Actually, Twilight Sparkle, I’m the main singer tonight (Sleepless in Ponyville)

I’m running a Kickstarter campaign to fund My Little Po-Mo volume 2 here!

And as long as you have your wallets out, you can help Viga pay for art school (and earn some custom art in the process)!

“Do you know what Freud said about dreams of flying?
It means you’re really dreaming about having sex.”
“Indeed? Tell me, then, what does it mean when you
dream about having sex?
“Uh… where are we going?”
“We are already here. It has begun.”

It’s December 8, 2012. Rihanna and her “Diamonds” still top the music charts, while the top movie is Skyfall. In the news, the Syrian civil war continues to worsen, prompting the U.N. to withdraw from the country; the U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear two major gay-marriage cases on California’s Proposition 8 and the federal government’s DOMA; and massive protests against a power-grab by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi result in him withdrawing the decree expanding his power, but continuing with efforts to revise the country’s constitution.

On TV, we have Corey Powell’s debut writing effort, “Sleepless in Ponyville,” directed by James Wootton. Powell’s other two credits, “Just for Sidekicks” and “Rainbow Falls,” are respectively mediocre-bordering-on-bad and mediocre-bordering-on-good, and his initial effort splits the difference. The episode contains nothing objectionable, has a few mildly amusing moments, and a fairly interesting interpretation of Luna, but overall, it trudges where it should fly and squawks where it should sing.

At the core of the episode are a series of dream sequences, triggered by Scootaloo’s fears of looking vulnerable in front of Rainbow Dash, in which Scootaloo encounters the monsters from Rainbow Dash’s campfire stories. While these sequences have some nice touches, such as the return of the fear trees from the series premiere and the relatively subtle appearances of Luna prior to her full reveal at the end of the second dream, they are overall quite pedestrian. They are straightforwardly linear, with none of the surreal imagery or disjointedness of real dreams. To expect otherwise would, of course, be unreasonable in most children’s shows, but given that this is a show that has done “Return of Harmony” and “Too Many Pinkie Pies,” at least a touch of something odd and out-of-place would seem reasonable. Instead, the dreams are fully coherent, excessively so for dream sequences–even Twilight’s imagination spots in “Lesson Zero” were more dreamlike than this!

The revelation of Luna’s role as a protector of dreams somewhat salvages them. Luna is not too different from a pony version of the main character of Neil Gaiman’s famed Sandman, Dream of the Endless–haughty, mysterious, impulsive and yet bound by complex rules. Gaiman’s character is also the Lord of Stories, which fits with Luna’s role as the initiator of the series, its first antagonist; in a way, she encompasses all the stories it tells. However, as this episode demonstrates, stories aren’t dreams; dreams are disorganized, chaotic things, while stories are products of craft and art, deliberately and consciously constructed. Scootaloo’s dreams are too coherently a part of a story, and thus do not feel like dreams at all.

If only the rest of the episode suffered from coherence! Unfortunately, it does not; Scootaloo’s fear is of being rejected by Rainbow Dash, but her dreams do not particularly reflect this, which would partially justify their excessive straightforwardness. The first dream, in which she is pursued by “the olden pony” looking for her “rusty horseshoe,” comes closest to reflecting that fear. The olden pony, in demanding something of Scootaloo that she does not possess, can, with a stretch, be viewed as signifying Rainbow Dash’s unintentional demand that Scootaloo show a fearlessness she does not feel. To a lesser extent, the threat of the Headless Horse, as expressed by Scootaloo in her second dream, is that Scootaloo will “never be heard from again,” that is, not die, but be silenced and erased.

But these links are fairly tenuous, and so instead we get Luna spelling out Scootaloo’s “real” fear–which again makes no sense. If her fear is not of Rainbow Dash’s stories, but that Rainbow Dash will see her fear, where is the fear coming from that she’s afraid Rainbow Dash will see? And then she has a third dream, in which the olden pony chases her again, only to be fended off–not by Scootaloo or Luna providing the rusty horseshoe, but by Rainbow Dash. The implication is that it’s Rainbow Dash who must provide the thing that Scootaloo lacks and Rainbow Dash wants, which would make total sense if this were a Rainbow Dash-centric episode–but it’s not. Except for that one moment, the entirety of the episode and all of its character development (indeed, even the overwhelming majority of individual shots) are focused on Scootaloo.

More inconsistencies abound. How does Rainbow Dash know where to find Scootaloo when she wanders off into the woods? Why has Sweetie Belle suddenly lost the ability to sing? Why is Rarity willing to go camping, and why does she treat Sweetie Belle so callously and cruelly along the way? Even the episode’s ending, in which Rainbow Dash agrees to become a surrogate sister for Scootaloo, is never followed up on in their later interactions, and runs counter to Lauren Faust’s assertion that Rainbow Dash would be a terrible big sister. (Although, to be fair, the lack of later follow-up itself is consistent with that assertion.)

Basically, this episode is a mess of thematic incoherence and character inconsistency that has been entirely ignored by later episodes despite containing what could have been an extremely significant development in character relationships. At the same time, well, there is much, much worse to be found in Season 3. I’ve already excoriated one episode from this season, and am likely to be quite harsh regarding a couple more, so the question is, is there a redemptive reading available for this episode?

And there actually is one, suggested by the last major incoherent element: the episode title. “Sleepless in Ponyville” implies, well, Ponyville, yet the episode is set almost entirely in the woods outside Ponyville. How to reconcile that? Well, the complaint about the dreams was that, taken individually and in isolation, they were too coherent, while the episode as a whole in incoherent. But what if the entire episode is a dream? Scootaloo is in Ponyville the entire time, her apparent sleeplessness itself part of a dream she is having in Ponyville, an incoherent working-through of her jealousy of her friends’ relationships with their big sisters, her hero-worship of Rainbow Dash, and her fear of not measuring up to Rainbow Dash’s standards. In that regard, the ending of the episode, in which Rainbow Dash takes Scootaloo flying, takes on a new and rather bittersweet meaning: it is Scootaloo taking a first step toward acknowledging her disability. She cannot fly, and on some level knows that she will never fly under her own power, yet her hero-worship of Rainbow Dash demands that she dream of flying. Her answer, then, is to dream of her hero carrying her.

The way she dreams her friends is also telling: they are quietly obedient to their sisters, a relationship Scootaloo doesn’t really understand. Apple Bloom’s normal chatty dominance of every situation she finds herself in is absent, as is Sweetie Belle’s flair for performance and dramatics, allowing, just for once, Scootaloo to take center stage. Even the Princess of the Night takes a personal interest in her–and note that it is the princess who was broken, but has been repaired, who appears not the proud, unbending, outwardly flawless one.

This is what Scootaloo dreams of. To be the special one, to have a sister, and in the end, above all, to fly. Isn’t that what everyone dreams of?

Next week: Now this is more like it!

Guest Post: “Get back, you! One bad apple spoils the bunch!” (One Bad Apple)

To the fairest…

I’m at Mysticon this weekend, so have a guest post by Spoilers Below about his own take on “One Bad Apple.”

Reminder: the Kickstarter for volume 2 is still running! 

A few weeks ago, I suggested to Froborr that, if he didn’t want to write about this episode, I’d be happy to jump on that particular grenade. He did, though, and did so with aplomb, but, as I always manage to do, I’d gotten most of an article prepared in advance just in case, and so in lieu of my usual G1 stuff, I decided to finish it. I have nothing to add to Froborr’s assessment of bullying — which was personal, touching, and sad in the kind of way that hits you under the ribs and leaves you frowning, but also was quite different from what I took away from the episode. So, instead of jumping on the grenade, I want to take it apart and see what happened.

““What is this all about? The gods aren’t content to foist guilt on man. That wouldn’t be enough, since guilt is a part of life anyways. What the gods demand is an awareness of guilt.”
–Roberto Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony

It’s the dawn of time, and Uriel has just received a brand new flaming sword to keep a pair of orchard thieves away. In celebrity news, Peleus and Thetis are wed in a star studded ceremony that leaves one particular important personage left on the sidelines scratching the word ΤΗΙ ΚΑΛΛΙΣΤΗΙ into the soft golden flesh of an apple, and, though they might not know it yet, it will be one of the last times that the gods and men will ever dine at the same table or live in the same place. This seemingly small and unimportant apple will kick off the first gigantic, widespread world war that the Western world has ever seen, and will cause the deaths of just about every named hero in all of mythology.
One bad apple caused it all, you see. The fall from grace, of course, coincided with woman’s acquisition of knowledge of good and evil, and saddled everyone with original sin, which may or may not be a form of predestination depending on which sect you believe in. She shared it, of course, because one of the foundations of Western civilization has been that women are the cause of every problem and at the root of every evil, a perception that has only just now, 3000 some years later, begun to be exposed for the complete self-serving bullshit that it is. And on television, three young friends who have banded together to find solidarity in their mutual lack of ability anxiously await the arrival of a fourth to join their crew. She’ll be just like them, you see. Why wouldn’t she be? She’ll be the cool one.

This was always going to be a hard episode: the introduction of a new “Cool” character who recalls Poochie from The Simpsons, already unpopular regular characters acting like the bad guys in the second half, an uncomfortable moral that would not sit well at all with the periphery demographic, the chance to revisit uncomfortable moments from our pasts and our reactions to them…
The apple itself is a symbol of knowledge and beauty, something jealously guarded and fought over, something which brings life and prosperity, something which has transformative power inside itself. Every seed contains within itself a full tree, given enough time and the right conditions. And similarly, every pony contains the potential for transformation and self-discovery. The first thing the television series dealt with was a bushel of smashed apples, and a pony wondering about her cutie mark. It should come as no surprise that, 26 years later, these are still prime concerns. But while the first episode of the original series had Twilight assure Ember that it would come in good time, and was content to say no more, FiM devotes episode after episode to the search for a purpose in life, for your special talent, for that one thing that sets you apart from everyone else and makes you you, the thing that no one else has. This is dangerous knowledge, this puberty thing, which introduces all sorts of adult problems and responsibilities. Far from being the ideal land of do as you please, there are bills to pay, rents and mortgages to arrange, significant others and spouses and children to devote time to, jobs that cannot be pawned off or ignored the way school work can… The stakes are real when you’re a grown up.

The show, being a children’s television program primarily aimed at ages 5-9, is uniquely unequipped to deal with all the ramifications of a magical system of visible predestination. All the jokes and the dark fan fics about ponies with bloody knives for cutie marks or whose special talent is killing aside, it really does introduce a tough question: what if a pony’s special talent is something she doesn’t like? What if she grows out of it? What if she wants to switch careers after a mid-life crisis and try something new? What if her husband doesn’t support her desire to go back to school and start teaching and turns out to be a robot? And why is your special talent only one thing? We already had an episode devoted to explaining how horrible it would be to be too special and too good at too many things — as if such a thing as being too talented or too skilled is possible in the real world (if you don’t believe me, try imagining a situation where someone says “Oh no, get a worse doctor, this one is too good of a violin player to operate!” or “This person can’t be a firefighter! Sure, she got 100% on all the assessments, but she was also a geologist and figure skater before she applied here!”) Given the static nature of television, it’s a pretty good bet that we’re not going to see the cutie mark crusaders ever get their cutie marks until the show hits season 7 or 8 and needs a reboot and new cast to sell different toys to a different audience, replacing the main cast, if ever. I’m not going to say never, because after all, Twilight has wings and is a princess now, but we’ve had how many episodes where Applejack learns not to be so stubborn, Spike not so greedy and irresponsible, Rarity not to take on so many tasks at once at the expense of her friends and family, Rainbow Dash not so competitive, Fluttershy more assertive, Twilight not so compulsive, Pinkie Pie not so needy…

The apple keeps rolling, out of Adam’s shocked hands and lands at the feet of three goddesses, who immediately begin to quibble over it. Despite their supreme power, sagacious wisdom, and dominance over Love itself, they simply cannot stand the idea that the other two are more beautiful, and so Zeus calls in Paris Alexander, the backpacked protector of men, who recently judged a bullfight fairly, to say who deserved the apple. Zeus isn’t going to get mixed up judging  any beauty contest that involves his wife. He’s not that foolish. And, fool that Paris was, he broke his vow to judge fairly and chose the bribe of a beautiful woman, not realizing that being king of all the known world or the most wise and ferocious warrior the world had ever seen would have given him access to any woman he wanted and prevented the war and carnage that followed. But such is the anthropic nature of stories: if people don’t make mistakes, if conflicts and fated meetings do not occur, then there is no story to tell.

And so, shall we blame the Original Sin or the Original Snub for Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon, who just happen to be walking by right then and there? (And yes, I realize at the outset how silly it is to debate the free will of scripted characters, animated ones at that, who are even less free than their acted counterparts (actors can at least sometimes sneak a facial expression or line interpretation in)). What do their cutie marks represent? A crown is a poor choice for an earth pony in a country ruled by an immortal alicorn monarch who has already chosen her successors. A silver spoon for stirring up shit, perhaps? Do they really have any control over their actions, any more than Applejack could quit the farm and live in the city with the Oranges?

Arthur Schopenhauer put it quite well in The World as Will and Representation: “Everyone believes himself a priori to be perfectly free, even in his individual actions, and thinks that at every moment he can commence another manner of life, which just means he can become another person. But a posteriori, through experience, he finds to his astonishment that he is not free, but subjected to necessity; that in spite of all his resolutions and reflections he does not change his conduct, and that from the beginning of his life to the end of it he must carry out the very character which he himself condemns, and as it were, play the part which he has undertaken to the very end.”

Hence why the takedown at Diamond Tiara’s Cutecenaria about how the blank flanks have so much potential and openness left in their futures is so devastating. Her status is all she has: her special talent is being special, which is every bit as worthless as it sounds. It is unsurprising that she takes it out on others. This does not absolve her of her actions, of course, no more so than Twilight’s freakouts don’t need to be apologized for, nor Rainbow Dash’s hypercompetitiveness, nor Applejack’s stubbornness. Learning to mitigate it will be her own battle, but we’ll never see it. In Friendship Is Magic, she isn’t one of the main characters, and exists only to torment the real protagonists. Unfortunately, she’s less real than the other characters. She only exists when the CMCs see her.

Who are, if you still remember, anxiously awaiting their already christened 4th member. They’ve piled expectations onto her, and can’t wait to induct her into their club, regardless of how she feels about it. They are, if you will, a pride organization, who are already priming to out their newest member to the public of a new town and parade her around in a gigantic float, without bothering to ask her feelings on the matter or let her even finish a sentence. It is easy to think that you’re helping, because after all, didn’t you want then when you were feeling down? Why wouldn’t they want the same thing? For someone who was actively fleeing any associations with her blank flank status and looking forward to some anonymity in the boonies, is it any surprise that she snapped?

This is an uncomfortable thing to mention, of course. Most pride organization are quite literally built on the idea that their particular niche is nothing to be ashamed of, and it something to be celebrated, and most of the time quite rightfully so (Fuck NAMBLA. No, seriously, fuck those guys). The CMCs hit on something that isn’t quite one of the five geek social fallacies, but is close: the assumption that someone will be just like me simply because they are in the same circumstances. I recall a part in Chuck Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters, a novel about a fashion model who has had her lower jaw shot off, where a friendly nun working in the hospital keeps trying to set the protagonist up with various other patients — a burn victim, a lawyer who just lost his nose — as if her own disfigurement now meant that she was now solely attracted to other accident victims. Not everyone deals with things the same way, and part of our failure to deal with the specifics of individual circumstances is why huge programs to change things fail. To what degree is a member of an afflicted group obligated to participate in support group activities? No one communicates their feelings properly, and everything breaks down.

Adam and Eve get cast out of paradise for their theft; Aphrodite gets her arm slashed by Diomedes and cannot save her son in exchange for her prize. Babs is a wounded and scared little girl in a new town whose attempt to get away from the things that have been ruining her life have been completely dashed. Is it any surprise that she doesn’t want to live under constant bullying here also? (aside: note that DT and SS don’t mention Babs’ blank flank when she’s on their side; unlike some forms of bigotry, bullying is almost never about specific things that could be changed to the bully’s satisfaction. Or, with a simple motion of her tail, Babs is able to pass, which opens up a much larger discussion about the duty to be “out and proud” which we simply don’t have time for here) Does this excuse Babs’ rampage? Of course not. But try explaining to a person who has just been outed without their permission that they shouldn’t be angry or hate you or lie and cover up their secret and see how well that works.

The moral? Damned if I know. When I was being bullied as a child, I came home crying and talked to my parents. My father explained that there are always going to be people who are always going to dislike you simply because of the way you look, the way you are, the things you like, the way you talk, or any reason you can imagine, and that there’s nothing you can do to change these people’s minds. And sometimes, when you’ve tried everything else and have run out of all other options, you have to hit people to make them leave you alone. He told me to tell the person that I was going to hit them first, and if they kept doing it anyways, to just hit them until they stopped doing it. He then taught me how to make a fist and throw a punch properly. He had been a construction worker and motorcycle punk before he finished his master’s, and worked as a social worker in the Chicago inner city school system doing a lot of work with street gangs, and thus didn’t have time for long lectures or bullshit about hurt feelings and the amount of effort it takes to keep a classroom in line from administrators who, he knew all too well, were overworked and underpaid. I hit the kid, my father and mother cleared things up with the principal. It stopped for a while. I got a reputation as a kid who would hurt others, and people left me alone, except when they didn’t. Because we moved a lot, I never stayed in the same school long enough for it to matter. Bullying, hitting, principal, respite. The cycle continued. To what extent was it my duty to put people who hated me before myself and allow whatever it was that caused them to act the way they did to end with me? I was a kid; such thoughts didn’t even occur to me. I was quite lucky to have a published psychologist for a father who could get in people’s faces and explain why things were the way they were. I got used to being alone and not paying attention to others when they weren’t getting directly in my face. I made some friends and we bonded over mutually nerdy activities. I got my arm broken by some neighborhood kids who had, weeks earlier, knocked me off my bike and left me lying covered in my own blood from a particularly vicious punch to the nose. The ensuing restraining order meant that his family had to move off our block. I learned to stay inside and discovered the internet. I learned what subjects were acceptable to talk about if other people haven’t brought them up first, our own MLP especially included, there being no such thing as Bronies or ironically cool children’s cartoon fandoms back in the 90s. I don’t say these things with any kind of pride or as a recommendation for future action. It simply continues the cycle of violence, and more than once I was beaten up and left bleeding rather badly. I was larger than a lot of other kids and always had enough to eat, so I was at a slight advantage over many of my peers while in public school, but there was only me. It did wonders for my undiagnosed OCD, the as-yet-unnamed intrusive thoughts making me wonder if I simply was a truly violent and awful person who deserved everything that was happening to him. I moved on to a private Catholic high school, and the last fight I was in was a simple back hand slap delivered to the face of a kid who called me a freak. I got served a week’s detention because it was a slap, rather than a closed fist punch which would have gotten me expelled, and the kid never spoke to me again. Turns out he was being bullied by some kids I was casual friends with, and he was making fun of me because I was on the periphery of that group. I didn’t know about any of that; I just wanted him to leave me alone. Rich private school kids were nothing compared to the brutal conditions of some of public school kids I had come up with, though their words hurt a lot more and I got used to feeling stupid and inadequate. But I had pot to smoke by then, and that’s a different story. Again, it is very difficult to write this in a way that doesn’t sound like bragging of one kind or another, which isn’t my intention at all — “There is no such thing as an anti-war film,” as Francois Truffaut said. A single high school kid was not capable of the kind of systemic change at all levels which this sort of anti-bullying reform would take. I was lucky to have parents who were quite familiar with the system and the way it was navigated. I survived. I don’t think about it much anymore, because it’s a part of my life that has passed and is no more.

In a way, it seems almost as if the episode was going to endorse violence as the solution to bullying, but it then takes care to associate violence with evil. The shiny golden apple rumbles its way through the fruit parade to cheers and shouts, booby trapped and headed towards the inevitable fall. But we’ve seen this before. Dumping people off cliffs was the first thing Nightmare Moon did to our regular heroes, and provided Applejack with her opportunity to be honest. Then, as now, she managed to leave out critical information that would have rendered the entire situation moot (“Hey Twilight, let go. Don’t worry. Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy will catch you!”; “Hey, your cousin was being bullied real bad about being a blank flank back in Manehatten and she’s coming here to get away from all that, so be extra gentle with her, would’ja?”). If they’d taken Sweetie Belle’s suggestion and spoken with her earlier, no doubt the entire problem would have been dealt with. Applejack isn’t the sort to allow people to weasle out from under her. Violence was a solution for me because I was the recipient of vast privilege, able to call upon a well-educated man with an angry beard and deep voice who would show up in a suit and tear into people who suggested that I should keep my head down and let myself be made fun of, or that I was actively attracting negative attention and deserved what was happening. Not everyone is that lucky or privileged, though were it in my power they would all have what I had growing up — though, were I that powerful, it wouldn’t even happen in the first place.

But now that they know, the CMCs are forced to consider Babs as an actual person for the first time in the episode: at first she was a brand new friend who was going to be exactly like them, then she was a horrible bully just like the other two in town who constantly menace them. This doesn’t mean that she’s suddenly a good person or that what she has done is right, but it does mean that she can no longer simply be slotted into a box and treated according to their wishes, rather than her’s. And this, this right here, is the hardest thing in the world. The person whose work very eloquently explained it to me, David Foster Wallace, was an alcoholic and drug abuser who at one point early in his career nearly hired a hitman to kill the separated husband of the woman he was obsessed with. He was also a sufferer of chronic depression who grew into a wonderful husband and a caring teacher, and who committed suicide in 2008 while attempting to transition from one antidepressant to another. He was by no means a good or perfect person. And yet, the philosophy still holds: we are presented daily with more than enough evidence to conclude that the world is a horrible and cruel place that isn’t worth it. But when we take a moment to consider that literally every other person on the planet is in the exact same situation that we are in, alone and scared and tired and wanting to feel like they matter and what they do is worth it, it’s difficult to be mean to them, even if we think they deserve it. It doesn’t mean being a sucker or a pushover or a victim. But it does mean realizing that people aren’t one dimensional or simply the brief moments you experience with them.

Before Babs was a monster, they barely let her get a word in. Maybe if they’d actually spoken with her, none of this would have happened. Again, this does not absolve Babs of any of her later actions. She deserves full blame for being a cruel and horrible person, and that she gets off scotfree is one of the episode’s great failings. I don’t think I can emphasize that point enough. It isn’t the CMCs fault that they got bullied. But they weren’t being very good friends at the outset, even though they thought they were being welcoming and inviting. Sometimes what you think people want isn’t what they want. Compare and contrast with Green Isn’t Your Color by the same author, and you have nearly the same story about presumption and missing information, right down to the ridiculous plot point about “not snitching” when you really, really ought to.

The golden apple rolls down the hill, and the CMCs end up covered in mud, just as DT & SS do at the end of the episode. Everyone but Babs is covered. The one who could have prevented it all with a little communication beforehand, Applejack, the keeper of apples and mistress of the orchard, remains oblivious to her role in the entire thing. No surprise there. God never gets a comeuppance for placing a gigantic, obvious temptation right in front of his innocent and trusting new creations, along with a snake to inform them about how good and right it would be to disobey. What kind of omnipotence couldn’t see that coming? Eris sits on the sidelines laughing all the while, strife and conflict proving the one sure and constant thing about human existence from Heraclitus to Hegel to the Hadron Collider. Without conflict, there isn’t a story.

But real life isn’t a story.

Confusing the two is where we start to have problems. This story addresses bullying in vague ways, unable to properly get at the deeper parts that, quite frankly, children’s television cannot show without their ratings moving up to adult. The episode isn’t long enough, and couldn’t in 22 minutes address all the vicissitudes that would need to be covered to explain the topic to an adult’s satisfaction. But it wasn’t trying to be the end all and be all. Episode author Megan McCarthy said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly “[It] explores how you should handle a bully, and sometimes what the source of bullying is […] It’s wrapped in a story that’s really fun and funny, and has music, and doesn’t feel heavy-handed.” Fair enough, I can agree with the first half: you should tell your parent or guardian or an older sibling you can trust, and sometimes it is because the bully is being bullied themselves. You can’t show the second half of the story, where sometimes your parents can’t do anything and you either keep your head down and hope people don’t notice you today or you start hitting the kid until you get sent to the principal’s office, and just understanding that the bully has reasons or a tough home life or is being beaten by other kids doesn’t make them stop and doesn’t make it any easier for you to live through.

You need to eat the apple and see the world for what it is to deal with that second half, but that usually doesn’t come until it happens to you. You have to see and understand the world if you’re going to work towards making it better. Progress is happening, and we’ve made amazing strides in the past thirty years compared to the past three thousand, but the work is nowhere near complete. It takes more than a bold declaration and a lot of talk to bring about real change. For all its high mindedness and greater purpose, this episode’s failing for me was being an episode of a typical kid’s show. It’s one I skip on rewatches not out of any triggered anger or rising bile, but simply because I find it uninteresting. I don’t need it anymore than I need a children’s guide to bicycles, Fencing for Dummies, or a Philosophy 101 textbook. It isn’t worth my time. I’ve moved past that. It doesn’t have anything worthwhile to say to me unless I dig really deep. And that’s okay; I’m part of the periphery demographic, not the target audience. Having now done so, it can get buried once and for all. Maybe somewhere else, with some other kid, a tree will grow.

You will never have the amazing, show-stopping ability (Magic Duel)

Because the nineteenth-century Chinese shopkeeper running
the Store of Mysteries wasn’t enough of a stereotype, let’s
give him some kung-fu action grip, too. Sigh.

It’s December 1, 2012. The top song, as it will be for most of the month, is “Diamonds” by Rihanna, and the top movie is still Twilight. In the news, BP is suspended from bidding on U.S. government contracts as part of its woefully inadequate punishment for causing the Deepwater Horizon disaster; thousands protest Egyptian President Muhammed Morsi’s assumption of sweeping powers last week; and Time announces the candidates for 2012 Person of the Year, including the Higgs boson. For some reason, their inability to distinguish between subatomic particles and people does not completely discredit them as arbiters of the worthiness of persons.

We ended last season on a bittersweet note. The defeat of the changelings was certainly a good thing for our characters, and the solid two-parter built around that defeat a good thing for the show, but the inherently paranoid nature of an “evil shapeshifter infiltrator” plot had a subtle lasting impact, helping to legitimize paranoid readings of the show. Paranoia, of course, is characterized by overactive pattern recognition—it is often characterized as “seeing patterns where none exist,” but that’s absurd. To exist, something must be a material entity, but patterns are not material entities; they are relationships between those entities, which can be separated from the entities and expressed symbolically. For example, there is the pattern that objects fall when you drop them, which can be expressed with a mathematical formula relating masses and forces and accelerations, or with the simple word “gravity.” The equation for gravitational attraction is the pattern, and the equation is also a statement, constructed of symbols; patterns, in other words, are constructs. They are not entities that exist in nature, but tools we create in order to aid us in understanding nature. (Which is not to say that, for example, the laws of physics aren’t true. Being a construct and being true aren’t mutually exclusive—quite the opposite! To be a true statement, something must first be a statement, and all statements are constructs.)

All of which is a complex way of saying that paranoia is not “seeing patterns that aren’t there,” but rather “imposing patterns where they don’t belong.” Now of course “where they don’t belong” is a subjective judgment, and thus where the line is between a paranoid reading and innocent speculation is equally subjective. Ultimately, paranoid readings by fans and critics are mostly harmless, since their power to influence the show is limited.

Paranoid readings become somewhat more problematic, however, when they begin to influence creators, especially when those paranoid readings become attempts at unifying theories. The general result of treating a unifying theory as a formula is for works to become, well, formulaic. Which brings us, of course, to the monomyth, or as I like to call it, The Paranoid Reading That Ate Hollywood.

To briefly summarize, the monomyth was a theory proposed by the folklorist Joseph Campbell and described in detail in his The Hero with a Thousand Faces, that there was a single unifying story that crossed cultures, in which a hero is called to adventure, sets out into the world, and then returns home having mastered that world. Of course if one interprets the structure as vaguely and metaphorically as possible, then it is possible to more or less fit nearly all stories into it—but at that point, one is saying that most stories start by introducing a status quo, then have some kind of conflict, and end by restoring the status quo or establishing a new one. (Even then, there are exceptions, such as Ernest Hemingway’s famous attempt to write the shortest story possible: “For sale: One pair baby shoes. Never worn.”) In other words, Campbell’s discovery ultimately amounts to the observation that if you define a category vaguely enough, it will hold a lot of things.

Where the trouble starts is that Campbell also defined a much more complex and detailed formula for the monomyth, dividing the three stages into a multitude of substages and significant events, then using a handful of cherry-picked examples to show how the structure applies to many different traditional stories from different cultures. Which, it is worth noting, is hardly unique to Campbell and not inherently problematic. There are common elements and structures that recur in many stories, as witness the popular website TVTropes or its professional equivalent (and predecessor by a number of decades), the Stith-Thompson Index of folktale types and elements.

Where Campbell becomes problematic is in his insistence that the monomyth is universal, because it signifies a universal experience of adolescence. Which is nonsense to begin with—there is no such thing as a universal signifier—but also carries the danger of converting his attempt at a description of how stories work into a prescription. That is, his attempt to convince the analyzers of stories that there is only one story that can be told could instead convince the tellers of stories that there is only one story that should be told.

Which brings us to the second villain of our piece, George Lucas. Lucas made a little movie you may have heard of, Star Wars, and in so doing essentially invented the big summer Hollywood blockbuster as we know it. He has stated that he deliberately followed the monomyth as a recipe, and he made a great deal of money doing so, with the consequence that Hollywood learned the monomyth as well, and fixated on it as The One True Way to Tell Stories Make Money.

Which is a problem if you like variety in your stories, if you like them to be non-formulaic. The power of the monomyth within film and television is now such that anything which resembles the monomyth gets pulled gravitationally into it. Just as shows like Lost and The X-Files have trained us to instinctively engage in paranoid readings, series like Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer have trained us to instinctively expect the story beats of the monomythic formula.

One of the dangers of the dominance of the monomyth is the excessive focus on adolescence. If every story is the story of adolescence, then adolescence is the only story, and reaching adulthood becomes the end, rather than the beginning, of one’s life story. The epilogue to Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows, for instance, is disappointing largely because it implies that nothing has happened in the decades since the end of the characters’ adolescent adventures, since all of them have precisely the lives one would have expected based on who they were and what they were doing at the end of their adolescence—that for them, growing up meant that all stories are ended forever. The ending of Buffy, while rather more satisfying, carries largely the same implication: after three seasons of trying to escape the cycle of once-a-season monomyths, Buffy finally succeeds by destroying the premise of the series. She can go anywhere and do anything, has total freedom to experience any kind of story she wants—and at that precise moment, the series ends, because the monomyth tells us that adults don’t have stories worth telling, unless those stories can serve as metaphors for adolescence.

And so when Friendship Is Magic ends a season with both a strong encouragement toward paranoid readings and an extended, blatant Star Wars reference, the implication is strong that the monomyth is coming, especially since Friendship Is Magic actually is about the process of maturation and socializing, which is a large part of adolescence and therefore the monomyth structure. The only thing surprising about the presence of monomythic elements in “Magic Duel” (written by M.A. Larson and directed by Jayson Thiessen) is thus that it manages to turn away from them in the end.

That there are Jungian elements in play in this episode is fairly obvious. Trixie is not only Twilight’s foil but her Shadow, the image of that part of Twilight which she works to overcome–in her case, her initial antisocial focus on developing her magic over relating to others. That in the end Twilight must save Trixie, rather than destroy her, confirms her status as a reflection of Twilight’s own darkness. The specifically Campbellian elements, however, are also present. For instance, that Trixie’s power source is the Alicorn Amulet makes her equally a shadow of Twilight’s primary mother-figure, the alicorn Princess Celestia. She is thus the Dark Mother, and Twilight’s final making of peace with her is the Atonement with the Mother (fittingly for this show, both are gender-swapped from the standard-issue Hero’s Journey). Twilight initially Refuses the Call by trying to stay in Ponyville when Trixie tries to drive her out, and is punished by harm befalling her loved ones (compare Luke Skywalker’s initial refusal to be trained by Kenobi, immediately followed by stormtroopers killing his aunt and uncle). She encounters a good mother-figure/mentor in Zecora, acquires the Gifts of the Goddess, and prepares to face off with the Dark Mother once more so that she can return home. And just to make clear that this is not simply paranoid reading on the viewer’s part, Zecora tells Twilight she “must unlearn what you have learned” and has her levitating objects while standing on her head, at which point Twilight is interrupted by a message telling her she needs to help her friends–all clear references to Yoda’s training of Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back.

At the same time, a degree of departure from standard formulae is already apparent, most notably in the titular magic duels. Typically, magic duels in fiction tend to take one of two forms. Often (as in Star Wars and Harry Potter) they strongly resemble non-magical duels such as fencing, Old West-style gun duels, or even street brawls (as in Buffy). Alternatively, they also frequently take the form of the shapeshifting contest, the most familiar examples of which are probably the competition between Merlin and Mim in The Sword and the Stone and the one between Dream and the demon Choronzon in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, but mythological and folkloric examples (especially if one includes the non-magical variant in which the shapes are indicated by words or gestures) abound. Equestrian magic duels, however, work very differently: rather than assuming competing forms or trying to destroy one another, Trixie and Twilight instead each cast spells which the other tries to dispel or undo, with Twilight losing the first duel when she is unable to undo the effects of Trixie’s age spell.

This departure is then compounded by Twilight’s trickery in the second duel. Her apparent Gift of the Goddess, the amulet given to her by Zecora, is a fake. She has learned no useful magic from Zecora’s tutelage, and her apparent Apatheosis into a massively powerful spell-caster is a trap to get Trixie to try to swap amulets. In other words, the episode that opens with Trixie defeating Twilight at her specialty, spell-casting, ends with Twilight defeating Trixie at her speciality, stage magic. Through all this, it is ultimately Trixie, not Twilight, who grows; this was never the story of Twilight’s maturation at all–and even Trixie has not “grown up” in a singular leap, but taken a single step toward greater maturity and socialization.

Given the immense gravity of the monomyth in the modern culture of television, coming this close to it and then veering away is quite an achievement, and the result is a leading contender for strongest episode of the third season (which, interestingly, tends to shine when it puts characters up against their Shadow archetypes). But there is a price, unfortunately; the series did not quite attain escape velocity, and as such must sooner or later come crashing back down into the monomyth. The monomyth’s endgame was not averted in this episode, only delayed, and the result will be the show’s greatest crisis since the departure of Lauren Faust, and the deepest rift within the fandom to date.

The Apatheosis of Twilight Sparkle is coming.

Next week: I’m at a con, so guest post! This time, another good one by the ever-reliable Spoilers Below.

I’ll be embarrassed, shamed, disgraced, mortified, humiliated… (One Bad Apple)

But sure, let’s all sing an upbeat song about being bullied.

There is no way I can write coherently about this episode.

Some things never heal.

It’s February 5, 2014. Eleven-year-old Michael Morones is in the hospital after attempting suicide two weeks ago. Doctors believe he likely has brain damage, and may even be blind, but it will be months or years before the full extent of his injuries is known. He attempted to hang himself after prolonged bullying over his love for My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.

His parents are taking the attitude that his bullies should not be punished, because it is not in keeping with the principles of the show. They are using the donations the brony community and others have raised to pay for his medical care, but also to set up a fund to combat bullying.

A boy is in the hospital because he did not conform to society’s standards of masculinity. The people who put him there will not be punished, and will most likely go on to do it again.

Welcome to the bully culture.

It’s November 24, 2012. The top song is still Maroon 5 with “One More Night,” and the top two movies are still Twilight and Bond, though at least the surprisingly good Rise of the Guardians debuts at number four. In the headlines, Israel continues firing into Gaza and vice versa, the voice of Elmo resigns in the face of allegations of sexual abuse, and Australian scientists determine that Sandy Island, which is shown on a number of marine charts and maps, including Google Earth, does not actually exist.

In ponies we have “One Bad Apple,” a pastiche of the cartoons of the 1970s and 80s written by Cindy Morrow and directed by James Wootton.

Which is where the trouble starts, really; pastiche is a favored technique of postmodern writing, and so it is no surprise that Friendship Is Magic assays several over its run. The thing is, postmodern art is characterized by processes of decontextualization and recontextualization. The idea is to shed new light on the work or genre subject to pastiche, or to call attention to aspects of the new context that jar with the borrowed elements. “One Bad Apple” doesn’t do that; the elements of 1970s and 80s cartoons are instead treated like the most boring Internet memes, decontextualized and repeated without any recontextualization, as if they have some intrinsic value independent of the change of context.

Which would work well if they did, but unfortunately, we are talking about the cartoons of the 1970s and 1980s here.

It’s some time in the fall of 1989; I am eight years old. I am at a classmate’s house along with four or five other boys, working on a project that has something to do with the local Native American tribes. To ensure that I do not contaminate the project by contributing to it, the other boys take turns holding me pinned to the floor. They have to take turns because they have to hold their breath to do it; breathing air that touched me would be bad. The most striking thing about this memory is how utterly normal it seemed at the time.

In School Bullying: New Perspectives on a Growing Problem, author and bullying expert David Dupper defines bullying as “the systematic abuse of power,” and expands to describe it as “the unprovoked physical or psychological abuse of an individual by another individual or group over time to create an ongoing pattern of abuse against a victim who cannot easily defend him or herself.” That is what happened to me, to Michael Morones, to the Cutie Mark Crusaders. It is not what happened, at least on screen, to Babs Seed.

There is very little good about American cartoons of the 1970s and 80s. Due to a number of pressures, mostly lack of funds, tight content restrictions, and an exodus of talent caused by the aforementioned lack of funds and tight content restrictions, most cartoons were cheaply produced, formulaic pap. Much of “One Bad Apple” references these cartoons, particularly the musical number, which both in musical style and in the frequent use of repetitive, simple backgrounds resembles the musical numbers of shows such as Josie and the Pussycats or Jem. The conversation at the end of the episode, in which a child has to explain a (subtly misused, already outdated) slang term to a clueless adult, is another standard gag of the era, with “bad means good” being the most common such slang term.

Even the bullying plot which dominates the episode is, ultimately, just another reference to the “very special episodes” that were a common feature of family and children’s television in the 1980s and, less frequently, into the 1990s.

It’s late 1991 or early 1992. I’m ten or eleven years old. They’re more sophisticated than a couple of years ago; no one lays a finger on me. They don’t even touch my desk if they can help it; if someone brushes against it by accident, they have to immediately go to the washbasin in the corner of the classroom and scrub. I try to tell my parents what’s going on. “It’s just teasing,” my father tells me. “Ignore it and they’ll stop.”

I’ve been doing nothing about it, carefully showing no outward sign that it affects me, for years. They haven’t stopped. Lesson learned: Telling an adult is useless. They don’t know what to do either, and they’ll tell you it’s your fault.

On my father’s advice, I try striking back in kind. I make what I think is a witty zinger against one of them. I will not say what it was, because it was based on the girl in question’s name, and I have no interest in revealing anyone’s identity. Everyone laughs–at me.

Lesson learned: Don’t bother trying to fight back. They can’t be stopped.

“Very special episodes” were a format (frequently preceded with advertising along the lines of “Tonight, on a very special [show name]”) in which a character of a normally much lighter show confronted a Serious Issue of the Day, usually in the form of a new character who suffered from or caused the issue. Substance abuse was the most common topic, due largely to the willingness of the U.S. government to pay makers of popular shows to make episodes that polemicized against drugs, but everything from the Challenger explosion (on Punky Brewster) to abortion (a critically applauded, highly controversial episode of Maude that helped start the trend), racism (a particularly ridiculous episode of Family Ties stands out here), and the apocryphal lurking pedophile (Diff’rent Strokes). Bullying was another common topic, so it’s no surprise finding it here.

Unfortunately, like most “very special episodes,” the topic is horribly mishandled. The myth of the self-doubting, pitiable bully is repeated, all aggression is castigated as bullying, and the solution at the end is that the bully needs more and better friends, all in keeping with the teachings of the bully culture.

It’s 1993. I’m twelve years old. The girls are worse by far than the boys. The boys merely tell me that I’m disgusting, weak, worthless. The girls don’t need words to let me know it, and that makes it far harder not to believe it.

But now there are three or four of us in the same boat. We band together, bottom of the social hierarchy, and bond over a shared love of cartoons, science fiction, and utterly ridiculous, rule-free roleplaying campaigns that we play during lunch and occasionally gym.

The typical bully, according to Dupper, “tend[s] to be easily frustrated, have low levels of empathy, have difficulty following rules, view violence positively, defiant toward adults, break school rules, have poorer school adjustment, and [be] more likely to drink alcohol and smoke.” Contrary to the usual narrative, bullies have average or higher self-esteem. Boys are more likely to be bullies and girls more likely to be bullied, but neither by very much; boys tend to use more direct tactics such as physical or verbal attacks, while girls (as also documented by Rachel Simmons in her Odd Girl Out) are more likely to use indirect tactics such as social exclusion, rumor-spreading, and manipulation of friendships and relationships.

At first the episode proceeds fairly realistically. Babs bullies as a way of asserting her social status, pushing down the lower kids in the hierarchy (the Cutie Mark Crusaders) in order to elevate herself and get in with the more dominant kids (Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon). Though her tactics are almost entirely direct, that makes sense for the show’s main demographic; per Simmons, indirect bullying generally doesn’t start until the preteen years, with even girls preferring direct tactics up to about the age of eight.

But as it progresses, it becomes clear that the episode is largely missing what it is truly like to be bullied. Babs Seed is clearly a marginalized kid with severe self-doubt, which just isn’t most bullies; while the kids at the very top of their schools’ hierarchies generally don’t bully, the kids immediately beneath them are the most likely to bully. Unsurprisingly, bullying tends to coordinate with strong social skills and status; how else would they get away with it? Victim-bullies (that is, bullies who are themselves victims of bullying previously or in another context) do exist, and are often the most vicious bullies and the most likely to continue their aggressive behavior into adulthood, but are nonetheless rare.

Most damningly for the episode, Scootaloo and Apple Bloom reject Sweetie Belle’s suggestions of telling an adult because they don’t want to be “snitches,” but that’s not why bullied kids don’t tell adults.

It’s the fall of 1995. I am fourteen years old. We are supposed to run a mile in gym class. I know I won’t be able to run it, so I walk instead, chatting with a friend I’ve recently made. The gym teacher comes up behind us. He calls me a fat sack of crap who will die of a heart attack before he’s thirty, and tells me that I’ll deserve it for being lazy.

After temperament, the strongest predictor of bullying is the behavior of adults in the environment. Kids bully because they see adults bully, or because they see that bullies get away with it. You can tell kids that they need to tell an adult when they’re being bullied, but unless they perceive that the adults are willing and able to help, they’re not going to bother. As Dupper puts it, “Even when teachers witness bullying behavior, they often fail to recognize it as bullying behavior, and they may even exacerbate the problem by blaming the victim. As a result, very few students who have been bullied report the incident to an authority figure.”

It’s the spring of 1996. I am fifteen years old. For months now, a particular senior has taken it upon himself to torment me. Because I’m short and have a belly and a Jewfro, he calls me “troll.” My shoes don’t fit, so I often walk with a limp, and for various reasons I don’t like using my locker, so I carry all my books at all times in an enormous backpack. My clothes are cheap, shabby, and frequently unwashed. He likes to ask me if I’m homeless, to say I carry my house on my back. In combination with the troll thing, he frequently says that I live under a bridge.

He has a couple of friends–tough-looking boys, slightly shorter and smaller than he–and a spectacularly gorgeous girlfriend. All laugh whenever he teases me.

I don’t know it, but he’s my last bully. After he graduates at the end of the year, I will never be bullied again, though some of my friends still will.

It doesn’t matter, though. It’s too late.

Dupper points out that verbal and indirect bullying have the same long-term neurological effects as physical abuse. Simmons argues quite convincingly that the prevalence of indirect bullying among girls is because girls are encouraged to be non-aggressive, and as such most obvious outlets for aggression (whether destructive or healthy) are closed off. The result is that aggression–which is a natural and inevitable part of living in a community and having relationships with other people–must be channeled into what she terms “alternative aggressions,” frequently vicious, deniable methods of acting out against the targets of aggression.

This is where the episode veers from being merely mistaken to being outright irresponsible and potentially dangerous to children. The Cutie Mark Crusaders have aggressive feelings toward Babs Seed; who wouldn’t after a sustained campaign of many days of torment? They act on these feelings inappropriately, absolutely, by putting Babs Seed in a dangerous situation that could cause her serious harm.

But–and I cannot stress this enough–they are not bullying her.

It’s the spring of 1999. I am seventeen years old. My achalasia–a rare neuromuscular condition in which the esophagus clamps shut, preventing swallowing–has worsened to the point that in any given meal I have better than even odds of throwing up undigested food which has never seen the inside of my stomach. Drinking water sometimes helps, but it will be several years before I hit on the strategy of carrying a large water bottle everywhere I go, and so instead I am dependent on the water fountain in the corner of the cafeteria. When I do throw up I have only seconds of warning, which means it is usually either in the water fountain or the trash can nearby, in full view of everyone. Nobody says anything to my face, but I can feel them watching. I stop eating lunch, and my weight begins to plummet. Occasionally I hear the whispered rumors–that I have an eating disorder, that I have some sort of stomach disease, that I have Ebola or AIDS.

Dupper argues that bullying in our schools is a reflection of bullying in the larger culture, from nation-states using their militaries to pound weaker countries into submission to action heroes that murder with impunity and then mock their victims to audience cheers. Adults often send mixed messages by encouraging bullying in some areas, particularly sports, while decrying it in others. Inaccurate or sympathetic portrayals of bullying in children’s media likewise frequently subtly or outright blame victims while excusing the bullies themselves.

Dupper himself does not draw the analogy, but his depiction is very similar to rape culture, the phenomenon whereby Western culture simultaneously claims to hate rape while finding excuses to excuse rapists, blame victims, and spread false beliefs about who is likely to rape and how rape occurs. Obviously, rape is a much more serious crime than bullying, but they have much in common, being expressions of power at the expense of another, made easier by a cultural milieu that makes it easy to isolate victims and discourages them from reporting what has happened.

The Cutie Mark Crusaders have lashed out aggressively against Babs Seed, yes, but neither in a sustained campaign nor without provocation. They are not bullies, and it is entirely wrong to equate what they did with what Babs Seed did. Both are wrong, but the CMC acted out of fear and desperation; Babs acted out of a desire for status.

The end of the episode has the CMC and Babs Seed becoming friends, of course, because this is Friendship Is Magic. It is also, of course, not impossible for former bully and former victim to become friends. However, Applejack and the structure of the episode strongly imply that they should be friends, that it is somehow a failing if they do not become friends, and therein lies the problem, because it implies that aggressive feelings are inherently bad–precisely what Simmons identifies as the cause of the epidemic of indirect bullying in girls. Good parenting on Applejack’s part–and responsible writing for children about bullying on the part of Morrow–would be for her to help the CMC find a way to express their feelings against Babs nonviolently, constructively, but still aggressively–for example, the way Rainbow Dash confronted Gilda in “Griffon the Brush-Off,” a vastly superior treatment of the topic of bullying.

It’s March of 2000, two days after my attempt. We Adult Non-Violents have lunch at the same time as the Twelve-to-Eighteen Non-Violent Girls. Even being in the same room makes it impossible for me to eat; I get special dispensation to eat lunch alone.

I’m better now. A lot better. It usually doesn’t bother me. But I’ve been reading up on bullying lately, and today while I was in line to pay for my lunch, I heard a child laugh. For just a moment, I wanted to die. I felt sick the rest of the afternoon, and it took enormous effort to do basically anything.

It’s 1989 and 1992 and 3 and 4 and 5 and 6 and 9 and 2000. It’s 2012 and 2014.

Some things never heal.

There is no way I can write coherently about this episode.

If you would like to donate to the Michael Morones Recovery Fund, you can do so here.

Next week: Something better. It has to be.

Maybe something less over-the-top and not so super-hyper (Too Many Pinkie Pies)

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

Sorry this is so late. Regular posts resume tomorrow.

Paul Dukas, eat your heart out.

It’s November 17, 2012. The top movie is The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part Two, enjoying the first of its three weeks on top, and the top song is still Maroon 5’s “One More Night,” a boring and heavily auto-tuned song, the video of which manages to be almost interesting by dint of showing a woman deciding to leave her husband/boyfriend/whatever while the song is clearly being sung by a man trying to work up to leaving his wife/girlfriend/whatever. In the news, after four days of fighting, Egypt brokers a truce in fighting between Israel and Hamas, which lasts all of a day before rocket exchanges resume; the death of a woman in an Irish hospital due to the hospital refusing to perform a medically necessary abortion provokes international outcry and condemnation; and Hostess files for bankruptcy, choosing to blame union strikes rather than the fact that their alleged “food” products taste like styrofoam. Classy.

Meanwhile, “Too Many Pinkie Pies,” written by David Polsky and directed by Jayson Thiessen, returns us to questions that have been left largely unaddressed since “Party of One.” Specifically, it examines the flatness of Pinkie’s usual portrayal, but where “Party of One” did so via character collapse, which ultimately is an attempt to find depth, “Too Many Pinkie Pies” has Pinkie herself confront avatars of her flat persona in the form of her duplicates.

This confrontation has the side effect of making the episode also function as a critique of Pinkie Pie’s portrayal in fanworks, which tend either to depict her as a pure fun-seeker with no interior life to speak of or a completely deranged avatar of chaos, with the latter going as far, in some depictions, as violent and disturbed. This ultra-violent “Cupcakes”-style Pinkie Pie is fairly obviously an intentional departure from the character and values of the show undertaken for pure shock value, and thus requires no critique, nor could the show ever seriously acknowledge the existence of such a depiction. Thus, the episode leaves it out, and instead has Pinkie Pie confront duplicates who both are pure fun-seekers and bring chaos to Ponyville.

At the beginning of the episode, Pinkie Pie is functioning in her usual persona as someone who exists purely in the moment and seeks immediate gratification. As I discussed in my article on “Party of One,” Pinkie Pie can be understood in terms of Daniel Kahneman’s theory of two selves: she has a fully developed and functional experiential self (that is, the aspect of the self that lives in the moment and seeks experiences that provide immediate, positive stimuli), but a stunted and suppressed remembering self (the aspect that lives in the past, plans for the future, and seeks experiences that build good memories). One of the consequences of this stunting is that Pinkie Pie’s sense of well-being is extremely unstable, as she cannot draw on good memories of the past to get her through less-than-pleasant moments in the present. Here she takes this behavior to its logical extreme, finding herself trapped between two potential fun experiences because she can only pick one, and cannot bear giving up either.

The Mirror Pool that she uses is clearly quite dangerous. Other than Granny Pie (who is not only a grandmother, but the grandmother of the Fool, and thus doubly privy to sources of knowledge beyond the ken of the merely wise), the only source of information on it appears to be a book sealed away in Twilight’s library. This is not surprising; the danger of a mirror is that it reflects surfaces only, and so the mirror creates simplistic, flat Pinkie Pies who do not have stunted remembering selves, but rather no remembering selves at all. They must be taught the names of Pinkie’s friends, and are incapable of delaying their pursuit of fun in order to prevent negative consequences, such as the destruction of yet another of Applejack’s barns. They have no memory, and care nothing for the future.

In short, they are the standard-issue depiction of Pinkie Pie in fanworks such as the Lunaverse or “Forever!” Oblivious, silly, cartoonish, and annoying, this version of Pinkie Pie is not too dissimilar from her party-obsessed outer persona as seen in the earlier segments of “Griffon the Brush-Off,” “Party of One,” or “A Friend in Deed.” However, it ignores other elements of Pinkie’s character, the hints of greater depths, such as her collapse in “Party of One,” or her Fool-like access to special knowledge, as in “Swarm of the Century,” “Feeling Pinkie Keen,” and this episode. Above all, it ignores that Pinkie truly does love everyone, to the point of keeping up with the lives of every citizen of Ponyville well enough to be able to talk to each and every one of them.

Still, Pinkie has probably the shallowest character of the Mane Six (though Applejack and to a lesser extent Rainbow Dash can make claims to that character; certainly Twilight, Fluttershy, and especially Rarity have received significantly more development than the other three up to this point in the series). Her stunted remembering self means she has little answer to the question of who she is; she has (somewhat deliberately) shed most of her past, and thus has little in the way of roots or grounding. As I discussed in my article on “Party of One,” the price of escaping her difficult and dreary past is that she has no stable sense of self-worth, being utterly dependent on constant validation by her friends because her past achievements have no meaning for her. She lacks a stable sense of identity for much the same reason; she cannot be “the filly who grew up on a rock farm,” “the pony who taught the Elements of Harmony to laugh at danger,” “the pony who taught Luna that it can be fun to be scared,” or even “the pony who reunited Cranky Doodle and Matilda,” because those occurred in the past. Nor can she identify herself by her goals, because she has none. All she is is “the pony who is friends with everyone,” and thanks to delegating that to her duplicates, she is no longer even certain of that. Her identity crisis in this episode is thus inevitable; surrounded by living Pinkie Pie memes, she is no longer even sure that she is the real Pinkie Pie.

It is thus no surprise that the final test to identify the real Pinkie and weed out the duplicates relies on both Pinkie’s love for her friends and her ability to forgo immediate gratification in exchange for getting to stay in Ponyville, something she desperately wants. The former element of the test depends on a strength that Pinkie possesses that is frequently overlooked in her caricatures, including the duplicates, namely her capacity for love and devotion to her friends. The second element, however, is a strength Pinkie generally lacks, being the hallmark of the remembering self. Her devotion to her friends, however, translates into a determination to stay, and thus for their sake she is able to endure boredom in the present to maintain in the future that which she valued in the past.

In discussing “Party of One,” I noted that Pinkie Pie ultimately learned nothing because the structure of the show at the time–in which Twilight and only Twilight writes friendship lesson letters–meant that no one else had room to learn and grow. Here, more than a season later, Pinkie finally gets that chance at growth. Forced to use her remembering side to keep her identity and friendships intact, she has been reminded that she has a remembering side. It has grown just that little bit stronger, and therefore so has Pinkie Pie.

Next week: Please no. Not yet. It’s too soon! …So I’m going to delay a week. Next week, something special and My Little Po-Mo related, week after, the next episode.

I’ve finally figured out why you’re having so much trouble being liked! (The Crystal Empire)

“Wait, are we doing Stop Drop and Roll or Duck and Cover?”

It’s November 10, 2012. The top song–as it has been for more than a month, and will continue to be for the rest of this one–is Maroon 5’s “One More Night.” The top movie is Skyfall, a James Bond movie, taking over from last week’s top movie, the surprisingly excellent Wreck-It Ralph.

Since Season 2 ended in April, Lonesome George, the last known Pinta Island Tortoise, died of old age; the 2012 Summer Olympics were held in London, England; and CERN announced the discovery of a particle matching the expected properties of the elusive Higgs boson. In the week of this episode, the U.S. holds elections, resulting in the re-election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, defeating challenger Mitt Romney, who at the time of this writing has just been sued in federal court for racketeering; the Democrats increase their majority in the Senate while the Republican majority in the House weakens; and three states vote to allow same-sex marriage, two to allow recreational marijuana use, and one to allow marijuana for medical uses only. In other news, the Syrian civil war continues, with the U.N. predicting 4 million people could require humanitarian aid by 2013, the British government investigates former officials for involvement in child sex abuse and covering up the abuse by children’s television presenter Jimmy Savile; and a corruption scandal in the Russian government leads to the firing of the defense minister and the chief of the armed forces.

In ponies, we have the first episode of the first season to have no involvement from Lauren Faust, and it is not a particularly auspicious start, particularly because it has an almost entirely different set of issues from most of the subpar or problematic episodes in the first two seasons.

I say “almost” because the episode’s entire plot can be summed up as a variant on the White Savior archetype, in which one or more members of a European-derived culture (which, as I’ve argued before, Equestria quite clearly is) travel to an exotic locale, befriend the “good” natives, and rescue them from some existential threat, in the process mastering their culture to a native level or beyond. It is an intensely imperialist story, being ultimately a claim that white culture is superior and has a duty to save other cultures, which are framed as either aggressors or victims. Examples include much of H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ works (and the recent film adaptation of the latter’s Barsoom novels, John Carter), and the film The Last Samurai. Most egregious here is the (otherwise quite catchy) “Ballad of the Crystal Empire,” in which the Mane Six try to put on a traditional Crystal Festival using the information available in a single book. Imagine someone who had never heard of Christmas or previously encountered Western culture trying to put on a large public Christmas festival based solely on the Wikipedia entry–failure is guaranteed, and even to make the attempt shows an utter lack of understanding of the culture. True, the Crystal Ponies have lost their memories and the festival is an attempt to jog their memories, but why is it necessary to do this without consulting any of them? Shouldn’t they have a say in the reconstruction of their own lost culture?

Admittedly, this issue is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the Crystal Ponies have forgotten most of their own culture, and what little we do see–crystal towers and vaguely ancient Roman hairstyles and outfits–seems to be European in origin. Additionally, while the execution is bungled, the general concept that a culture needs to be occasionally reminded of its history in order to survive as a culture is fairly solid. Unfortunately, this is far from the episode’s only major issue–there is a much bigger one, and one relatively novel for the series.

Before we tackle that, however, consider how much went right for this episode. The songs by Daniel Ingram, while hardly his best work, are catchy and entertaining despite the problematic lyrics and circumstances. The role-reversal of Shining Armor and Cadance from their last appearance–in which she is casting the protection spell and he is providing assistance and comfort–is a nice touch that helps solidify their relationship as being mutually supportive. In addition, this is a solid character development episode for Twilight that continues her evolution as a leader, begun way back in “Winter Wrap-Up.” Here, she learns that she needs more than knowledge and strong organizational skills; she also needs to trust the people around her, delegate responsibility, and put the task at hand ahead of her personal interests, all very important qualities in a good leader.

There’s good humor, some great action set-pieces, and the scene where Twilight and Spike have to face their deepest fears is quite effective. What, then, is the problem with this episode? What causes it to fall so very flat? In a word: Sombra.

 King Sombra is very similar, as a villain, to the dragon from Season 1’s “Dragonshy,” written and directed by the same team as this episode. He is large, not very talkative, creates a vast cloud of darkness, and is spoken of with terror by Fluttershy. However, a number of factors support the effectiveness of the dragon as a villain: we already know, thanks to the premiere, that Fluttershy is generally fearless in the face of monsters (as opposed to social situations), so the fact that the dragon frightens her is very frightening indeed. Additionally, the dragon does not appear until late in the episode, so our first impression of it is Fluttershy’s terror and its earthshaking roars.

Sombra, by comparison, is first encountered in Celestia’s flashback, which depicts him being defeated. He then appears onscreen as a vast cloud of darkness, which is being successfully held at bay. True, the crystal ponies are terrified of him and traumatized, but since this is the first we’ve met them, we don’t know how much to credit that fear. In addition, while the dragon spoke little, when he did speak it was in complete sentences. Sombra speaks in one- and two-word phrases, suggesting a low intelligence, which is generally not helpful in making a villain compelling.

But why is Sombra depicted this way? Could he be made more effective by showing him as more intelligent or effective? Unfortunately, the answer is largely no, not without fundamentally altering the premise of the episode.

Consider the past major villains, Nightmare Moon, Discord, and Queen Chrysalis. Nightmare Moon and Discord are classic supervillains, which is to say that they have immense personal power, but stand alone. They demonstrate their villainy by appearing personally and doing bad things to the heroes and their allies, such as banishing Celestia and preventing the sunrise or turning Ponyville into a realm of chaos and corrupting the Mane Six. There is not much difference, in story structure terms, between the two of them and antagonists such as Trixie, Glinda, or the dragon–Nightmare Moon and Discord’s actions are more extreme, but effectively they remain the same, being individuals who create a negative situation for the protagonists, who must then defeat them.

Queen Chrysalis’ role is slightly more complex, as an invader and infiltrator. In her case, the structure is that she is initially hidden, and must be revealed, and in addition she has minions who can carry out her commands and must be faced before she is. (Not necessarily defeated, but faced.) Although Friendship Is Magic necessarily avoids the paranoia that usually typifies such stories, it nonetheless follows the standard structure for encounters with this type of antagonist, most familiar from spy narratives.

Sombra, however, is something else. He is not an invader of Equestria, but the ruler of his own dark realm in a distant land. He is described as a shadowy (literally in his case) figure, immensely powerful, and ruler of an empire of slaves. He is, in other words, an evil overlord, and so it is helpful to compare him with the defining evil overlord of modern literature, The Lord of the Rings’ Sauron.

This comparison makes it immediately apparent why Sombra cannot work. Sauron is a figure of overwhelming power, who singlehandedly dominates and controls a vast empire. The heroes are massively outclassed by him, and the only reason they stand a chance of success is that they never have to face him directly. Indeed, he never appears “onscreen” in the novel, and instead only his effects and minions are depicted. The danger he represents is shown by depicting powerful heroes as being afraid to face him (Gandalf thus serving the function Fluttershy did in “Dragonshy”) and by showing how powerful and dangerous his minions are. The implication is that if the Witch-King is as deadly as he is, how much moreso must be the Dark Lord that empowered him?

Unfortunately, neither of these apply to Sombra, who has no minions, is onscreen from nearly the start of the story, and whose empire appears to consist of one town that he is currently locked out of. And unlike Sauron, who is shown creating a vast choking blight, spreading fear throughout Gondor, and send out vast armies that destroy all in their path, we see little to nothing of Sombra’s effects. The only real suggestion of them is the terror which the Crystal Ponies feel toward him, and their general lack of affect mitigates against conveying that terror to the audience.

The problem, essentially, is that to be an effective evil overlord Sombra has to have terrifying armies that plunder, pillage, burn, and murder their way across the green fields of Equestria. We have to see the torments that created the Crystal Ponies’ terror. He needs to be a shadowy (pun intended) figure lurking on the edges of the narrative, while horrors afflict our characters. He has to, in short, be something that cannot be depicted in a cartoon for four-year-olds–a genuine, murderous, conquering tyrant.

Without darkening Equestria beyond what the genre and target audience allow, there is simply no way to make Sombra work as a villain as presented. He must either be another Discord or Nightmare Moon who confronts the heroes directly, or have an army of minions through which he acts like Chrysalis, or else become a Sauron-like overlord and cost the show its age rating.

There are severe limitations to the kinds of stories Friendship Is Magic can tell. We saw this throughout Derivative Works Month; Friendship Is Magic cannot tell the story of a murder, as in an Ace Attorney game. It cannot tell a Doctor Who story without becoming pony-shaped Doctor Who. It cannot tell a dark story of loss and pain without ceasing to be Friendship Is Magic. And now it cannot tell the story of fighting an evil overlord.

This is what Season 3 is going to be: a season of experiments, of pushing the boundaries of what the show can do and trying things that it possibly cannot. But the thing about experiments? Most of them fail.

Next week: Hopefully the guest post I was planning to run this week. The week after that? One that didn’t fail