Honey, Rarity thinks everything’s uncouth. (Look Before You Sleep)

Applejack’s Princess crushed Rarity’s “Purplemina” at the
Nightmare Night costume contest.

It’s December 3, 2010, and “Like a G6” is back on the charts. But any fears that the U.S.  media-consuming public are entirely devoid of taste are unfounded, as the glorious Tangled manages one weekend of dominating the movie charts between a pair of overhyped adaptions of mediocre Bible fanfics.

In real news, Leslie Nielson, master of deadpan delivery of ridiculous lines and surely one of the greatest comedic actors of the 20th century, dies. He was 84, and don’t call him Shirley. In better news, the U.S. Secretary of Defense endorses ending the ban on openly gay servicemembers in the military, and WikiLeaks releases another flood of classified documents, leading to governments scrambling hilariously in desperate and misguided attempts to preserve face.

On TV, Charlotte Fullerton has her pony-writing debut with “Look Before You Sleep,” at first glance a fairly typical odd-couple story about two ponies from very different apparent social classes forced to share sleeping quarters for the night. Watching (or, indeed, writing) the episode back in 2010, Rarity is clearly a fussy pony with an upper-class accent and refined tastes, while Applejack is down-and-dirty, with a countrified accent and tastes to match. Watching with eyes that have seen the intervening almost-two seasons, we know it’s more complicated than that–Rarity’s accent and mannerisms are the conscious affectations of someone trying to rise above firmly middle-class beginnings, while Applejack’s family is more George and Martha Bush than John and Martha Kent, and this could have added a lot of nuance to how annoying they find each other–but if we cast ourselves back to the broadcast date, we see only the class-based odd couple.

Except we don’t only see that, because there is a third pony here, a representative of pony intelligentsia. In addition to serving as a representative of a third class, Twilight adds something very strange to the mix: a book that describes how slumber parties are “supposed” to go. Slumber parties are mostly coded feminine in Western media (on the rare occasion boys are depicted as having them, they usually occur outdoors so they can be considered camping), and the book starts with an activity that is strongly feminine-coded, makeovers; Twilight Sparkle thus can be read as trying to unite the three members of disparate classes by appealing to their common femininity, but her methods are deeply suspect, since they consist of declaring and enforcing a set of arbitrary rules that constrain femininity.

In other words, this episode is exploring the intersection of class and gender issues. This intersectionality–the notion that progressive causes necessarily intertwine and cannot be fully separated–is at the core of a critical concept for understanding our culture and media, My Little Pony included: the kyriarchy.

Kyriarchy, a term coined by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and now fairly common among feminist theorists and writers, is the name for a society comprised of multiple different groups arranged in hierarchical relationships, with each individual in the society belonging to multiple groups. A key feature of kyriarchy is that the groups are structural, rather than voluntary–in other words, each group has a definition, and if you meet the definition, you are part of the group whether you want to be or not. In addition, each group has assigned roles, which do not necessarily follow from the definition of the group.

An example may be clearer. We live in a kyriarchy, just like every other known human culture, so any of us can be used as an example. I, for instance, am a member of the male, white, cisgendered, lower middle class, Jewish, atheist, short, obese, and mostly heterosexual groups. Some of these groups are more dominant, and some less so, and thus depending on the precise circumstances I may be privileged compared to members of other groups, or underprivileged, and the degree to which that privilege varies could be colossal, trivial, or anything in between. For example, I can marry my fiancee in any state in the U.S. and have that marriage recognized in any other state. On the other hand, I can’t afford a wedding. And even if I could, I’ll have to rent a tux with pants that don’t fit, because they don’t make pants my size.

Now of course, each of these groups is a cultural construct. There is no “man” or “woman” except the ones our culture creates, as becomes swiftly obvious when one looks at how other cultures construct gender (for example, the hijra of India or bacha posh of Afghanistan) or how our own culture constructed gender in the past (watch Disney’s Bambi for a good example of how differently our culture constructed masculinity only a couple of generations ago), and the same goes for all the other groups I listed. One interesting element of the kyriarchy is that groups intersect dynamically; in other words, “black woman” is not simply constructed as black + woman–you cannot compare how our culture constructs black womanhood to how our culture constructs white womanhood, subtract out the womanhood, and find the difference between how our culture constructs blackness and whiteness. Instead, there are cultural pressures and assumptions that are unique to black women, shared with neither black men nor white women.

So, for instance, we can see Rarity, Twilight, and Applejack as different constructions of femininity in different social classes. Rarity represents upper-class womanhood, Twilight Sparkle intellectual womanhood, and Applejack working-class womanhood.

Rarity, as a woman of the upper classes, has as her primary role in kyrarchical society the enforcement and maintenance of the status quo, which she does by applying social pressure to anyone who does not meet her (and society’s) standards of proper behavior. By doing so, she enforces her dominant position in the class hierarchy, as when she chastises Applejack for getting her hooves dirty. At the same time, she also reinforces gender roles, as when she forces Applejack into the frilly princess dress.

In our kyriarchy, women were until very recently only rarely permitted into the intellectual classes, and some areas (the STEM fields in particular) are still extremely male-dominated. For much of our history, however, a major role for women was the passing of traditional knowledge from one generation to the next, which task Twilight Sparkle takes on in the form of her book of rules and procedures for slumber parties, passing the traditional knowledge from the older generation making the show to the younger generation watching it (referring here to the actual target demographic, not the bronies). As with Rarity, this role gives Twilight Sparkle great power as the keeper of the rules, but it also constrains her into particular kyriarchy-approved roles.

Applejack seems at first glance like she might be a rebel against the kyriarchy, rejecting Rarity’s assigned roles in particular. However, if we situate ourselves in the time of broadcast, when there was still every reason to read Applejack as working-class, she is not rebelling at all. The role of the working class woman in the kyriarchy is to be the pragmatic, hard-working maintainer of a household, feeding and protecting her family and keeping a steady head in crises. She does not rebel against feminity, but rather rejects upper-class femininity as unsuitable for her working-class tastes.

This interaction between different groups is how the kyriarchy perpetuates itself. As in any hierarchy, one must work constantly to maintain one’s status or else fall to a lower status. The obvious example, given the show we’re talking about, is that an adult man who openly expresses a deep interest in a show coded as feminine and for children is likely to lose status in many people’s eyes. We can see how the kyriarchy uses this phenomenon to perpetuate itself in Rarity’s behavior throughout the episode: She tries to assert her status by continually criticizing Applejack’s lower-status behavior, but in so doing she simultaneously traps both of them in gendered constraints: A lady does not get herself muddy except as part of a beauty ritual, and therefore ladies are not permitted to do anything that might get them muddy.

Applejack and Twilight do no better for most of the episode. The only difference between Applejack and Rarity here is that Applejack is trying to knock Rarity out of her socially dominant position, while Rarity is trying to force Applejack to obey rules that only apply in a socially dominant position. Twilight, meanwhile, simply wants both of them to conform to the rules in her book. All three are seeking to enforce conformity; the only source of conflict is that they come from different positions in the kyriarchy and therefore want conformity to different standards. None of them question the kyriarchy until the very end, when external forces intercede to bring about a crisis.

It may seem strange that, given how much more oppressive Rarity has been throughout the episode, it is Applejack who is forced to apologize in order to get help resolving the crisis. However, it’s actually pretty typical if understood as a moment of a rebellion against the kyriarchy.

When the tree crashes through the window, each of the ponies present assumes their stereotyped roles: Upper-class Rarity gives a show of helping in a way that keeps her hooves clean and doesn’t require too much work (in a real-world crisis, she’d be writing checks and maybe, if she were particularly dedicated, organizing fundraisers); intellectual Twilight Sparkle looks for solutions in the assembled wisdoms available to her, and Applejack puts her head down and gets to work, neither asking for nor receiving help. That “can-do frontier spirit” is one of the most pernicious myths of our culture, helping to ensure that the working class (which has some of the most potential to disrupt the kyriarchical structures that define our culture of any group) can never unite and start tearing down hierarchies, because that act of uniting, of seeking help, represents a loss of status for members of an already low-status group.

However, the crisis is great enough for Applejack to actually be willing to risk the loss of status and break the rules of her group, by asking for Rarity’s help. This isn’t uncommon at all; as a member of a low-status group, Applejack has less to lose and more to gain from disrupting the kyriarchy than a member of a higher-status group. Once she opens the door, however, and Rarity is able to see the advantages of momentarily breaking her kyriarchical bonds, Rarity is able to join in and get herself dirty; the two work together and resolve the crisis.

After the tree is removed, we get a brief glimpse of what a future without kyriarchy might look like: ponies of different groups, laughing and enjoying themselves together, as equals. Unfortunately, the episode ends with a reminder that it’s not necessarily that simple, as Rarity and Applejack very nearly create a new hierarchy in which to compete, in which status is defined by who is more sorry–possibly a ponified version of Oppression Olympics, in which attempts by members of different underprivileged groups to work together against the kyriarchy get derailed by debates over which group is more oppressed.

However, this is Equestria, so that moment quickly passes and the ponies return to playing together as equals. Each of them will still continue to possess their personal tastes, but they will no longer seek to enforce conformity to a particular set of standards on one another; they are open to embracing their differences.

Next week: Amy Keating Rogers returns, and it’s worse. Oh so very much worse.

I’m the monster. (Dragonshy)

Not a level-appropriate encounter… for the dragon.

It’s November 26, 2010, and the top song on the Billboard charts is Rihanna featuring Drake autotuning her way through “What’s My Name.” The nicest thing I can say about it is that it’s less bad than the last two top songs we’ve suffered through. No change at the box office, with Harry Potter still running the show. In non-entertainment news, NATO agrees to start pulling out of Afghanistan, which I’m sure has nothing at all to do with Wikileaks’ revelations last month about the war crimes NATO forces committed there, North and South Korea play at nuclear brinksmanship, and the wedding of Prince William is announced (which will matter for ponies in about one and two-thirds seasons). To prove that not all news is war or trivia, the U.S. also creates a polar bear preserve twice the size of the U.K, which is pretty awesome.

Meanwhile in the world of candy-colored magic equines, we have “Dragonshy,” the first episode by Meghan McCarthy and, as I mentioned last week, the best episode we’ve looked at yet.

The big temptation, of course, is to make this post entirely about Fluttershy. She is best pony, after all, at least if we ignore fanworks and fanon, and it would be easy to fill a couple thousand words just talking about how completely awesome she is in this episode. That, however, would be the job of a fan blog, not an analysis blog. A fan I may be, but a fan blog this is not, and so we shall have to reluctantly force ourselves to consider something other than the awesomeness that is Fluttershy. I’ll try to keep the post to just being mostly about her.

Let us instead discuss, at least to start with, the awesomeness that is Meghan McCarthy. By coincidence, I happen to be writing this article just a few days after the premier of her first season as story editor, and it’s interesting to compare. Two years ago, she was very nearly unknown, having worked on only three shows prior, at least as far as IMDB is aware: Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, Class of 3000, and Fish Hooks. Of those, Foster‘s is the only one I’ve seen or even heard of prior to writing this article. Now she’s The Good Pony Writer, responsible for such stellar scripts as “Party of One,” “Lesson Zero,” and “A Canterlot Wedding.”

Had I written this article a week earlier (note: I write the articles anywhere from several days to a week before posting), we could have left it there. Until a week ago, we lived in a universe where “Call of the Cutie” and “Hearts and Hooves Day” were Meghan McCarthy’s weakest episodes, and by my count there were at least ten episodes worse than either. But unfortunately, we no longer live in that universe; we live in a universe where “The Crystal Empire” exists, and (especially mere days after the premiere) there is no way to watch “Dragonshy” untainted by the knowledge of what is to come.

It’s too bad, really. The reason I list top songs and movies and news stories at the beginning of each post is to try to locate these episodes in the time of broadcast, in the hopes of approaching them as the viewers would have at the time. This is really, really hard with a show as recent as this, because the differences between 2010 and 2012 aren’t that great. It gets really hard when we have an excellent episode by an excellent writer to talk about, and yet the episode fresh in my mind is one that has the fandom calling for her head.

This is particularly an issue with “Dragonshy,” because unlike most of McCarthy’s episodes, “Dragonshy” and “The Crystal Empire” follow a standard adventure template: The mane six travel somewhere, encounter a monster, and have to defeat it or drive it off. Further, the dragon is extremely similar to King Sombra: both speak very little, have very little actual screen-time, are associated with clouds of darkness, and have their threat primarily demonstrated by means of Celestia describing it to Twilight.

The big difference, however, is that the dragon is an effective villain. We will most likely talk about how and why Sombra fails to be effective when we get to season 3; for now, let’s talk about what makes the dragon a good villain.

It’s important for an adventure story to have a good villain. A character story doesn’t need one; a character story is about getting into a protagonist, learning who they are as you watch them grow or change. The question a character story most needs to answer is who, as in “Who is this character?” and “Who are they becoming?” An adventure story, on the other hand, is about watching a protagonist overcome an obstacle or weather a threat; it’s not about who but how, as in “How will they get out of this one?” (Not “Will they get out of this one?” That’s a thriller or horror story or maybe a tragedy, not an adventure.)

To answer a question effectively, a work must get its audience to ask the question, so that they care about the answer. If the question is “Who is this character?” then it follows that a character story depends on having an interesting protagonist who provokes the audience to want to know more about them. If the question is “How will they get out of this one?” then it follows that an adventure story must have interesting obstacles that provoke the audience to ask the question; usually, that means an effective villain.

Several elements make the dragon effective. First, we see his threat right from the start, when smoke covers the sky. This immediately has Fluttershy in a panic, and soon after Twilight reads out a letter from Celestia and confirms the threat. It’s important that the episode does both; if only Fluttershy panicked, then (given her usual timidity) we wouldn’t know that the dragon is a serious threat. On the other hand, if we had only the letter from Celestia, who is a remote character both physically and emotionally, we wouldn’t have the immediate connection that a pony we care about is afraid. The two together combine to make the dragon genuinely menacing.

Once the dragon is established to be a real threat, he stays off-screen for most of the episode. This enhances the threat he poses, because the viewer is forced to imagine a being capable of snoring so much smoke it blots out the sky, or roaring so loud it shakes an entire mountain. The danger of this technique, of course, is that he’ll be disappointing once we actually get to see him, but this is easily enough averted by having him face and defeat five of the Mane Six in rapid sequence.

Finally, enraged by Rainbow Dash’s straight-up attack, he emerges from his cave. However, the dragon does not actually attack; he does something far more interesting, and subtle enough that I didn’t catch it until the excellent Samdamandias pointed it out to me on the Lunaverse forum. I’ve embedded a vlog where I lay it out, but basically the next scene is something straight out of a nature film: the dragon engages in a threat display in an attempt to dominate and drive off the ponies, Fluttershy counters with a threat display of her own, and as her threat display is more effective, the dragon is immediately reduced to a submissive posture.

This is an incredibly significant moment. First, it’s the establishing moment for Fluttershy’s character: in the words of the inimitable Douglas Adams, “You would have to push through a lot of soft squidgy bits in order to find a bit that didn’t give when you pushed it. That was the bit that all the soft squidgy bits were there to protect.” Second, it shows us why McCarthy is able to write the dragon (or Crysalis, for that matter) as an effective villain.

Looking at McCarthy’s episodes, it becomes clear that she is more comfortable writing character episodes than adventures. Why, then, would she write an adventure as her first episode for the show?

Let’s go back to the distinction we started with: Character episodes are about characters encountering and overcoming or being overcome by elements of themselves. Adventures are about characters encountering and overcoming external threats.

But what happens when the external threat is an element of the character? This is an approach that’s gained a lot of traction in televised fantasy in recent years, largely because one show took that idea and ran with it all the way to becoming one of the most popular and most influential cult hits of the 1990s: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In Buffy, classic monsters function simultaneously as villains in their own right and metaphors for typical teen problems; in one of the most obvious examples, the main villain of the second season is a nice-seeming boyfriend who has sex with the female protagonist and turns evil immediately on getting what he wants.

As Twilight points out in “Dragonshy,” it makes no sense for Fluttershy to be afraid of the dragon. Fluttershy has shown no fear for monsters before, having walked up to the manticore quite confidently in “Elements of Harmony,” and she shows no particular fear of monsters after this episode. She claims to be specifically afraid of dragons, but shows no fear of Spike. True, she explains this away by saying that Spike’s a baby dragon and therefore nonthreatening, but it’s still a bit of a stretch, since in general Fluttershy isn’t afraid of physical threats; Fluttershy is afraid of social threats.

Consider what Fluttershy says about herself in this and later episodes, and how she behaves toward others. She is extremely cautious about new people, and instinctively assumes a submissive posture upon encountering them (as in “Mare in the Moon”). She is so afraid of provoking the disapproval or anger of others, and so sensitive to that anger upon encountering it, that it dominates her life entirely; just as Rainbow Dash almost never touches the ground, Fluttershy almost always positions herself below whatever pony she’s talking to. Her experience of others is thus as frightening entities that loom over her and must be conciliated, just as the initial appearance of the dragon is as a vast cloud of smoke, and then later a mountain, both looming presences that hang over the tiny ponies.

The dragon, in other words, is Fluttershy; it is her fear and her imagination of what will happen if she upsets another pony. This is why it is so much fun to watch her finally stand up to it: In an inversion of Applejack’s discovery that her greatest strength is a weakness, Fluttershy discovers strength in her weakness. The same hypersensitivity to the attitudes and stances of others that makes her afraid to provoke anger and judgment (and, incidentally, the same hypersensitivity that makes her good with animals, as again note her encounter with the manticore) enables her to instinctively realize the dragon is posturing, not attacking, and that she can posture back and force him to back down.

Put another way, the entire episode consists of Fluttershy holding Fluttershy back. By defeating the dragon, Fluttershy overcomes those parts of herself that are holding her back; she defeats herself, and by doing so achieves victory.

Unlike “Boast Busters,” which played with the adventure structure but left the content largely intact, “Dragonshy” sticks to a typical adventure structure, the purest since the series premiere. However, it uses that structure to tell what is ultimately a character story, and manages thereby to become unquestionably the best story we’ve looked at yet. McCarthy is up to a delicious start–and from our vantage point, just past watching what is probably her worst episode, it’s worth remembering just how good she was out of the gate.

Next week: A classic odd couple and a heavy storm; it must be time for a slumber party at Twilight’s house!

These two ponies have a bit of a grudge match they’re trying to settle. (Boast Busters)

Equestria: Even our terrifying marauding space bears are cute.

You know, I feel like my last couple of posts have been good, but for a site called My Little Po-Mo, I actually haven’t looked at postmodern elements of the show much. Let’s change that!

It’s November 19, 2010. The big movie this weekend is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One, so magical conflicts are clearly in the air. In music, Ke$ha finally knocks Far*East Movement out of the number one spot with “We R Who We R,” which while obviously made by a group of people utterly devoid of anything to say or any emotional investment in their work, is at least recognizable as an attempt to be something vaguely resembling music, albeit really bad music.

In marginally more depressing news than the top two songs being Ke$ha and dubstep, the death toll of the Haitian cholera epidemic passes 1,000, the U.S. continues to fire missiles at civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan, killing a few dozen more this week, and rabid bats attack Los Angeles. At least the last is morbidly funny?

In Equestrian news, Chris Savino writes the first of his two episodes of MLP, “Boast Busters.” It’s really too bad that he only ever wrote the two; they’re both pretty good, and they both do an excellent job of exploding the adventure/character study binary I described a couple of weeks ago, while also finding ways to pull familiar stories out of their usual contexts and do something new with them. In other words, Savino is one of the more postmodern writers on the show, and a quick glance at his resume shows that this isn’t a fluke of these two episodes–he’s worked on some of the great postmodern cartoons of the 90s, like Ren and Stimpy, I Am Weasel, and Rocko’s Modern Life. He’s also the only recurring writer other than Lauren Faust to have significant experience as an animator, and it shows; this is a very visual episode, in the sense that the visuals are not simply following the dialogue but adding nuances that aren’t apparent from dialogue alone.

For example, while Trixie’s dialogue points to a stage magician, she does not wear the traditional black cape and top hat we associate with that archetype. Instead, her low-saturation color scheme of almost-gray blues and purples, peaked hat, cloak, and penchant for fireworks point to one of the defining archetypes of the modern conception of a “real” wizard, Tolkien’s Gandalf the Grey. By putting the behavior of a stage magician in the trappings of a real wizard, we recognize Trixie as a fraud immediately; a stage magician is an entertainer, but a stage magician pretending to be Gandalf is a liar.

Except the episode does something very interesting here, because of course Trixie is using real magic to perform her stage act. Her fireworks are genuine magical illusions, her rope tricks real telekinesis, and so forth. She may not be anywhere near Twilight’s caliber, let alone Gandalf’s, but nonetheless underneath the fraud there is something real. (Which, incidentally, is why the entire Lunaverse can happen, but that’s way outside the scope of this blog.) The episode doesn’t do much with this underlying reality–in the end, Trixie is the big-talking out-of-towner who gets shown up by a local and chased out on a rail–but I suspect it has more than a little to do with Trixie’s status as one of the fan-favorite ponies-of-the-week.

Another major factor in making Trixie a fan favorite is that she is an excellent foil for Twilight Sparkle. She is confident and confrontational where Twilight is neurotic and avoidant; a dominance-seeker where Twilight seeks approval; a liar where Twilight is honest. There’s a reason fans keep wanting her to turn up in a later season as Princess Luna’s apprentice!

So it’s an interesting choice that, in an episode where the main antagonist is an excellent foil for the closest thing the show has to a singular main character, our point-of-view character for most of the episode isn’t Twilight Sparkle, but rather Spike. From this distance, we’re able to detach from her actions and interrogate her character as she interacts with Trixie; instead of sharing Twilight’s fear that the other ponies will reject her if she stands up to Trixie, we share Spike’s frustration at her refusal to do so. At the same time, since we can hear Twilight’s conversations that Spike either doesn’t hear or tunes out, we understand the source of her concern, keeping her sympathetic even as we recognize it’s a baseless concern. It’s a clever way for the episode to encourage a relatively complex response from its audience while keeping the complexity of the actual story at an appropriate level for the five-year-olds it is ostensibly written for.

Keeping the focus on Spike also serves to keep the focus off of Twilight’s crippling self-esteem issues, which is good because this is not the story for exploring them–that’s better done in a comedic character collapse episode, of which we’ll get a couple for Twilight later. In this story, it would be far too depressing. But rest assured, Twilight has serious self-esteem problems, between her conviction that she must be the best of the best to impress Celestia while simultaneously never giving any hint that she’s better than the other ponies. In other words, she has accepted that ponies can be ranked from best to worst in an absolute way (which is messed up to begin with), and her worth comes from being best, but no one will love her if she’s best. To address this directly would bog the entire episode down into Twilight Has Issues, which would be no fun for anyone, least of all the viewers, so yet more reason to locate our point of view outside Twilight.

The detachment from Twilight also means Savino is free to bring in elements of stories with different main characters. This episode could easily have been a Brave Little Tailor variant: Trixie (the tailor) brags about beating an Ursa Minor (the giant) and then has to face one. The scenes of her alone with Snips and Snails–unless I am much mistaken, the first scenes in which ponies talk to each other without any of the Mane Six around–help support the notion that it’s this type of story. Add in that, as we mentioned above, underneath her showmanship and braggadocio is real magic, and you have a real possibility for Trixie to be the hero of this episode. If this were The Trixie Show, she would be forced to find a way to use her abilities to beat the Ursa Minor and thus learn a valuable lesson both about bragging and about valuing the abilities she has instead of claiming abilities she doesn’t have.

This isn’t The Trixie Show, but right up until the moment that she refuses to admit wrongdoing and flees, it remains possible that she will be the one to learn the friendship lesson this week. This dangling possibility, I think, is a major factor in Trixie’s popularity in requests for characters to return: she is not redeemed (and cannot be, as she says bad things about all of Ponyville, which includes Fluttershy–that’s close enough to the Unforgivable Sin that she cannot be redeemed now, though she is still not utterly beyond the possibility of future redemption), but we feel the possibility that she could be. Certainly, she is presented more sympathetically than Gilda, despite being in many ways the same character–a newly arrived dominance-seeker and show-off who looks down on everyone in Ponyville.

However, this isn’t The Trixie Show. It’s My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, which for much of the first season is The Twilight Sparkle Show. Thus, this episode spends a lot of time on Twilight Sparkle and her fears of becoming victim to Tall Poppy Syndrome. On the face of it, this concern should be absurd; ponies are a species comprised entirely of savants, after all: Every pony has one talent at which they are effectively genius-level natural prodigies, and vary in their other talents. It makes no sense for ponies to even have Tall Poppy Syndrome, since there is no such thing as a merely average pony (assuming, of course, that all ponies eventually discover their cutie mark, which seems likely.)

Additionally, ponies are very much not a society in which status is zero-sum. Their country is founded based on the discovery that being nice to each other prevents monsters from freezing them all, and overflows with so much love that the Changelings see it as a continent-spanning buffet. Ponies do not have the sorts of small, rigid hierarchies (such as cut-throat noble courts or gangs of teenage delinquents) that lead to Tall Poppy Syndrome–places where the only way to gain status is to reduce someone else’s–and they haven’t for thousands of years. Ponies consumed by envy either learn a friendship lesson or get eaten by Windigos. And as we discussed last week, if every pony has a singular gift that is both their obsession and their unique talent, then there is never any reason to envy another’s abilities–after all, no matter who you are, you’re better than them at what really matters to you.

The ponies do comment negatively about Trixie’s bragging, but it makes sense for ponies to generally disapprove of bragging. If every pony has something they are uniquely good at, and every pony knows not only their own gift but, by looking at other ponies’ cutie marks, everyone else’s gift as well, then there is no reason to ever brag. Trixie knows she’s good at stage magic, anyone looking at her cutie mark knows she’s good at stage magic, so bragging about it just proves that she’s deeply insecure, a jerk, or both.

Despite this, and despite growing up in Equestria, Twilight has somehow never absorbed that ponies dislike bragging but have no problem with displays of talent. There’s a reason for this, of course, namely that Twilight Sparkle is quite possible the worst-socialized pony in Equestria, and certainly the worst-socialized pony among the Mane Six. (Now, at least. By the end of second season she has passed Pinkie Pie to become second-worst-socialized.)

In a culture that values friendship above all else, Twilight starts the series with no friends. She values no relationships other than family and her mentor; she doesn’t even acknowledge friendly overtures from other ponies. It takes being smacked in the face with the fact that friendship is somewhat necessary to live a good life, and also incidentally gives you vast magical power if your name is Twilight Sparkle, to break her out of that and get her to actually try to make friends, and at the start she’s terrible at it. This is consistent across several episodes: Twilight can’t make up her mind about the gala tickets, worsens Applejack’s character collapse, gives Pinkie terrible advice about Gilda, and now can’t tell the difference between empty boasts and actually demonstrating a skill when it’s needed.

Bless her, Twilight tries, but she’s really bad at dealing with other ponies at the start, and easily dissuaded by her fears of how they will respond, because for all intents and purposes Twilight’s social and emotional development is that of a five-year-old. Of course, this makes a lot of sense non-diegetically, because the point of the show is for Twilight to learn lessons that would matter to her five-year-old viewers, but it also makes diegetic sense: Her development is stunted by her lack of relationships with pony peers.

Every episode thus far has been a fairly conventional plot: Ancient evil returns, and heroes rise to defeat it; friends find themselves competing for a limited resource all want; a character faces a challenge they can’t handle and crumbles in the face of it until they accept the help they need; old friends clash with new friends. “Boast Busters,” on the surface, is another fairly simple story, as we’ve discussed (stranger comes to town and challenges local), but by drawing in elements of other stories it permits us to get a surprising amount of character depth from such a seemingly simple plot.

By combining the two stories and ensuring that the camera does not center on Twilight until the climax, Savino is able to simultaneously explore the rather sad existence that is early Twilight Sparkle and keep it from dampening the fun. Along the way, we’re able to get in a little exploration of the implications of a society in which every pony knows their own and others’ true gifts, get to know a pony-of-the-week compelling enough to merit calls for a return, see how Spike supports Twilight, and cap it all off with a cool monster attack that ends in a very fun, non-violent resolution.

In short, this episode is a tour-de-force, and for the first time since the first episode I can declare this easily the best episode we’ve looked at so far.

Next week: Easily the best episode we’ve looked at so far.

I don’t get it. How can somepony not become instant best friends with me? (Griffon the Brush-Off)

Pinkie Pie pilots a pedal-powered peppermint plane
The Technology Exchange Treaty was not as productive
as Princesses Celestia and Bubblegum had hoped.

Ponies are geeks.

I don’t mean bronies. That bronies are geeks is fairly obvious, and not particularly worth commenting on. I mean that the fictional ponies, the stars and background characters from the shows, are geeks.

We saw a little of that in the first episode, when they used the Elements of Internet Culture at Its Best to weaponize their network of friends. There have also been nods to this in the episodes since, such as Fluttershy’s desire to go to an enormous party so that she can ignore the party entirely and look at the animals next door.

But I mean more than that the individual characters of the show are, individually, geeks. When I say ponies are geeks, I mean that Equestria is geekery itself; pony culture is a reflection of geek culture.

Consider one relatively positive construction of geekery: Geeks are people who construct their identities primarily around their passions. In other words, geeks define who they are in terms of their strongest interests and hobbies; rather than identifying primarily according to demographic identity (ethnicity, cohort, social class, and so forth), geographic origin, nationality, or political ideology, a geek who is passionately interested in, say, the sciences identifies first and foremost as a science geek, one who is interested in anime identifies as an anime geek, and so forth. Of course there is more to any given geek than their geekeries, but geeks identify themselves first and foremost by their geekery; all else comes after.

Put another way: Ask a geek and a non-geek to tell you about themselves. The non-geek will most likely start by talking about what they do for a living or where they’re from; the geek will start by telling you about their hobbies or entertainment choices.

Compare this to the ponies. Each pony has a cutie mark which identifies their unique special talent, about which more in later articles. For our purposes this week, all that matters is that for each of the mane six, and presumably for most or all ponies, their cutie mark also symbolizes their passion: Applejack’s farm work, Rarity’s pursuit of status and beauty (in her person and her art), Twilight’s quest for knowledge, Fluttershy’s love of animals, Rainbow Dash’s speed and flashiness, and Pinkie Pie’s parties.

We will see in later episodes that the acquisition of a cutie mark is both a rite of passage into adulthood and a moment of profound self-discovery. For ponies, finding one’s passion and figuring out one’s identities are one and the same, and they wear these passions/identities on their flanks for all to say. Ponies are people who construct their identities primarily around their passions; ponies are geeks.

It works for less flattering constructions of geekery, too. Consider what we might call the Big Bang Theory construction of geekery: Geeks are people who compensate for a lack of social skills by forming associations defined entirely by common interests. (Note that these two constructions are not at all contradictory; they are two perspectives on the same phenomenon.) Many geeks are not particularly well socialized; a typical geek story is a more-or-less ostracized child and teenager, who thus fell further and further behind their peers in social skills but had plenty of time to focus on developing passions and hobbies, and then as a young adult found that associating exclusively with people who shared those passions and hobbies was much easier than developing the skills needed to bond with people with disparate interests. The result is an adult, fully capable of holding an adult role in society, who nonetheless occasionally shows alarming gaps in their ability to deal with other people–who needs periodic friendship lessons, in other words.

Which brings us to November 12, 2010. Megamind is still tops at the box office, and Far*East Movement still needs to get off my lawn. The Queen of England signs up for Facebook, but no one is allowed to friend her, rather missing the point, Mario turns 25, and Somalian pirates overwhelm international efforts to control them.

In Ponyville, we have a passable but not hugely impressive episode in “Griffon the Brush-Off,” Cindy Morrow’s first episode for the show. She’s another writer who can be a bit hit or miss, but compared to Rogers (who by my count has had three good episodes, four forgettably mediocre ones, and three stinkers, of which “The Ticket Master” was the first and least bad), Morrow’s misses tend to be more mediocre than actually bad, and her hits, while less good than Rogers’ best, are more numerous (my count gives her five good episodes and three mediocre ones).

Although this episode, taken in isolation, is not all that interesting, it does work very well with a theme this blog is ultimately going to spend a lot of time on, which I hinted at in the first two posts and can finally state explicitly (earlier than I expected when I started, actually): My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is a show about bronies. Of course on one level, this early in the show’s run, it’s impossible for this to be true: Bronies barely exist yet, and so of course the writers cannot be intentionally writing about them. (If you need proof the writers haven’t yet noticed the online fanbase, take a look at a certain gray pegasus mare just before the 1:45 mark, and note the complete absence of a certain memetic animation error.) However, just like anything and everything else outside the show itself, we only care about the writers’ intentions if it can make our reading of the show more interesting. In this case, the show is more interesting if we ignore their intentions and knowledge and just look at the outcomes: Read as a show about the brony subculture in particular and geeks in general, MLP works really, really well.

That’s why I spent so much time at the beginning of this post writing that ponies are geeks, because what this episode is about, ultimately, is a friendship lesson geeks need to hear as a culture. Specifically, it’s about something Michael Suileabhain-Wilson identified in a rather famous blog post a decade ago: Geek Social Fallacies.

For example, the intent of the cold open is probably Pinkie Pie as the annoying younger sibling who thinks Rainbow Dash is the coolest thing ever, and desperately wants to spend time with her. However, we can equally read this as the poorly socialized geek suffering from an interaction between Fallacy 3 (friendship uber alles) and Fallacy 5 (friends do everything together). At the intersection of these two fallacies we can find Pinkie’s logic: “Rainbow Dash is my friend, therefore she must want to spend time with me, regardless of what else she’s doing.”

Rainbow Dash is no better, however; throughout the first part of the episode, she is clearly annoyed by Pinkie but unable to tell her to go away, because RD suffers from the intersection of Fallacies 1 (ostracizers are evil) and 2 (friends accept me as I am). In combination, these fallacies mean that RD cannot ask Pinkie to change her behavior, because that would not be accepting her as she is, and cannot tell her to go away, because that would be ostracism.

Basically, we have here a situation where RD and Pinkie have very different wants, and are unable to effectively communicate this to each other. Fortunately, they soon find a common interest (pranking) which allows them to bond despite their inability to communicate otherwise. Of course, this doesn’t do anything to resolve the underlying issue that neither of them is very good at being a friend to the other, but it does handily obscure the problem for a while.

Not a very long while, of course, as Gilda shows up soon after to “steal” RD from Pinkie. RD describes Gilda as her best friend from flight camp, but it quickly becomes clear that their relationship is very similar to RD’s relationship with Pinkie Pie, based on a common interest in flying rather than any true bond.

It may seem, incidentally, that I am being rather hard on geek friendships here, and to an extent I am. However, I want to draw a distinguish between friendships that begin out of common interests and then grow into something more meaningful, and friendships that begin out of common interests and never grow. People who pursue their hobbies together or talk about their favorite shows are buddies; friends are people who trust one another, who have insight into one another, who are willing to sometimes put the other’s needs first, and who can rely on one another for emotional support. This is not a binary–a relationship can be both, either, or neither–but equally they are not the same thing.

But not one out of Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, and Gilda trusts or understands either of the other two, and none of them is willing to put the needs of one of the others first for a moment. Certainly it’s hard to imagine anyone turning to any of these three for emotional support, at least not without knowledge of future episodes.

Gilda suffers from the Geek Fallacies as much as the others, particularly a nasty form of Fallacy 4 (friendship is transitive). Specifically, she acts on its logical converse: If Pinkie Pie is Rainbow Dash’s friend, and Gilda is Rainbow Dash’s friend, then Pinkie Pie is Gilda’s friend. Gilda doesn’t like Pinkie Pie; therefore Pinkie Pie isn’t Rainbow Dash’s friend. Pinkie’s own nasty case of Fallacy 5, which leads to her trying to join in Gilda and RD’s flying even though she isn’t physically capable of doing so, just exacerbates Gilda’s determination to sever the Pinkie-RD relationship.

Pinkie, for her own part, suffers a more straightforward form of Fallacy 4: She is RD’s friend, Gilda is RD’s friend, and therefore Pinkie must find a way to like Gilda. She struggles, as Gilda is revealed to be worse and worse: Her pranks are more mean-spirited than Pinkie’s and RD’s, and she isn’t as careful about who she targets, and she steals from a produce stand, but Pinkie still tries to find a way to like her.

However, Gilda then commits the Unforgivable Sin, the Equestrian equivalent of human transmutation or blaspheming the Holy Spirit: she is mean to Fluttershy. You may think I’m kidding or exaggerating because Fluttershy is my favorite pony, but I’m completely serious: villains who leave Fluttershy alone get a chance at redemption; villains who are mean to her do not. Nightmare Moon did nothing to Fluttershy (the two do not interact until the second season), and at the end of her two-parter she is restored to being Princess Luna. Discord was mean to Fluttershy in an attempt to break her spirit, and when that didn’t work, he used magic to brainwash her; at the end of his two-parter he was turned back to stone. The dragon was mean to Fluttershy’s friends, but not Fluttershy herself, and he is allowed to apologize and leave; Gilda was mean to Fluttershy, and she loses her friendship with RD and departs in unrepentant anger and shame.

Gilda has unwittingly doomed herself, but the instrument of that doom will continue to be the Geek Social Fallacies. Pinkie’s solution is precisely what the original blog post warns against with Fallacy 4: She throws a big party and invites everyone. The party is, of course, a disaster, and Gilda proves to be a prankster who cannot handle being the target of pranks, which is certainly one way of describing a bully. (Another is “willing to be mean to Fluttershy,” and no, I’m not going to let this go. Being mean to Fluttershy is like kicking a kitten or stealing from small children. It’s just not cool.)

On her departure, Gilda employs Fallacies 2 and 3 to assume that RD will accept Gilda’s bad behavior and put her friendship ahead of all the others. To her credit, RD manages to get over her initial case of Fallacy 1 and realize that sometimes, excluding someone from friendship is justified. She tosses Gilda deservedly out on her ear, presumably to go hang out with those two pegasi who taunted Fluttershy at flight camp (“The Cutie Mark Chronicles,” and if you need to ask whether a couple of ponies whose attitudes and cutie marks clearly mark them as archetypal jocks are redeemable, you clearly weren’t listening when I explained that Equestria is an entire civilization of geeks.)

Next week: Giant bears, Tall Poppy Syndrome, and the first pony writer since Lauren Faust I consistently like.