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.

 

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.

7 Things I Hope to See in Season 7

Yes, yes: I’ve been on a bit of a pony kick recently. So sue me; it’s my blog.

Season Seven started this weekend, and the first two episodes were really good, so I have high hopes for the future. Mostly I just hope they keep providing quality storytelling the way they’ve been doing, but I have my specific hopes as well. Here are the top seven things I’m hoping we’ll see in Season Seven.

I’m going to try to keep this as specific as possible, so not just “more Discord/Fluttershy scenes” or “More Discord/Trixie scenes” or “more Discord/Maud scenes” (Discord makes everything better), but actual, specific developments and storylines I’d like to see them tackle this time around.

Oh, and obviously there will be spoilers for Seasons 1-6.

  1. Villain Team Up:

“Villain team up, villain team up…”

I put this low because if it does happen it won’t be until the end of the season. We know that Queen Chrysalis is out plotting revenge, so what would be more natural for her than to figure out a way to break Tirek out and join forces with him? Then they could also bring on some other, lesser bad guys to serve as their henchmen: Sombra’s dead, but Garble would be a good fit as dumb muscle, along with a bitter and vengeful Wind Rider or Lightning Dust (actually, it’d be interesting to see her return in any capacity), and maybe even the Flim Flam Brothers. The point is, something like an Equestrian Sinister Six would be really cool, make a lot of sense given the position the characters are now in, and be a way to up the ante over previous season finales.

 

  1. Button Mash:
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    “Psst! This guy!”

    It’s the biggest long shot on this list, but I can hope. For those who don’t know, Button Mash is the fan name for the colt playing a video game in Hearts and Hooves Day, who has since garnered something of a cult following thanks to an abortive fan-made series focusing on his life, and has become one of the most popular characters to pair with Sweetie Belle (even her voice actress supports that pairing). Considering that the writers have incorporated fan notions of Derpy, Doctor Hooves, and so on, I’d really like to see them to do the same for Button.

 

 

  1. The Return of Diamond Tiara:
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    “Now that you don’t hate me, can I come back?”

    Never thought I’d be asking to see more of that little brat. But we haven’t seen anything of her since her reformation in season five; what’s she doing now? In fact, what’s she like now? It’s kind of hard to picture a non-bullying Diamond Tiara (which might be why she hasn’t been around). We don’t necessarily need a whole episode centered on her, but at least having her show up as a supporting character so that we can get some idea of where she is now would be appreciated. Maybe have one of the CMC feeling down and have her come over to talk to them, or do a school-centric episode where she and the CMC end up as rivals again and they both have to deal with old feelings of dislike surfacing in the heat of competition. With how well they’ve handled other reformed villains, I want to see them deal a little more with her.

 

  1. Gabby and Gilda Episode:
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    “Please, please do an episode with me?”

    After meeting the adorably overactive Gabby the Griffin in Season Six, and with Gilda now reformed, I think a griffon-centric episode just begs to be written. Gabby’s ultra cheeriness combined with Gilda’s sullen sarcasm could be absolutely hilarious, and it would let us see how Griffonstone is coming along in the friendship department, as well as further developing both their characters (frankly, we need to see more of ‘good Gilda,’ since she’s been so hated for so long and thus far we’ve only seen her good side in the denouement to one episode and in a silent flashback in another). So, yeah, a griffon episode seems to me to be exactly what’s called for.

 

  1. Spotlight One of Pinkie’s Other Sisters:
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    “How come we don’t get more screentime!?”

    I love Maud, as does pretty much everyone, and I believe we’re getting a Maud episode early on in the season, which is great. But I would also like to see Pinkie’s other two sisters, Marble and Limestone, receive more development. We know Pinkie spends a day with each of them; what easier than to show us one of those days? I’d especially like more of Marble, who’s adorable (Limestone’s kind of a jerk, but that might make her relationship with Pinkie all the more interesting). Maybe give her actual dialogue this time? It’d be nice to get a better idea of their relationship, whether they’re as close as Pinkie and Maud, how Pinkie handles Marble’s shyness, and so on. Have Fluttershy or, alternatively, Rainbow Dash join them and the potential for sweetness and hilarity is through the roof.

 

  1. Scootaloo’s Parents:
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    “Doesn’t anyone care about my home life?”

    Six whole seasons and we still have no idea who is responsible for this kid. I’d really be interested to see some of her home life, especially to finally learn who her guardian is, and whether she lives with both parents, one, or someone else entirely (I get the sense her home life isn’t very happy: it might be interesting to explore that). We could also see how her parents/guardians deal with her apparent disability, what they think of her relationship with Rainbow Dash, and so on. You could also use it as a chance to bring back Diamond Tiara, with the two of them bonding over their shared experience of an unhappy family life, in contrast to Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle. This is a storyline bursting with potential just waiting to be tapped.

 

Before Number One, some Runners Up:

-Another Pet-centric episode: Because the pets need more screentime.

-Ember comes to Ponyville: A friendly, but not-too-friendly dragon princess comes to Ponyville; this practically writes itself.

-Owlowicious and Spike centered episode: These two play off each other so well it’s a crime they don’t have more time together.

-Princess Celestia fighting and not losing for once: Yes, yes; need to preserve the drama, but come on! She’s supposed to be one of the most powerful characters in the series and she’s won precisely one on-screen fight this whole time…and it was a flashback!

-Another Rainbow Dash solo number: She’s voiced by a professional singer: let’s take advantage of that, shall  we?”

And the number one thing I’d like to see:

 

  1. Sunset Shimmer Comes to Equestria:
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    How can you say no to that face?

    Now that she’s taken over the role of protagonist in the Equestria Girls films, I would love to have a cross-over episode where Sunset temporarily returns to Equestria. I’d like to see her struggling to readjust back to being a pony after being a human for so long, see her getting to know the pony versions of her friends, and especially have her meet Starlight. The two characters fulfill basically the same role, so bringing them together would be a great opportunity to highlight their differences. Plus it would be interesting to see them compare notes on being reformed villains mentored by Twilight (I’m thinking something like the “two assistants” episode of Monk). I also think the two would play off each other really well, with Sunset the more active, take-charge figure and Starlight the more cerebral, bookish character. Basically, this could be a fantastic and exciting storyline and a great chance to develop one of the coolest characters in the series, so…make this happen.

 

My Federalist Little Pony

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Stop the Presses!

I just got paid for writing about My Little Pony: Achievement unlocked!

Read the whole thing here:

One of the best characters on the show is Luna, the Princess of the Night. She starts off as the villainous Nightmare Moon in the pilot episode, but after her defeat and redemption becomes a recurring heroic figure.

Her first appearance after the pilot has her trying to adjust to a world that is not only much different from the one she remembers (she was trapped in the moon for a thousand years; long story), but one in which she is basically the boogey man. Nightmare Night, the Equestrian equivalent of Halloween, is even based around placating her so she won’t gobble up young ponies.

Luna is understandably put off by this. She wants to be loved and admired, but the other ponies, especially goofball Pinkie Pie, constantly act afraid of her, and her odd, intimidating manners don’t help. She gets so offended that she threatens to eliminate the holiday.

But then, when Twilight (the show’s protagonist) finally catches Pinkie and tells her she doesn’t have to be afraid of Luna anymore, Pinkie cheerfully responds that she isn’t, really. It’s just being scared is part of the fun of Nightmare Night. Having the real-life Princess Luna there is like having Count Dracula show up to your Halloween party.

Then Twilight convinces Luna that, instead of trying to escape her spooky reputation, she should embrace it. As the reformed Princess of the Night, no one really knows how to take her. But as Nightmare Moon, the terrible mistress of darkness, she’s just an extra-special spooky attraction who makes the celebration that much cooler. Her willingness to play along makes her much more approachable.

We complain a lot about stereotypes, but I think most stereotypes are only harmful when applied indiscriminately to real-life people. But just in fun, or as part of a story, there’s nothing harmful about them. They’re part of our shared heritage and can serve as a link with different kinds of people. The incorrectly familiar is still familiar, but the unknown is simply unknown.

Embracing the horror-show version of herself instead of demanding to be accepted on her own terms gave Luna a connection with the other ponies, who then felt at least some familiarity with her and thus could relax in her presence, which allowed her to alter their preconceptions in a more organic and mutually respectful way.

That’s because whether someone’s ideas about you are accurate or even offensive is less important than whether they can actually talk to you, and you can’t talk to someone whose main topic of conversation is “Your ideas about me are wrong.”

Milo Murphy at the Federalist

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My next piece is up on The Federalist: this one about Milo Murphy’s Law, the latest show from Phineas and Ferb creators Swampy Marsh and Dan Povenmire.

If I could make a living writing about philosophy in cartoons, I would be okay with that.

It is one of the core beliefs of western culture that a man’s worth is measured, not by what happens to him, but by how well he faces it. Hector manning himself to face Achilles in a battle he knows he cannot win. Socrates choosing to drink hemlock rather than betray the truth. The saints enduring tortures rather than renouncing their faith. Whatever the turn of fortune’s wheel, a man’s response is what really counts, not the changing clutch of circumstance. Milo is the cheerful, family-friendly embodiment of this doctrine: a middle school Job with a sunny disposition.

By contrast, the modern idea, born of the likes of Marx, Freud, and their ilk, is that circumstance, society, “privilege,” or whatever other pseudo-academic synonym for “luck” you prefer, is what truly makes a man what he is. Whether it is ascribed to genetics, psychology, or economics, it amounts to the same thing: the idea that fortune, not action, determines a man’s destiny.

The antagonists in Milo’s world adopt this deterministic view, such as his classroom rival, Bradley. Bradley resents Milo, not just because his presence promises a disaster in the near future, but more because he’s jealous that Milo gets all the attention. He thinks that, if only Milo weren’t around, everyone would admire him instead.

Except Bradley is a boring, stuck-up grump, something that would remain so even if Milo weren’t around. He’s so focused on competing with his classmates (“In your face, other people!”) and on how they’re supposedly keeping him back that he doesn’t even consider how he could better his situation.

Read the rest here