|The Spike your Spike could smell like has two tickets to that thing you like.|
It’s October 29, 2010. Bruno Mars continues to top the music charts. If this goes on another week, I might have to actually break down and listen to the damn song. The top movie this weekend is Saw 3D, unsurprisingly given that it’s Halloween weekend.
In less entertaining news, in the week since our last episode Wikileaks’ revelations about the Iraq war continue to make waves, a campaign begins in Britain to bring legal challenges against the gay marriage ban, and Sony stops selling cassette Walkmen. The Emperor of Exmoor, a deer believed to be the oldest living animal in Britain, is killed. Scientists discover a new kind of monkey and the most massive neutron star to date, and a British man goes to prison for trolling Facebook memorial pages.
Meanwhile, in Equestria, we have “The Ticket Master,” a problematic but overall good-ish episode co-written by Amy Keating Rogers, who I’ll just say up front is probably my least favorite writer on the series.
Since I’ll be tossing around that word a lot, I should explain what I mean by “problematic.” The first thing to clear up is that it doesn’t mean bad. A lot of very good art is problematic, and so is a lot of art I like (some of which is also good–they’re two different things). When I say a work is problematic, I mean exactly that and nothing else: It displays the effects of problems. They could be problems in the work itself (an episode that suffers from flaws in the show’s premise, for example) or they could be problems in the creators’ worldview (see Moffat-era Doctor Who, gender essentialism in) or the society around the show.
To say that a work is problematic in its treatment of, say, race is not to say that the work is racist or that the writer is racist. Instead, it means that the work contains elements which are uncomfortably easy to read as racist, which may or may not be balanced by other elements in the work.
It’s that last one that mostly haunts “The Ticket Master.” For a series that did such an excellent job, last week, of giving us six very different young women with six very different personalities while nonetheless remaining very clearly young women, this week’s episode is…
Well, look. I don’t want to say it. I love this show. This isn’t my favorite episode, but it’s not a bad episode by any means. And it does do a lot of things right, and it’s way better than most shows, especially kids’ shows, out there.
But, I’m sorry, “The Ticket Master” is just a little bit sexist.
Most obviously, Spike is very gender-essentialist in this episode. He rejects the Grand Galloping Gala, which is fine–I don’t care for parties either, especially the snooty high-society type–but he does so explicitly because they’re for girls, and he’s a boy dragon: “I don’t want any of that girly, frilly, fru-fru nonsense.”
True, it’s subverted near the end, when he’s disappointed he doesn’t get to go and then overjoyed when a ticket turns up for him; however, nothing in that scene would have been any less funny if Spike’s disinterest in going was presented as a personal thing, rather than a sweeping declaration about half the population of the world.
It’s especially unfortunate because of the timing. As I said at the beginning, it’s October 29, 2010. Ten days ago, Amid Amidi’s article “The End of the Creator-Driven Era in TV Animation” appeared on Cartoon Brew, and inadvertently created bronies. The story goes that the article got a link on 4chan, inspiring the notorious user base of that site to watch the show with the intent of mocking it. Instead, they found themselves embracing it, and formed a core of a rapidly growing, mostly male online fandom. So here we have, in what is very likely to be the first episode seen by the early-adopter bronies (except for the earliest of early adopters, of course), Spike announcing that there are girl entertainments and they’re just for girls–telling the newly arrived male viewers, in other words, that this girly, frilly, fru-fru show isn’t for them, and Applejack saying of him “Isn’t that just like a boy. Can’t handle the least bit of sentiment.” Thank goodness they’re both wrong!
Now, in isolation this isn’t that bad. Compared to the level of gender essentialism present in most television, it’s not that bad, and it does get nicely subverted. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist in isolation; it exists within the rest of “The Ticket Masters,” which is to say surrounded by less obvious, but worse, bits of feminism-fail.
For starters, we have Rarity. Now, Rarity is an interesting character. I think in some ways she must be the hardest Friendship Is Magic character to write, because she’s the closest to a traditional girls’ cartoon protagonist. Her interests are unquestionably “girly”; of all the characters, she is the most interested in fashion, the most interested in social status, the most interested in etiquette and decorum, and the only one to demonstrate any interest in pursuing romantic relationships. She also has the most traditionally feminine skillset: fashion, home decor, manipulation, and gossip. She’s “the girly one” of the group, more or less–or, to put it another way, she’s every character in Trollz.
(One can make a case for Pinkie Pie and especially Fluttershy also being quite traditionally feminine. The difference is that, confronted with an obstacle, Pinkie Pie overcomes it by Rule of Funny, Fluttershy either befriends it or intimidates it into submission, and Rarity either befriends it or manipulates it. Of these, Rarity is clearly the one that most easily slips into toxic depictions of femininity, and those are the depictions that concern us here.)
In the hands of a careful writer who makes an effort to avoid the pitfalls of her character (Charlotte Fullerton or Meghan McCarthy, for example), Rarity can be an excellent character. Her interest in fashion becomes the passion of an artist for her medium. Her manipulative side and status-seeking are tempered by a high social intelligence, innate generosity, and willingness to make sacrifices. (Seriously, watch “Suited for Success.” Has any other pony ever been willing to work herself to that level of exhaustion to please her friends? Applejack doesn’t count, for reasons we’ll discuss next week and, oh… how’s next June looking for you?)
But in the hands of a writer who doesn’t get the character, like Rogers or M.A. Larson, Rarity becomes a shallow, manipulative social climber. Rogers’ difficulty writing Rarity is on full display here as Rarity describes her vision of attending the Gala:
It’s where I truly belong, and where I’m destined to meet him!… I would stroll through the Gala, and everyone would wonder, “Who is that mysterious mare?” They would never guess that I was just a simple pony from little old Ponyville. Why, I’ll cause such a sensation that I would be invited for an audience with Princess Celestia herself, and the Princess would be so taken with my style and elegance that she would introduce me to him! Her nephew, the most handsome, eligible unicorn stallion in Canterlot! Our eyes would meet, our hearts would melt, our courtship would be magnificent. He would ask for my hoof in marriage, and of course I would say, “YES!”
Because when chicks try to create something or improve their social standing, it’s all about snagging a husband, amirite? Gag.
More subtly troubling is the premise of the episode itself. Last week these characters forged a friendship in the midst of crisis, trusted and depended on each other, and created a bond powerful enough to overcome a goddess. This week they’re trying to bribe Twilight because they want her tickets?
The resonant concept here is the frenemy–a relationship based on lies, a friendship based on ulterior motives that covers over an underlying hostility. Now, admittedly there’s an arc to this season, where at the start the other five main characters are newly friends with Twilight, but the only other pony that’s friends with all of them is Pinky Pie. There are some extent friendships among the remaining ponies (most notably Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash), but much of the season involves them slowly developing friendships between pairs of ponies who would likely have little or no interaction if not for mutual friendship with Twilight Sparkle (most obviously in “Look before You Sleep,” where it is the main driver of the plot, but there are also several episodes where it exists as a background element). Still, this episode is a terrible place to start, because it implies that every character except Twilight has the capacity to fake friendship to get something they want. That’s astonishingly cynical for a show that is popular in large part because it’s the only straightforwardly sincere thing on television.
Why am I categorizing this as feminism-fail? Well, I mentioned toxic femininity above, and here’s a good place to explain exactly what I mean. Toxic masculinity is a fairly well-defined term; basically, it’s where the gender essentialist notion that some behaviors, activities, and feelings are “masculine” and some “feminine” combines with the classically sexist notion that men are better than women. The typical result is a man who is desperate to demonstrate that he is a Real Man by doing Real Man things and denigrating womanly things. When Spike rejects “girly, fru-fru nonsense” he’s suffering from a minor case of toxic masculinity; more serious cases can lead to some very ugly behavior indeed.
Toxic femininity is less well-defined; a Google search of the term reveals about a fifty-fifty mix of serious discussion by intelligent people and frothy-mouthed ranting by idiot MRAs and the like. I like to define it as being the interaction of three ideas. The first two are the same as in toxic masculinity, and the third is that women need male approval to be validated. The combination can result in several different behavior patterns. For example, Rarity’s dream in this episode is a form of toxic femininity: as the “girliest” pony, she needs male approval in the form of marriage to validate herself, and it needs to be a high-status stallion so that she can acquire that status–no thought of earning it for herself through her art and people skills, as she does in “Sweet and Elite.”
Another version of toxic femininity is a major source of the frenemy phenomenon: for a variety of reasons, our culture codes social and emotional intelligence as feminine, and therefore as bad–instead of highly emotionally and socially intelligent people being depicted as community builders, successful leaders, or understanding caretakers, they are more often depicted as weak, “sissy,” duplicitous men and manipulative, deceptive, backstabbing women. Toxic femininity also forces women into competition for status and approval, while also requiring them to try to look like “good girls.” Put the two results together and you get women competing viciously and manipulatively while maintaining a surface appearance of innocent friendship.
So, of course, given six young women who have just formed a friendship, the first story it occurs to anyone to tell is a story of them competing to see who can best manipulate Twilight Sparkle with excessive niceness out of ulterior motives. Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, and Rainbow Dash blatantly admit to it, but they all do it, and the only one remotely justified is (of course, since Rogers is writing) Applejack, who at least is doing it for her family as well as herself.
Of course, that just serves to make Twilight look as bad as her friends–given a choice between getting Granny a new hip and Pinkie Pie wanting to play Pin the Tail on the Pony, how indecisive do you have to be to not reject Pinkie Pie on the spot?
Don’t get me wrong, there’s good here. Fluttershy’s “hummingbirds that really hum and buzzards that really buzz” and Pinkie Pie’s “Oatmeal? Are you crazy!?” are pure nonsensical gold. There’s some great imagery, like Rarity’s “wheedling” pose and expression, Twilight’s eyes dilating as she looks at Applejack’s proffered food, and Twilight unimpressed as Pinkie throws her in the air the third time. It’s a nice touch that each character’s imagination of the Gala matches their personality–Applejack envisions a place that looks pretty much like Ponyville, Rainbow Dash expects an arena, Pinkie Pie has a musical number at a carnival, Rarity imagines a storybook-like series of almost-stills, and Fluttershy dreams of a park.
The ending also helps a lot. The typical ending for this kind of story would be for Twilight to tell off the other ponies and go with Spike, because he didn’t try to manipulate her, thus learning a valuable lesson that those ponies who pretended to be nice just for her ticket aren’t her real friends. Instead, they apologize and everyone gets to go.
In the end, that’s what saves this episode, and makes it merely problematic, rather than bad (there’s only one bad episode this season, and we won’t be getting to it for a while): The characters, ill-behaved as they are, learn to behave better. Rather than depicting frenemies as the norm for relationships between women, the episode shows them as an aberration to be corrected. Cynicism and bigotry wither in the face of friendship and sincerity; this is still Equestria. Celestia’s in her heaven and all’s right in the world.
Next week: The most boring pony and most problematic writer on the show team up to invent the best subgenre of pony stories. Wait, what?