We have to find them before ponies start to panic (Day of the Doctor)/Where I’ve always been going: Home, the long way around (Princess Twilight Sparkle)

Saturday was a day of new directions.

It often is, of course. Biblically, Saturday was the day after creation, a long deep breath before history began. In real life, as the day after the workweek ends for most of us, it’s a day for the sort of leisure activities that make self-discovery and expression possible, the day when we connect with friends or work on our hobbies and interests. Life-altering experiences tend not to happen when we’re going about our regular routines, and there’s rarely time for much else on workdays.

But this particular Saturday–the most recent, as of the time of posting–was in particular a day of new directions for the two current shows I follow most closely, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic and Doctor Who. Both episodes were milestones; “Princess Twilight Sparkle” marks the beginning of the fourth season of Friendship Is Magic, meaning it now has more seasons than the other two My Little Pony TV series combined–and later this season will surpass them in combined episode count, as well. More impressively, of course, this was the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who, which is a massive achievement for any television show (not quite a record, however; Guiding Light predates television and lasted until 2009). It was also, by the way, the largest simulcast of a drama to date, and the 123rd episode/serial of the series to use “The Thing of the Stuff” as a title.

Both were highly entertaining episodes, but not quite in the top tier of their respective shows. What both did do, however, was dramatically transform key elements of the show, removing long-standing plot devices and introducing new ones.

Interestingly, while my prediction partially happened (and neither my hope nor fear occurred) for “Princess Twilight Sparkle,” “Day of the Doctor” was everything I feared, nothing I predicted or hoped for–and yet both episodes were entertaining and satisfying. Part of that is that “Day of the Doctor” did something I have been wanting (but not daring to hope for) ever since the episode title “The Next Doctor” was announced years ago: a multi-Doctor special in which a future incarnation appears. Part is just the sheer fannish joy of seeing thirteen doctors on screen together, even if nine of them are stock footage. (Though I will say, with the sole exception of his last scene, and much as I love John Hurt, his part could have gone to Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor, and it would have been a stronger episode for it. Admittedly, that last scene does make him checking his ears in the mirror in “Rose” retroactively hilarious.) And it was wonderful to have Hurt stand in as the voice of classic-fan criticisms of the new series, criticizing the kissing, the way his successors held their sonics, the catchphrases, the youth of the new Doctors… it helped tremendously to reduce the weight of self-importance that threatens always to overwhelm any episode created as a celebration of a milestone.

“Princess Twilight Sparkle” in many ways was similar–both had strong running themes of time and memory, with significant flashbacks and a menace from the past, long-buried, emerging in the present. “Princess Twilight Sparkle” was rather lighter, of course, being mostly concerned with how Twilight and her friends deal with her new role as princess, and reassuring the audience that this will not derail the show or her character. A number of lines seem to be there just to reassure fans, such as Rarity saying that they need to meet to talk about redecorating her loft, Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie contradicting Rarity’s claim that every pony dreams of becoming a princess, and Twilight’s nervous freakout (now with added flight-based physical comedy).

Both episodes are heavily about visiting moments that have been teased from the beginning (well, a beginning in the case of Doctor Who, namely the 2005 relaunch)–the rise and fall of Nightmare Moon, Celestia and Luna’s battle with Discord, and the origin of the Elements of Harmony for Friendship Is Magic, the Time War and fall of Gallifrey for Doctor Who. In the case of the former, it was more or less what we expected, except that the origins of the Elements of Harmony were something of a surprise–they originate from the newly introduced, crystalline Tree of Harmony, which we must assume is the axis mundi of Equestria, its World Tree. Crystal trees have actually always been a personally relevant symbol for me, since they visually resemble a neuron and thus can be both the axis mundi and the axon, the Tree of the World and the individual soul. All of that now feeds into the Elements of Harmony–vessels of light representing aspects of the self, fruit of the Tree of the World (which is also, of course, the twin Trees of Life and Knowledge) that is also the soul–which are now revealed to have been the Sephiroth all along. Of course the focal Element manifested as a crown–it’s Kether!

The Time War, on the other hand, is depicted exactly the way I feared: as a series of explosions and laser beams. But I’m okay with this, because all we actually see is the final battle of a war of attrition that has stretched across all of history. I am willing to accept the beam weapons and fire as the Kardashev IV equivalent of being reduced to throwing sticks and rocks at one another. And yes, Clara is depicted as being Essence of Generic Companion, but in a brilliant twist, Ten and Eleven take on the companion role as well (Hurt–was he cast just so his character can be referred to as the Hurt Doctor?–explicitly names them as such) and together the three of them do what the companions do. Remember my (well, Phil Sandifer’s, really) breakdown of the four essential elements of Doctor Who: the TARDIS is the extradiegetic space that connects all conceivable diegetic spaces, the Doctor is the man who goes into those spaces, the monsters give him something to fight against once he’s there, and the companions give him something to fight for. That is what the War Doctor has lost that makes him no longer the Doctor, and it is what the Moment, Clara, Ten, and Eleven collectively give him back. (And why I adore that he earns his space in the ending credits as all the Doctors whoosh by, just after McGann and before Eccleston.)

What both episodes do, as I mentioned at the start, is take their respective series in fascinating new directions. In the case of “Day of the Doctor,” it’s a massive plot transformation. A big part of the premise of the new series has been the Doctor’s status as the last of the Time Lords, the sole survivor of Gallifrey. His survivor’s guilt has haunted all his new series incarnations, most visibly Nine and Eleven–but Gallifrey has been too important a part of the series’ history to stay gone forever. We’ve always known that sooner or later it has to come back. Yet ironically, by bringing Gallifrey back from the dead and giving the Doctor a quest to find it, the show creates a way to keep it gone forever. The universe is vast and the Doctor has no idea where to look–he can continue wandering at random forever now, always hoping to find Gallifrey.

The confirmation that Gallifrey stands (in direct contradiction to Rassilon’s claim in “The End of Time” that it must either rise or fall) from Tom Baker as a future Doctor repeating a past face. At last the show has firmly exploded the silly fan obsession with the regeneration limit! Including Hurt, Capaldi ought to be the last Doctor according to that one throwaway line in a crap episode everybody insists on treating as absolute fact despite being contradicted repeatedly in later and better episodes. At the same time, given Baker’s age, the pace of the series, and how long Doctors’ tenures tend to last, it is highly unlikely that we will see a future incarnation of the Doctor played by Tom Baker–which means the Doctor can never retire.

The transformation of Friendship Is Magic is, to a small extent, a change to the premise–the Elements of Harmony are now gone. However, they only ever really factored into five episodes: the premiere, the two Discord episodes, “Magical Mystery Cure,” and “Princess Twilight Sparkle.” They are not really an essential part of the premise, any more than Twilight being a unicorn and not a princess is–as Applejack and Twilight discuss in the episode, it is the continued friendship between the characters that matters. More important by far is the promise of the episode’s ending: a fruit has emerged from the base of the tree, a crystalline box (six Elements, plus three cutie marks, plus this box: it is the tenth and lowest Sephirah, Malkuth, the Kingdom, which is to say the World) with six locks opened by unknown keys. The very strong implication is that those keys will be created or found in episodes to come, an explicit story (as opposed to character) arc. The show has never had one of those before, and the possibilities it opens up are enormous. Not so much in the quest itself (presumably, they will collect the six keys and acquire the Infinity Gauntlet/Triforce/Conscience Machine by the end of the season), but rather in the very idea of a multi-episode arc. Unlike Doctor Who, Friendship Is Magic‘s premise is not inherently infinitely extensible, and as such fiddling with the structure of the show like this on occasion can have a profound regenerative effect. On the other hand, it is a sign that the show is starting to struggle to find stories within its original structure, necessitating the new one.

So, in Doctor Who, we have the promise of an end that opens up immortality, and in Friendship Is Magic we have a new beginning as a sign of aging. Either way, these upcoming seasons are going to be something new. My shows are evolving.

Book Review: A Golden Thread by Philip Sandifer

It should come as no surprise to long-time readers that I have been heavily influenced by Dr. Sandifer’s work; it would only be a slight overstatement to say that My Little Po-Mo is an outright ripoff of his TARDIS Eruditorum. So it should equally come as no surprise that I was quite excited by the prospect of a book by him at the intersection of two of my favorite topics, DC Comics and feminism. But A Golden Thread is not a feminist study of Wonder Woman per se; rather, much as TARDIS Eruditorum uses Doctor Who as a window through which to view British utopianism throughout its run, A Golden Thread uses Wonder Woman as a window onto the history of feminism in the U.S.

This is not, however, Themyscira Eruditorum; rather than in-depth analyses of individual Wonder Woman issues or story arcs, it takes a high-level look at different eras of the comic, studying how these eras respond to the issues of previous eras in ways that reflect or reject the feminist currents of the time. Of particular note are the early chapters on Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, which identify, and then explicitly avoid, the usual approach of identifying him as the sexually deviant inventor of the lie detector, as if that explains all that need be explained about Wonder Woman. Instead, the book explores his professional writings and other projects, building a case that Wonder Woman was simply the most successful of multiple attempts to express Marston’s peculiar brand of utopian, gender-essentialist feminism and his vision of a matriarchal society defined by willing, loving submission rather than coercive, forceful domination.

That this vision failed, while the comic based on it succeeded, is key to the book’s premise regarding feminism, that social progress is a matter of “making new mistakes.” For example, the chapter on the “I Ching” era of Wonder Woman, in which she was depowered, becomes a chronicle of the mistakes of second-wave feminism in general and Gloria Steinem in particular. The book never quite reaches for the claim, but the suggestion that the I Ching era was foreshadowing the third wave is an easy one for the reader to fill in.

Therein lies one of the major differences between this book and Dr. Sandifer’s other work: restraint. It is a double-edged sword; on the one hand, there is nothing in this book remotely as gloriously outré as the Blakean take on “The Three Doctors” in the third volume of TARDIS Eruditorum, let alone the Qabbalistic Tarot “Logopolis” Choose Your Own Adventure in the upcoming fourth volume. On the other, it is more accessible by far than TARDIS Eruditorum or especially The Last War in Albion, his ongoing study of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison.

Which is not to say that the usual Sandifer flavor is absent! His distaste for organized fandom shows up strongly here, as he blames the emergence of such (probably deservedly) for the post-World War II decline of the comic. He also, as usual, does not shy away from mounting strong defenses of indefensible positions, in this case trying to argue that the animated Wonder Woman movie is inferior to the David Kelly-produced television pilot. His criticisms of the former are accurate and cutting—it is a far from perfect film—but he defends the latter against a strawman, ignoring the strongest criticism of the pilot, that it depicts Wonder Woman as a remorseless and unhesitating killer.

Nonetheless, the book stands as an excellent microhistory of Wonder Woman, accessible even to a reader who knows little of her comics (such as myself—I know her mostly through the DCAU, her appearances in crossovers, and the Gail Simone run), highly informative, and engaging. It is worth the price for the fresh take on Marston alone, but the rest of the book has much to offer as well.

Elements of Harmony 3: Zecora Is Best Pony

For the “Element of Harmony” backer tier on the My Little Po-Mo Volume 1 Kickstarter, one of the rewards was for the backer to select a pony, and I would write an essay for this site on why that character is the best pony. This is the third and, for now, final such essay.

As I discussed in the articles on Rarity and Applejack, the very concept of “best pony” requires that there be such a thing as “best,” and therefore begs the question “best for what?” For the first two articles, that was largely all we had to consider, because it was easy to define the purposes for which Rarity and Applejack are best, and no particular valuations jumped out in which they are actively bad or harmful.

But this article is on Zecora, and as I’ve made fairly clear in the past, I believe Zecora’s character to be deeply problematic, largely for issues of tokenism and othering. So it’s not enough simply to point out the set of values for which Zecora is best pony, as I’ve already rejected those values. First, we must find a redemptive reading, a way to read Zecora counter to the problematic reading; only then can we find the value set for which that reading of Zecora is best pony.

There is, happily, a way to do so, and it requires only a fairly simple exercise: under what circumstances would Zecora not be problematic? Put another way, is it possible to render Zecora less problematic by changing the show around her while leaving Zecora herself intact? And if so, what changes to the show would accomplish this?

The first charge against Zecora, that of tokenism, comes with a ready answer to these questions. The problem of tokenism is that if an entire people have only one character to represent them, then any trait that character has reads as an assertion that the trait is universal to the people. Any negative trait becomes an indictment of an entire people; anything about the character that resembles a stereotype held in the larger culture becomes reinforcement of that stereotype. For example, if the token woman in a show likes fashion and is highly status-conscious, she reinforces stereotypes about women.

Why, then, is Rarity not problematically reinforcing stereotypes about women? Because she shares a show with Rainbow Dash and Applejack, equally prominent characters who are women, but don’t share those particular stereotypical traits. Likewise, Applejack’s nurturing side isn’t a stereotype of the “even tough, take-charge women need to take care of babies” ilk, because Rainbow Dash isn’t a nurturer.

So the solution to Zecora’s tokenism problem is clear: more zebras. Zecora’s position as the wise mentor-figure recalls the “magical savage” stereotype of non-European people and the “magical Negro” in particular; add another zebra who isn’t like that and it becomes a personal trait of Zecora, not something shared by all zebras on the show. Zecora speaking in rhyme recalls minstrel shows and the stereotype of “black person equals rapper,” so add a zebra who doesn’t do it, and it becomes a personal trait of Zecora.

The other major challenge with Zecora is the appropriation and misuse of cultural iconography around her. The show has been very careful to give each pony tribe iconography associated with a particular subset of European culture–Old West for the Earth ponies, Classical for the pegasi, fairy-tale medieval for the unicorns. Zecora, however, gets a mishmash of African culture, evidence that less care is being taken. The writers clearly know less about African culture than their own, and are uninterested in trying to learn enough more to make Zecora’s hut from as distinct a time and place as, say, the architecture of Cloudsdale (which isn’t even all that distinct–it’s a region hundreds of miles across and a period a thousand years long, compared to the thousands of miles and years lumped into Zecora’s genericized Africa).

The solution is, again, to show more. Spend an episode in zebra country, either through the ponies visiting it or, even better, Zecora telling her story. Show that zebra (and African) culture is as varied, sophisticated, and deep as pony (European) culture. Maybe Zecora wandered zebra country before she came to Ponyville, and the contents of her hut come from different zebra communities. This would still be imperfect, as any depiction of human cultures as different species is inherently problematically othering, but it would be a vast improvement.

The problem, in other words, isn’t that Zecora exists. It’s that there’s only one of her. The show needs more zebra. Thus, one sense in which Zecora is best pony is that she is the pony there needs to be more of, not in a personal sense of her character needing more screentime, but in the sense that there need to be more ponies who are like her, yet distinct.

Which leads to the second sense in which Zecora is best pony: representation. It’s easy for someone who is frequently represented in media (say, a white, heterosexual, middle-class cismale such as myself) to forget how powerful seeing that representation actually is for someone who doesn’t get it nearly as often. Junot Diaz expresses it well:

You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror.  And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all.

Zecora is the only pony representing a non-European culture, and that makes her best pony if seeing more representation of non-European cultures is more important than seeing better representation of non-European cultures–which is a perfectly reasonable position to take, as either can do real good in the world. The problem of Zecora is once more not that Zecora shouldn’t exist; it’s that we need more and better Zecoras.

In that hypothetical show, where there are multiple tribes of zebras with distinct cultures, and multiple zebra characters with distinct personalities independent of cultural differences, and the buffalo have a distinct culture and individual personalities instead of being appalling stereotypes, and maybe a few other real-world ethnicities get depicted–in that show, is Zecora best pony?

Certainly she has her virtues. She is a born mentor, as witness her interactions with Apple Bloom, who is usually not the best student. She also, after Twilight’s defeat at the hands of Trixie in “Magic Duel,” patiently helps Twilight come to the realization that magic alone will not enable her to win, that she cannot overpower Trixie but can outwit her. She is tremendously patient and forgiving in “Bridle Gossip,” helping cure the ponies of their poison joke-inflicted ailments even after the repeatedly insult her and wreck her home, but at the same time not a pushover–she only does it after they realize the misunderstanding and apologize. She’s excellent with children as well; witness again her interactions with Apple Bloom in “Bridle Gossip” and “The Cutie Pox,” along with her quite entertaining storytelling session in “Luna Eclipsed,” which also demonstrates that she’s quite a good storyteller and entertainer. She has, in other words, all the qualities of a truly excellent primary school teacher, arguably more so than Cheerilee–at least, she has had more opportunity to demonstrate her abilities than Cheerilee has.

So we have two distinct senses in which Zecora can be taken as best pony. Within the context of the show as it is, she is deeply problematic, but at the same time the pony most defined by the show needing more of her, which certainly seems a reasonable enough definition of “best pony.” Outside that context, she is an excellent teacher and mentor, a great fit for a show about growing and learning and an aspirational fandom. Finally, she represents much-needed representation for viewers who aren’t necessarily of European descent, particularly black viewers. She is an important character with potential, who deserves a better depiction and better context than she has.

Beyond the Inferno: Situational and Virtue Ethics in Fullmetal Alchemist

Warning: Extensive spoilers for Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood and the Fullmetal Alchemist manga.

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood spends a lot of time tackling some fairly complex ethical questions for a shounen series, not least of which is its examination of vengeance and situational ethics. Of course, situational ethics tends to get a bad rap, being characterized (much like ethical relativism, to which it is related but not equivalent) as a sophistic cover for amorality. But really, situational ethics is nothing more than the trivial observation that the context of an ethical decision can alter the outcome. On some level, this should be obvious; it is clear that curling one’s index finger caries different moal implications depending on whether the finger is pressed against the trigger of a gun or not. But FMA:B goes beyond the trivial in its examination, and as such, has earned some undeserved criticism for inconsistency on the question of whether revenge is justified.

A significant factor in this criticism is that we live in a culture where two major ethical systems dominate, the Manichaean and the utilitarian. In a Manichaean worldview, morality is determined by ingroup and outgroup status—anything which helps the ingroup or harms the outgroup is good, and anything which does the opposite is bad. The same action may thus be regarded as good when done to the outgroup, and bad when done to the ingroup, or vice versa. This is the moral view generally embraced by militaries (“support your comrades, kill the bad guys”), and can be found in quite a few places in our culture, such as most action movies and video games, the Harry Potter series, and the Republican party. Contract the ingroup until it consists of only the individual self, and you have capitalism, libertarianism, and objectivism.

At the other extreme, expand the ingroup to include all of humanity and you have the utilitarian view: anything which net benefits people is good, anything which net harms them is bad. It’s certainly a more progressive worldview than Manichaeanism, but still based entirely on the outcomes of actions. It does not matter why or how you benefit people, as long as you do. Which sounds reasonable on the face of it, until you realize that depending on whether you count misery as a small amount of happiness or a negative amount of happiness, utilitarianism either says that a world of 50 quadrillion miserable people is better than a world of 5 billion happy people, or it says that murdering severely depressed, unloved people is not only morally permissible but mandatory.

FMA:B, on the other hand, mostly follows an ethical system that is largely disfavored in our culture, virtue ethics. In virtue ethics, an action is good if it demonstrates that the person doing it has the qualities of a good person, and bad if it demonstrates they have the qualities of a bad person. This is where we come to the question of revenge, because FMA:B quite consistently argues that pursuing revenge turns you into a bad person.

Key to this are the characters of Scar and Mustang. Scar is the survivor of genocide; most of his people are dead, murdered by the Amestrian military and particularly its State Alchemists, their homeland of Ishbal is ruined and largely abandoned, and most of the survivors live in slums scattered throughout Amestris. Early in the series, Scar is introduced as an antagonist, murdering every State Alchemist (an organization which the main character joined long after the Ishbalan War) he can find. From the start, Scar is depicted as inhuman: nigh-superhumanly fast and skilled in hand-to-hand combat, cold, implacable, without even a name—he is known only by the prominent facial scarring he received during the attack that killed his family. As the series progresses, however, Scar slowly turns away from vengeance, ultimately adopting the twofold goal of making Amestris admit what it did to his people, and reform in order to ensure it never happens again. This is accomplished through a process of humanization, as Scar acquires companions—a cowardly, disgraced Amestrian soldier, a foreign child on a journey of her own, and ultimately Marcoh, a medical doctor driven by guilt over the experiments he performed on Ishbalan prisoners of war—and is thus given opportunities to demonstrate emotion and character depth. Key in his development are his two confrontations with the character Winry, whose parents—Amestrian doctors who tried to help the Ishbalans during the war—were Scar’s first victims.

In the first encounter, Winry learns that Scar is responsible for her parents’ deaths and points a gun at him, but is unable to pull the trigger. Details of the scene cause Scar to flash back (post-traumatic stress disorder is another recurring theme of the series) to the death of his family, in a way that places Scar in the position of the State Alchemist who killed his family, main character Ed Elric in the position of Scar’s brother who died saving Scar, and Winry in the position of Scar. Scar flees in confusion, and soon after spares Marcoh’s life in exchange for learning more about the Ishbalan War, showing that already he is acquiring motivations other than mere revenge.

In the second encounter, Scar is immobilized and wounded, and several characters are debating whether to kill him, given that he has information they need. Winry steps in and begins treating Scar’s wounds, stating that although she does not forgive him, it’s what her parents would have done. At this point Scar’s transformation begins in earnest, and the series begins moving him from antagonist to, arguably, tritagonist or even deuteragonist.

Contrasted heavily to Scar is Mustang, an Amestrian State Alchemist regarded as a war hero for his participation in the genocide of the Ishbalans. From the start, Mustang is depicted as somewhat morally ambiguous, but mostly good. He seeks to become the head of the Amestrian military dictatorship, but not solely out of ambition; rather, he sees it as the only way to institute reforms. His explicitly stated plan is to become dictator, transform the country into one where genocide and dictatorship are not tolerated, and then turn himself in to a war crimes tribunal for his actions in Ishbal. Early in the series, Mustang’s best friend, Hughes, is murdered, and Mustang spends much of the series pursuing the mystery of who killed him and why, although like most of the cast he spends much of the second and third phases of the series too busy dealing with larger events to spend much time on personal goals.

Relatively shortly after Hughes’ death, Mustang encounters Lust, who contributed to Hughes’ death but is not the one who personally killed him. Lust is an extremely dangerous fighter, among the series’ more lethal antagonists, and manages to permanently disable one of Mustang’s closest followers, seriously injure Mustang, and nearly kill Mustang’s right-hand woman Riza (who is also strongly implied to be his love interest) and their ally Al Elric, Ed’s brother. Mustang responds with a furious show of force, brutally and efficiently killing Lust in an agonizing fashion. The scene is deeply uncomfortable, but played as a triumphant victory nonetheless, and indeed it is the first real victory anyone has had against the main antagonists of the series.

Much later, in the final run of episodes leading up to the series finale, Mustang finally meets Hughes killer, Envy, who not only confesses but brags and taunts Mustang about the killing. Mustang proceeds to violently, painfully, and methodically demolish Envy in a lengthy fight sequence that spans two episodes. Unlike his attacks on Lust, which looked and sounded extremely painful but were nonetheless clearly Mustang trying to kill her as quickly as possible using whatever resources he had on hand (Lust finally dies mere centimeters from striking a killing blow on Mustang), his fight with Envy is clearly torture. He gives Envy time to recover between attacks, allows him opportunities to attempt counterattacks (all of which Mustang immediately defeats), and deliberately uses attacks designed to be painful and disorienting rather than lethal (such as burning out Envy’s tongue and eyes). The sequence is extremely difficult to watch, and clearly the series very much intends it as such, because immediately after Envy’s defeat Riza, Scar, and Ed confront Mustang, persuade him that this pursuit of revenge and hatred is inappropriate for the man who will become the country’s leader, and force him to back off from striking the killing blow.

Finally, in the last episodes of the series, nearly the entire cast gathers to fight Father, the immortal power behind the throne of Amestris. Al sacrifices himself to save Ed, and Ed attacks Father in a berserker rage, seriously injuring him. There is then a brief fight between Father and another character, Greed, after which Ed strikes a final blow on Father, causing his body to be destroyed and his soul to return to the primordial chaos from which it originated. This entire sequence is again portrayed as a heroic act, with the assembled characters chanting Ed’s name as he fights Father.

Here, then, is the apparent inconsistency: Why is it wrong for Scar to kill State Alchemists, Winry to kill Scar, and Mustang to kill Envy, yet right for Mustang to kill Lust and Ed to kill Father? And the answer, of course, is context.

The latter two incidents have in common that the antagonist being killed is an immediate and deadly threat, is highly capable of defending themselves, and has only just caused serious harm to someone close to the protagonist doing the killing. The protagonist, in other words, is both acting in the heat of the moment and “punching up”—attacking someone more powerful than they. In addition, in both cases the protagonist has been well-established as a fighter, though Ed has been consistently portrayed as refusing to kill up until his fight with Father. Finally, they do not draw out the attacks more than is necessary; they are clearly acting to defeat the opponent, not cause them to suffer for its own sake.

All of the other incidents differ in at least one respect. Winry is consistently depicted as a non-combatant, as her confrontation with Scar makes clear: Ed tells her “these hands were made for healing, not killing” when he talks her down. Scar’s attacks on State Alchemists are based on old pain, and represent a premeditated plan; in addition, he targets all State Alchemists indiscriminately, not just those who participated in the Ishbalan genocide.

Finally, there is Mustang’s revenge on Envy, which of all of these scenes gets the most attention from the narrative, taking up the last seven minutes of episode 53 and the first ten or so of episode 54. That it gets this much time is especially notable given that, at this point in the series, there are no fewer than fifteen separate groups of characters being actively followed by the narrative, allowing an average of 1.47 minutes per group per episode—to give a single confrontation more than ten times that much screen time clearly marks it as both a major plot event and a key moment of character and thematic development.

All of which it is. The audience has minimal empathy with Envy in this scene, as he has been thoroughly vile throughout the series, killing beloved characters, taunting and tormenting others, and gleefully recounting his participation in multiple horrific acts, including deliberately setting off the conflict that culminated in the genocide of Ishbal. If anyone in the series deserves to die, it’s him—and yet the visuals repeatedly depict Mustang as a figure of terror, his face contorted in rage (including shadows noticeably similar to Scar’s scar) as he clinically describes precisely how little of a threat Envy is and how he plans to cause Envy maximum pain. After Envy attempts to flee, Mustang becomes much like a horror movie monster, unstoppable, implacable, and inescapable as he pursues Envy and just keeps hurting him, over and over and over again.

Mustang is consumed utterly by hatred, and the contrast between this and him fighting Lust (or Ed fighting Father) could not be clearer. In those scenes, the protagonist was immediately, furiously angry, but still recognizable themselves. They were not given over entirely to their anger, and thus still appeared human. Here, Mustang is monstrous, much like Scar in his early appearances, existing solely to make the enemy hurt without regard to any other concerns.

In both the fight with Lust and the fight with Envy, the effect of Mustang’s actions is identical: a lethal and dangerous enemy who has committed terrible crimes (and intends to commit more) dies painfully. However, the circumstances of that killing (the situation part of situational ethics) make it clear that against Lust Mustang is acting out of desire to protect his friends, loved ones, and allies, and anger at the immediate harm Lust has caused. In the latter, Mustang is acting out of desire to see his hated enemy suffer as much as possible. In other words, against Lust Mustang is being righteous, protective, loyal, and just; against Envy he is being sadistic. The former are virtues, the latter a vice, and thus under the series’ virtue ethos the former is right and the latter wrong.

This is primarily Scar’s argument in the scene where the other characters talk Mustang down, but it is not the only argument used against him. Ed and Riza instead use a slightly more complex variant of virtue ethics, in which the virtues themselves are situational—specifically, individual personality and social roles both influence what virtues apply for a particular person. This goes back to Winry’s “hands of a healer”; Ed’s argument in that scene is that it is wrong for Winry to kill because she is inclined to the virtues of compassion and empathy, and because her role in society is as a healer and maker of prostheses. The implication is that it would be wrong for Winry to kill, even in a situation like Mustang’s fight with Lust, because it would go against her core virtues and contradict her social role. Mustang, on the other hand, is neither particularly compassionate or empathetic, and as a soldier, his social role requires killing. However, as Ed points out, he seeks to become the ruler of Amestris in order to reform it. Is the kind of person who sadistically tortures hated enemies the kind of person who can transform a military dictatorship into a just and peaceful democracy?

The series is quite clear that the answer is no, and so Riza (whom Mustang ordered years ago to kill him if he ever became corrupted by power and ambition or strayed from the path of reforming Amestris) pulls her gun on Mustang and tells him that if he kills Envy, she will kill him, finish out the current mission, and kill herself. It is this ultimatum which finally breaks Mustang out of his berserker rage and forces him to back down from torturing Envy (who, for complex reasons outside the scope of this essay, commits suicide shortly thereafter).

Situational ethics, as I said, often gets a bad rap. Like moral relativism, it is frequently characterized as being a cover for underlying amorality. In truth, any sufficiently complex ethical schema can be gamed to justify basically anything, and so the extreme case of a complex ethos such as situational ethics or relativism does shade into amorality. On the other hand, simpler ethical schema lack flexibility and nuance, and so the extreme case of a simple ethos such as utilitarianism or deontology shades into extremism. FMA:B is not particularly inconsistent in its ethics, as critics allege; rather, it consistently portrays a complex virtue ethos in which the morality of an action is as much or more a function of the motivations, goals, social role, and emotional state of the person performing the action as it is a function of who the action targets or what outcomes it results in.

Elements of Harmony 2: Applejack Is Best Pony

For the “Element of Harmony” backer tier on the My Little Po-Mo Volume 1 Kickstarter, one of the rewards was for the backer to select a pony, and I would write an essay for this site on why that character is the best pony. This is the second such essay.
As I discussed in the article on Rarity, the question of “best pony” requires a definition of “best.” That the concept of “best” is not set in stone should be obvious, unless you wish to contend that what makes he best cupcake also makes the best pony. “Best” thus necessarily must always be understood to mean “best for a particular purpose,” not in any absolute sense.

Thus, just as with Rarity, if we can find the purposes to which Applejack is best suited, we will understand why she is best pony. Now, I’ve made no secret of my apathy toward Applejack; I find her a boring character, the least entertaining of the Mane Six, and indeed less entertaining than any of the princesses or the Cutie Mark Crusaders as well. Pretty much the only character likely to serve as an episode focus I am less enthused by than Applejack is Spike.

So, clearly, the purposes for which Applejack is best pony are not my purposes as a viewer or a commentator. But by examining the character and her strengths, can we construct such a purpose? Because of course she has quite a few strengths; as I have said before, I feel apathy, not antipathy, toward her. I don’t dislike her or think her unworthy, I just don’t personally find her entertaining, precisely because of her strengths.

Applejack’s greatest strength and weakness, fairly consistently across episodes featuring her, is her determination. Since, as a general rule, if a pony is the focus of an episode they must have a problem to overcome, frequently Applejack’s determination is depicted as stubbornness. Applejack creates her own problems by excessive stubbornness, whether that’s refusing to accept help from her friends in Season One’s “Applebuck Season,” refusing to compromise or bend her sense of propriety and fair play for others in “Look Before You Sleep” and “Fall Weather Friends” (both also Season One) or holding herself to unachievably high standards in Season Two’s “The Last Roundup” and Season Three’s “Apple Family Reunion.” But at other times her determination is a strength, as when she refuses to give up and recruits her friends and family to help against the Flim-Flam Brothers in “The Super-Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000.”

Applejack does not quit, and she hates to lose, regarding even second place as a failure (as witness her behavior in “Fall Weather Friends” and “The Last Roundup”). But she is not a total perfectionist: “Fall Weather Friends” opens with her playing horseshoes, visually referencing the saying that “Close only matters in horseshoes and hand grenades.” Although one of the most rigid of the Mane Six (Twilight has a tendency to become even more rigid when pushed outside her comfort zone), Applejack is capable of bending when necessary, as in “Sisterhooves Social.” In order to help her sister’s friend (who is also her friend’s sister) Sweetie Belle, she cheats at the obstacle course by secretly substituting a fresh pony for herself mid-race, and simultaneously throws the contest by having that pony be the significantly less athletic Rarity. Rainbow Dash, the most competitive of the Mane Six, would never do such a thing, but Applejack is willing to do so because in addition to her stubbornness, she has a strong sense of compassion.

Applejack’s compassionate, nurturing side comes out most in her interactions with her little sister, Apple Bloom. Given their lack of parents, Applejack serves as a surrogate mother to the significantly younger Apple, most notably in “Call of the Cutie” and “The Cutie Pox”–indeed, between her brother’s taciturn and self-effacing nature and her grandmother’s age and disability, Applejack is effectively head of the family and manager of the farm; though she regularly defers to her grandmother’s experience and advice, it is usually Applejack who represents Sweet Apple Acres and the Apple family in interactions with others.

Indeed, as the series has gone one Applejack’s “stubbornness” has increasingly been portrayed as a strong sense of responsibility, sometimes pathologically so. There are hints of this as early as “Applebuck Season,” but it is most clear in “The Last Roundup,” where Applejack refuses to return home or even explain to her friends what’s going on until she’s earned the money she promised the town, and “Apple Family Reunion,” where she works herself to the bone not out of a stubborn determination to prove Big Macintosh and Twilight Sparkle wrong, but out of a sense of obligation to provide her family with a “perfect” reunion.

That episode gives us a clue to a possible reason for why Applejack acts the way she does, in that it comes as close as the show likely ever will to outright saying that her parents are dead. The implication is very strong, and therein lies a key to Applejack’s personality and the first time her character becomes remotely interesting to me all series. Consider who was left on the farm after Applejack’s parents died: Her grandmother, elderly and disabled, full of knowledge but unable to handle the exhausting physical and emotional labor of maintaining the farm and holding the family together. Her brother, physically capable but too quiet and self-effacing to lead the family. Her sister, too young for any real responsibility. Applejack would have seen herself as having no choice; she had to take on the responsibilities of running the farm and leading the family, because no one else was available to do it. She herself was likely still quite young: given that the Mane Six have been friends for at least a couple of years by the time of Equestria Girls, which depicts them as high school students, and Applejack is already depicted as running the farm in the third episode of the series, she cannot have been more than the equivalent of a 15-year-old, and could have been as young as the age difference between the sisters, perhaps as little as five or six years. Nonetheless, she shouldered the burden because no one else was around to do it, and perhaps also to distract herself from grief.

There is further evidence that her shouldering of responsibilities could serve as a distraction and escape from grief, namely that she near-compulsively takes on new responsibilities. In both “The Last Roundup” and “Apple Family Reunion,” Applejack jumps at the chance to take on new responsibilities, even though the ones she already has are quite impressive for a pony so young. Something drives Applejack to take on ever more responsibility, and we’ve seen no signs that she has any particular future goal she strives toward; it thus seems likely that her drive is away from, not towards. She is still trying to race ahead of that loss, still distracting herself from fully experiencing it and beginning the healing process.

She is, in other words, the inverse of Pinkie Pie. Both are trying to escape past trauma, but doing so in opposite ways. Pinkie Pie buries herself in fun, playing her life away in a rejection of all responsibility, while Applejack devotes herself to work, becoming the kind of pony whose idea of a party is a chance to sell her apple treats.

But this dedication, coupled with her nurturing compassion and genuine desire to help others, points to the way in which Applejack is best pony: She is, of all the ponies in the show, the one who would make the best friend or family member. She is reliable, hardworking, stable, at least relative to the rest of Ponyville, caring, nurturing, compassionate, and honest. None of these traits open up a lot of avenues for character development, humor, or entertaining drama, but they are great traits to have in a companion, whether setting out an adventure or just trying to live life.

Like her determination at the diegetic level, Applejack’s greatest strength at the extradiegetic level is also her greatest weakness. That which makes her best pony also makes her boring: she is the best pony to have as a friend, so on a show where most episodes are about learning to become a better friend, Applejack has the least to learn. Within the terms by which the show defines growth, Applejack is already fully grown.

But once again, what makes for an interesting character to watch is not the same as what makes for a good friend. Applejack has the quality of the latter in spades. In this sense, she is unquestionably best pony.

The Art of the Opening

It’s still Wednesday, barely, so let’s talk about openings, shall we? Specifically, opening credit sequences to TV shows. What makes a good opening?

The answer is that it could be a lot of things, depending on the show. The ideal for an opening is to prime the audience to enjoy the show, but what exactly that means is highly variable.

The most basic approach, but frequently the most effective, is to introduce the audience to the characters and premise of the series. The Simpsons opening, for example, does a marvelous job of introducing the viewer (assuming they are one of the three people left on Earth who don’t know the characters) to the essential natures of the characters and that this is a cartoonish family comedy.

Here’s another classic example of this “introduce the premise” approach, which more explicitly lays out the premise while leaving out the characters (unless, as I do, you think the main character of Star Trek has always been the Enterprise).

Probably because of Star Trek, this style of opening has become de rigeur for American science fiction series, and reaches its apotheosis at the same point as the Star Trek-style imperialist-liberal space opera, Babylon 5. (Note, all openings after the first in this video contain spoilers–the third in particular contains the only case I know of where the first line of the opening sequence completely recontextualizes the series to that point.)

Note that, for the first two seasons, the opening relies heavily on detailed description in the form of a very dry monologue, but in the second season shifts to show more of the characters, emphasizing them as much or more than the titular Big Artificial Thing in Space. The third season starts to move away from that approach, using a combination of music, images, and a much shorter monologue to provide the revised series premise, and places the characters over the Big Artificial Thing in Space, implying (correctly) that it is important as the place where these characters interact, not as a consequence of its Bigness, Artificiality, or location In Space. The fourth opening abandons any straightforward explanation of the premise, and relies instead on a sort of thematic expression, with different characters pronouncing different views on the events of the series, and finally the fifth opening expresses the premise by showing it rather than telling it, presenting the series as the future history it is.

That thematic, rather than literal, expression of the series that Babylon 5 Season 4 attempted is often done extremely well by anime. I like to point to the fifth opening of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood as an example of this being done extremely well.

Here we have a song that is melancholic without being sad, juxtaposed with images of heroes and villains coming together in flames that dissolve them together (suggesting both the concept of the crucible and the alchemical stage of citrinitas), followed by a steady rain (the title of the song, incidentally) through which people nonetheless continue to strive, struggle and fight, though not without loss. In the end, the clouds part, and we see images of hope and love. Anyone who’s seen the final arc of the show to which this opening corresponds can see how relevant this is to the episodes in question, even though in terms of actual “spoiler” imagery it has a fairly light touch for an anime opener. (Which is to say, unacceptably heavy for a Western show.)

Another good anime example is the first-season opening to Higurashi no Naku Koro ni.

This is all about the song. I freaking love this song; it’s creepy, unsettling, and has a great beat. They even managed to use autotune well, which I didn’t think was possible! Image-wise, it’s pretty good, especially the beginning with the kaleidoscope and the flowers and, most importantly, the lamp with the butterfly. That image–a fragile, beautiful creature, drawn towards the light that will destroy it, but locked out by a cage–goes beyond intriguing and manages to be downright haunting.

Unfortunately, instead of sticking to its guns and depicting similarly haunting images, the opening instead shows all the main characters (with the notable exception of Keiichi, the only male character in the group) sad or in pain. It gives up on being the opening to a smart, highly original, and deeply creepy horror story and is instead the opening to a show about voyeuristically watching cute adolescent (and younger) girls suffer. Unfortunately, both of those are accurate descriptions of the brilliant but deeply problematic Higurashi no Naku Koro ni.

An opening doesn’t have to be particularly deep to be great. Some shows, you just need something to get you in the mood–say, some energetic 90s J-pop along with images of action-adventure shounen fantasy.

Returning to the West, there’s been a notable trend in American shows toward ever-shorter opening credits, so the question must be asked: Can a theme under 30 seconds accomplish anything more than announcing the name of the show and maybe one or two big names attached to it?

Yes, yes it can, as witness the theme that inspired this article.

Start with the visuals: a smoky green haze, the chemical formula for methamphetamine,* the periodic table, and then the title of the show, Breaking Bad. The periodic table is doubled over on itself, the right and left sides superimposed so that they can more easily dissolve into the title, evoking the overlapping dual nature of the protagonist, which must ultimately give way to reveal that, like everyone else, he’s a complex but singular entity. All of this imagery suggests a tale of science run amuck,which to an extent is true, but it is ultimately wiped away in smoke, leaving only the name of the show’s creator: this is also a complex and extended morality play, and the divine authorial hand will punish and wipe away the iniquity of those who “break bad.” Even the music adds extra layers, since it belongs quite firmly in the traditional scoring of Westerns, both recalling the New Mexico setting of the show and helping make the case that it belongs in the Western genre with which it shares so many thematic similarities and character archetypes (in particular, the series is highly reminiscent of the John Wayne vehicle The Searchers).

Finally, no discussion of openings could be complete without reference to my uncritical, irrational adoration of this final clip, the best version of the best opening theme in all of television. What can I say? I’m a child of the 80s, I have a nigh-Pavlovian response to cheesy synthesizers swelling hopefully.

*Which does NOT include lithium, whatever fans desperate to find alternate meanings for the title of the series finale might tell you: FeLiNa could be iron, lithium, salt, but that’s neither a stable compound nor some kind of code for “blood, meth, and tears”–there’s no lithium in meth.

Note: Because this article went up so late and is fairly lengthy, Thursday’s thought of the day will go up in the evening instead of noon.

Elements of Harmony 1: Rarity Is Best Pony

For the “Element of Harmony” backer tier on the My Little Po-Mo Volume 1 Kickstarter, one of the rewards was for the backer to select a pony, and I would write an essay for this site on why that character is the best pony. This is the first such essay.

What does it mean to ask “Who is best pony?” To define the term “best pony” is to already know the answer to the question, because “best” is a value judgment. Define what values qualify a pony to be “best,” and instantly whichever pony comes closest to those values is best pony. Change that definition, and the best pony changes.

The question thus can be said to have no answer, or more accurately to have as many answers as there are ponies. Every pony is best pony for some value of “best,” and so the challenge of arguing that a given pony is best pony is actually the challenge of identifying the value-set for which that pony is the closest fit.

For Rarity, that is very, very easy to do, especially if one has already written dozens of analytical essays on Friendship Is Magic. It was, admittedly, rather less easy before I began this project; when I started, Rarity ranked ahead of Applejack, but behind the rest of the Mane Six, the Cutie Mark Crusaders, and assorted other secondary ponies.

My reasons for disliking her were simple: she is vain, a social climbing status-seeker, harshly critical of others at times, fussy, and affects an accent that isn’t hers because she thinks it makes her sound posh.

All of which is, at least arguably, true. But once I started writing in detail about ponies, I discovered something: Of all the characters in the show, Rarity is, by far, the most interesting to analyze and the most fun to write about. As a result, over the course of this project, Rarity has leaped up my personal rankings until she is now my second-favorite character in the show, a position above which it is impossible to rise without entering into the pantheon of best characters in anything ever.

The value of best for which Rarity is the best pony can be summed up in more or less one word: complexity. Rarity is the most complex and layered character in the show, bar none. Consider her role in “Sweet and Elite”: on one level, she is a shallow social climber who temporarily abandons her friends and shirks her responsibilities because she is too busy being the latest favorite toy of the elite. She clearly loves having wealthy, presumably powerful ponies hanging on her judgment, listening to her opinions, and allowing her to function as a trendsetter.

But set aside that she breaks promises and lies to her friends to maintain this situation and look at the actual status she gains. Is there really anything wrong with wanting people whom you respect to respect you? Perhaps we may question the basis on which Rarity chooses whose respect is worth pursuing–I would consider the respect and friendship of Applejack, Twilight Sparkle, or Fluttershy to be a far higher token of worth than the respect of Hoity Toity or Jet Set–but we really have no basis to do so; she values what she values.

And note what she does with her newfound power and status: she aids other underdogs. She brings attention to struggling artists, garners bids for unpopular auction items–she does not forget where she came from or look down on people who are not in the elite. In this respect she is much like Fancy Pants, who gives her access to high society in the first place; she wants to be in high society because she values the elite status, but that does not mean she shares the norms and values of that society. She is a trendsetter, not a trend follower, and because of that she is ultimately resistant to the decadence, corruption, and judgmental arrogance that is typical in depictions of high society.

Those same sequences also showcase how fantastically generous Rarity is. Of all the Elements of Harmony, Rarity’s is the only one that inherently requires sacrifice; Rarity is most freely giving of the things she values most. The easy and obvious route for the Element of Generosity would be a character who throws herself into charitable causes and gives away everything she acquires, but that’s not Rarity; Rarity is no saint or savior. Her generosity takes the form of self-sacrifice; she gives others what she herself values, freely and without hesitation, but it would never occur to her that others might need what she herself does not want. She thus is not charitable in the way, say, Applejack would be charitable; the latter would most likely donate apples to food banks or give her winnings in an athletic competition to make repairs around town, while Rarity’s generosity takes the form of chopping off her beautiful, carefully maintained tail and giving it to an unhappy sea serpent.

Nowhere is Rarity’s generosity more evident than in “Green Isn’t Your Color.” She spends that episode intensely envious of Fluttershy, who has the high-society and fashion-world attention Rarity craves, yet when Fluttershy (apparently) makes a fool of herself on the runway, Rarity does not hesitate to turn the crowd in Fluttershy’s favor. Whether she currently possesses status or not, Rarity is generous in bestowing it on others–or, to put it another way, she is always willing to give away the single thing she values most, no matter how much of it she currently possesses herself.

Rarity is also quick to criticize others, as I said, but her criticism does not appear to be judgmental in nature. Rather, as an artist, she values beauty and presentation, and equally values honest critique of her work. One of her main artistic media is her own appearance, and so when she criticized others’ appearance and presentation she is once again giving something she values, honest, constructive criticism. Her very first appearance is an example of this form of generosity at work; she does not criticize Twilight’s mane out of a desire to put Twilight down or position herself as superior, but rather out of concern, and she immediately tries to help Twilight improve her appearance. That this isn’t what Twilight wants or needs points toward Rarity’s genuine flaws as a character, in particular her difficulty in understanding that her personal values are not universal, objective truths of the pony condition, but it nonetheless stands as an example of Rarity’s giving nature.

“Suited for Success” is yet another outstanding example of Rarity’s incredible generosity. In the course of this episode, she dedicates enormous quantities of her time, raw materials, and artistic skill to make not one, but three dresses for each of her friends. In part this is with the intent of catching Hoity Toity’s interest as a potential client, but initially she embarks on the project solely so that her friends will have something nice to wear to the Gala that will meet the approval of the high-society ponies attending; once again Rarity is trying to give others what she herself most wants. At the same time, she is also completely willing to take their wishes and desires into account once they tell her what those wishes are, even to the point of sacrificing her artistic vision. She knows that the second round of dresses aren’t good enough to impress Hoity Toity, but she is perfectly willing to sacrifice her career and artistic integrity in order to give her friends what they want.

Where her complexity comes most into play, however, is with consideration of those flaws I mentioned above. Rarity’s social climbing is, as I said in regards to “Sweet and Elite,” tempered by her willingness to aid others. She is not the typical social climber character, who is as willing to push others down as lift herself up; Rarity wants to enter the elite, but she is not particularly competitive, and does not presume status to be a zero-sum game. In almost any other media for girls her character would, as the beautiful, fashionable social climber who’s a little bit too willing to mention the flaws and errors of others, be depicted as a bully and a villain. Rarity, however, is genuinely happy to share her successes, and has no desire to be alone at the top. She simply wants to be surrounded and adored by elites, which is really no different from Rainbow Dash’s ambitions, except for how they respectively define “elite.”

Her other flaws are equally balanced or contradicted by virtues. She is fussy and vain, but at the same time will reluctantly get dirty if it’s necessary. She doesn’t enjoy camping and insists on bringing along a ridiculous pile of supplies, for example, but if she needs to go into the Everfree Forest to save the world or follow Spike for days across Equestria she seems to rough it without complaint. Her second significant act in the series, after Twilight’s makeover, is to join the rest of the Mane Six in insisting on accompanying Twilight into the Everfree to find the Elements of Harmony; her third is to kick a manticore in the face. She is not the fainting flower she at first glance appears to be.

Instead, her fainting flower persona, accent, and upper-class manners are all a conscious affectation. Her accent is the most obvious; she speaks nothing like her parents, which is not that surprising–Sweetie Belle also has a different accent. The difference between the two sisters, however, is that Sweetie Belle has a typical accent for Ponyville citizens, which makes sense–a person’s accent is defined largely by the community in which they grow up, not their parents, so her accent is easily explained by the family moving to Ponyville at least a few years before the present of the series. Rarity, however, speaks with an accent not associated with any location in the series, implying that it is not the accent where she grew up, but rather consciously chosen to make herself sound wealthy and sophisticated. That the same accent (called Trans-Atlantic or Mid-Atlantic) in real life is not associated with any geographic community, but instead deliberately cultivated by the upper classes of the Northeast U.S. and by Hollywood to combine elements of American and British English, suggests this is a deliberate implication; we are “meant” to read Rarity’s accent as affectation.

She has deliberately shaped her persona, in other words, to fit in with the elites she hopes someday to be accepted by. But affectation is not the same as fakery; one could equally say that Twilight’s scholarly knowledge or Rainbow Dash’s aerobatics are affectations, as those are skills have acquired as a means to accomplish their goals. More accurate would be to say that Rarity has consciously pursued a program of self-improvement, to more closely approximate what she sees as her ideal self. The show does not judge; Twilight is a scholar, and therefore building academic skills is valuable self-improvement, not fakery or living a lie; Rarity is a social climber, and therefore building the skills to fit in with the upper classes is likewise.

And so we arrive at a picture of Rarity: vain but not selfish, fussy but hardworking, critical but giving, status-conscious but not a bully. No one in the series approaches her for complexity–not even Luna comes close–and so we can say that, in this regard at least, she is without question Best Pony.

Cupcakes – so sweet and tasty/Cupcakes – don’t be too hasty (Guest post by Charles Dunbar)

If you have any involvement whatsoever in the East Coast anime convention circuit, even as an attendee, then you know Charles Dunbar a.k.a Study of Anime. A cultural anthropologist who studies both Japanese culture and American fandoms, he attends on the order of 20 conventions a year and typically presents five to ten hours of programming at each, ranging from the history of Doctor Who to an overview of the academic study of fandom to ninjas historical and legendary. He’s been a friend for a number of years now, and edited the book version of My Little Po-Mo.

A couple of months ago, he admitted to me that he had finally become a brony. This is his story of how. 

Hello all, my name is Charles, and I like My Little Pony.

I can’t tell you how long I’ve been waiting for those words to escape my mouth. I’m pretty sure a lot of folks have been also (including the writer of this blog). Since what seems like forever, friends, loved ones and fellows met at cons have all tried–unsuccessfully, I might add–to get me to join the “herd.” Or, at the very least, get me to watch Friendship is Magic.

But I resisted. Oh, how I resisted. It wasn’t because of the maligned reputation of the brony community at large–I’ve appreciated “marginalized” fandoms my entire life, from Star Trek in the 90s (when it was still seen as “nerd stuff”) to gaming (I’ve been called a satanist before for liking D&D and Magic) to even anime back before Pokemon gave it mainstream attention. Honestly, all my impressions of the FiM community have been positive: the welcoming atmosphere that reminded me of the otaku crowd I first wandered into in the late 90s/early 00s, the vibrant creativity, the quirky “in-jokes”–all of it was firmly rooted on the positive side of a fandom that had appeared and grown right under my nose, while my attentions had been diverted to looking at con culture and fandom dynamics. The fact that the same community managed to cultivate and externalize itself was worthy of even more respect, given the cosmopolitan nature of modern fandom, and how so many prospective groups never evolve beyond their nascent stages. I’ve watched as so many anime rise and fell, as webcomic fandoms began to pop up during those long weekends, and watched as group memberships fluctuated rapidly based on whatever was popular–but at each junction, the brony community expanded and steadily consolidated its fan base, with some notice from the attendees at large, but still generally “under the radar” when compared to the highly visible Hetalia and Homestuck fans.

It also wasn’t the idea that MLP:FiM is a show for children, either. I had actually watched most of G1, and enjoyed it, back when I was but a wee one, sitting in front of the TV on Saturday mornings and weekday afternoons. I never subscribed to “gender stereotypes” growing up (didn’t even know what they were, to be honest) I just watched what I liked, and I knew She-Ra was cooler than He-Man, and that the Ponies were on right after something else I enjoyed, so I stayed put. I still remember some random scenes, and I can say with some definitive authority that I scribbled down the bare bones of what would become mental “fanfics” featuring the characters. That alone would negate the “stigma” of watching the series now, because for me it would be first and foremost a nostalgia act.

(Plus, most arguments about age-appropriate entertainment fly past me because I’m also a massive Poke-holic, even as I live through my third decade of life. I’m one of a few Westerners who can seriously say I’ve made actual money talking about Pokemon.)

I knew I would enjoy the show, I knew I would appreciate the fandom, I even knew I would have friends there to help me navigate the complexities of it once I took that first step down the road to Equestria (I can’t believe I just wrote that, btw. Equestria.) No, there was another reason I was holding out, resisting the pull with every fiber of my being. It was rooted in personal experience, reflected by my introductions to every fandom I’ve ever been a part of since I came to understand what being a fan really was. I was aware of myself and my actions, moreso than ever before in my life. I KNEW what would happen.

Once I started down that path, it would be full speed ahead.

People who know me know I disdain doing things half-assed, especially when it comes to my fandoms. And when I discover something new, I make sure I’m versed in as much of it as possible. I acquire the fan art, I read the fictions and the blogs. I discuss it with my friends. Sometimes, I even write about it. I take being a fan very seriously, and while I might never throw myself into a fandom to the same degree as the truly devoted, I still manage to devote enough of my time to not be superficial in my practices.

When I first saw friends becoming interested in FiM, I knew immediately that, should I get involved, I would spend at least the next month or two becoming thoroughly familiar with the material, spending more than a few hours browsing YouTube and Google, and generally obsessing over the show with anyone who will listen. That happened when I got into Doctor Who in 2008, happened again when I rekindled my love of Star Trek and Star Wars, and had a lesser manifestation this past year as Psycho Pass and Attack on Titan restored my faith in anime. It’s how I function in most aspects of my daily life, in fact–the enthusiasm with which I approach fandom isn’t itself unique to fandom, and when I get excited about something, I get EXCITED about it. And it’s not all that much of a challenge to become excited about something, so long as it tickles my mental fancy, makes me laugh, or indulges my creativity.

(FiM stoked a few of those fires earlier this year, as I was becoming acquainted with some of the fanfiction (namely Fallout Equestria) during another one of my periodic binges on FF.net, but it shared the stage with a brilliantly written Harry Potter AU fic series, and was summarily forgotten a few months later.)

And so I resisted. I was doing a pretty bang-up job of it, too. I knew enough of the fandom to insert some random practices into my “daily speech:” I would say “brohoof” from time to time, and remark how certain things could be “20% cooler.” I even threw some fan-made pony videos into my Anime Openings panels, much to the chagrin (and horror) of friends sitting in the audience. I was fully aware of the fandom and the show, and while I made no attempts to ignore/deny it, I also made sure not to indulge (beyond when I was sitting in a room with people watching it, as happened during Halloween 2011, when “Luna Eclipsed” was being screened while I was sitting in a basement, waiting to leave for Nekocon). I held out during Dr Bill Ellis’ wonderful exploration of how bronies and otaku can learn from each other at AnimeNEXT 2012. I held out after watching some truly horrid “documentaries” about brony fandom that even I knew were fatally flawed in their thesis and execution. I even held out while editing Mr. Blue’s manuscript for My Little Po-Mo, constantly repeating my need for objectivity as I read through draft after draft, and became familiar with the same characters I now know quite well.

And then I discovered Cupcakes, and it was all downhill from there.

For those unaware (and from what I gather, that means nobody really. If you’ve avoided Cupcakes, you must be living under a rock, or have completely ignored the MLP fan-content community for the past two years), Cupcakes is what happens when you mix FiM with Silence of the Lambs and an Eli Roth movie. I won’t try to explain the plot here, that’s what Wikipedia is for, but needless to say, it’s a (literally) bloody mess of a story centered on Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, sharp implements, and the aforementioned cupcakes. It’s a bit crude, a bit base, and completely over the top in terms of gore and stretching the limits of one’s disbelief.

I loved every minute of it.

I enjoy horror. A lot. It doesn’t need to be cerebral (one of my favorite “gore” films is Hostel pt. II), it just needs to be entertaining, bloody without being excessive, and if it makes my skin crawl, it’s done its job well. Cupcakes succeeded on that front–not only is the fic (and associated comic, videos, and sequels) generally “in-character,” but it’s such a departure from the tone of the show, that I could not look away. (Though admittedly, upon watching Feeling Pinkie Keen, I can completely see Ms. Pie acting out that way.) And I didn’t–I spent the subsequent week absorbing everything I could about it, all while starting my much-delayed foray into the series proper. Along the way, I also found “Rainbow Factory,” “Forensics in Magic,” “Sweet Apple Massacre” (which I will go on record as saying NOBODY SHOULD EVER READ. Seriously, it’s the “A Serbian Film” of MLP darkfic, sans “political commentary.”), and even began sharing notes with a friend for one of my own, which as of now will get written up “eventually.”

Not exactly the typical “how I became a fan” story, is it? Or maybe it is?

That’s something to be said about meta-fandom, isn’t it? How something completely outside the scope of the show and its content could be so appealing to some folks, that they are drawn in because of it. I’ve met other fans who found FiM through Cupcakes (including one on the streets of Chinatown, who was wearing a Derpy shirt, which was how we got to talking), and people who appreciate the impact the fic had on the community at large. It’s not all that well-written, nor all that revolutionary when you think about it (it seriously is Silence of the Lambs), but it touched off a huge wave of sequels and copycat fics, which in turn inspired other writers, artists and designers to “take a stab” (pun intended) at contributing to the fandom. How many of these folks would have done it otherwise?

As much as I enjoy the show (and enjoy it I do, as I knew I would), it’s the meta-fandom that keeps me there. Fan songs, fan mixes, some truly lovely fan art, and welcoming fans in general, enhance the appeal of FiM more than the show itself manages. Let’s be honest with ourselves, the show isn’t THAT great, groundbreaking, or revolutionary. It’s a quirky, self-referential program meant to impart positive messages to a young generation, rarely allowing itself to indulge more serious moments, and erring on the side of humor when the going gets tough. Essentially, a kid’s show, with easter eggs thrown in for any adults roped into watching it with their children. But the fandom has managed to co-opt the show in ways that allow them to satisfy their own wants, and exercise their own creative impulses within the framework of a world that they know, understand, and love. They add to the prevailing “mythology” of Equestria in fully unorthodox ways that are themselves more satisfying. Any depth they find/add to the show, they do fully on their own, for their own gain, and under their own terms. They are aware that their contributions are not “canon,” but also receive little-to-no pushback denouncing their efforts from the controllers of the canon. They appreciate both the show and expanded content as interlocking entities that revolve around, influence, and enhance the other, not unlike Celestia and Luna in that iconic image from the pilot. And they fully embrace the fact that some of the fans might skew meta, while others prefer canonical, and do their best to not judge the other “side.”

I can appreciate that, as I’ve appreciated otakudom, Trekkies and wannabe Jedi (three things I already am). It might be a bit presumptuous of me to say at this point (I’m only a month in), but seeing as how aware I’ve been of the community these past few years, I can see this becoming yet another solid interest of mine. Like I said before, I saw this one coming a mile away.

Oh, and before anyone asks me: Rarity. (You were all right.)

Reading Too Much Into Adventure Time! with Finn and Jake, Part One

Once again, lacking anything else to post for a Wednesday Whatever I go to the well of hastily adapted panel notes. This time, have my panel on Adventure Time! from Connecticon 2013. As always, this is built around discrete chunks tied to slides, so please forgive the lack of flow. This is the first half of the panel; I will hold the second half, dealing with character relationships and postmodern elements, for another Wednesday.

Adventure Time! as nonsense literature: Literary nonsense is a genre with roots in two sources: First, traditional nursery rhymes, which employed made-up rhymes, little games (such as paddycake and ring-around-the-rosie) and lots of animal and food themes to entertain children. Second, in the middle ages scholars, intellectuals, and poets employed intellectual absurdities and paradoxes for humor in political satire, parodies, and comedies. Edward Lear popularized combining the two with his limericks, stories, and songs (most famously “The Owl and the Pussycat,” which combines animal themes and made-up words like “runcible spoon” familiar from nursery rhymes with a parody of courtly love). Lewis Carroll then codified the genre with the Alice books, the Sylvie and Bruno books, and poems like “The Hunting of the Snark.”

Nonsense literature is generally rigorously logical, but with skewed premises—characters have very simple, straightforward emotions, and their behavior is instead logically driven from a weird basis. For example, Bubblegum Princess is uninterested in romance, and instead all her actions follow as a logical consequence of the absurd premise of being a ruler who is also a mad scientist who is also living candy. Nonsense literature tends to play with things that have a lot of arbitrary rules in real life, such as games, food (which is always surrounded by complex etiquette and rules about what you can eat at different times of day or what foods go together (ice cream and asparagus for breakfast, for example, is arbitrarily not acceptable even though either food on its own is acceptable at other times of day)), and laws, stripped of their normal context and emotional content. That’s all over the place in Adventure Time—early elements have things like the bizarre trials for breaking a Royal Promise, people made of candy, hot dogs, berries, and so on, and lots of references to video games and D&D. There are also entire episodes devoted to games being taken bizarrely seriously, such as the game of Let’s Pretend during the knife storm or the complex holographic Magic-the-Gathering-type game Finn and Jake play that Jake takes far too seriously.

The Nostalgia Factor: There’s a moderately well-known video about this from the PBS Idea Channel on YouTube. As it points out, a lot of the cartoons popular among adults evoke a sense of nostalgia—a fuzzy notion that childhood is nicer and simpler and happier, a wish to return to it. MLP, Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, and Gumball are all examples. Adventure Time evokes this nostalgia in a lot of ways: the heroic adventures, post-apocalyptic setting, and sword-wielding blend of fantasy and science fiction were common in products of the 1980s and early 1990s such as Thundercats, He-Man, and Krull. Nonsense literature is often usually children’s literature, so that element evokes memories of childhood, too. And the music frequently employs chiptunes, which are based on the sounds of video game consoles of the 1980s and 1990s. Many individual episodes work for this—for example, in Season One’s “Dungeon” they split up to explore a dungeon, and encounter challenges which would be perfect for the other one, parodying shows like Superfriends where the characters would always face challenges perfectly suited for their particular skills (for example, there was always a water-based problem for Aquaman). However, this video misses the mark by suggesting that its appeal is because the characters are nostalgic themselves, with things like the wreckage of human civilization everywhere and the hints at past relationships and “better days” between Marcelline and other characters like Ice King and Bubblegum Princess. That’s unlikely as a source of the show’s popularity because it was already hugely popular long before those elements became clear in late first/early second season. The bigger factor is that unlike most shows nostalgic for childhood, it doesn’t shy away from showing how much being a kid can suck. Finn frequently is ordered to do things without knowing why, has information hidden from him by adults, gets confused over relationships and life questions and his identity—his life is not all happiness and silliness! It is thus far more accurate to childhood than most such shows, and thereby evokes nostalgia all the more strongly.

Meme depot into cult show: As long-time readers of this blog know, I have argued before that there are basically two kinds of shows popular among geeks right now. Meme depots are shows that have a lot of absurd gags that are easily repeatable out of context, so we can easily spread them as memes on Facebook and Tumblr. Most of these are cartoons—Family Guy was probably the original cartoon to actively do this, but it’s been done better by shows like Regular Show. A cult show, on the other hand, has a plan (or pretends to have a plan) and much of the fun comes from the audience learning about the world and gathering clues to try to figure out the plan. This is old hat in anime and limited-run British series like The Prisoner, but in American television didn’t catch on until shows like X-Files and Babylon 5 in the 1990s, before it took off massively with Lost. As mentioned, it’s always been everywhere in anime, but entered Western animation in the 2000s with shows like Justice League and Avatar the Last Airbender. What’s interesting about Adventure Time is that it started as a meme depot—it was all about silly gags and gif-able memes—but has been steadily becoming more of a cult show, slowly revealing that there is a backstory worth caring about with things like Marceline and Ice King’s relationship, dropping recurring hints at future developments with things like the snail that became the snail-lich, and so on.

Worldbuilding: This brings us to worldbuilding. The Simon and Marcy episodes are a good source for this. We know there was a Great Mushroom War, referring to the mushroom cloud from nukes, and that the current planet has a huge chunk taken out of it. We don’t know what caused the Mushroom War, but it’s not that relevant to the present of the show–whatever cultures’ differences created the conflict are long gone. The “Finn the Human/Jake the Dog” two-parter shows us an alternate history that implies that these weapons weren’t all straightforward nukes, since the one bomb is implied to have necromantic elements that probably created the Lich in the normal continuity.

How did humans get a necromantic bomb? The fact that both Marceline and the Ice King’s crown predate the Mushroom War means that magic has always been around in this world, although maybe it wasn’t as out in the open prior to the war. Things like Hell, vampires, and magical artifacts existed, so why not necromantic nukes? “Simon and Marcy” even gives hints to the origins of the candy people: The zombie-like mutated humans in the abandoned city resemble the candy people faintly, and the friendly blob creature is pretty obviously Princess Bubblegum or an ancestor. The episode as a whole is actually something of a reference to the novel “I Am Legend,” with Simon as the main character and Marcy as the dog. As in that book, the apparent monsters are actually humanity’s successors that will be founding a new civilization in the future, and the apparent hero is going to be their legendary monster.

In the Heart and Mind of the Universe, There Is a Reason

Doctor Who Series 3, episode 2, “The Shakespeare Code,” poses serious issues for a long-time, committed and discerning fan such as myself. On the one hand, as a fan I very much want it to be good, or at least to find something to enjoy in it. On the other, as a person whose taste has been shaped by past experience of works of this type, it would dishonor the memory of my favorites to not recognize when something fails to live up to them.

And look, I’m no purist. I understand that art requires trying new things, that it is necessary to experiment. At the same time, it is the nature of experimentation that most attempts fail to accomplish their goals–indeed, that is the point, to try out things that might or might not succeed and discard the ones that do not. If we pretend that a failed experiment is not a failure, then we have missed the point of experimentation. True, it is just as bad to fail to recognize something good just because it’s unfamiliar, but I don’t think that’s the issue here. I’ve had and enjoyed mint ice cream with peanut-butter sauce and raspberries; it takes some getting used to, but once you understand what it’s doing, it’s actually quite delicious.

But I’m sorry, try as I might I cannot figure out how I’m supposed to enjoy or even appreciate this. This goes beyond experimentation or even challenging our expectations; I have to seriously question the judgment of the people responsible for making it. Have they ever even eaten ice cream? Do they know what it is?

Consider: Even the simplest hot fudge sundae is a study in delicious contrasts. Thick, sticky sauce, so dark a brown it’s nearly black, dribbling down the sides of a creamy mound of bright white ice cream. Hot, bittersweet, rich chocolate shares mouthspace with cold, sweet, refreshing vanilla. But here we have no such contrasts–quite the opposite, as the episode takes pains to make the 16th century as familiar an experience for modern-day Martha as possible, from the Doctor’s speech early in the episode comparing people on the street to their 21st-century equivalents, to the depiction of William Shakespeare as a pop-cultural icon.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with challenging definitions in art, at least in principle. Can you make a sundae without ice cream? Well, frozen yogurt seems like a reasonable substitute. Maybe sherbet, perhaps even a sorbet, as long as they have toppings. But would a bowl of chocolate sauce and sprinkles be a sundae? Is it still a sundae after the ice cream has melted? Those seem like reasonable avenues for exploration.

But “The Shakespeare Code” isn’t even edible! You might be able to make the case that 44 minutes of sitting, spoon in hand, as frustration mounts is an artistic experience of some sort, but it certainly isn’t an ice cream sundae by any stretch of the definition I can imagine!

Like I said, it makes me seriously question the judgment of the BBC. I get that Doctor Who is one of their longest-running properties, and maybe they’re concerned about getting stale, but it got to be so long-running because of fan loyalty. Now, I don’t want to be one of those “entitled” fans here; I get that the BBC owes me nothing, but at the same time I don’t owe them anything, either. It’s not a matter of owing something, but of cause and effect: if you want to retain your fans, you have to give them something to like. And people love ice cream! It’s been one of the most popular desserts for decades, and for good reason. So you can’t just go around, presenting something that is blatantly not at all an ice cream sundae, and expect to retain viewers!

This is typical Davies, and sadly, I can say with some authority (having seen the entirety of the new series to date) that Moffat does no better. They both seem utterly determined to provide viewers with no ice cream whatsoever–indeed, ice cream is barely even mentioned anywhere in their runs! It makes me seriously question why I continue to bother watching—I don’t know who they think they’re making this series for, but it’s obviously not ice cream aficionados any more.

If it ever even was.