|On the one hand, EWWWWWWWW. On the other, it’s nice
that Mr. and Mrs. Cake share the childcare duties, and this is
treated as so normal that it’s never even remarked upon.
It’s January 14, 2012. The top movie is Contraband, about which I know nothing, and the top song is still LMFAO’s very funny “Sexy and I Know It.” In the news this week, Mitt Romney wins a second primary, in New Hampshire this time, and Scotland and England conflict over whether Scotland is allowed to hold a planned referendum on independence in 2014, but the main story is a revolt in Chechnya and ensuing fighting between Chechnyan militants and Russian troops.
This week’s episode, written by Charlotte Fullerton and directed by Jayson Thiessen, is the quite fun “Baby Cakes,” a terrifying and extremely accurate warning against making the terrible mistake of having or accepting responsibility for children, because they will exhaust you, terrify you, force you to do humiliating and disgusting things, and then use their evil mind-control powers to make you want to keep doing it.
But I kid (except for the part where I am 100% completely serious that that is what children do, their evil mind-control powers are a documented fact). Really, this episode is a continuation of a theme that started last episode (or is that next episode?) involving exploring the various ways in which past, present, and future can influence one another. Indeed, while that theme is not fully realized until the eleventh episode (either one of them), playing with and exploring time has been as common a theme thus far this season as transformations were last season:
- “The Return of Harmony”: an ancient evil returns for revenge
- “Lesson Zero”: Twilight is racing the clock
- “Luna Eclipsed”: The traditions surrounding Luna (both her own old-fashioned ways and the beliefs other ponies have about her) clash with the realities of the present
- “Sisterhooves Social”: Sweetie Belle is motivated entirely by her desire to spend more time with her sister
- “The Cutie Pox” and “Secret of My Excess”: Young people grow up too fast, with disastrous consequences
- “Sweet and Elite”: Rarity is torn between making time for her new friends and making time for the old
- “Family Appreciation Day” and “Hearth’s Warming Eve”: The power of stories of the past to change how we view the present
“It’s About Time” indeed. Children are symbols of both the future and the past. The past because we often seek signifiers of our ancestors in the features of children: “he has his mother’s eyes” or “she has her granduncle’s ears.” Additionally, children are a reminder of when we ourselves were children, which of course is in the past. At the same time, they signify the future because they will (if all goes well) inherit that future when we are gone. If, then, last week was about the power of the past to reshape the present, this week is about the responsibility of caring for those who will carry that past into the future.
So of course that responsibility falls to Pinkie, our spirit of chaos, our mini-Discord, complete with a flour- and water-based echo of Discord’s transformation to stone. The result is almost a clip show: Hey, remember back in Season 1 when Pinkie Pie used to perform unambiguously diegetic musical numbers out of the blue? Remember Twilight obsessing over reports to the Princess? Applejack having to buck her entire farm before a deadline? Pinkie’s terrible puns from the series premiere? A troublesome guest whose refusal to eat is an early sign that the caretaker is in over her head? Pinkie’s hair going limp? Twilight trying to persuade someone to accept her help, and saying exactly the wrong thing in a way that convinces the other pony to reject help? A babysitting job turns into a horror movie, and is ultimately resolved by the babysitter playing a card from the standard sexist depictions of women?
Except this isn’t a clip show. The scenes I refer to resemble events of past episodes, some very closely, but they are not actual repeats and there is none of the usual framing of a clip show: no characters stuck somewhere and reminiscing to pass the time, no Troy McLure hosting a fake documentary, no trial sequence in which a character has to justify their past actions. Instead, the past recurs not as a fragment to be repeated, but fully absorbed and transformed, an integrated part of the present.
This is actually a common technique of postmodernism. The literary theorist Ihab Hassan describes this as part of the postmodern tendency to hybridization; just as postmodern art tends to merge genres, it also tends to bring the past into the present so that it can play with and recontextualize it. This is neither rote repetition of the past nor an ahistorical denial that the past is the past, but a declaration that the relationship between past and present is not a one-way street.
Put another way: a clip show simply repeats the past while saying “this is the past.” A formulaic show repeats the past while saying “this is new.” This episode does neither; it repeats the past while saying “this is different now than it was then.” Applejack is still determined to harvest all her apples, but there is no suggestion just she would refuse help. Twilight is writing a report to Princess Celestia that summarizes her reports to Princess Celestia, but she’s not panicking and frankly, given the number of reports she’s doubtless written by this point, probably useful. The horror movie-sitcom hybrid is handled more artfully than in “Stare Master.” The past is present, but altered.
One of the more interesting examples is the repetition of Twilight unintentionally persuading someone to refuse her help. In “Applebucking Season,” Applejack initially refused to admit she needed help, was solidified in that refusal of help by Twilight’s accidental insult, and ultimately broke down and admitted she needed help. Here, Pinkie Pie initially wants the help, but changes her mind in response to Twilight’s accidental insult, and ultimately discovers she didn’t need the help, as once she earns the babies’ sympathy they start behaving.
With the exception of distant stars viewed through telescopes, we cannot perceive the past directly. All we can do is try to reconstruct it. Memory reconstructs our personal pasts; history reconstructs the pasts of cultures; sciences such as paleontology and geology reconstruct the past of our world; astronomers and cosmologists reconstruct the past of the universe. The past, in other words, is a construct, and like any construct it can be deconstructed, decontextualized, hybridized, and generally played with.
Which is not to say that the results are always necessarily good. “Stare Master” presents Fluttershy’s standard-issue stereotypical sitcom-mom power as an expression and extension of her close observation of body language and behavior, which is easily readable as an effort to reclaim the trope from its problematic roots. Pinkie Pie’s crying, however, is a straightforward (albeit unintentional on at least the character’s part) expression of the stereotype that women use their tears manipulatively, a troubling note in an otherwise enjoyable episode.
Regardless, the constructed nature of the past means that, as much as the past creates the present, the present also shapes the past. How we construct our pasts is in large part a product of our present. Depressed people have difficulty recalling happy memories. The Great Man theory of history gives way to theories based on sweeping large-scale forces, such as Marxist history, and these in turn give way to fashionable ideas about contingency that synthesize the two.
The present contains the past, in other words, but does not repeat it perfectly. Our lives are neither clip shows nor formulaic repetitions; the past is present but fluid, transforming to fit the shape of its container, the present.
And if we don’t like that shape? Dump a bag of flour on its head, have a good laugh, and move on; it will be shaped differently tomorrow.
Next week: Derivative Works Month begins! First up, a post I’ve been itching to write for months. Oh, this will be fun…