What’s My Line at the Federalist

My latest piece at The Federalist is now up, where I talk about the old gameshow What’s My Line?

Sample:

No one on the “What’s My Line” panel would have dreamt of asking a guest about his sex life, nor would the guests have dreamt of talking about it. But if they can see for themselves that a young lady is beautiful or a man is black, they didn’t think anything about acknowledging the fact. Noting physical appearance is considered perfectly normal, even polite, because it isn’t as if it were a private matter.

We, on the other hand, are so terrified of “judging” someone by physical appearance that it’s become considered rude to even acknowledge it, even though we find we can hardly think or talk about anything else.

 

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Ponies and Introverts

Being an introvert mostly involves having people force you into uncomfortable situations and then blame you for not enjoying them. Our society doesn’t approve of those who prefer solitude or working alone: we want team players! Socially-well-adjusted youngsters! Collaboration! Synergy! Whatever other terms for ‘forcing people to act according to plan’ you care to name.

Reason number I-lost-count to love My Little Pony: it not only avoids this approach, but directly criticizes it. Yes, the show literally called ‘Friendship is Magic’ teaches it’s okay to enjoy solitude and unsocial pursuits, and that the more outgoing need to understand and accept that.

True, in the first episode Twilight is forced out of her comfort zone and becomes more sociable. But she doesn’t stop being an introvert. She still likes spending time alone reading or organizing her library (she does that a lot), and she’s not portrayed as being at all wrong for doing this. The show distinguishes between ‘enjoys spending time alone’ and ‘reclusive shut-in,’ with the latter being portrayed as an unhealthy exaggeration of the former. The point isn’t that spending time alone is bad, but that there needs to be a healthy balance between solitude and socializing, and that this balance will look different for different types of people.

It’s not just Twilight either: Fluttershy and Rarity are played as more introverted characters as well. The show even makes the point that Fluttershy choosing to opt out of some group activities and just stay home alone is perfectly okay if she doesn’t enjoy those activities. Likewise, when Rarity sometimes becomes too focused on her work to be polite it’s presented as a forgivable lapse rather than a fundamental problem in her personality. That she sometimes has to seclude herself to get her work done, that she draws energy from solitary creative effort, and that she has precise, high-class tastes that the others don’t really share are all portrayed as being a good thing: just part of her unique personality, to be accepted and appreciated rather than resented as ‘unsocial.’

Meanwhile, super-extrovert Pinkie has a couple episodes where she learns that some ponies simply don’t enjoy the kind of exuberant fun and socializing that she loves so much. Pinkie doesn’t mean any harm, of course, but it’s shown that she can be annoying to people who either don’t know her or who don’t share her taste in fun. In such cases, the lesson isn’t that they need to lighten up and be more outgoing, but that Pinkie needs to accept them as they are and befriend them based on their personality rather than hers.

Then there’s Maud. Oh, Lord, I love Maud! Maud is Pinkie’s older sister, who is pretty much her complete opposite. She’s extremely reserved, speaks in terse, laconic sentences, almost never shows emotion, and is completely and utterly wrapped up in the study of rocks. She’s so odd and so socially awkward that the others at first don’t know what to make of her, until they discover that Maud’s bland exterior hides very deep feelings, particularly when it comes to her little sister.

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The Introvert and the Extrovert

In other words, Maud is a non-specific, but very sympathetic portrait of someone with Aspergers, or some related condition. She’s not presented as being ‘broken’ or tragic; just as another person with her own unique personality. She’s difficult to get to know and not good with people, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with her.

One episode reveals that, much as she enjoys spending time alone with her rocks, she actually is lonely for a friend. She notes that “it’s not hard to find somepony I like. It’s finding somepony who gets me.” That’s a sentiment I can definitely relate to, and I love that this show is mature and thoughtful enough to understand it. When Maud does make a friend, it’s with fellow introvert Starlight, and they bond over quiet, thoughtful activities like kite flying and geology.

The overall message is that there are some people who are very outgoing, expressive, and sociable, and some people who aren’t, and that’s just how the world works. Both types have their strengths and weaknesses, and both need to be allowed to be themselves.

I wish more shows, and more people, understood that.

Doctor Who and Swiping Male Characters

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You know, I’m not really a big ‘Doctor Who’ fan. I’ve watched several episodes from both the classic and the modern series (Tom Baker’s my favorite), and enjoyed them, but I just haven’t really gotten into it.

That said, I do have an opinion of this ‘making the Doctor a woman’ gimmick. And make no mistake, that’s what it is: a gimmick. It’s not a groundbreaking development, nor a brilliant twist of storytelling, and certainly not an kind of (ugh) great step forward. It’s a gimmick, pure and simple; a way to grab attention, and try to shore up their feminist credentials so that the right kind of people won’t turn on them.

I will say, in their defense, that given the nature of the Doctor, this one makes a little more sense than, say, making Thor a woman (not making that up, by the way; they actually did it) or, God forbid, making James Bond a woman (more on that below). The Doctor of course periodically regenerates into a new body and personality, so you could argue this works given the rules of the story. But…no. Even with a character like the Doctor you need some continuity of personality, so suddenly switching him to being a woman just doesn’t work. You can’t fundamentally alter a character in that way, even one like the Doctor and expect people to be happy about it, especially when it’s accompanied by insulting accusations of misogyny (because the only way the Left knows how to argue is ad hominem).

It’s a similar problem to Ghostbusters: on paper, a new all-female team of Ghostbusters actually isn’t a bad idea. But one, it was so obvious they were doing it as a ‘statement’ rather than because they actually cared about the characters, and two, the execution was horrible beyond belief.

The real problem with this practice of switching a character’s sex in an attempt to be ‘relevant’ or whatever the current term is, is that it’s basically the equivalent of swiping one kid’s toy because another kid is crying that she wants more, when the obvious thing to do would be to just buy her some toys of her own rather than stealing someone else’s. To the fans of the Doctor who have stuck by him all these long years, having him drastically altered in this way to appease non-fans must seem like a complete slap in the face. Now, if they came up with a really cool female Time Lord and gave her a spin-off show, and did it well (that’s really the key to any story: doing it well), the fans would eat it up. It has nothing to do with misogyny: it has everything to do with seeing a beloved character twisted to score political points.

It’s even more galling when you consider that the other kid has lots of toys of her own, but keeps menacing her brother’s.

The days (assuming such days existed: this topic invites selective blindness like few others) of a lack of female heroes is long over. Women headline about half the shows on TV. Wonder Woman just came out and was fantastic. Marvel fans have been clamoring for a Black Widow movie for years. The last two Star Wars films were headed by women. There’s obviously a huge market for well-done female leads, so there’s absolutely no need to co-opt existing male characters.

The only reason, as far as I can see, for trying to swipe male characters and turn them female is because they generally have better name recognition. So, certain people think “everyone knows who James Bond is, so if we turned him into a woman (Jean Bond?) we’d have a ready-made super-popular female icon!”

Except it doesn’t work that way, since male and female characters are typically written and characterized very differently. One of the reason Wonder Woman was such a good film is that she was written as a very feminine character. Yes, she could throw tanks around and engage a dozen men at once, but she was also warm-hearted, kind, and nurturing. Black Widow is an engaging character because she’s not just a deadly spy, but she’s also the nurturing heart of the team; the one who gives them pep talks and warm hugs when they’re feeling down. The contrast between her cold-hearted behavior on the battlefield and her warm-hearted behavior off it is what makes her so much fun to watch.

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Well, that and the…obvious reasons.

If you tried to write James Bond as a woman, it would be grotesque. No one except an obsessive feminist would want to see a woman act the way Bond acts. He’s fundamentally a male fantasy figure: the cool man of action who sleeps with every beautiful woman he meets, kills bad guys left and right, and defends king and country with his wits and sheer badassery. He works because he speaks to the male psyche. Make him a woman doing more or less the exact same thing, and it would be unbearable. Most women don’t fantasize about acting that way, and most men don’t like seeing women act like that.

Now, if they wanted to make a female equivalent of Bond: a super-competent and alluring female spy who defends queen and country with wit and moxie, and (once again) if they did a good job of it, that would be great. Female spies can be a lot of fun: just think of Honey West, Emma Peel, or, again, Black Widow to name a few. But there’s no need to coopt male characters out of a misguided feminist urge. There are already lots of good female protagonists running around, and nothing at all preventing anyone from making more. But leave established and beloved male characters alone if you don’t mind.

 

The Federalist Spider-Man

My latest article is up at The Federalist

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The show is also creative in how it handles the villains. Rather than an increasingly ridiculous series of accidents and coincidences, we have one accidental event (Electro), which directly leads to another (the electricity discharged during Electro’s rampage gives Doctor Connors’s Lizard formula an unexpected boost, sending it into overdrive), which then makes Tombstone realize that if Spider-Man is busy fighting supervillains, he’ll be too preoccupied to go after his crime empire.

So he hires Osborne to start making more, which gives Osborne funding and test subjects for his more “questionable” experiments. The show therefore quickly brings a large portion of Spidey’s excellent rogues’ gallery into play while continuing to tell a seamlessly coherent story, developing the already established characters, and without placing undue stress on the audience’s credulity.

 

That brings me to another aspect of the writing: it flows marvelously well from one episode to another. Actions and events have real consequences that may not come into play for several episodes down the line, meaning that everything the characters do has real weight. A thoughtless decision on Peter’s part in an early episode starts a chain reaction of events that continues to affect the story until the very end. When characters have to make hard choices on this show, we’re completely invested because we know it could affect the whole course of the story.

Read the rest here.

RIP Adam West

More sad news: Adam West, forever immortalized in the infamously cheesy 1960s Batman show, has passed away at the age of 88 after a brief battle with Leukemia.

Mr. West was one of those actors (like Bela Lugosi) whose career was made and destroyed by a single role. He never recovered from being the Caped Crusader, especially after changing tastes caused the show itself to become infamous. At first, West descended into self-destructive depression over this fact, but later came to embrace his unique claim to fame and relished his position in the Batman legend.

Whatever you think of the show, Mr. West deserves credit for being the Batman for a whole generation. This, after all, is part of the Batman mythos as well, and even if it’s one that many fans might prefer to forget, it introduced one of the seminal characters of American comics to a whole new audience, including some of the writers and artists who did some of the best work with the character.

Happily, this very point was made in possibly Mr. West’s best post-Batman role: on Batman: The Animated Series. In the episode “The Gray Ghost Strikes,” West plays an actor made famous for playing a superhero on an old TV show, but whose career was subsequently destroyed by typecasting, and who now questions whether his life had any impact.

Adam West does some very impressive voice work as a man dealing with many of the same problems that he faced in his own life, and whose receives a truly touching vindication in discovering that he has had a positive impact, all the more so because the episode is so clearly sending that same message to Adam West himself. It’s Paul Dini and the other makers of what many regard as the very best iteration of Batman thanking the man who headed what is widely considered one of the worst for introducing them to the character they love.

By this point, I think it’s safe to say that Mr. West transcended his typecasting to become, if not a respected actor, a respected figure in the Batman fandom. Whatever you think of the 1960s show, Adam West undoubtedly inspired a generation of both fans and artists, which is something I think any actor can be proud of. May he rest in peace.

Great Humor, Great Morals, and Why Having Your Heroine Be a Music Box for an Episode Makes for Good Writing

So, this week’s episode of My Little Pony was pretty fantastic (full disclosure: I actually saw it a week or so ago. You see, since FiM is produced in Vancouver, Canadian audiences get to see episodes up to two or even three weeks before the rest of us. The magic of the internet, however, allows some leeway to this). It was pretty much everything the show does best; strong writing, great characterization, solid moral lessons, and some fantastic humor. Season Seven has been mostly strong so far, about on par with the previous season, but I think A Royal Problem is the best one since the season premier.

Among the many, many reasons to love My Little Pony is the fact that it remains remarkably creative, even in its seventh season. Just as an example, this episode had Twilight magically project herself into a music box so as to keep in touch with Starlight on her first mission. So, we have our protagonist as a tiny, mechanical ballerina for most of the episode: who would even think of something like that? This leads to a lot of great gags (“I’m here if you want to talk. Or listen to music!”), culminating in a frustrated Starlight chucking the music box – Twilight and all – into a drawer.

Even better, it’s a gag that fits within the established universe (Twilight’s already projected herself into a book and talked to someone as an illustration a few seasons back) and serves only to enhance what made the character funny in the first place (Twilight’s freak outs are always hilarious, but when she’s a three-inch golden ballerina figure, the fun is doubled). The humor builds on the character and doesn’t feel forced, even in such a ridiculous situation.

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“The one and only thing that I am here to bring is music!”

Finally, from a story perspective, this device also serves the purpose of 1). Giving Starlight someone to talk to, 2). Keeping Twilight involved in the story, and 3). Emphasizing why Starlight, of all ponies, was the best choice for this particular mission even as it seems to be spiraling out of control, and 4). Providing a means to showcase Starlight’s second-guessing and self-doubts, furthering her character development.

All that from what is, at best, a tertiary element in the episode.

Oh, and speaking of great morals, the episode’s climax involves Princess Celestia coming face-to-face with the manifestation of her own darkest desires and temptations. This creature (called ‘Daybreaker’) declares herself to be “everything you want to be” and taunts Celestia with the fact that she could quite literally do anything, if only she stopped caring about other people so much, especially her sister.

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The Mare Mystique

So, a strong female character is rebuked for not making the most of her abilities and is told she can “have it all” (the phrase is actually used) if she would only forget about her obligations to her family, nation, and morality. Said character’s triumph comes in forcibly rejecting this temptation. All in an episode about appreciating the different roles we all play in the world and not assuming you have it worse than anyone else.

Man, this show is awesome.

FAN Fiction!

Dipping my toes in the semi-embarrassing, but oh-so-fun world of fan fiction. I believe the below image speaks for itself.

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Here’s a sample. Read Part One here (Part Two will be up in a few days):

“So, that’s all I know,” said Twilight as the six friends finished up their cider. “And I couldn’t find one word about any of this in any of my books.”

“I gotta say, Twilight, that’s weird; even for us,” said Applejack. “And you have no idea who this here ‘King of Terror’ is?”

“None whatsoever,” sighed Twilight. “I even asked Sunset, but she doesn’t know anything about it either, so it’s not from her world.”

“And we’ve been combing the library all morning looking for anything that might even remotely be related, and came up with nadda,” Spike said.

“Hm,” said Rarity. “I suppose if it comes from another world, there wouldn’t be anything, would there?”

“But then how are we supposed to prepare for it?” said Twilight. “What was the point of warning us?”

“Apparently, not so that you could read up on it,” said Rainbow Dash.

“Yeah!” put in Pinkie. “If that was it, I’m sure the Shubba-Wubbas would have told you what book to read.”

Twilight elected not to address Pinkie’s pronunciation of ‘Shobijin.'”

“Okay,” she said. “But how will we know how to fight the King of Terror? Or even who he is, or when he’s started his attack?”

“Uh,” said Spike, looking out the window. “I’m pretty sure we’ll know.”

He pointed. The ponies all looked and gasped. A huge shape was approaching at high speeds, beating the air with enormous wings.

“Dragon!” Rainbow Dash shouted. Fluttershy shrieked and dived under the table. Twilight telekinetically pulled her out and the six ran to meet the oncoming monstrosity.

“You think that’s the King of Terror?” asked Applejack.

“It’s certainly scary enough,” said Pinkie.

“But it’s just a dragon,” said Rainbow Dash. “You’d think something from another world would be, you know, different. I mean, we have dragons; there’s nothing special about them.”

“Yes, there is!” said Fluttershy, still trying to escape Twilight’s magic. “They’re terrifying!”

The monster dragon soared lower and lower, making for an empty field about a mile or so outside of Ponyville. The six raced to intercept him. Then Spike realized something.

“Hold on,” he said. “That’s Torch!”

“Who?” asked Rainbow.

“The former dragon lord,” said Spike. “What’s he doing here?”

“So…not the King of Terror?”

“No way,” Spike answered. “Just an ordinary, home grown…giant dragon.”

Fluttershy squeaked in terror.

“Don’t worry, Fluttershy,” said Spike. “He’s…well, he’s not nice, but he’s all right as dragons go.”

“Besides, he’s Princess Ember’s father. You like Ember, right?” said Twilight.

“Yes, Ember’s nice,” said Fluttershy, who seemed comforted enough to at least stop trying to fly away. “I hope her dad isn’t angry about anything.”

The six ponies and Spike galloped into the field before the enormous dragon. Torch was almost as large as Twilight’s whole castle, and he looked exhausted. Not only that, but he was bruised and bleeding from numerous fresh-looking injuries, and his armor was rent and dented in places. His daughter, Princess Ember the Dragon Lord, was riding on the top of his head. The blue-and-gold dragon was considerably smaller than her father; not a whole lot bigger than Twilight, in fact. She soared down to meet them, looking just as haggard at her father, though she was free from injuries. The Bloodstone Scepter that marked her status was still in her hand.

“Spike,” she said. “Princess Twilight. We need help.”

“What is it?” asked Twilight. “What happened?”

“We’ve been overthrown,” Torch growled.

“What?”

“You remember Garble?” said Ember. “Well, he’s back. And he’s…different. Bigger; a lot bigger. And much more powerful! He must have gotten his hands on some kind of magic or something; I’ve never seen anything like it! He just suddenly attacked this morning and overwhelmed us.”

“I don’t understand,” said Spike. “Shouldn’t the Bloodstone Scepter make it so that he can’t do anything against your orders?”

“Yeah, it should,” said Ember. “But it didn’t do anything! He didn’t even flinch when I ordered him to stand down. He just flew right up and attacked my father and…well…”

“‘E threw me about like I was a tiny manticore!” Torch admitted. “Absolutely destroyed me. Never had anything like that happen in a hundred years!”

“I ordered every dragon in the area to help, but all it did was slow him down a bit,” Ember went on. “Finally we just flew for it, leaving him in control of the dragon lands. We came here hoping you could help us.”

“Of course!” said Spike. “We’ll do everything we can!”

He turned to Twilight.

“Uh, which is…what?”

Twilight tapped her chin, thinking. This had to have something to do with the King of Terror…but that couldn’t mean Garble; she’d met Garble before, and he wasn’t from any other world.

“First of all, we should discuss this with Princess Celestia. If Garble’s taken over the Dragon Lands, he’ll be heading for Equestria next. Come on, Ember; there’s something I need to tell you about on the way…”