that dares to tell women that if they’re bland and personality-less enough, they can win an eternity of romance with an abusive monster. So basically it’s the anti-pony.

      Speaking of ponies and deft segues, on TV we have “May the Best Pet Win,” written by Charlotte Fullerton and directed by James Wootton. It’s a fun little episode, with a catchy song and a consistently amusing competition between the animals trying to earn the spot as Rainbow Dash’s pet. It’s pretty obvious from the start that the tortoise will win via some variant of “slow and steady wins the race,” but there’s so much else going on around that predictable story that the episode ends up oversignified, if anything.

      For example, from the moment Rainbow Dash confesses that she might be interested in having a pet someday, Fluttershy is immediately all over her. Anyone who spends time around geeks knows someone like that, and most of us have probably been that person at some point: the evangelical geek, the one who cannot wait until you try their newest obsession and won’t stop bugging you until you do. Rainbow Dash is surprisingly willing to humor her, although she does start to get aggravated as Fluttershy offers the pets she would like, rather than ones Rainbow Dash would appreciate. By the end of the musical number, however, Rainbow Dash is fully sold on the idea.

      It’s rather like the way I, and I suspect more than a few other bronies, got into the show: my then-fiancee was watching it, and kept bothering me to join her. Eventually I broke down and watched the first two episodes, and liked them just enough to keep going a little longer. Eventually, somewhere near the middle of the first season, I realized I was hooked, and became an enthusiastic participant. I suppose this blog is my heli-tortoise, only not as awesome. Nothing is as awesome as a heli-tortoise.

      Fluttershy, in other words, can be read as a pushy Friendship Is Magic fan trying to persuade her friend to watch the show. As long as she presents the things she likes about it, Rainbow Dash is uninterested; it’s only when Fluttershy starts taking into account Rainbow Dash’s preferences that she starts to build some enthusiasm.

      And then this interesting parallel just stops, as after the song Fluttershy steps aside and lets Rainbow Dash take over the rest of the episode. Instead, we get something else entirely going on, one of the most subtle “disabled people are just as deserving of friendship and respect” morals I’ve ever seen.

      Think about it. The reason Rainbow Dash doesn’t like Tank is because he moves slowly and can’t fly. Because, in other words, he lacks physical attributes and abilities she takes for granted. From her perspective, he’s disabled, and because of that she devalues him, even though that’s what’s natural for him. She then learns her lesson, and realizes Tank is awesome and the best pet imaginable and utterly flawless in every conceivable way. (I may be slightly partisan. Slightly.)

      Generally, there are two hazards an episode like this has to navigate. It has to make clear that the disabled character really is disabled–if it depicts them being able to do everything an able-bodied person can without any additional effort or assistance it just encourages the (disturbingly widespread) belief that disabled people are faking or exaggerating their condition for attention or out of laziness. (No, seriously; my mother is disabled, and I have witnessed people treating her this way more times than I can count.) At the same time, it cannot treat the disabled person as less than fully a person, with as much to offer as anyone else.

      Given its usually excellent handling of gender and consistently awful handling of race, it’s completely up for grabs how well Friendship Is Magic will do with a thorny issue of identity politics. Happily, it knocks this one out of the park. Tank’s lack of speed and agility cause him to lose most of the competitions, but he plays to his physical strengths (powerful neck muscles and tough shell) to employ a strategy against Opal that would have worked if Rainbow Dash hadn’t unfairly cut him off. Disabled people aren’t stupid or automatically incompetent at all physical tasks, but again you’d be surprised how many people I’ve encountered who act as if they believe exactly that.

      In the end, of course, Tank wins mostly because he cares about helping Rainbow Dash more than winning the contest. But he also wins in part because of his difference. Rainbow Dash and the flying animals all have in common that they can fly, and hence that they are lightly built. None of them can carry the huge boulder that fell on Rainbow Dash–but sturdy Tank can. His strength doesn’t come from his disability (if you are in need of a new one and would like my mother to tear it for you, try suggesting that her disability is in any way a “blessing in disguise”), but is independent of it. His disability is part of who he is, but not the totality.

      And thus we kick off Rainbow Dash’s character arc. Part of the new freedom the show has found in breaking away from the Twilight-learns-a-friendship-lesson formula is that other characters can now start developing. One of Rainbow Dash’s biggest flaws (appropriately for the Element of Loyalty, in the same sense that Rarity’s possessiveness is the perfect flaw for the Element of Generosity) is her self-centered approach to the world. She tends to discount and dismiss the interiority and subjectivity of others, hence her disdainful and unsympathetic treatment of Fluttershy in “Dragonshy.” Thus, while she has a healthy self-confidence and values her own abilities highly, she has yet to fully understand that there are other ways to be that could be just as valuable.

      Like Fluttershy in the first part of the episode, in other words, Rainbow Dash has failed to take into account what’s going on inside the people around her, and thus unintentionally behaved obnoxiously. Just as Fluttershy needed to dial back on her fervor and find pets that appealed to Rainbow Dash’s taste, so does Rainbow Dash need to understand that Tank has value even though his virtues aren’t the same as hers. It’s a small step on the long road toward understanding and accepting responsibility for the effect she has on others, and it’s a development that will be revisited more than once in this and the following season.

      Admittedly, throughout this episode Rainbow Dash is the subject and Tank the object; he is a means by which she learns a lesson about how to treat other people, not a character in his own right. Of course, he’s an animal and a pet, so that’s not so bad, but still, it is a little problematic that our first disabled character exists solely to further the character development of an able-bodied pony.

      But he gets a sweet helicopter pack out of it, so that’s okay.

      Next Week: Speaking of revisiting Rainbow’s character arc…

      You don’t have any cutie marks *either*? I thought I was the only one! (The Cutie Pox)

      Sweetie Belle bowls WITH HER FACE.
      Anyone who dislikes the CMC is OBJECTIVELY WRONG.

      It’s November 12, 2011. The top song is Rihanna featuring [somebody] with “[stupid title].” As we’ve come to expect from top Rihanna singles, the song is repetitive, brainless, and cliche, and the video is hilariously pretentious. The top movie this weekend is “Immortals,” yet another CG-fest action movie that forgets to have a story, characters, or acting in it. Since last episode, Barnes & Noble released the nook, which will become the number two dedicated e-book reader, a record number of Americans (just shy of 50 million) are living below the poverty line, and the International Atomic Energy Commission reveals that Iran may be working on nuclear weapons technology. The U.S. demands that Iran stop, apparently under the impression that the only country in history ever to use nuclear weapons to kill people has the moral authority to tell other countries whether they get them.

      “The Cutie Pox,” written by Amy Keating Rogers and directed by Jayson Thiessen, isn’t a bad episode or even really a mediocre one. It’s just that, from “Party of One” to “Sisterhooves Social,” the show was on fire for seven straight episodes, and now that it’s back to being merely pretty good, it’s a bit of a let-down. It also does not help at all that this is the second episode in a row to focus on a Cutie Mark Crusader, though admittedly “Sisterhooves Social” had too much Applejack and Rarity in it to be considered a pure Cutie Mark Crusader episode.

      The episode also features Zecora more heavily than any episode since her debut. I’ve addressed why I consider her a deeply problematic character before, so here I will simply repeat my call for the only cure for tokenism: we need more zebras on the show! There are some problems with the plotting, too, most notably that Applejack and Twilight Sparkle seem to make a huge logical leap when they decide to seek out Zecora to cure Apple Bloom, and then Zecora coincidentally shows up anyway, making it entirely unnecessary. I suppose it’s possible that they thought a five-year-old would need reminding that Zecora was involved, but the show is normally more confident of its audience’s ability to follow along. Also, it doesn’t really matter much, but it’s never made entirely clear whether the effects of the Heart’s Desire plant merely simulated the ancient plague, or the original Cutie Pox was caused by ponies using Heart’s Desire.

      There’s also the question of why Apple Bloom doesn’t get her heart’s desire, but that’s easily explained both diegetically and non-diegetically. Non-diegetically, entities that grant wishes are almost always tricksters, and grant a parody of the wish instead. This episode fits neatly into that narrative tradition, but more interesting is the diegetic explanation.

      Consider the Mane Six in “The Cutie Mark Chronicles.” For each of them, it’s not simply a matter of doing a particular kind of work and discovering they’re great at it; Applejack and Twilight Sparkle in particular have been doing farmwork and magic, respectively, for years when they get their cutie marks. In every one of the flashbacks in that episode, what causes the appearance of the cutie mark is not discovering their talent, but discovering that they love their talent. That’s why Rarity’s talent is design and not mining; why Rainbow Dash’s is racing and not sky-clearing, and so on.

      Apple Bloom doesn’t know what it is that she loves to do. She has shown, by the end of this episode, an amazing talent for various kinds of hands-on work, most notably carpentry in “The Showstoppers” and potion-making in “The Cutie Pox” itself. Yet despite demonstrating these talents, Apple Bloom still doesn’t have her cutie mark, because she hasn’t found–or decided on–her calling.

      Which is exactly why she gets the titular Cutie Pox. Since she wishes for any cutie mark, the Heart’s Desire gives her every cutie mark. At least, she would presumably have continued getting new cutie marks for the rest of her life if she hadn’t been cured. And note that most of the talents Apple Bloom demonstrates are showy, public ones that a performer might have–hula hoop stunts, plate-spinning, tightrope walking, and so on. This is because Apple Bloom’s motivation for wanting a cutie mark is her desire for validation (that is, her desire for proof that she has value); she wants the approval and acceptance of others, and she believes that she can get that if she is seen to have a cutie mark. (Interestingly, the precise reasons that Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle want their cutie marks are never revealed; we can presume it’s similar to Apple Bloom’s reasons, but there’s little actual textual evidence for this.)

      Our society has a lot of ugly messages about validation floating in it, especially during the prime dating years of late teens through twenties, which happen also to be the prime brony years. The most common is the message that you need a committed, romantic, sexual relationship to be a whole person–that anyone who lacks such a thing or, worse, has never experienced it is somehow lacking. Combined with our culture’s general heteronormativity, many of us end up internalizing the message that you need a member of the opposite sex to validate you. Broadly, men get told they need to get laid, and women get told they need to have a boyfriend or get married.

      This is a deeply poisonous idea. It both feeds and is fed by the pernicious “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” myth that poisons so many relationships, it aggravates loneliness by encouraging the lonely person to think that they are less of a person because they are lonely, and it is a major contributing factor to Nice Guy Syndrome.

      Worst of all, though, it blinds you to other sources of validation. The search for validation is one of the great motivators; once all your basic needs of physical survival are met, which for most of us (alas, not all by any means) is relatively easy, it’s the search for validation that drives most of what we do. But the insistence that there is One True Way to Validation obscures the many, many other ways to be validated, or the fact that different possible sources of validation work for different people.

      At the end of the episode, typically for Cutie Mark Crusader episodes, Apple Bloom appears to learn nothing. The overt friendship lesson for the kids, about not trying to rush things or be dishonest, seems to be entirely ignored when she waits for a matter of seconds before resuming her crusade with Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle. However, as I’ve been saying for some time now, the show is increasingly operating on two levels, with an overt friendship lesson for the kids and a subtler one that’s applicable to bronies.

      There do seem to be hints that Apple Bloom has internalized the other lesson, about not assuming there’s only one way to be validated. She doesn’t need a cutie mark to feel that she has value; she can achieve that feeling by coming clean about a misdeed, earning her elders’ approval with a well-crafted letter to Celestia, or having fun with her friends. Most importantly, because she has lots of ways to feel that she has value, she can start to develop an internal ability to self-validate when the other sources aren’t around. Maybe then she can figure out who she is and what she wants, and actually get that cutie mark.

      Next Week: Rainbow Dash sings, tortoises fly, and everything is wonderful forever.

      This isn’t at all what I imagined. (Sisterhooves Social)

      Normally I would make a silly comment, but I’m too
      distracted by Rarity’s mother’s pants. Have we EVER seen
      a pony wearing pants before this? Do we ever again?

      It’s November 5, 2011, and so, for no reason other than that it pleases me to do so, I offer you this bit of
      doggerel with apologies to Alan Moore and centuries of folk tradition:

      Remember, remember
      The Fifth of November
      The two sisters who were not
      I know of no reason
      This sisterhood season
      Should ever be forgot

      The top song is still the exact same tiresome bit of Adele, and the top movie this weekend is Puss in Boots, the horrifyingly awful spinoff of the horrifyingly awful, omnipresent, and never-ending Shrek series. Rather appropriately, the series took a weekend off between the last episode and this one, which I completely should have cited when I decided to do a guest post. Ah, well. In the two weeks since last episode, an earthquake in Turkey killed hundreds of people, but did not stop the world’s population from hitting seven billion on Halloween. In a not unrelated story, the U.S. Department of Energy reveals that 2010 greenhouse gas levels were worse than the worst-case scenarios published by the ICCC four years prior. And twice in these two weeks, Oakland, California police respond violently to that city’s Occupy protests.

      “Sisterhooves Social” is one of Cindy Morrow’s more interesting episodes for me, but curiously, the first time I watched it I found it entirely forgettable. I’m not sure I’ve rewatched it since, which makes it one of the episodes I’ve watched least (though there is one episode, which shall remain unnamed, which I have only ever seen once). I’m not sure how I missed this the first time, possibly because it’s been on my mind lately, but in large part this is a study of the gap between the intention behind an action and how that action is perceived by others.

      There’s a term for this phenomenon in third-wave feminist circles: Intent Isn’t Magic. (Sometimes with an f-bomb thrown in there, but this is a scholarly, serious site about a children’s show, and that kind of language just isn’t fucking acceptable.) Though it’s usually applied to discussions of gender relations, it applies just as well to Sweetie Belle and Rarity’s interactions in this episode. Throughout the first part of the episode, Sweetie Belle has the best of intentions to help her sister, but her actions at first inconvenience Rarity, then destroy her property, and finally seriously set back her work. Rarity, meanwhile, eventually approaches Sweetie Belle with the intent of making peace, but her actions–suggesting activities only she likes, for instance–only drive the two further apart.

      I’m actually going to take this a step farther than it’s usually taken, and stake out a fairly extreme position: intent isn’t just not magic, it’s irrelevant. Of course, having said it I’m going to pull back slightly: my intent is relevant to me, but not to you. Your intent is relevant to you, but not to me.

      The problem with the intent of others is that it’s utterly unknowable. All that can be known is another’s actions. Even if you tell me your intentions, I can’t rely on that, because you could be lying or mistaken (how often have you done something with what you thought were good intentions, and realized after the fact you had ulterior motives or were just rationalizing?) Of course, fictional characters are different. Fiction has a very low information density compared to reality, which means we can interpolate and interpret much more freely and confidently because all the information that is there can be assumed to be relevant. In other words, because even the most complex fictional character is always going to be vastly simpler and more straightforward than any real human being, we can read their intentions reliably. Thus, the audience knows Sweetie Belle is trying to help and shares her frustration at the repeated failure of her efforts. However, to Rarity, Sweetie Belle is real, and thus her intentions are not readable. Rarity isn’t a mind-reader, so she has no choice but to respond to Sweetie Belle’s (repeatedly destructive) actions.

      Both Rarity and Sweetie Belle find, by the end of the episode, that their intentions cannot enable them to get along; only by changing their behavior can they maintain the bond between them.

      I want that written in letters of fire ten thousand feet high. I want that burned into the insides of the eyelids of every human being who ever lived or will live. I want that to be the national anthem of every country and the fight song of every school.

      What you were trying to do only matters to you. What you meant to do, what you intended to happen, only matters to you. To the entire rest of the universe, what matters is what you actually do and how it impacts others.

      And if that impact is not what you intended for it to be? Then you are doing it wrong and you need to do it differently. If your intentions really are what you think they are, that won’t even be difficult; you’ll just naturally keep trying things until you get the results you’re trying for. Because we know both their intentions, thanks to their fictionality, we know Rarity and Sweetie Belle will eventually work it out, barring some swerve that comes from some story element outside their characters (which is fairly unlikely in anything not by Joss Whedon or George R. R. Martin). They both genuinely want to get along, and therefore they eventually will find a way to do so. Which is another way of saying intent might not be magic, but friendship is.

      This really is the next stage after Lesson Zero, and well-placed here, just a couple of episodes after. After recognizing the internality of others, that you cannot ever truly understand what happens inside another person but must accept it, the next step is to realize that they will never truly understand what happens inside your head, that you are more opaque than you realize, and that you will sometimes have to adjust your words and actions because others don’t see the thoughts and feelings behind them.

      Which brings us to an odd question: Did Morrow intend for this episode to be an examination of the Intent Isn’t Magic concept? On one level, we can say probably not: the explicit friendship lesson is about compromise. On the other hand, well, does it matter what she intended? The episode works as an examination of the Intent Isn’t Magic concept, and therefore it is one. It follows naturally from the friendship lessons on communication and not making assumptions that predominated shortly before Pinkie Pie broke the show at the end of the first season, and ties them together with the Spike/Nice Guy Syndrome theme. (Spike being a classic example of someone who claims his intention is the benefit of another, but whose actions–and, more importantly, his repeated failure to modify his behavior when it fails to produce the results he supposedly intends–make it clear he’s not really after that at all.)

      Like everything else that speaks directly to bronies, it might not be intentional, but nonetheless ends up being there. And like I’ve been saying all along, what the creators of the show do matters more than what they say they intended. Was Rarity’s conflict with Sweetie Belle intended to be more of a “don’t touch my stuff” thing than the more cleanliness-based conflict it ended up being, as Faust suggested in her recent Q&A on 4chan? Doesn’t matter–what matters is the episode that actually aired.

      This isn’t, I should note, the Death of the Author. There’s no rule against considering authorial statements of intent. I’ve implied (in, admittedly, a moderately gonzo post) that “The Return of Harmony” can be read as a Gnostic fable; do you really think I’d object to an attempt to read it as the product of the stated intentions of the people who made it?

      Instead, what I’m arguing is that Authorial Intent Isn’t Magic. The work is what it is and has the impact it has, and if it doesn’t have the impact the author intended it to have, then it is up to the author to adjust their future work. Saying “Oh, I actually meant X” when people experiencing the work come away with Y is as empty as Sweetie Belle saying she was just trying to help. This isn’t to erase the creator–far from it! I have a deep and abiding respect for anyone with the skills to create any kind of art. (Especially the visual arts. I can write, not just in the sense of stringing words into sentences but in the sense of being able to create fiction. I understand how writing works, so even when someone is a much better writer than me, I can sort of see how they did it. Drawing, on the other hand, is basically witchcraft as far as I’m concerned–you put lines on paper and suddenly there is an image. How that’s even possible is beyond my feeble brain.)

      Instead, what I’m trying to do is prevent creators from overshadowing their work. Case in point, not that long ago on this very blog, a commenter objected to one of my Pony Thoughts of the Day with the words “Faust already said Scootaloo is flightless.” Not to pick on them, because this is endemic in fandoms in general, but this was well after at least two episodes of Season Three showed Scootaloo flying.

      Ultimately, for all that it may be a harsh lesson, in the context of “Sisterhooves Social” the message that Intent Isn’t Magic is a welcoming one, because we were never intended. The show was never made with bronies in mind, and yet here we are.

      Because whether they intended to or not, the folks at DHX made a show that is, blatantly obviously in just about every frame, for us. That doesn’t mean it’s just for us, or that we don’t have to share–but it is for us, and that’s pretty nice to have.

      Next week: It’s Amy Keating Rogers. Writing an Apple-centric episode. Yay.