|For all that I don’t particularly like this episode, this is quite
possibly the cutest, funniest image in the series. I can add
nothing to it; it is absolute perfection. I bow to its glory.
It’s January 26, 2013. The top song is still Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven,” thankfully on its last week, and the top movie is Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, which I haven’t seen on the grounds that movies with titles that interesting rarely live up to them. In the news, the annual World Economic Forum begins, where the world’s major political and business leaders meet to solve all the worlds problems, if by “solve” you mean “accomplish very little” and by “all the world’s problems” you mean “as defined by the most successful international corporations”; European scientists successfully use DNA as a data storage medium, which as far as gimmicks go is a pretty nifty one; and, continuing the national policy of punishing the people who report horrific government crimes as opposed to the people who perpetrate them, CIA agent John Kiriakou is sentenced to 30 months in prison for revealing details of the U.S. use of waterboarding to torture prisoners.
Meanwhile, in ponies we have “Just for Sidekicks,” written by Corey Powell and directed by James Wootton. Which is the second Spike-centric episode in three episodes, contains little to no presence of the Mane Six, and is the third consecutive episode to be, well, kind of not-good. There’s almost an interesting structural trick being played across this and the next episode, in that this is a sort of “B side” to “Games Ponies Play”: the two episodes take place simultaneously, following different characters, and the climax of this episode puts its characters in the same physical space as teh “Games Ponies Play” characters. Unfortunately, neither episode does much of interest with that structure, they have little to nothing in the way of thematic links, and are both fairly terrible episodes, so the structural experiment cannot be regarded as a success.
No, this is yet another sitcom flail, in this case the hoary old “character takes on a new job they think will be easy, fails miserably” story. Indeed, like “A Dog and Pony Show” before it, this is an episode-length reference to a classic folktale, “The Man Who Does His Wife’s Work,” tale type 1408 in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther index. In that tale, a man insists that his wife’s work is easier than his, so they trade for a day. He then proceeds to make an utter mess of a number of household tasks, notably including cooking and taking care of animals, just as Spike does in this episode (though, obviously, the impetus for him doing so is very different).
That this story is sexist should be fairly obvious, but note that it is as much or more harmful to women as men, despite that it depicts a man as a bumbling fool when confronted with “women’s work.” The problem is that it defines as “women’s work”–the is, tasks which women must do because only women can be good at them–vitally important support tasks which are done at home for no pay, while men must “reluctantly” therefore take on the burden of all the tasks which require going out into the world and earning money. While our society does allow women to work outside the home and earn money, our entertainment (particularly sitcoms and romantic comedies) still quite frequently depicts men as incompetent at household chores, and it shows. Women still do the bulk of housework, even though they are now working outside the home as well, and while married men (on average) live longer and earn more than unmarried men, women see no such benefit.
So, once again we have a sexist traditional folktale, which retains a toxic power in the present day, being used as the basis for a Spike episode. However, we also have a significant callback to a second-season Spike episode, “The Secret of My Excess.” More accurately, we have a significant lack of callback which, in its own way, is a callback. In that episode, Spike’s greed, a traditional defining trait of the European dragon, causes him to begin transforming into a gigantic monster. In this episode, even though his greed makes him unable to stop eating gems long enough to finish his cake, and drives him to graspingly attempt to scam his friends into paying him to do a job he has no intention of doing, his size remains unchanged.
There are a few possibilities as to why. The most boring is that “The Secret of My Excess” is simply being ignored. Another possibility is that Spike’s greed for gems is a gluttonous desire to consume, while his greed for presents was an avaricious desire to possess, but that seems rather to be splitting hairs–certainly, the dragons of story and song seem to spend as much time devouring livestock and maidens fair as they do accumulating and sleeping on piles of gold. A more interesting possibility, however, is that the reason he does not change is that the metaphor of “The Secret of My Excess” is reified here. In other words, where in “The Secret of My Excess” Spike was acting like a profit-driven entity in a capitalist system, in this episode he is actually running a profit-driven enterprise, and so the metaphor of him swelling ever larger and more bestial is replaced by him taking on more work and hiring employees. (Unpaid interns, actually, but more on that in a bit.)
Spike wishes to acquire gems, and he sees running a business as a way to do it. However, he doesn’t want to expend any effort; he wants to gain without losing anything–he wants to take out more than he puts in, which is of course the definition of profit. A naive construction of capitalism can be stated as such: In Idealized Econ 101 Land (next door to the universe where hockey rinks are frictionless and cows are spheres of uniform density), A is good at procuring fresh water and less good at raising food; B is good at raising food and less good at procuring water. (It does not actually matter which is better than the other at each task–even if B is better than A at both, it is still more efficient for each to specialize in their personal top skill.) A gets the water and B grows the food, and they trade with each other. Both get more food and more water than if they’d tried to do everything independently; everyone profits.
In reality, what happens is that the one who is more ruthless or has an initial resource advantage establishes themselves as the employer, and the other as the employee, which is to say a hierarchy forms in which one has power and the other is subservient. For example, A realizes that zie can go longer without water than B can go without food, and zie takes advantage of that to force B to work for hir. A claims ownership of both the food and the water, and B is an employee (or, given that this example suggests a pre-industrial world, a slave or serf).
Thus, while in theory it is possible for profit to be mutual, in practice it is usually a mechanism by which entities with power acquire more. And Spike here is interested purely in profit, at the expense of his customers (who are, ostensibly, his friends) and the animals with whose care he is being entrusted. In this respect, he is once again a perfect match for a real-world corporation. Thanks to Dodge v. Ford Motor Company (a 1916 Michigan Supreme Court case which stands alongside such gems as Plessy v. Ferguson and Citizens United as being among the worst and most destructive decisions by American courts), corporations face a legal requirement to maximize shareholder returns (that is, profitability for the investors) rather than productivity or the good of customers, workers, or the community–or at least, such is the usual public understanding of the case. The reality is slightly more complicated, since while it establishes that corporations have a duty to maximize their shareholders’ profits, it also establishes a fairly stringent burden of proof on the plaintiff to demonstrate that the directors of the corporation have violated the business judgment rule, which has little to do with maximizing profits.
Regardless of the extent to which that particular court case is to blame, modern corporations do by and large exist to make money, with employing workers and serving customers treated as an unfortunate obstacle to that goal, to be overcome as quickly and with as little expenditure as possible. (Again, this is not to say that any given employee behaves this way–many individual employees care about their customers, and some managers and even the occasional executive care about their employees. Rather, this is a description of the behavior of the organization as a gestalt entity.) This is precisely how Spike operates throughout the episode, bemoaning the loss of every gem even as he dismissively ignores the advice and requests of the Mane Six and repeatedly tries to find the minimal-effort, minimal-cost way to make sure that the pets are still more or less intact when their owners return.
Perhaps the most telling scene is when he recruits the Cutie Mark Crusaders to help him. In persuading them to work essentially for free (the gem he provides them is to pay for the supplies they need to take care of the pets, not any sort of wage for the CMC themselves), he suggests that they might earn a cutie mark. In other words, he persuades them to do unpaid labor for them by promising that it will be educational for them and implying a future career that he has no intent of actually helping them attain. This is an increasingly common scam in the real world, particularly against young people in the creative professions. Designers and illustrators are promised “exposure” for their work or encouraged to enter contests where only the winner gets paid, but all the entries become property of the contest owner; meanwhile, news and review websites such as Huffington Post, USA Today, and The Mary Sue, among many, many others recruit eager young writers desperate to get their foot in the door, publishing their work and earning ad revenue from it, but never paying the writers a dime. In both cases, the effect is to devalue the work; writers and illustrators seeking to get paid for their work find themselves competing against the victims of these scams, and it is nigh-impossible to compete against someone willing to work for free. Essentially, these corporations are tricking their workers into screwing themselves out of ever getting paid, precisely by promising that if they do well enough they might someday get paid.
Fortunately, this is Equestria, which is to say a brighter, happier world than our own, and so Spike does not end up (as he would in real life) a successful entrepreneur with sufficient wealth to distort both the political and economic systems in his favor. Instead, he is punished for his attempt to take out more than he put in by, ultimately, being forced to put in far more effort than he intended, and end up with nothing to show for it. Unfortunately, as usual he appears to have learned nothing in the end, as he once again eats his gem before he can put it in the cake. Then again, doing awful things and learning nothing in the process is the norm for Spike episodes by this point.
Next week: The even worse “A” side.