A revelation regarding Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, plus books

Last night, I was attempting to explain to a friend why I love the Twelfth Doctor so much when, let’s be fair, he’s a colossal jerk who is utterly dismissive of everyone around him and just plain mean to Clara. And I was arguing that he’s the cantankerous old man who slowly warms up, the wizardly grandpa or uncle sort, insert various other clichés regarding the First Doctor.

Except then I realized I wasn’t talking about the First Doctor at all, because I honestly don’t know the First Doctor very well–I’ve seen maybe four or five episodes, not even whole stories, unless you count “An Unearthly Child” as a standalone. No, the reason I irrationally love the Twelfth Doctor so much is because of a completely different character.

Because who is the Twelfth Doctor? He’s a grumpy, callous, cold, Scottish man in a nice suit who has a long history of using his unparalleled resources to go on amazing adventures. He’s Scrooge McDuck pre-nephews. My ENTIRE CHILDHOOD has programmed me to love him!

Anyway, some thoughts on books.

My Little Po-Mo 2 is chugging away. The content is 100% finalized and formatted for print, I’m just waiting on the final cover design to send it to the publisher. The cover designer says she should have it for this weekend. After that it’s 2-3 weeks to get and check the proof. While I’m waiting on the proof copy, I’m going to do the formatting for the e-book version, so I can launch both the same day.

The Very Soil has been kind of my odd project out the last few weeks, but my plan is to knock out most of the content and reading for my new AUSA panels this weekend, and get back on track with The Very Soil in the coming week. Goal is to send it to the editor before AUSA. Still hoping for a Cyber Monday release, but that’s foolishly optimistic.

Considering fleshing out and reorganizing my Utena and FMA comments, adding some cites, maybe tossing in some of the Madoka articles that aren’t part of The Very Soil and calling it an essay collection on anime. Would there be any interest in that if I did it? I’d probably have to Kickstart it, is why I ask.

ETA: And by “AtLA” I mean “FMA.” Oops…

Book Version: We brought this blizzard to our home by fightin’ and not trustin’ each other. Not it’s destroyin’ this land, too. (Over a Barrel)

My Kickstarter campaign to fund My Little Po-Mo volume 2 is here!

And as long as you have your wallets out, you can help Viga pay for art school (and earn some custom art in the process)!

Looking back on past posts to create the book versions, some stood out as needing more improvement than others. Here, therefore, is the revised version of one of those articles, as published in My Little Po-Mo Vol. 1. Citations are numbered as in the book; unfortunately, Blogger doesn’t allow anchors or superscript so they have been implemented in a fairly primitive way.

It’s March 25, 2011. Lady Gaga is on top for her third straight week, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Roderick Rules is number one at the box office, though only just ahead of the inane Sucker Punch. That latter is something of an achievement, though, as it marks the only time anyone has ever both written and directed a movie using only one hand.

In global news, the U.S., France, and several other countries intervene on the rebel side of the Libyan civil war, Egypt holds a constitutional convention, and the death toll for the Japanese quake is now nearly 10,000, with over 15,000 missing.

This week, Dave Polsky gives us his last episode until the third season. “Over a Barrel” suffers from a problem that will come up a lot in Season 3, namely that it’s trying to tell a story that cannot be told within the limitations of a My Little Pony show.

Lindsey Ellis, in her web-show The Nostalgia Chick, gave an excellent explanation of why Disney’s Song of the South is horrifying: “Imagine if someone made a musical set in Auschwitz in 1950, and it opened with a Jewish chorus singing ‘Nothing bad has ever happened here!’” That’s what this episode is like: it takes a horrifically violent period of American history, a time of genocide, biological warfare, and forced marches, and turns it into a pie fight.

Let’s take a step back, and examine how else this episode could have gone. Take the premise as a given: Friendship Is Magic is going to do an episode about the westward expansion of the U.S. and the conflicts between Native Americans and settlers. Is there any conceivable universe in which this is a good idea? The core values of the show are love, tolerance, and friendship, which means it is obligated to depict both sides as fully human and fully complex. However, this is also a half-hour show intended to be suitable for children, which means the conflict has to be entirely defanged. Of course, that defanging is in turn incredibly disrespectful to the entire peoples systematically slaughtered, and ignores that, by modern standards of morality, the settlers were entirely and completely in the wrong.

Admittedly, the episode does make a good effort in some places. The first few minutes, up until the arrival in Appleloosa, are straight-up hilarious. Fluttershy’s “I’d like to be a tree” is one of her funniest lines in the series. The buffalo, meanwhile, are pure obnoxious stereotype, a genericized representation of the Native inhabitants of the Great Plains, but at least we get to see representatives of the young people on both sides (Little Strongheart for the buffalo and Braeburn for the ponies) who don’t want to be drawn into the conflicts of their elders, but find themselves swept up in it anyway.

This doomed attempt to by the young to reject ethnic conflict echoes a repeated pattern in similar conflicts. In the American Old West, the rise of the Ghost Dance was explicitly an attempt to rekindle respect for and interest in Native American culture in younger generations, who were gradually assimilating into Eurocentric culture.(63) Modern ethnic clashes often also see such a difference, with many young people (often sharing in a quasi-global youth culture of pop music and television) initially taking less hardline stances than their parents, only to be drawn into the conflict as they suffer losses due to it.

But the conflict of their parents is frequently real, and where there is a clear aggressor (which is rarely the case, but does from time to time occur), it is within that aggressor’s power alone to end the conflict. The settlers and Native Americans did fight, and the respective causes for specific battles or skirmishes varied, but ultimately it was the choices of the settlers (and the United States government) that led to the conflict.

The core of the conflict were two incompatible beliefs. On the one hand, the Native American peoples believed that they had a right to live, to continue to occupy the lands of their ancestors, and to maintain their distinct and diverse cultures (which, like Zecora’s apparent cultural ancestry, were more nuanced than a single interpretation would suggest). Far from being “savages” (as they were frequently referred to and characterized as), the native peoples had constructed their own nations, beliefs, and systems of governance, which were often overlooked by the settlers, who hid behind their government, with little-to-no regard for indigenous peoples and their way of life.

On the other, the consensus of the settlers and the United States government was that American settlers both possessed, and were required to exercise, a “manifest destiny” to spread their culture across the entire North American continent,(64) which to modern ears sounds indistinguishable from Britain’s “White Man’s burden” or Germany’s lebensraum: a transparent excuse for land-hungry nationalists to conquer other people’s homes on the sole grounds that they’d very much like to. The justification for this expansion, at least in the eyes of most Americans of the time, was the American experiment in democratic self-rule;(65) that spreading this ideal involved the imperialistic conquest and forcible assimilation of entire cultures seems to have occurred to few.

The buffalo in this episode, as mentioned, seem to be modeled on the Plains Indians, against whom the U.S. fought a series of wars throughout the nineteenth century. These wars were vicious, with atrocities committed on both sides, and the first victim was frequently the sense of proportion. For example, on August 17, 1862, a group of Dakota killed five white men and women in a raid on a farm, then stirred up a larger group of Dakota soldiers to drive the whites off Dakota lands, leading to a series of murders of white farmers and their families across Minnesota.(66) The U.S. military responded in force, but after defeating the militant Dakota, uprooted the entire Dakota people—militant and peaceful alike—from their lands and force-marched them to a new reservation,(67) described by one survivor (who witnessed the murder of her mother by soldiers en route) as “a horrible nightmarish trip.”(68)

This was hardly an isolated incident. Earlier, the government, acting under the auspices of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, emptied the southeast of its native populations of Cherokee, Choktaw, Chickasaw, Seminole and Muscogee—known at the time as the “Five Civilized Tribes”—along what would later be referred to as the “Trail of Tears.” While this acknowledged atrocity might on the surface appear different from the encroachment of settlers along the Great Plains, it was still a massive, organized movement and manifest destiny imposing its will upon the autonomous populations of the Deep South (calling itself a “cultural transformation”), and would form a “blueprint” for later efforts, including the forced removal of the Dakota and the establishment of the reservation system. The main difference? The “Five Civilized Tribes” had been “pacified” by long-term associations with the European settlers (culminating in a series of eventually broken treaties). The Plains Indians, bereft of this history, weren’t about to take what amounted to an invasion lying down.

Besides manifest destiny, a major root of the conflict was the differing attitudes regarding land ownership and use between Native Americans and settlers. The dominant view among Plains Indians was that social groups held occupancy rights to large regions, not that individuals held ownership rights over small ones. In initial treaties between the cultures, Native Americans believed that they were showing hospitality to new neighbors, while settlers believed they were purchasing the land on which they lived outright, with neither side understanding the others’ beliefs well enough to correct the mistake (69)—a mistake which does not change or justify that the settlers were choosing to try to expand into land that was already occupied by someone else, and prepared to use force if the Native Americans did not agree peacefully to settlement.

This is the fundamental problem at the heart of the episode: by using a single incident as a stand-in for the entirety of the Plains War, and possibly for the entirety of all the wars and injustices that blacken the history of race relations in the United States, “Over a Barrel” loses the ability to distinguish between the root causes of the conflict as a whole and any given instance of strife. In so doing, it also loses the ability to distinguish between a momentary solution and a systemic one, treating a mere bandage as a panacea.

In the end, the solution arrived at by the ponies and buffalo is no solution at all. The immediate source of conflict—the juxtaposition of the settlers’ orchard with the buffalos’ stampede grounds—has been resolved to mutual satisfaction, but the underlying cause remains. The ponies still believe that they can walk onto buffalo land and take it for themselves, and now that they and the buffalo have come to a peaceful settlement, the ponies have no reason to think they won’t get away with doing it again. This agreement even has real-life historical precedent, as an inversion of the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, in which representatives of a number of tribes agreed to allow American settlers passage across their land to reach California on the far side, in exchange for limits on the numbers of settlers and compensation to the affected tribes. The U.S. never enforced the settler limits, and several tribes never received their payments.(70) From a real-world perspective, it is only a matter of time before the ponies encroach on buffalo territory again.

Further, aren’t “friendship” and “getting along” the pony equivalent to democracy, in the sense of being their justification for a belief in the superiority of their culture? Certainly in this case it seems to be applied similarly, with the Mane Six splitting into two groups, one of which befriends each side of the conflict, and then using their superior capacity of friendship and the assistance of Braeburn and Little Strongheart to broker a peace that is massively lopsided in favor of the settlers, who not-so-coincidentally are fellow ponies. The repeated insistence that both sides are being stubborn and must put aside their differences amounts to declaring that invaders and the invaded are equally at fault for conflict, and that the invaded have a responsibility to seek compromise with their attackers. Such dedication to peace is perhaps admirable, but adopted as a global policy it seems likely to work mostly to the benefit of aggressors, and thus encourage aggression.

Which is not, once again, to state that each and every individual settler in the Great Plains was a villain or each and every Native American a saint. There are real, understandable motivations for all combatants on all sides of all conflicts. No one ever picks up a gun and shoots another human being unless it seemed like a good idea at the time. While from the vantage point of history it’s easy to tell that the Native Americans were victims and the settlers were aggressors (admittedly, the reality was a little more complicated than that in specific cases, but it’s a good first-order approximation of what generally occurred), at the time everyone on both sides had what seemed like good arguments that they were “correct.” Unfortunately, those arguments, especially on the side of the settlers, were rooted in the violent, hateful elements of human nature, in greed and pain and rage, and these are things which must not and cannot exist in Equestria.

The result is, necessarily, a pie fight.

But then what is the show to spend its transformative energies on, if not addressing real-world conflicts? The answer lies in the previous episode: it can spend its transformative energies on its viewers. Change every person in a society, and you change that society. Change a society, and you change every event in which that society is involved. To change one person for the better, even a little bit, is thus to take a step closer to a better world.

“Over a Barrel” isn’t a great episode, but not out of any particular failures in its execution (though the depiction of the buffalo was fraught with issues). Rather, it fails because this is an entirely wrong direction for the show to be taking. However, it may be that this was a necessary wrong direction; certainly, it will be quite some time before the show attempts any similarly doomed premises. With this wrong step behind it, it can return to the theme of transformation with new confidence and a more direct approach than its past oblique passes.

63. James Mooney, Ghost Dance Religion and Wounded Knee, (New York: Dover Publications, Inc, 1973).
64.    Norman A. Graebner, “Introduction,” Manifest Destiny (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1968).
65.    Ibid.
66.    Thomas G. Shaw, “Prologue,” Trails of Tears: Minnesota’s Dakota Indian Exile Begins, Mary H. Bakeman and Antona M. Richardson ed. (Roseville, MN: Prairie Echoes Press, 2008).
67.    Mary H. Bakeman and Alan R. Woolworth, “The Family Caravan,” Trails of Tears: Minnesota’s Dakota Indian Exile Begins, Mary H. Bakeman and Antona M. Richardson ed. (Roseville, MN: Prairie Echoes Press, 2008).
68.    Elsie Cavender, “Army Brutality Marked Death March to Fort Snelling After Indian Uprising in 1862,” Granite Falls Tribune (February 9, 1956). Reprinted in Trails of Tears: Minnesota’s Dakota Indian Exile Begins, Mary H. Bakeman and Antona M. Richardson ed. (Roseville, MN: Prairie Echoes Press, 2008).
69.    John D. McDermott, A Guide to the Indian Wars of the West (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1998)
70.    N.G. Taylor et al., Report to the President by the Indian Peace Commission, January 7, 1868 (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1868). http://facweb.furman.edu/~benson/docs/peace.htm

Book Version: Doors are barred and shutters shut/Guess I should have stayed inside my hut (Bridle Gossip)

A reminder: My friend Viga is still trying to raise money for college. You can get art for helping! Details here, donation site here.

Looking back on past posts to create the book versions, some stood out as needing more improvement than others. Here, therefore, is the revised version of one of those articles, as published in My Little Po-Mo Vol. 1. Citations are numbered as in the book; unfortunately, Blogger doesn’t allow anchors or superscript so they have been implemented in a fairly primitive way.

It’s December 10, 2010, and Rihanna still wants to be the “Only Girl (In the World).” In film, the top movie is Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which holds a special place in my heart as the book which made me realize I despise C.S. Lewis and everything he holds dear. Needless to say, I have not seen the movie.

In real news, assorted countries led by the U.S. continue to try to shut down WikiLeaks, in apparent total ignorance of the Streisand Effect;(42) Somali piracy is still making headlines; WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gets arrested for sexual misconduct (which he probably did, proving once again that good things can sometimes be created by horrible people); and British students protest a massive tuition hike.

On TV, Amy Keating Rogers pens “Bridle Gossip,” which, in the online version of this essay, I called a “complete failure of an episode” and “a steaming pile of racist horse-s**t.” Neither of which is true, really. It’s an exceedingly mediocre episode, one of the show’s worst, but there are no truly bad episodes of Friendship Is Magic until well into Season 3. And while it is racist, its racism is a matter of lazily and uncritically repeating stereotypes, not active malice.

Nonetheless, on the internet, I correctly predicted how some people would respond: “And now everybody’s all upset, because calling something racist is the! Worst! Possible! Thing! you can say, worse by far than actually being racist, and how dare I say anything against Rogers, who you met at that one con and she seemed like a really nice lady and…”

Let me make something clear: This episode is not trying to incite hatred. I suspect it actually is well-intentioned, an attempt to add the first hints of a non-Western culture to Equestria. The reason I suspect this, is because I can easily believe that all the racist undertones and implications in this episode comes from the same source as the sexist commentary in “The Ticket Master”—namely that Rogers either can’t write certain characters, doesn’t understand them, or simply isn’t interested in them, and therefore takes a “shortcut” by writing them in conjunction with the most obvious stereotypes.

I have tried exceedingly hard to like this episode, and its attached character. Zecora is one of my friend (and cover designer) Viga’s favorite characters, and she dressed as her for both Halloween and several conventions. She’s argued for, and I can see, the good points here, most notably the attempt at inclusion. We live in a culture where white is treated as “default”—in other words, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, characters are assumed to be white. For example, while this has improved drastically in the past year, a Google Image Search on “humanized ponies” still returns mostly white ponies, and most group photos will have at most one “pony of color.”

The show itself has done nothing to cast doubt on that “default viewer” assumption. Quite the opposite: prior to this episode, we know that Rarity’s accent pegs her as a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) from the start, and Twilight Sparkle comes from a city modeled on Arthurian legend.

Later in the series we get confirmation that the rest of the Mane Six come from pony counterparts to European cultures as well: Pinkie Pie is apparently Amish (likely German); Applejack descended from settlers in the American West (Western, Northern, or Central Europe, primarily); and Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash come from a city that closely resembles Mt. Olympus as depicted in Disney’s Hercules.

So the introduction of a character obviously drawn from another culture could have been a much-needed breath of fresh air. Zebras could bring something very interesting to Equestria—a different set of traditions, different ways of doing magic, maybe even different languages.
The premise of the episode fits right in with this potential: An outsider with “different ways” (essentially a different “base culture”) comes to Ponyville, and the sheltered ponies, who have never before encountered representatives of other cultures, are initially afraid of her. After a round of misunderstandings, including allergic reactions to a magical plant which the main characters misinterpret as Zecora cursing them, they finally learn that Zecora’s a good pony with a different “way of life,” as deserving as anyone else of respect and friendship, smiles, hugs, and a good lesson to the kiddies.

The problem, and to be fair it’s one any writer would struggle with, is the issue of tokenism. If Zecora shows no trace of African or black culture, then this continues to erase non-European cultures from the show. But if Zecora is the only character on the show to signify Africa or black people, then any trait she possesses is possessed by all characters who signify black people. If any of those traits are even remotely stereotypical or problematic, then the show is universalizing them across all black people. The only way out is to add more zebras who signify black people or Africa in other ways, but given the toy-driven nature of the show that’s unlikely to be a possibility.

But this is Rogers, and as with Rarity, when presented with a character she isn’t comfortable writing, she writes a stereotype instead. We thus get a Zecora who is built to be generically “African”: named “zebra” in an East African language, wearing Southern African neck rings, and with a hut decorated in West African masks. The end result is a hodgepodge of cultural indicators and “artifacts,” taken from completely different cultural and filial groups, spread out over a large geographical region with likely little interaction between them.

Keep in mind, this is a show that has taken pains to give pegasi, unicorns, and Earth ponies extremely distinct architecture (and, in later episodes, clothing, both modern and traditional) that reflects their cultural origins: Classical Greco-Roman for the pegasi, fairy-tale Western European for the unicorns, and a blend of nineteenth-century Old West and medieval European thatch-roofed cottages for the Earth ponies. The one zebra, on the other hand, gets a blend of African elements separated by a greater distance than the distinct cultures used to make each of the three Equestrian tribes.

Somewhere, an anthropologist is lamenting this disparity in five different local dialects.

The only explanation for this is simple, old-fashioned Eurocentrism: everything from the entire continent of Africa goes into a pot labeled “African,” while more familiar European cultures are seen as distinct. To make matters worse, Zecora has an Ojibwe (a Native American tribe) dreamcatcher over her door, making clear that she’s not only the generic “African,” but the generic “tribal” pony, too.

The episode thus not only lumps all of Africa together, which is appalling (not to mention misinformed) enough, but all of humanity outside of a small circle of European-descended cultures. These “other” cultures then get depicted as primitive and crude: Zecora’s cutie mark is more abstract and less colorful than the others on the show; her masks have chunky outlines suggesting rough-hewn handmade carvings compared to the polished, manufactured look of most pony decorations; and she cooks over an open flame rather than on a stove.

Of course, as is often the case for “primitive” characters in fiction, Zecora gets to be “wise”—she is allowed knowledge about topics such as nature and healing (but not in any sort of scientific way), can dispense good advice (but at the same time lacks social awareness, such as in her apparent belief that all the shops just “happen” to be closed each time she comes to town), and shows every sign of having a higher “emotional intelligence” than the rest of the cast. However, this only heightens the impression that she is a “closer to earth,” “noble savage” type of character, which is to say misjudged through paternalist and imperialist notions, as opposed to more actively hateful and violent racism.
Put another way, she falls victim to the polite, upper-class sort of racism that enslaves cultures and burns its way across continents in the name of “Manifest Destiny” or “bringing civilization,” as opposed to the rude, working-class kind that organizes lynch mobs.

Now, to be fair, it’s not entirely clear how much of this was Rogers’ doing. Zecora was intended from the start as a recurring character, so at least some elements of her characterization are doubtless the product of the entire Friendship Is Magic creative team and probably Hasbro’s toy designers as well. But that only strengthens my core contention, which is not that Rogers is a racist, but rather that this episode and Zecora’s character uncritically draw on stock character traits rooted in misguided stereotyping.

But if we’re going to be fair, we have to be fair in both directions: what little documentation I’ve been able to find suggests that Zecora speaking in rhyme was entirely Rogers’ idea. Because she wasn’t typecast badly enough already, she needs to speak like she has some sort of bizarre compulsion, or possible brain damage.

Again, I really don’t think Rogers hates black people or anything like that. The impression I get is that it simply didn’t occur to the makers of this episode that there could be implications here other than what is directly stated. For example, there’s a scene in the episode where Spike makes fun of the other pony’s curses, even though at least a couple of them are potentially life-threatening (especially Rainbow Dash’s and Applejack’s), and Twilight’s could doom the entire town (given that she saved it from destruction just a few episodes ago). All of their curses are at the least very hurtful for the pony suffering it. And yet Spike not only laughs at them, he lies to them; he tells them he’s working on a cure, and instead spends his time coming up with more jokes at their expense.

All of this is played for laughs; we are supposed to join Spike in laughing at the ponies. In a sense, that’s okay; the ponies are fictional characters, and have no actual feelings to be hurt. Laughing at them is certainly no worse than watching characters die for our entertainment in an action movie or suspense thriller. Also, as this is an episodic comedy-adventure cartoon for small children, we know that, unless there’s a “Part One” in the episode title, odds are very high the characters will all be perfectly fine by the time the credits roll. As I’ve said before, in an adventure the primary question is not “Will they get out of this one?” but rather “How will they get out of this one?”

However, within a diegetic context, this scene is very much not okay. Spike is being actively hurtful here, and nothing ever comes of it. Further, I’m not sure it occurred to anyone involved in making this episode just how much of a bully Spike is being, since no character calls him out on it, and he suffers no consequences. Rogers is failing utterly at basic empathy, what the show itself will later term “Lesson Zero”: the recognition that the feelings of others exist and are always legitimate, no matter what they are.

Sadly, the show itself fails at this lesson in one key respect. This episode is one of (to date) two that attempt to depict someone from a non-Western culture, and the other one is just as laden with stereotypes. For all that it tries (and usually succeeds) at being a feminist show, for all that it is clearly made with the best of intentions, Friendship Is Magic doesn’t deal well with race.

Zecora’s later appearances are, thankfully, few and brief, but always painful to watch, because they represent a sort of rot in the heart of the show. This is supposed to be a show that celebrates community and bringing people together. It is a show that celebrates the “many ways of being a girl” and, since there is no statement true of all women that is not true of all humans, by extension the many ways of being human.

As long as your ways of being human fall within Western norms or descended from European cultures, anyway. Otherwise, you’re an Other, and the creators apparently expect you to count yourself lucky that you get one heavily stereotyped token to represent you.

Which isn’t to say that Friendship Is Magic is a bad show. Other good shows have struggled with race and tokenism before, and it’s at least one notch better than erasure. Nonetheless, race remains a sore point for the show, a topic it never manages to address successfully, and that’s sad.

42. That is, the tendency of efforts to suppress information to instead result in increased publicity for that information, particularly where the Internet is concerned. See Andy Greenberg, “The Streisand Effect.” Forbes (May 11, 2007). http://www.forbes.com/2007/05/10/streisand-digg-web-tech-cx_ag_0511streisand.html