|Fluttershy’s rock-hard… chicken.
What? What did you think I was going to say?
Apologies for the lateness of this post. This past week has been a series of nasty RL events I won’t get into, but things will hopefully be better from here out.
It’s February 25, 2011. The top song this week is Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow,” a painfully repetitive rap song about a car painted in Packers colors and great Ghu I care not a whit about any of those things. The top movie is Hall Pass, a comedy involving Owen Wilson and the Farrelly brothers, and is by all accounts precisely as good as you’d expect from that combination (hint: it’s terrible). Over in consensus reality, the worldwide wave of Internet-organized protests and civil unrest continues in Libya (where the government continues to respond with bloody violence), Bahrain, Yemen, Iran, China, and Wisconsin, among others, while the new Prime Minister of Egypt announces the release of hundreds of political prisoners. Matteo Renzi, the young and popular mayor of Florence, Italy, calls for the retirement of the Baby Boomer-equivalent generation of politicians on the grounds that they’re really, really old. Lastly, the Space Shuttle Discovery launches for its final mission.
In Equestreality, Chris Savino’s second episode, “Stare Master,” airs. Structurally, it’s an interesting episode: It starts as a typical sitcom plot: Fluttershy takes on a sitting job without fully understanding the challenge, is overwhelmed, but then finds a way to earn the respect and cooperation of her temporary charges. It’s a plot that the show will use again (and, frankly, use better) in season two’s “Baby Cakes” and three’s “Just for Sidekicks.” “Stare Master” mixes it up with a fun genre collision in the last act, however: after the Cutie Mark Crusaders run out into the forest, the genre shifts suddenly into horror movie, with an initially oblivious CMC and frightened Fluttershy stalked by a monster and stumbling onto the (stone, rather than dead, because this is still a kid’s show) bodies of its victims. Again, “Baby Cakes” blends genres more skillfully; instead of replacing the third act with horror tropes, the latter episode uses horror-move angles, musical cues, and cliches for the titular babies themselves, using horror elements to add more humor to the rather tired sitcom plot.
What “Stare Master” does do well, however, is how it resolves its two plot strands. It establishes Fluttershy’s power of “the Stare,” an intense gaze that causes the misbehaving target to sheepishly back down and submit to her will. The name is a reference to another sitcom cliche, in which a wife/mother (the two roles are generally interchangeable in sitcom plots) has a silent glare that terrifies her husband/child (again, generally interchangeable in sitcoms) into obedience. Savino, knowing the audience is familiar with Chekhov’s gun, thus sets up the viewer to expect Fluttershy to eventually cow the CMC with the Stare, earning their obedience, fear, and eventually respect.
Savino does something rather more clever with the episode, however. First, instead of an angry mom-glare rooted in sexist sitcom stereotypes, Fluttershy’s Stare functions as an expansion of her skill at using body language and knowledge of animal behavior demonstrated in “Dragonshy”: many animals react to direct eye contact as a threat, so Fluttershy makes eye contact (with her eyes as wide as possible, both to maximize the threat and make herself seem bigger) and holds it, refusing to back down no matter how the animal responds. Faced with a creature that maintains a threatening posture and is unfazed by the animal’s own responses, the animal concludes it is dealing with an overwhelming threat and caves. It’s a trick that probably wouldn’t work on a human or pony, since they’d be able to reason out what she’s doing, but on the other hand it probably would be pretty creepy to have someone just stare like that, right in your face, no matter what you did to try to get away or make them back down.
Second, although the sitcom-horror transition is rather too clean, occurring more or less on an act break, the end of the episode uses the two genres to resolve one another, which is a neat and (dare I say it) rather postmodern little trick. Specifically, Fluttershy’s Stare, which we expect to be used to resolve the sitcom plot, is instead used to defeat the cockatrice and rescue its victims. By defeating the monster and resolving the horror plot, Fluttershy earns the respect and obedience of the CMC, which in turn resolves the sitcom plot. In other words, the two genres solve each other; horror is overcome by sitcom cliche, and sitcom cliche is resolved by the defeat of the monster.
What’s possibly most interesting in this episode, at least for this Fluttershy fanboy, is the insight the combination of the two plots gives into Fluttershy’s character. The monster represents barely a challenge to her at all; once she confronts it, she defeats it in seconds. People, however–in this case, the CMC–are an overwhelming obstacle. There seems to be a contradiction, here, and to resolve it, I’m going to take a page from Savino’s book and introduce a third-act genre shift, from overly analytical fan blog to TMI-laden personal blog.
I suffer from an uncommon (about 1 percent of the population) psychological condition called Avoidant Personality Disorder, which is characterized by feelings of shyness and social inadequacy. Sufferers of AvPD tend to be easily hurt by criticism or the disapproval of others; fear rejection; hold back in intimate relationships; avoid jobs or other activities that force contact with others; be extremely shy in social situations because they fear doing something wrong or making a mistake; hold the view that they are not “good” socially, inferior to others, or unappealing. Left untreated, sufferers often end up in total or near-total social isolation, and may develop mood disorders or substance abuse problems as a result. Happily (and unlike most personality disorders), it is generally highly responsive to talk therapy.
While the cause is unknown, sufferers of AvPD tend to monitor their own behavior and the behavior of others around them consistently, maintaining a state of hyper-vigilance as they watch body language and other nonverbal cues for the slightest hint of disapproval or dislike. It’s a bit of a chicken-egg question: do AvPD sufferers monitor so intensely because they’re afraid of causing anger or disapproval, or are they hypersensitive to disapproval because they monitor so intensely?
I know in my own case I am frequently terrified at the prospect that someone might get angry at me or disapprove of what I’m doing, so I (partially consciously, but mostly automatically) try to keep my own behavior as mollifying and conciliatory as possible, and fine-tuning continually as the other person responds. As you might imagine, this occupies a lot of brainspace and energy, so I tend to speak hesitantly; sometimes I even get “stuck” in the middle of a sentence, because my brain is devoting so much of my resources to processing nonverbal stimuli that I briefly lose my capacity for speech. My symptoms are most pronounced when meeting strangers (because I don’t have any prior knowledge to fall back on, and need to fine-tune constantly) and when dealing with multiple people at once (because I can’t fine-tune my responses to any one person, and have to try to avoid anything that any of them would have a problem with). A party, even a small one attended by people I know well and love, can leave me drained and unable to cope with people for days.
However, like most people, my inhibitions are reduced when I’m tired, so my symptoms are less pronounced if I’m up late. Also like most people, my inhibitions are reduced when I’m wearing a mask (literally or metaphorically), so I have little trouble at work (where I’m playing the role of employee, not being myself), presenting panels at anime, gaming, and SF conventions (where I’m playing the role of panelist and also generally extremely short on sleep), or playing role-playing games. Finally, since it’s the nonverbal elements of anger and disapproval that trigger me, I have no problem with written communication.
I identify very strongly with Fluttershy; more, I think, than with any other fictional character I’ve encountered. She even shares my near-total inability to get angry on my own account, even though I can (on rare occasions, when pushed very hard), become very, very fierce in defense of of the people I care about. It’s not even that I suppress the anger; I just don’t feel it.
Understanding Fluttershy as being basically like myself, I can recognize that she feels deeply inadequate and shy around others. Even though she knows her friends like her, she has difficulty understanding why, because she monitors them intensely enough to know when they’re less than enthused with her but hiding it for her sake, and can’t understand why she bothers. Like me, she prefers the company of blunt or very open people to people who are good at hiding their feelings or socially adept, because blunt and open people take less effort to monitor–note that her only friends prior to the first episode appear to be the very blunt Rainbow Dash and the completely unfiltered Pinkie Pie. Years of constant, intense conscious and subconscious monitoring of nonverbal cues are also the source of her expertise with animals, and in turn they provide her companionship without fear of messing up and receiving a pony’s disapproval. (I myself am not as fond of animals, but I basically use the Internet for the same purpose).
Understanding Fluttershy as a fictionalization of a real disorder also makes sense of the contradiction which started us down the TMI path. Fluttershy is aware and afraid of physical danger, yes, but not in a pathological way. As such, she is usually able to overcome her fears and use her skills to defeat (or, in the case of the first episode, befriend) monsters. Her fears of social and emotional dangers, however, are pathological. She cannot overcome them, only learn to live with their constant presence, and as such she cannot establish dominance over a pony the way she does animals. Her own fears make that kind of direct challenge impossible for her.
Happily, in both real life and Ponyville, there are ways. Fluttershy, with the support of her friends, is able to slowly inch out of her shell, engage in social activies she feels comfortable with, and escape isolation. I’ve got friends, the convention scene, the Internet, and most recently, the friendliest and most welcoming fandom I’ve ever encountered, bronies. Things could be a heck of a lot worse.
Next week: More CMC, more 80s pop-culture references, and more Morrow.