|The Mad Hatter and the March Hare… which
of course makes Fluttershy the door
It’s January 19, 2013. The top song has not changed since last year, while the top movie has changed three times, consecutively Texas Chainsaw 3D, Zero Dark Thirty, and Mama. I’ve only heard of the first two, and none of what I’ve heard gives me any desire to see them. In the news since last episode, schoolgirl, blogger, and international cause celebre Malala Yousafzai is released from the hospital following her shooting, British authorities confirm over 200 sexual offenses committed by deceased children’s television presenter Jimmy Savile over a fifty-year period, and on the day this episode airs, Al Jazeera reports that the number of children killed in the Syrian civil war is over 3,500, out of more than 60,000 dead so far.
You may have noticed that there’s a pattern in the news stories I chose for this article. There’s a reason for that, but first let’s discuss “Keep Calm and Flutter On,” story by Teddy Antonio, teleplay by Dave Polsky, and directed by Jayson Thiessen.
There is a read in which this episode is completely innocent. In that read, Fluttershy is a patient parent or teacher dealing with a recalcitrant child. She is patient and kind while the lonely, undisciplined child acts out, until his growing attachment to her brings his behavior more or less under control.
Discord’s motive is perhaps not that of the typical abuser. He is more interested in isolating and controlling Fluttershy because it takes all of the Mane Six working together to use the Elements of Harmony against him, and thus so long as Fluttershy is kept away from her friends and under his thumb, he can wreak havoc as he pleases. On the other hand, it is an entirely selfish motivation, in which any possible affection he feels for Fluttershy (which affection he does seem to feel, if the end of the episode is anything to go by) is secondary to his desire to wield power. In that sense, this is a fairly typical abusive relationship.
In that sense, the show does a good job of showing how our sexist culture encourages and supports man-on-woman abuse in a way that other forms are not quite as supported. Our culture constructs the gender binary in large part by contrasting hegemonic masculinity with emphasize femininity. Hegemonic masculinity constructs masculinity as being about the possession and expression of power and dominant status. Put another way, expression of masculinity are expressions of power and vice versa, hence masculine associations for activities such as hunting, fishing, war, community leadership, business, and so on–activities where a man can assert his power and dominant status through status in a hierarchy, killing enemies, or providing meat for the tribe. Note that, for instance, preparing food for one’s family is not seen as particularly masculine, but running a restaurant kitchen is an almost exclusively masculine occupation–the former is not a position of social dominance, but the latter is. By contrast, emphasized femininity encourages women not necessarily to embrace a submissive role (though that element is certainly present) but to exaggerate gender differences and play to men’s desire for power. To quote R.W. Connell’s Gender and Power, which introduced both concepts, this emphasis can be seen in “the display of sociability rather than technical competence, fragility in mating scenes [e.g., in popular entertainment or as an adopted posture in courtship and sex–note that much of our culture’s concept of flirtatious body language for a woman involves making herself look smaller, weaker, or more childlike], compliance with men’s desires for titillation and ego-stroking in office relationships, acceptance of marriage and child care as a response to labor-market discrimination against women.”
This plays out in Discord and Fluttershy’s relationship in this episode (which is, of course, non-romantic, but they are living together for the duration of the episode, so many of the same concepts apply). Discord spends the entire episode trying to assert his power and dominance. He deliberately usurps Angel’s role in the home, taunts and torments him, just to demonstrate his power, while also trying to manipulate and isolate Fluttershy so that he can dominate her as well–and the end goal for all of this is to eliminate the one thing that limits his power, the combined power of all six Elements of Harmony. Fluttershy, meanwhile, is deliberately exaggerating her (traditionally feminine) traits of kindness, meekness, and nurturing, playing along with Discord’s hegemonic posturing in an attempt to get him to become dependent on her friendship.
The rest of the Mane Six, especially Rainbow Dash and to a lesser extent Twilight Sparkle, are horrified by this arrangement. Equestrian gender roles do not generally work like ours, and so in-character this is probably their first encounter with such toxic gender norms. They can see that the practical upshot is that Discord is taking more and more power and control, which forces Fluttershy to go to greater lengths to appease him, all the while convinced that she is in control even when it is plainly obvious to an outsider that Discord is using her. Fluttershy’s determination to reform Discord puts her in the position of trying to figure out what she can do to make him behave, which has the effect of absolving him of responsibility for his behavior–there is little difference between Fluttershy’s “I’m sure I can reach him if I keep treating him nicely” and “If I didn’t burn the pot roast, he wouldn’t have needed to hit me.” She is being abused, and like many abuse victims, resisting her friends’ efforts to get her out–which isolates her still further and makes her easy to control.
So far, so good, but this is where the episode runs afoul of the existing norms and rules of the show. The best ending is for Fluttershy to realize that her relationship with Discord is toxic, get her friends, and turn him back into stone, but within the show that ending cannot occur, because it closes off future plot lines with a popular villain and suggests that there are things friendship cannot do. Instead, when Fluttershy threatens to terminate their relationship, Discord spontaneously reforms and everyone becomes friends. So remember, little girls, if fifteen years from now your abusive boyfriend feeds you the “please, baby, don’t go, I promise I’ll change” line, you should definitely stay, because he’s totally going to actually change and isn’t just desperately saying anything that will keep you in his power.
And as disgusting as the ending is in that respect, it is toxic in more immediate ways as well. There is enormous pressure on young children, especially girls, to be “friends” with everyone. This episode suggests that there is a responsibility to be friendly even with people who are horrible to you and your friends, that Fluttershy’s approach of suppressing her aggressive feelings and allowing people to walk all over her to maintain their friendship will actually get them to like her enough that she can then shift the relationship to a more genuine and equal friendship. This is precisely the nonsense that forces girls into the “alternative aggressions” documented by Rachel Simmons in her Odd Girl Out, creating the toxic culture of overt “niceness” and covert nastiness, rumor-mongering, and ostracizing that explodes among girls around puberty and ruins the latter portion of the school experience for so many.
Later episodes temper this somewhat by making clear that Discord is still colossally self-centered, manipulative, and sadistic, albeit more of a morally ambiguous trickster than the outright villain he was in his first appearance. In the fourth season, he is still devoted to testing the boundaries, going as far as he can without quite losing the support of Fluttershy, but at least it appears his contact with her is rather more limited.
Even in a purely narrative view, deliberately ignoring the toxic implications about gender, friendships, and abuse, this is still part of Season Three’s flailing desperation, in this case the standard desperate-TV show trick of bringing back a popular villain–yet it reduces the most powerful, dangerous, and effective villain in the show to an abusive boyfriend.
And yet this is not the nadir of the flail.
Next week: Quite possibly the worst thing Spike has ever done. And that’s still not the nadir either!