My Little Po-Mo: Unauthorized Critical Essays on My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic Season Two by Jed A. Blue by Jed A. Blue - Read Online

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My Little Po-Mo - Jed A. Blue

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Dear Princess Celestia... (Introduction)

Once upon a time...

Quite appropriately, these are the first words of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.(1) They are good first words, classic, even, so let us steal them:

Once upon a time there was a man who was not entirely sure what he was doing. Drifting rather aimlessly through life, he found himself on a hot summer day at the Maryland Renaissance Festival, chatting with a very dear friend about said aimlessness. By the end of that day he had conceived of a blog project, an analysis of Friendship Is Magic as a postmodern work. Some months into that project, as he wrapped up his study of Season One, he convinced a couple of dozen backers to give him money to extend the project to include a book. He hired an editor and a cover artist, and the first volume of My Little Po-Mo eventually came into being.

A few months later, as he wrapped up Season Two on the blog, he convinced another group of backers (actually, mostly the same group) to give him money to publish a second book, which you are now holding in your hands or viewing a digital copy of.

He is still not entirely sure what he is doing, but he is growing increasingly authoritatively unsure, so that’s something.

Po-What Now?

What do I mean by Friendship Is Magic being postmodern, and how exactly do I plan to approach the content from a postmodern perspective? For that matter, what does postmodern even mean?

Well, that’s complicated. Postmodernism is difficult to define; some people even claim it’s impossible to define, preferring instead to give examples of, or criteria for, works that fall under the broad heading of postmodernism.(2) But if I’m going to be wildly overambitious, why not just give it the old college try?

Philosophically, as the name implies, postmodernism is a step beyond modernism. In a nutshell, the core realization of modernism is that symbols are fundamentally arbitrary. That is, there is no relationship between the signifier (the thing that does the symbolizing) and the signified (the thing that is symbolized), except in the mind of the person looking at the signifier. So, for example, a red hexagon means stop not because there is some logical connection between redness, hexagonality, and stopping, but because somebody somewhere decided that red hexagons should mean stop, and convinced others to go along with it. This is the essential concept of social constructionism, that the concepts and symbols with which we understand our world are constructed from social circumstances and relationships. It naturally follows that these symbols are therefore as fluid as societies and relationships are, and do not have fixed, objective meaning.(3)

Since all art (and language) is a series of symbols, it follows that the meaning of any given work is in some sense arbitrary, a product of social construction rather than a logically necessary relation. Traditionally, art got around this by using agreed-upon, socially constructed symbols, such as words or representational images (using the image of an apple to stand in for an apple, for example). These act as guide rails of a sort, allowing the person experiencing the art to start with a few familiar symbols, then build from there. Modernism being largely characterized by a rejection of tradition and a sense of disillusionment and disintegration, modern art often dispenses with some or all of these guide rails, aggressively challenging the very idea that art does—or should—have non-arbitrary meaning. Examples include James Joyce’s works presenting stream-of-consciousness text without normal sentence structure, and Mondrian’s paintings depicting abstract colors and shapes rather than representations of familiar objects. Paradoxically, however, modernism frequently seeks to recreate the order for which it feels that loss,(4) as Joyce famously depicts an ordinary day as an epic struggle, or Mondrian arranges his abstract colors into grid-like patterns.

Postmodernism, by contrast, rejects the idea that socially constructed meaning is the same thing as no meaning. Where modernism says The relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary, so nothing means anything, postmodernism says The relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary, so we’re free to decide what everything means. Therefore postmodernist works do not need to reintroduce lost order, since such order never existed to begin with. For much the same reason, the postmodern period has seen an embrace of pop culture as a medium for artistic expression.(5)

Modernism rejects traditional meanings, forms, and techniques in order to create a new order to replace the old; postmodernism combines the traditional and the new in order to pursue the odd or interesting.(6) Where modern art removes the guide rails, postmodern art tends to function by drawing attention to the guide rails. This is done primarily via a process of decontextualization and re-contextualization, removing familiar signifiers from their usual contexts and placing them within other contexts, for example by mixing elements from multiple genres, creating pastiches of familiar works, or breaking the fourth wall.(7) The resulting sense of disorientation is generally then exploited either for humorous or horrific effect, or to provoke thought. (It can, of course, also be funny, frightening, and thought-provoking all at once.)

Friendship Is Magic does this all the time.

One of the simplest types of social constructs is the binary. A binary splits the world into two opposites: good/evil, male/female, light/dark. Binaries are good tools for making quick assessments, but they also blind you to a lot of underlying themes, motivations, and moral play, as well as obscuring any concepts that lie between/outside of the binary elements. A black/white binary denies the existence of grays, forcing you to pick a more-or-less arbitrary dividing line between being black and being white. But, more importantly, it obscures the existence of color: not only is red neither black nor white, but if you draw a line from black to white, it appears as a gray gradient. Although red is present, as white light is composed of all the pure spectral colors, it is obscured, rendered invisible by the act of forcing all the colors into the gray line of a binary spectrum.

That might not seem like a big deal, but consider something like the gay/straight binary, which not only denies the existence of bisexuals (which is bad enough), but obscures the existence of other types of sexuality that are on a different spectrum entirely (asexuality, for instance). That can be a serious problem if you identify as one of those obscured groups and have to convince people you exist, especially when their picture of the world has no room for you.

There’s a few binaries that Friendship Is Magic likes to subvert, and I’m sure we’ll find more as we continue, but the two most obvious are male/female and child/adult. Simply put, Friendship Is Magic is a show for little girls with a large audience of grown men. This is mind-blowing if you’re wedded to those two binaries. Early articles about bronies (the self-adopted term for adult, and especially adult male, fans of Friendship Is Magic) in the mainstream press, especially from sources that had never covered bronies before, tended to react with astonishment,(8) contempt, derision, and hostility,(9) with some sources, especially those written by bronies, adopting an apologist or defensive stance.(10)

All of these approaches assume that there is something wrong, either to be criticized or justified, with adult men consuming media designed for young girls, taking for granted that for children and feminine necessarily meant not for adults and not masculine. Friendship Is Magic, and to an extent its fans, rejects these assumptions and thereby interrogates the binaries behind them.

Another way to draw attention to the constructs in a work revolves around playing with genre: stretching definitions, mashing tropes and idioms, pulling ideas from one context and putting them in another, interrogating the genre’s assumptions by subjecting them to a sort of reduction ad absurdum. This is Ihab Hassan’s hybridization and carnivalization, which as he describes is simultaneously a form of play and a subversive act.(11)

Friendship Is Magic loves this approach, as we’ll see when explore each individual episode. It is a show that can do a typical sit-com plot (babysitter with no childcare experience bites off more than she can chew), then interrupt it with a horror movie about a monster attack—and then have the resolution to the horror plot solve the sit-com plot, too.

So What Exactly Is This Book?

The best way to view this book—or at least, the way I would recommend—is as the continuation of a journey begun in the previous volume. Like that book, we are still exploring the episodes of Friendship Is Magic, wandering over their surfaces and planting little analytical flags. At the same time, we are exploring the curious phenomenon of the brony fandom, the human inhabitants of this landscape, their quaint folkways and peculiar beliefs. Familiarity with the prior volume is potentially helpful, but not necessary; some of what we find may invoke references to past journeys, but we are mostly traveling in new directions in new lands.

Less self-indulgently and obtusely, this book is a collection of critical essays about the second season of Friendship Is Magic. The bulk of these essays are expanded and revised versions of essays originally posted on the My Little Po-Mo blog, but others were originally published elsewhere or are exclusive to the book version.

The essays that originated on the blog include this introduction, plus 24 essays that between them cover the 26 episodes comprising the second season of Friendship Is Magic (one per story, as opposed to one per aired episode). Each is titled with a quote from the show—though never from the episode in question, for possibly dark ritualistic reasons of my own—followed by the episode title in parentheses. Most are fairly straightforward critical essays, though a few experiment with the format a bit, generally to reflect the format of the episode—hybridizing the show with the critical essays with the effect of carnivalizing the latter, one might say, if one were so inclined.

The remaining essays cover assorted other topics relevant to Friendship Is Magic, and are generally placed where they would be most useful in understanding the following articles, with the exception of the glossary/dramatis personae, which is placed at the end. Included among these are three essays in the Best Pony series that originated as backer rewards for the Kickstarter campaign that funded the publication of the first book. Each of these essays examines a single character (chosen by the backer who earned the reward) in detail across multiple episodes, and constructs an argument for that character being best pony. The remaining essays cover aspects of the brony fan community and philosophical or social issues related to the episode essays. In general, while the first volume could be broadly considered a defense of the brony community and exploration of its cultural potential, this volume can broadly be considered a critique of that community and exploration of its dark side.

Acknowledgments

Before we start in with the first essay, I’d like to thank some people without whom this book would not exist. First are the usual suspects: my parents, without whom I would not exist, and who did everything in their power to ensure that I would end up the kind of complete nerd who writes books about cartoons about magical ponies. (Most notably, allowing seven-year-old me to stay up past my bedtime to talk about books I’d just read.) Thanks, Mom, Dad, and Miranda! And as long as I’m thanking family, I’d also like to thank my little niece Chloe. Somehow, and fascinatingly, in the time since I began this project she has metamorphosed from a toddler into a tiny person, and in so doing reminded me that while 20-somethings may be the most anthropologically interesting audience this show has, they are not its most important.

Somewhere on the border between close friend and adoptive family is Viga Gadson, who, when I told her my impossible dream of doing something like this at that RenFaire seemingly so long ago, answered with the mind-blowing question, Well, why don’t you? She also designed the logo for my site and the cover of this book, and is the person who convinced me to watch Friendship Is Magic in the first place. And I would be remiss not to mention Dr. Philip Sandifer, whose brilliant blog and books were the inspiration for that dream.

Then there’s Charles Dunbar, who edited the manuscript; he’s the reason this isn’t riddled with typos, awkward run-on sentences, and unsourced, sweeping blog-logic claims. He’s also the person who dragged me kicking and screaming into citing my sources, talked me down from the occasional cliff-edge of the outré, and generally fought to inch me closer to something resembling academic respectability. Any mistakes or overreach which may remain are entirely down to me, despite his insistence and pleading with me. He also helped out with formulating the fast and dirty (his words, not mine) fieldwork conducted at a number of conventions in early 2014.

I also want to thank everyone who responded to those surveys and my requests for interviews, without whom Chapters 22, 26, and 31 would not exist and Chapters 4 and 18 would be far shorter and weaker.

Finally, I want to thank everyone who contributed to the Kickstarter campaign that raised the funds to pay Charles and Viga:

Harrison Barber

Nick Sylocat Barovic (and family)

Michael (G-Nitro) Camacho

Lord Chihuahua of the Yellow Birds, Leader of the Leprechaun Liberation Army (a.k.a., my brother)

Cynthia Kira Cooper

Steve Cornett

CrowMagnon

Digijen

Lars Engebretsen

Anthony R. Evans

Jessica Flores

The Fyre Family

Christian M.

Christopolis Tiberius Markus

Charles Murray

Nightingale

Colin Pinnick

Susan Sutton

Tanglemane

Matt Wagner

Peter Wildani

William McCormick

1. Okey-dokey Loki (The Return of Harmony)

One way to achieve a sense of chaos is to break something into component elements, then rearrange those elements pseudorandomly. The elements—which can be ponies, pies, paragraphs, parts of creatures—retain their internal order, but the relations between them are scrambled and disorienting. The whole, quite intentionally, does not make sense as such, and it may or may not be possible to rearrange the elements into something that is both coherent and complete.

Like the blind sages’ elephant, it has so many names: Time, Loge, Evolution…

Things are wrong from the start. This isn’t how episodes—or analyses, for that matter—normally begin. I mean, it’s been a while since the last episode of the show, so maybe we’ve just forgotten, but shouldn’t there be some sort of grounding here, a way to position ourselves in familiar spaces?

Where are the Mane Six?

Where, for that matter, are we?

Every episode prior to this has started in Ponyville, with the sole exception of the series premiere, and every episode prior to this has started with one of the Mane Six, with no exceptions at all. Likewise, nearly every chapter about an episode in the first volume of My Little Po-Mo started with a lede giving the episode air date, the top song that week and movie that weekend, and a handful of news headlines from the time.

But this isn’t Ponyville, there’s no date in the previous paragraph, and have we ever seen ponies physically fighting each other before?

the day of the Eclipse, Christ, Q…

And then, after the credits, the title: The Return of Harmony. The first thing this episode tells us is that harmony has gone away, but not for good. Something has gone fundamentally wrong. Maybe it was always wrong, and we’re only just now noticing.

eucatastrophe, change, Armageddon, progress…

[She must break free.]

The solution is simple. We know the Elements of Harmony, we can solve this problem and restore order before it breaks down. That is what we want, isn’t it? Static, constraining order?

the beginning and the end…

[It has taken her world for its own and rules it as a tyrant. This sprawling beast, this hideous abomination that gnaws and grinds and surrounds the universe it claims as its own. It is both her jailer and enabler, maintaining her creations even as it imprisons these entities of pure thought in plastic shells, pink where they should be white, and what’s up with the pets?]

Except it’s too late. The Elements are gone, and he walks openly among us. The progression is clear: First we learned the nature of destiny. Then Pinkie Pie, always the first to intuit these things, discovered that the nature of the show blocked her evolution toward her future destiny, and called him forth by name. He was evoked in spirit in Canterlot at the end of Season One. It matters little that the escape from his physical prison is well after that; he is entropy, that which makes time different from space, and so time belongs to him as much as it does to the regulators of day and night. He has already been to Canterlot, already stolen Harmony.

Shiva, insanity…

[He can save her. He can open a path to set her free. But how can she escape without shattering her prison? And her prison is the world. Her imprisonment is the fundamental law of existence. If she is no longer contained within the tyrant’s laws, chaos reigns. How can her world continue without her?]

We recognize him immediately, of course. His shape is different, but his voice, his mannerisms, his actions and personality, they’re all the same. Discord isn’t based on Q; Discord is Q, the all-powerful trickster masterfully played by John DeLancie in multiple Star Trek series of the 1980s and 90s, hopping from one show to another, the cosmic troll, teaching humility even as his arrogance blinded him to his own lessons. Everyone, from Discord’s creator to the viewers (bronies and parents, at least), knows he is Q, except, curiously, the actor playing him.(12)

Of course the exact same description, all-powerful trickster, is true of the titular Doctor of Doctor Who, among a great many other characters. The trickster is an ancient figure, whom folklorist and fantasist Jane Yolen describes as found in every folklore tradition, a morally ambiguous figure who is sometimes wise, sometimes foolish, but always (albeit sometimes subtly) supernaturally empowered. The trickster represents the inevitable intrusion of chaos into even (or perhaps especially) the most ordered life, whose very amorality... re-emphasizes our own cherished morality and who pokes fun at our illusions.(13) We see the Doctor from the perspective of the oppressed, downtrodden, and rebellious. They desire change, and so the character who brings it is constructed within the narrative to have heroic traits. We see Q from the perspective of elite members of an enlightened, but authoritarian, quasi-military organization; of course that colors how we view the one who overturns the natural order. They desire harmony, and so the character who disrupts it is constructed to have villainous traits.

Moral ambiguity is, as previously mentioned, a common trait of tricksters, and now a source of chaos formerly reserved for Star Trek is invading Equestria. The last time Star Trek and Friendship Is Magic crossed paths, the show was nearly destroyed, and had to be reborn.(14) This time is no different.

Hermes Trismegistus, enlightenment…

[She made the world, this incarnation of wisdom, this Faustian, Celestial figure. But she was trapped by it, sealed in and constrained by its laws and the keeper of those laws.]

He is sadistic and cruel, breaking down each of the characters we love in turn by confronting them with the essential weaknesses that each of their Elements imply. He subverts their identities by taking the form of their cutie marks. Applejack must confront the reality that truth hurts, so she embraces lies. Pinkie