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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.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Reading Their Lips

So, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy are really cute together, and I'm glad their relationship is canon now.


Wait, let me back up a moment.

It took me quite a few tries to get this article--an article that a week ago seemed relatively straightforward--off the ground. The actual ideas are fairly simple, but the presentation stalled me. It didn't, of course, help that in between the article's inception and its completion there was a week of sleep deprivation, hellish workloads, and the emotional roller coaster that is gradschool applications (more on that at the end of the article if you're interested). The possibility of lesbian ponies was somewhat understandably shoved forcefully from my conscious thoughts.

Let me go back, though, to the video that started it all:

I'm not in sync with the online Brony/Pegasister community enough to know just how much trouble this scene has stirred up, but I suspect that it's a non-negligible amount of trouble. My first reaction was, of course, to be downright ecstatic. "Finally," I thought, "we get some non-heterosexual elements in the show! I mean, besides that one dragon..."

But I couldn't shake the feeling that there was more to the video than just the kiss. It wasn't quite enough to say, without a doubt, that these two main characters--Rainbow Dash, the sporty, boastful athlete and Fluttershy, the gentle, caring lover of animals--actually kissed in that clip.

Although I didn't know it at the time, my good friend Yanmato was working on a brilliant guest article that serves as a wonderful introduction to the problem. See, the idea Yanmato discussed--the Umwelt, the individualized, personalized understanding of a work--helps to explain what's going on with that ambiguous kiss.

There's actually quite a useful quote from an anonymous commenter on the MLP Wiki that sums things up fairly well:

"I watch that scean in slow motion. No Rainbow dash does not kiss Fluttershy. They heads do move closely together but they don't touch. I think those who support the disguesting girl on girl shippings see what they want to see here."

Oh, don't look so alarmed, it's just an elephant. No, no, I'll pay for the damages to the room. What? No, it's not important right now, I'll get back to it later.

The part of the quote I want to look at right now is the part where our fine anonymous commentator points out that we "see what [we] want to see here." What can I say, ladies and gentlemen? He's right! This is another example of the Umwelt: those of us that see this as a kiss are translating an ambiguous space into something that fits our perceptions (although, in the spirit of full disclosure, I didn't actually notice the kiss until my friend Timebaum pointed it out to me after the fact).

It's actually a concept that syncs up well with some concepts in the field of Reader Response Criticism. These concepts were articulated by one Wolfgang Iser, in a number of essays that broke with critical tradition at the time to point out the power of subjective spaces in literature. According to Iser, there are aspects of a text that are static. These are things that are undeniably true, and the reader has to negotiate around those things. However, there are also gaps in a text, blank spaces that need to be filled in by the reader. These are ambiguities of everything from motives, to actions, to the way a character looks (keep in mind here, Iser is working to prove the superiority of capitol-L Literature, and one of the ways he does this is by bashing Film's reliance upon the defined image, when Literature can leave depictions of characters or scenery partly up to the individual reader). These ambiguous spaces are fantastically important to a text, because they let the reader take on the role of the writer, allowing for engagement and creativity rather than the dryness of a lecture.

That kiss is a perfect ambiguous space, primed and ready for us to write in exactly what we want to see.

Iser knows what's going on here
Now, part of how this works, though, comes from Iser's version of the Umwelt, something he calls a "repertoire." The text has a repertoire--that's the stuff you have to work around, the static stuff--and you have a repertoire--the stuff you bring to the text. Your understanding of the repertoire of the text changes during reading, and your repertoire is changed by the text as well. So, it's a process of almost creative collaboration between you and the text.

That said, there's stuff in a text that can lead you to a certain conclusion about an ambiguous space. Iser would be right pissed if he knew I was doing this, but I think we might look to Formalism--one of the movements Iser was reacting against--for an explanation of this phenomenon. See, the Formalists (or "New" Critics as they were known in, *ahem*, the 1920s) looked for thematic unity in a text. They wanted everything to line up nicely and neatly, and any part of the text that didn't could sod right off, as far as they were concerned. If it didn't fit their reading, it didn't exist.

While the formalist project is problematic in a lot of ways, it's a good model for what I suspect most of us do unconsciously as we read. We do look for unity. What Iser would say is that this unity is constructed--it's a product not so much of the text but of us--and that can be debated back and forth, but unity is still in a lot of ways what we prize in a text.

From this perspective, the kiss makes a lot of sense. To understand how that works, let's delve into my repertoire a little, shall we?

One of the things I bring to the table (or to the stable, perhaps? Hm.) is the stereotype of the butch/femme lesbian relationship. In this model, you've got one woman who is more masculine and extroverted (is this sounding familiar, pony wheel fans?) paired with a woman who is more feminine and introverted. Rainbow Dash, for better or worse, has been picked up by the queer community as an icon of queer sexuality of... some sort. Just what varies, but the key to it all is A. the rainbow and B. her non-normative gender behavior. And yes, yes, it's unfair to stereotype in that way, but at the same time, the stereotype is still a part of the repertoire, so I'm going to at least openly address it here. I'm baring my soul for you people, for goodness sake!

At any rate, once I started thinking of Rainbow Dash as butch, it wasn't too long before on some level I started looking for a femme.

From there, it's not hard to see reasons to link Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash. They start the series in conflict frequently, but we know Rainbow Dash stuck up for Fluttershy--without any hesitation or prompting, I might add--when they were younger, and by the time we reach "May The Best Pet Win" the two seem to have a fairly strong friendship. The real clincher is certainly the episode "Hurricane Fluttershy" where Rainbow Dash seems to place a surprising amount of hope on Fluttershy's flying ability. She is quite visibly unhappy with her inability to get Fluttershy to help out with the artificial hurricane, despite the fact that she obviously isn't powerful enough to tip the balance substantially. She is far more focused on Fluttershy than even mere friendship could explain. It is hard for me not to see this as an indication of stronger feelings of affection--which fits well into the fact that Rainbow Dash seems to be the initiator of the maybe-kiss.

So, in a search for unity, I tend to read those moments and hints as part of a larger whole. To me, they combine to form a story of a growing friendship and--ultimately--a romantic association.

Of course, there's one last element of my own repertoire pushing me towards this conclusion. For that, I refer you to the elephant over here:

"I watch that scean in slow motion. No Rainbow dash does not kiss Fluttershy. They heads do move closely together but they don't touch. I think those who support the disguesting girl on girl shippings see what they want to see here."

I read it this way because, dammit, I'm sick of queerness being treated as disgusting.

Sorry, wait.


Now, I'm not about to suggest that the Brony/Pegasister community as a whole is homophobic. That would be a staggeringly unfair generalization, and it's not something I honestly believe. My interactions with the community have been very positive and supportive.

That said, reading that moment as non-a-kiss is also a choice, and it's a choice that similarly emerges from a repertoire. And I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest that some of that repertoire is, in fact, homophobic in nature. I mean, consider the issue even in its most benign form: this is a kid's show, so of course they can't have lesbians! That's way too racy, right?

The thing is, that association of queerness with deviance and inappropriateness is still a form of homophobia. It's a particularly unfair one when the scene being interpreted takes place in an episode that concludes with a victory through the power of love. Forgive me if I sound a bit rankled by all of this, but this sort of argument, even if it's internalized, unconscious, and totally unvocalized, is still an argument that marginalizes queer love--not queer sexuality, mind you, but the idea of queer affection.

And, of course, there's the readers of the moment who overtly just thing lesbians are gross. I'm going to leave my feelings on that matter up to you, dear reader. See if you can figure out how to fill in that gap.

I really don't want people to come away from this article with the idea that I'm demanding that my interpretation be declared the One True Interpretation. That would be fucking stupid, not to mention absurdly presumptuous of me. Let's be honest, here: what makes this moment interesting is its ambiguity. I certainly wouldn't want to lose that. I'm only suggesting that when we start to look at our Umwelt--at the repertoire we bring to the text--we can start to untangle why we see what we see... and whether we like those reasons. This isn't an accusation, just a suggestion for your consideration. Cool?

There's one other thing that tangles up our understanding of this material quite a bit. Yes, I know, we've tangled things enough, no need to add another layer. I think it's worth pointing out, though, that I can't get too high on my horse. Pony. Elephant? Whatever. You see, Iser would have one problem with my reading here.

He would say that what I'm doing is the mark of a supremely immature reader.

Remember what I said about the act of bringing a repertoire to the text transforms both the text and the reader? Well, there are two different ways of dealing with that fact. You can read a text as I've done--to confirm your repertoire--or you can read against it. Guess which one Iser thinks is the mark of a mature reader?

I can only try to excuse myself by suggesting that the metacritical approach I've taken here absolves me of some guilt. If I'm choosing to read according to my prior beliefs, it's a conscious choice. It doesn't really help that much, but I can only throw myself upon your mercy as a reader and hope that you understand that I'm not perfect, either.

But I'll let you fill in the blanks there.

Besides... aren't they cute together?

Iser thinks so! Yeeeeeeah. (For the record, this may be my favorite image for this blog, ever.)

This was a hell of an article to write, but surprisingly gratifying. If you liked this piece please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave me, Yanmato, and Wolfgang Iser some kind words in the comments below.


  1. And yet again, you delve straight into ridiculously complex and unfriendly theories, this time from (sheesh!) the '20s, and explain them perfectly, in a very Storming the Ivory Tower kind of way. Occasionally, your posts are just spot on in their metacritical approach - and somehow, you manage to explain everything you're doing AS YOU DO IT. It's... actually kind of mindboggling, how successful you are at it.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Yay! I'm mentioned in another article! Now to sit back and watch as MY blog gets all the pageviews. Oh, wait, no, that doesn't happen. Nobody goes to my blog.

    I still reject that it was a romantic kiss. Friendly, I'd say. I mean, Rainbow did just save Fluttershy, and, being sexually ambiguous, gave her a happy little peck to show she was happy that Flutters was ok. They are close friends after all. I will still passive (aggressively) ship AppleDash (due to their "friendly" rivalry that is totally building sexual tension) and PinkieShy (because it is the most adorable thing ever).

  3. Heh, i noticed that when i first watched that episode, and was thinking "oh no they didn't."

    One point to realize on the matter of "I mean, consider the issue even in its most benign form: this is a kid's show, so of course they can't have lesbians! That's way too racy, right?" is one that may not be homophobic in intention, but a response to latent homophobia (Watchdogs who can then influence advertiser $$$), in a series that has already drawn fire for toying with questions of mental disability in the form of Derpy Hooves.

    For my part, as a yuri fanboy in general and a Fluttershy fan in particular, i'm increasingly heartened upon seeing this scene.

  4. Sam, I've learned more from you about this stuff (literary criticism and gender studies) than anywhere else.

    I also feel that Yanmato's article is going to be linked quite often.

    You also mention some other subjects that could be interesting to explore. The main one is probably homophobia in the brony community (or nerd culture in general).

  5. We also know that the show creators have subtly hinted that Lyra and BonBon are a couple. Not only are they nearly always seen together (initially because their colours go well together as background ponies) but also BonBon is seen wearing Lyra's bags.

  6. To me, this looks more like Fluttershy *expected* Rainbow Dash to kiss her, or else felt that such a thing would be a suitable acknowledgement of, "hey, you just saved my life", and Dash was totally not coming at it from that angle, and so Fluttershy produced Ye Olde Puckering Sound herself.
    Or something. Maybe I'm wrong. I'm probably wrong.

  7. I think...I'm...going to blow cupcake chunks.


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