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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.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Fluttershyness is Nice

Shyness is nice and
Shyness can stop you
From doing all the things in life you'd like to

I don't think that there's any particular contradiction between aiming a particular narrative at a younger audience and still imparting a slightly more complex, nuanced message, or in transcending the rote lessons that so many children's shows fixate upon. Generally speaking, I think this idea is getting generally accepted by writers on the better children's shows (and it's long been accepted by the best writers of children's stories, of course). Still, it's always wonderful to see a really well put together narrative with a nuanced treatment of what could otherwise be a quite trite issue.

And is there anything more rote, any lower-hanging fruit, than "character deals with stage fright?"

There's probably a few things, but it's got to be in the bottom ten at the very least, to the point where I remember getting quite sick of such episodes when I was a kid. The narratives are straightforward: character admits to having stage fright, zie has to go on stage anyway, zie learns that being on stage isn't so bad after all and sometimes you need to just face your fears head-on to fix them!

But look at the lesson, as relayed by Fluttershy, at the end of the My Little Pony episode "Filli Vanilli:

"Sometimes, being afraid can stop you from doing something that you love, but hiding behind these fears means you're only hiding from your true self. It's much better to face those fears so you can shine and be the best pony you can possibly be."

What a breath of fresh--wait, that's pretty much the usual cliche, isn't it?

In fact, it's a message that actually bothers me a lot, because there's an implicit character judgment in this message, a sense that someone's admission of discomfort or fear is this "hiding from your true self," a deliberate self-hindrance. Taken to extremes it implies that those suffering from more extreme anxieties generating their feelings all on their own, and they can just get over it if they really wanted to.

But I don't think that the message the show claims to be offering is the one that they're actually offering. In fact, I think this episode does a good job of illustrating how a stated moral might be belied by the actual content of a text--in other words, a text can say "This is the message of this story," and we as readers can say, "Yeah, but this that these and those elements of the story directly contradict this claim!" Famously, we could say, just like Blake does, that when Milton writes Paradise Lost and sets out a full explanation of why Satan is an evil, fallen being and God is right to cast him down, he actually ends up writing a story way more sympathetic to Satan than anything else. He is a poet, says Blake, and is of the Devil's part with out knowing it.

This episode, like Milton, is taking another stance (although I think everyone involved is quite aware of the text's implications!) and it's worth shedding some light on just what makes this narrative so different from the norm, what it's really teaching us, and how structurally that lesson is conveyed.

And I think the best way to do so is to frame the lesson not through Fluttershy's moral, but through a song by The Smiths.

My Little Morrissey: Sadness is Magic

Yes, I'm serious. We're doing this thing.

Listen, this idea may have started as a particularly dumb pun on the word "shy" in a Smiths song, but by god I'm rolling with it and none of you fools is going to stop me!

Check out this song:

Whatever you think of the Smiths and their particular melancholic late-80s disappointed romanticism, there's some really interesting things going on here lyrically. There's a kind of push and pull between desire and hesitation, expressed like this:
Shyness is nice and
Shyness can stop you
From doing all the things in life you'd like to 
So if there's something you'd like to try
Ask me ask me ask me
I won't say no
How could I?
So we've got a speaker who is shy, that's obvious enough, and that shyness holds him back... so far so good. Sounds pretty analogous to the actual message of the show, no?

But it's in that second stanza where things get interesting. The singer states that if there's something you'd like to try, ask him. Not, "push me aggressively out of my comfort zone," just, "ask me. I won't say no."

That's interesting. I don't want to say that this is a song specifically about consent, because it's a Morrissey song and therefore fraught with interpretive difficulty and oblique, poetic language, but it's a useful way of getting at the dynamics in this particular episode.

Because this episode progresses as a dialogue between characters, not a tug of war.

Consider how the opening scene plays out. Fluttershy's friends come upon her singing, and Rarity takes the lead in asserting that she should share her quite impressive vocal talents with a wider public. This actually quite effectively sets up the major dynamic for the rest of the episode between what I'd describe as the three central characters: Rarity, Fluttershy, and Pinkie Pie. Fluttershy is extremely uncomfortable with having been discovered, Rarity is overjoyed to find this talent and, in keeping with her Element, wants to share it with the world (and wants Fluttershy to feel comfortable sharing her talent! This is going to be important later), and Pinkie... basically just acts like a spastic jerk. More on that in a moment.

That's basically the dynamic active throughout the episode: Fluttershy is the character suffering from what appears to be pretty severe anxiety, Rarity as the concerned friend, and Pinkie Pie as the socially oblivious/unwittingly harmful friend. More broadly then we might say that Fluttershy expresses the struggle of dealing with anxiety, Rarity expresses a considerate way of dealing with someone suffering from anxiety, and Pinkie expresses the actual experience of anxiety expressed.

Let's isolate Rarity and Fluttershy as actors and look at their dialogue:

Rarity: Fluttershy, I cannot believe your spectacular voice isn't part of the Ponytones quartet!
Fluttershy: Um, well, I—
Rarity: Especially since you're having us perform for your Ponyville Pet Center fundraiser tomorrow night!
Fluttershy: Well, you see, I—
Rarity: This simply must be rectified. You must share that stunning voice at the event!
Rarity: Come, Fluttershy, you will join the group, making the Ponytones quartet the Ponytonesquintet!
Fluttershy: No.
Rarity: Pardon me?
Fluttershy: I love the Ponytones, I'm one of their biggest fans, but I do not want to perform with them.
Fluttershy: I'm very thankful the Ponytones are singing at the Pet Center fundraiser, and I'm really looking forward to the performance, but I'll be watching safely from the audience.
Rarity: [sighs] Well... I think it's a terrible waste of an exquisite talent, but I understand that you're not comfortable.
Fluttershy: Thank you.

This is actually a perfect model for how interaction with someone that has anxiety issues, and is a beautiful progression for Fluttershy's character. First of all, Fluttershy, despite Rarity's presumption that of course Fluttershy will sing with the band, is comfortable enough in herself, and in her interaction with Rarity, to say, "No." Simple, and firm.

And Rarity, despite her surprise and desire for an explanation ultimately, once she hears that explanation, accepts Fluttershy's decision. No cajoling, no begging, no badgering, just the acceptance that Fluttershy isn't comfortable, and Rarity both understands and respects Fluttershy's answer.

Now, Pinkie here behaves quite badly, but I think it's interesting to note that she doesn't behave the opposite way Rarity behaves. If Rarity's actions are being held up in the show as the example of how to behave empathetically towards someone with anxiety issues, then we might expect to see someone else held up as a way not to behave. And to some extent, this is absolutely what Pinkie is representing. In this scene, and in scenes later, she actively makes light of Fluttershy's fears, spins out ridiculously overblown worst-case scenarios, and makes her so anxious that she starts crying. Twice.

I feel like I shouldn't have to explain why this is awful behavior, but apparently, going by the absolutely frothy-mouthed bile I've been subjected to over the course of the last day on Tumblr, this is something people don't have a handle on.

Do not make fun of someone's anxieties. It's not cool.

And I really think that's what we're supposed to read Pinkie as doing here. She doesn't mean any harm, she thinks it's a big joke, because of course Fluttershy isn't going to be driven out of Ponyville by an angry mob. When Rarity tells her not to be ridiculous, she plays that off as a joke as well but, importantly, plays it as a joke by saying that she's good at being ridiculous. And she is. It's her thing.

But that tendency to joke about things and solve problems through joking when paired with a certain level of social obliviousness can result in disaster, in the form of deeply upsetting someone.

Because anxiety is not necessarily something you can just laugh off. It's a particular brokenness in the mind that leads you to distort your perception of reality into something threatening and fearful.

So, it's significant that Pinkie isn't taking what we'd expect the opposite role from Rarity to be--i.e. someone pushing Fluttershy against her will to perform. Rather, she takes on a second role here: speaker of Fluttershy's inner fears.

Understanding her actions from this perspective might help to reveal the logic behind having her in such a negative role in this particular episode somewhat more effectively than a straight sort of character analysis (or the debate on whether her character is acting consistently here). Regardless of her broader characterization, Pinkie Pie's actions serve effectively here to convey Fluttershy's greatest fears in a way that doesn't result in them being dismissed directly as ridiculous.

Consider if Fluttershy was describing her worst-case scenario herself. I think the only effective way to respond would be to describe it as foolish, because... well... it is! Anxieties are, for the most part. They're not rational predictions of the future.

Pictured: the peak of rational thought. Ha ha just kidding it's actually german expressionism.
But telling that directly to a person dealing with anxiety isn't really helpful, because saying something lots of times does not implant it as an emotional truth in one's mind. Simply calling something ridiculous cannot, on its own, result in a revelatory moment where one is suddenly, miraculously cured. More often, such statements serve to belittle and dismiss the feelings of the anxious, and can easily slip into the territory of pushiness--that tug of war I mentioned earlier--where someone else is dictating the proper way to think and behave.

So, the narrative reveals Fluttershy's fears through an external actor. It externalizes anxiety and provides it a voice through the character best able to relay that anxiety in all its overblown form: Pinkie Pie. The narrative of disaster that plays through her head is made visible to the audience through Pinkie's narration, and Fluttershy's reaction could be broadly understood as equivalent to a panic attack prompted by internal narration--a panic attack that we see, from her reaction, already beginning at the point where she first realizes she has been seen by her friends.

The narrative thus, by positioning Pinkie as an external antagonist, makes visible the invisible illness of anxiety. It transforms anxiety into a tangible thing, and by doing so it allows Rarity to dismiss not FLUTTERSHY as ridiculous but THE ANXIETY. It's not that Fluttershy is being ridiculous, the particular broken parts of her brain are being ridiculous.

There's a lot of this kind of symbolic externalization going on in the episode, actually. There's no particular reason for Big Mac to lose his voice, after all. Anyone could have. But making him lose his voice means that when Fluttershy gets behind the curtain and starts performing, she's speaking in someone else's voice. And the song's lyrics, fascinatingly, reflect that:
Everypony's sayin' you should learn to express your voice
But if talk doesn't seem like it's the answer
Luckily you have a choice
When you find you've got the music
Got the music in you
Fluttershy literally lives this out by singing with a different voice than the one she talks with. She finds a way out of her anxiety by speaking for another, with an unrecognizable voice. It's almost a Cyrano De Bergerac scenario, although unfortunately the episode doesn't take the time to explore Cherilee's confusion over falling in love with the voice of another woman.* When she is discovered her multiple identities collapse and her voice is restored--but with it comes her anxiety. Still, it is through experiencing an alternate persona with an alternate name, even--"Flutterguy" (and isn't it interesting that her brave alternate persona is gendered male?)--that she eventually begins to find the confidence to express herself in her prime identity of Fluttershy (confident but back to being gendered female, intriguingly).

Let's return to The Smiths, though, for a moment, and revisit some of the lyrics. What else applies here? Well, of course, if it's not love then it's the bomb that will bring us together. There's a few ways that we could read that, I think, but the implication relevant to this episode is that it's not love but external disaster that forces the speaker to move past shyness.

So is it with Fluttershy, and the way in which this is carried out is pretty relevant to the overall message of the episode. While disaster forces her, uh, hoof, she still has hard limits. She can't go out on stage live. So, Rarity devises a solution: she can sing backstage while Big Mac lip syncs. This is the level at which Fluttershy is comfortable, and once more it's not a matter of long, drawn-out badgering and pleading but a reminder from Rarity of what's at stake that ultimately leads Fluttershy to act. It's not a huge step forward, but it's a step forward, and it's a step she's comfortable with. Rarity respects her hard limits and devises a way for their desires to all be met without pushing Fluttershy deep into the situation that makes her panic.

This is the dynamic revealed at the very beginning of the episode, and the dynamic that ultimately drives the rest of the action. Rarity asks Fluttershy for her consent, and upon receiving it they continue their activities. Significantly, just as in the Smiths song, Fluttershy doesn't intend to say no, but she is cautious about initiating, and needs Rarity's prompting and an external justification to continue. If there's something you'd like to try, ask me--initiate, find out whether I'm up for it. I might surprise you--hell, I won't even say no!

How could I?

Well, in Fluttershy's case, of course, we know that she can. That's what makes her character progression so significant. And ultimately, when Rarity tries to get her to perform before a live audience, she is confident enough to say that she isn't ready yet, and may not be for some time. Baby steps.

So let's rehearse what went right between Rarity and Fluttershy:

  • Rarity asks Fluttershy to move beyond her comfort zone.
  • Fluttershy says no.
  • They talk briefly about the reasons, and Rarity accepts her answer.
  • Later, circumstances make it necessary for Fluttershy to move beyond her comfort zone.
  • Rarity facilitates this move so that it is easier for Fluttershy to face her fears obliquely rather than directly, at her own pace.
  • When Rarity finds that Fluttershy is enjoying her newfound confidence, she continues to facilitate Fluttershy while protecting her from situations that will trigger her anxiety (note that the person she heads off after the first show is Pinkie, who in this episode is speaking for anxiety!)
  • Fluttershy experiences an event that triggers a pretty severe panic attack
  • Rarity attempts to show her what went right about the experience and, with the others, succeeds in reframing the experience in Fluttershy's mind.
  • She encourages Fluttershy to move further
  • Fluttershy responds that she isn't ready yet
Do you see how important the dialogue is to this episode? How important it is that she is asked and her answers are respected? How important it is that she gives consent?

Hm, weird, it's almost like this could be an important metaphor for something else besides anxiety. Almost like there's another field in which dialogue and active, enthusiastic consent is essential... It's on the tip of my tongue...

Nah, I got nothing. You're smart people, though, I'm sure you'll figure something out.

So the moral of this episode that's explicitly stated at the end is not the same moral portrayed in the show. If I had to sum it up it would be:

I learned that sometimes you can surprise yourself and find that what you were afraid of was not so bad after all. 

But I also learned that having friends who respect by limits and boundaries, and facilitate my exposure to what makes me anxious in stages rather than throwing me into the deep end, makes the whole process much, much easier.

And also triggering someone's panic reflex is not making them stronger, it's not helping them, it's not doing anything other than basically being a really lousy friend. That's important to remember, too.

Why is the stated moral so different? Well, I think the moral feels very tacked on, to be honest--there because it needs to be. The episodes follow a certain format that always concludes with a moral, even when the moral is extraneous or must, by necessity, be overly simplified. There isn't enough time to go into something longer, and going into something longer threatens confusion and incoherency. I want to cheat, as most Formalists do sooner or later, and say that the moral isn't really the proper ending of this episode.

The proper ending is really that last moment when Fluttershy says that she's going to get better, but with baby steps. Her problem hasn't been magically solved through additional trauma. No, moving forward takes small steps at a time.

You can't fix anxiety through magic.

But maybe you can fix it through friendship.

*Is he serious? Is he joking?? Who knoooows! It's up to the reader to fill in the gaps in this text!

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  1. The nickname "Flutterguy" was given by Spike in Season 1. It's a call back to the time the ponies walked into 'poison joke' and developed 'comical' reactions. Spike came up with nicknames for everyone such as "Rainbow Crash" for Rainbow's temporary flight problems and "Flutterguy" for Fluttershy's deep baritone (almost a bass) voice.

    She was called Fluttershy not to mark her 'confident self' as being 'gendered male' but because her changed vocal range was that of a male. Notably, 3 male VAs have provided the deeper voice. Blu Mankula voiced deep! Fluttershy in S1's "Bridle Gossip". Alvin Sanders spoke for Fluttershy in Filli Vanilli. Marcus Mosely sang for her in Filli Vanilli.

    This was necessary because Fluttershy's regular VA, Andrea Libman (who also voices Pinkie Pie) is a talented singer but still cannot replicate the vocal range of an extremely low, deep voiced male.

    Please stop trying to turn a discussion into gender politics when it isn't necessary. I did respect much of your reasoning in this article, but the forced "gendered male" vs "gendered female" paragraphs made me question the validity of your statements. I think you are sometimes manufacturing problems rather than solely confronting issues and topics that were actually present in the episode. Flutterguy's name was nothing more than a continuity nod to S1.

  2. Truly excellent. A lot of smart ideas and good ways of interpreting the episode. I'll be following this blog from here on.

  3. "acts like a spastic jerk"

    For a post so great at addressing the issue of anxiety, that was pretty damn ableist.

  4. Not sure if you've seen this yet.
    And yes Ask is a perfect song about Fluttershy and consent.


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