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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Performing Draculinity: Spike the Dragon and Gender Norms

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has a strong feminist message. From what I've seen, that reading of the show has become pretty well accepted across The Webtubes, even if there are still some holdouts that aren't picking up on the obvious. The show has one of the most positive range of female characters I've ever seen, with a whole range of occupations and interests that are all considered mutually acceptable. And, of course, the mane characters (oh the puns, the puns) are all shown to be quite capable, sometimes more capable even than their male counterparts. Rainbow Dash, for example, can fly rings around basically everyone, and Applejack, although not, I think, as strong as her brother is consistently shown to be exceptionally physically capable. (The others don't seem to have particularly comparable male counterparts, but they all are regularly shown as exceptionally talented in their areas of interest.)

And, of course, their personalities make for some cool graphic design:
Yes, I'm going to keep milking this one.
Generally, my articles about the show have focused not on these elements (of harmony? Sorry, sorry), which to me seem fairly obvious, but on the subtext and social impact of the show. One of the great results of the show's unintended internet following is the message it sends that it's ok for guys to like girl things, like the show itself. And, that the show's messages are generally, if not universally, being taken genuinely to heart.

But as much as I love the show, and as positive as I think its impact on culture has been, we haven't exactly gotten an explicit analysis in the show of male gender roles--there simply aren't enough prominent male characters. We've gotten a bit of cool, if subtle, commentary with Big Mac, who seems to fit into the stereotype of the Strong, Silent Male but periodically shows an unashamedly emotional side (he clearly deeply loves his sister Applejack, for one thing, and is shown crying when she leaves during her flashback in Cutie Mark Chronicles). And we've gotten some other incidental characters, but besides that there's been a bit of a dearth of male characters, and, as a natural consequence, there hasn't been anything explicitly in the show about performing masculinity.

Until episode 21, that is.

This episode, for those of you who haven't seen it yet, is about Spike the baby dragon going off to seek others of his kind, so that he can better understand how to be a dragon.

Note the way I word that: he's not just going off to learn about dragons, but how to act like one, how to properly perform draculinity.

Now, for those of you unfamiliar with the idea of gender performance, let me run through the concept. According to sort of broadly accepted social convention, people who are of a certain gender--a gender based on their physical, biological sex--are naturally meant to display certain traits, act in certain ways, and dress in certain clothes. But modern queer and feminist theory suggests that this is simply a performance based on social convention--and to a large extent, it is. There's nothing about my penis that prevents me from wearing a skirt, for example. (Well, alright, it can be a bit awkward if the skirt is too tight and you know what let's just scratch this line of thought and move on, yes?)

But it's important to perform properly because people who don't perform their gender correctly are often ostracized, bullied, and sometimes assaulted or even killed. This is why trans* rights are so important: a transsexual in America, and in, I suspect, most other countries across the globe, is under pressure to pass as whatever gender they feel they are. Those who do not pass run the risk of physical assault, sexual assault, discrimination in the workplace, and murder.

So, one of the cornerstones of the theory of gender performance is that these social constructs hurt men and women--sexism negatively impacts both (or all) sexes.

One of the shortcomings of the last few waves of feminism is that the problems with masculinity when applied to men were kind of ignored. And in fairness, we guys honestly do have it significantly easier in most regards. But, as my first article on Ponies and Feminism pointed out, it's an oversight that is starting to be rectified, thankfully, and things like My Little Pony are helping.

So, now that I've gone through that lengthy diversion (sorry, incidentally, to anyone who already knows the theories I'm talking about, I'm just trying to fill any newcomers in) let's get back to that first weird thing I said: what do I mean when I say that Spike is learning to perform draculinity?

Well, Spike knows he's a dragon, and he wants to act like a dragon should act. He wants to be normal. He also knows that if he doesn't perform draculinity correctly he'll get made fun of, both by his pony friends and by other dragons. Heck, some of those dragons are pretty scary, and there's a definite threat in the episode of the bullying becoming violent--and it's not played for laughs, either.

Some of this starting to sound familiar?

The episode really isn't doing a lot to hide its metaphors. The Ponies in this episode, somewhat fittingly, represent "femininity," and the Dragons represent "masculinity." (I put the terms in quotes, like on The Pony Wheel, to signify the fact that they're social constructs, and exaggerated at that.) And once you see that metaphor, a lot of interesting things emerge.

Notice, for example, that it's Rainbow Dash, one of the most "masculine" of the mane six, that first challenges Spike's own dragonhood--his manhood. Rarity, one of the most "feminine" characters, accidentally makes it worse by describing him in feminine or childish ways.

The ponies as a group take on a generally feminine role when juxtaposed with the dragons, with even Rainbow Dash running with the others rather than fighting the teenage dragons.

And, in my favorite sequence, Twilight Sparkle tries, and fails, to find information about the dragons. I wouldn't go so far as to say that the scene is a direct allegory of the difficulties women's studies has with the study of masculinity, but I certainly see echoes of that problem in the scene. Twilight knows all sorts of things about Ponies, but the most she knows about Dragons is that they're scary and dangerous. Not a direct analogy, certainly, but there's a parallel there, to be sure.

Oh, and there's this little exchange:
Rainbow Dash: I'm telling you, we'll never pass for a real dragon!
Rarity: Oh, pish-posh! This costume is fabulous, one of my finer creations.
Twilight Sparkle: Shh! [hushed] We'll never pass if they hear three voices coming out of one dragon! Now come on, let's go! 

Yep, there's Twilight and Rainbow Dash talking about... passing.

No, I don't think it's seriously a reference to passing as a transexual.

But it is a hilarious coincidence, and I couldn't resist pointing it out.

Anyway, as I've pointed out with other critical analysis, saying "this text is talking about X" is not the same thing as saying "this text is an allegory for X." I wouldn't try to carry the comparison between masculinity and draculinity much further than I have here--it probably won't work past a certain point. After all, dragons mature based on greed, which is pretty weird and not really analogous to how men develop psychologically and biologically. (I know some might disagree, but those people are arguably morons.) It's not really going to work as a one to one mapped parallel.

Still, it works just well enough to lead to a particular moral:
"...Now I realize that who I am is not the same as what I am."

Our performance is not ourselves, nor does it have to be. Spike comes to recognize that he does not have to perform draculinity, he just has to perform himself. It's the message that the rest of the show gears toward girls, but with a male character rather than the normal female cast. The message of the show, sometimes explicit, sometimes just present in the nature of the characters themselves, is that there are lots of different ways to be, and you don't have to perform to someone else's script.

If you like what you've read here, share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave me some kind words in the comments below.

Incidentally, I'm planning on writing another Pony article soon. It will be about the character development of the different characters as described... with SCIENCE! The plan is, I'm going to play a drinking game with some friends, where each time one of the mane six displays a quirk in lieu of actual character development, the person assigned to that character takes a drink. We'll use a breathalyzer and record the results. And I'll write a blog post as we go. In this way, we shall determine the relative character development in the show, get plastered, and get a giant, ridiculous blog post that attempts to approach scientific standards but ends up missing them by a mile.

The trouble is, we need some quirks. So. What are measurable character quirks for each of the mane six cast that we can use to examine the show? Our drinking game rests in your hands, good citizens of The Interblag.


  1. Wow. This is almost exactly what I thought about this episode, only smarter and more awesome. It feels amazing to know that there are others besides me who are thinking about these kinds of things when they watch My Little Pony. Thank you for such a well written article.

  2. I'm actually somewhat ashamed to say that I didn't immediately notice this when watching the episode, but that was almost certainly due to the company I was with (the people at the Brony meetup were, sadly, mostly those who do not take the "Love and Tolerate" message to heart). Once you mentioned it, though, it definitely makes sense. It's pretty cool, and I'm really glad that they actually did an episode that can be explained that way.
    Also, for drinks:
    Rarity: worrying about her/others' appearance.
    Fluttershy: mumbling/shying away from confrontation/conversation.
    Twilight Sparkle: abandoning a situation to study/read/write/brain.
    Applejack: referencing apples out of context.
    Pinkie Pie: fucking physics.
    Rainbow Dash: Asserting her superiority over somepony else.

  3. Did you notice that basically similar theme can be observed "Hurricane Fluttershy"? This time, however, Fluttershy does indeed get eventually forced into performing "pegasusity"...

    1. Hah, I'm a bit late in saying this, but this is a really interesting point. I didn't notice that, no. I'll have to think about that...

  4. Good article. I was thinking about it during the episode, but could've never expressed it as well as you.

    As for quirks (side note: I already loathe living an ocean away, and now you're going to publish the awesome stuff you do without me)
    Twilight: Everything with books and studying/worrying about order
    Pinkie: Being random for the sake of being random (pick someone who doesn't care for his/her liver for Pinkie Pie)
    Fluttershy: Not engaging in direct confrontation

  5. How does this episode of Friendship is Magic compare to the commentary on this sort of thing in Fight Club?

    I'm in particular struck by the idea of Tyler's that he is part of "a generation of men raised by women", roughly paraphrasing. The parallel between that and a dragon trying to learn from ponies how to be a dragon and Tyler's notion that men are trying to be men by learning from women seems a little close to the mark.

    Of course, what matters is a particular person's perception of what masculinity is rather than any "objective" reality, but to have one's own definition rub up against the commonly held view is still slightly galling. As a man, I find it infuriating when the majority of "my" gender's portrayal include drinking lager and reading Loaded or Page 3 while watching football.

    Spike learning to be himself at the end of the show is all fine and dandy, but does this mean that he stops being a dragon? And does how does he interact with other dragons, knowing he behaves differently to them? Does that mean that part of his identity is compromised? What you are can feel very strongly to be a part of one's self-identity, and not necessarily in a confining or negative way. It feels a little odd to completely isolate person and gender, even in the case of a transgender individual; from the (admittedly small) sample of trans people I know, they will consciously identify as transgendered, almost as a subset of their chosen gender. Their gender, whatever it may be, is still a large part of their personal identity.

    While it would be thoroughly ideal to ditch any measure of worth and identity based on gender and measure it purely in terms of personal traits, in the interim people still, somewhere within their self-identification mosaic/kaleidoscope, include gender and potentially gendered performance as part of that. The who is more important than the what, but the what tends to inform part of the who, and that interaction needs to be thought out a bit more.

    1. Oh man, there's lots to dig into here.

      I would say, in reply to the Tyler thing, that part of the point of Fight Club is that Tyler's version of reclaimed masculinity is actually a poisonous, regressive, self destructive masculinity. In a way, you could see him as being the DIRECT OPPOSITE to Spike in that instead of resolving his disaffection from two cultures, he embraces a nihilistic sort of omnicidal fury.

      I don't think Spike stops being a dragon, or that I stop being a guy because I wear skirts and nail polish. That said, I also consider myself somewhat genderqueer so take that with a grain of salt, I guess. It's also tricky territory since this is a metaphor and doesn't directly correlate to reality. Like I said in the article, if it DID we would end up with some deeply problematic statements about men that I couldn't really get behind. But yeah, it's a weird sort of thing and I haven't quite worked it out myself. It does need to be thought out a bit more, and I'm not sure if anyone, me least of all, has definite answers.

      I really appreciate you raising the questions though. :) Getting thoughtful replies like this make these articles worthwhile. Thanks.


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