Loving the Enemy and Building Community in My Little Pony and Steven Universe

As I prepared for the sermon I preached at my church several weeks ago, this notion of loving the enemy stayed fresh in my mind and I joked with the youth group that I’d preach about Steven Universe (some of the kids are fans). Both this series and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic have told us redemptive stories of seemingly unlovable characters which, in my view, express the gospel’s call to radical hospitality.

A million years ago, when I was still in college, I wrote a blog post analyzing Princess Celestia and Princess Luna’s relationship in season 1’s pilot episodes, and how the reconciliation between the two sisters aligns to the classical Christian narrative of redemption and salvation. In this case “redemption and salvation” mean that Luna is healed of Nightmare Moon and is welcomed back into community with Celestia and Equestria at large (although she barely gets any character development after this).

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Since season 1, there have been several other character arcs where an evil or unlovable character has not merely been defeated, but welcomed into the friendship of the Mane Six. Discord, Sunset Shimmer, Starlight Glimmer, (The Great and Powerful) Trixie–all of these former antagonists, to some degree or another, get a chance at reformation and are permanently changed after experiencing friendship when no one else would give it. Some characters, like Sunset and Starlight, undergo a more dramatic change than others, but the end result is still that there is room at the table, whether that’s the literal table of Twlight’s court or the figurative table of community.

But being in a community isn’t as simple as accepting the invitation and living happily ever after. Learning how to be a friend is a continuous process, and even the Princess of Friendship herself still has a thing or two to learn, given her severe distrust of Starlight and Trixie’s friendship. Discord struggles with unhealthy, possessive behavior over Fluttershy. Sunset, both in Equestria Girls and the main series, has to overcome her guilt and the stigma of her past. All of these problems surface because being accepted into a community itself is not perfection. It’s an agreement to grow with others, and from what we’ve seen so far in six seasons of My Little Pony, there is nothing that anyone can do among the Mane Six that would permanently oust them from friendship.

This notion of integrating the “unlovable” into a community goes hand in hand with loving the enemy, although in My Little Pony and Steven Universe, it takes a more literal meaning. As I said in my sermon, loving the enemy doesn’t mean that what the enemy does or did is okay. Even though Discord and Starlight Glimmer experience the friendship of the Mane Six, neither that friendship nor their turning points in which they realize the error of their ways sanctifies their past or future actions. Discord gets a stern talking-to when his jealousy of Tree Hugger at the Grand Galloping Gala makes him violent and possessive. Starlight Glimmer continues to make mistakes and sometimes slip back into her old ways as she learns more about friendship. Even though these characters still make mistakes, and their pasts are not entirely brushed to the side, they are still much better off having experienced friendship from those who were once their enemies. If radical friendship had not been extended to them, where would they be? Discord would still be a threat to Equestria and Starlight Glimmer would still be out messing with ancient spells that alter reality. And both characters would still be incredibly lonely.

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Steven Universe is perhaps even more intentional with this recurring narrative of love and redemption for enemies. Whereas Twilight Sparkle and the Mane Six seem to attempt friendship as a last resort, Steven reaches a point of embracing and understanding those he conflicts with much sooner. Peridot and Blue Diamond are two notable examples. It takes a while with Peridot, but once Steven decides to open himself up to Peridot and extend his friendship, both the Crystal Gems and the audience begin to change their perception of Peridot. This Homeworld gem who was once the primary enemy is now invited into the family, and the result is that Peridot switches her loyalties to protect Earth rather than destroy it. Equally important is that she now has a community in which she can grow and develop gifts that she didn’t know she had (e.g. the gem equivalent of metal bending). This is because she’s welcomed into a group that lets her break out of the mold she was created for. Is the transition easy? Absolutely not. I’ve written previously about the initial tensions among Peridot and Garnet as Peridot’s Homeworld ideas are challenged at every turn. Currently, Peridot is still figuring out her place within this new dynamic.

Blue Diamond, I’m predicting, will be another such redemption tale, although the consequences will be much more dramatic given that she’s a matriarch and holds formidable power. She is one of the pillars of Homeworld’s society and hierarchical structure, so any change she undergoes that affects the way she rules will undermine what seemed so fix and may very well cause a war.

Yet we’ve also seen in recent episodes that Steven’s tendency to accept former enemies backfires. In “Room for Ruby,” Navey (Navy?) takes advantage of Steven’s kindness, exposing it as naivety to reclaim her ship. Such is the risk of radically and unquestioningly inviting enemies into the community. Situations like these may make us want to keep others at a distance. It’s a constant tension between hospitality and self protection.

Steven also seems to be learning that inviting people (or gems) into the Crystal Gen family does not necessarily mean they’ll genuinely change. Ronaldo doesn’t change. Navey/Navy doesn’t change. Who’s to say that the next gem Steven reaches out to will change or accept the invitation to join his community? Will he become more guarded or still unashamedly attempt to create a welcoming space all around him?

All of these are challenges, dreams, and realities the Church faces and will continue to face. But no matter the outcome, the call is still the same, though that doesn’t make it easy.

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Cutie Marks and Extending the Table

When My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic first aired, I noted how cutie marks represent both growing up and spiritual calling. Since then, the show has explored cutie marks in much greater depth. Wrapped up in cutie marks is all the bliss and anxiety about identity–when will I know what I’m supposed to do with my life? What if I don’t like or understand my cutie mark? What happens when I’m forbidden from living out the purpose for which my cutie mark stands?

Now, there’s a new cutie mark question to ask: Can anyone have a cutie mark, or is it just for ponies?

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In “The Fault in Our Cutie Marks,” a Griffon named Gabby comes to Ponyville seeking the Cutie Mark Crusaders, who have been living out their newly discovered purpose of helping other ponies discover their identities (and thus receiving their cutie marks). She wants so much to participate in the kind of transformative love that she witnessed when Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie visited Griffonstone that she is determined to get a cutie mark of her own. Who better to ask than the Cutie Mark Crusaders?

However, no creature except ponies has ever had cutie marks. Receiving one, and thus having a visible mark of one’s purpose, is an experience unique to ponies. Can a Griffon partake in something that is so deeply rooted in pony culture?

This episode’s answer is yes, but not in the same way and that’s okay. Griffons can’t receive cutie marks. No mysterious branding appears on their flanks that tells the world what they’re meant to do in life. The exact ways in which ponies discover their purpose and then live in community with one another according to that purpose are not possible for Griffons.

Once the CMC realize that it’s truly impossible to help Gabby receive a cutie mark, they become distraught and think they’ve failed in their purpose. In truth, they just need to rethink how one can have a cutie mark. They manage to find a way to “extend the table” of this unique pony experience to other creatures by accommodating a different way of presenting a cutie mark. They give Gabby her own cutie mark pins that she wears on her mail bag. Not only does this extend the cutie mark experience to another race (which historically has a rocky relationship with ponies), but the fact that Gabby’s cutie mark pins match the CMC’s cutie marks welcomes her into community with them.

Early Christianity faced a similar question of just how far the transformative experience of Jesus truly stretched. Was it also for Gentiles, and if so, did they need to be circumcised? Throughout Christian history, the sacrament of communion has also had specific barriers placed around it determining who can partake and who can’t.

One phrase many Christians use to talk about communion is “extending the table.” In progressive churches like mine, this means we practice open communion where anyone who wants to partake may do so. They don’t have to be members. They don’t have to be confirmed or baptized. There is no spiritual milestone or requirement that they must meet to be part of our church community. We may adapt how we provide access (such as having gluten-free wafers for those with allergies), but all are still able to participate no matter who they are or where they are on life’s journey.

In the same way, it’s okay that Gabby can’t have a cutie mark that physically appears on her body. She can still be part of the Cutie Mark Crusaders and spread everything she’s learned from them to her own community, which will hopefully help other Griffons experience the love she’s so readily seen among ponies.

On Loving Rarity and Unlearning Internalized Misogyny

I fully realized/accepted during BronyCon 2016 that Rarity is my favorite pony.

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Technically, I more or less knew this last year and it should be obvious given that I spent a good five minutes talking about her in my 2015 panel. However, I still maintained that I didn’t really have a favorite pony.

At first, this choice seems a bit strange. After all, I’m not particularly feminine in my daily life nor do I aspire to be. I’m not a seamstress. I don’t care about the latest fashion trends. I don’t have a posh accent.

No, I’m nothing like Rarity unless perhaps we’re talking about generosity and loyalty to friends.

So how the hecky is she my favorite pony? Those who know me best would expect Applejack or Rainbow Dash or Twilight Sparkle to be my pick because I’m more like them than any of the others.

But for me, this turned out not to be about who I most identify with, but rather who is the hardest to love and who helps me unlearn internalized misogyny. The answer is Rarity.

According to survey results from the Brony Study team in 2014, Rarity is in last place as a fan favorite. I understand why. Her character design screams femme fatale and she certainly has her moments of being utterly insufferable.

I mean, I think she’s adorable and charming, but I digress.

Growing up, I dissociated myself from anything extremely feminine whenever I had the choice and whenever I wasn’t trying to be semi-attractive in a vain attempt to have my life follow the promises of compulsory heterosexuality. I thought Barbies were cool for a second, but most of the time I hated them and instead chose to play with Legos, Pokemon, dinosaurs, race cars, and stuffed animals. I created epics where any female characters who were like Rarity were villains, homewreckers, or stupid because that’s the message I internalized early on.

I hated girly things. Hated them. I knew that I wasn’t stupid or rude or bad, so I didn’t want to look like someone who was. When it came to the dichotomy between girl next door and femme fatale, I wanted to be on the protagonist’s side.

As I got older, I started adopting some aspects of traditional femininity because I chilled out a bit and because I really, truly believed that my life would become the youth group dream: meeting a nice, Christian man and having 2.5 kids raised in a strong, Christian home.

That dream unraveled in many ways, but stayed the same in some others. I’m not gonna get into that now. The point is that feminine expression became something that I just grew used to and accepted as something I just had to do eventually. A lot of it wasn’t so bad when I tried it.

But I don’t think I ever dealt with that internalized hatred against all things feminine.

Then along came My Little Pony, which my childhood self would never have touched with a ten foot pole. All it took was my roommate showing me the first episode of the pilot and I was hooked. This show had a story! It reminded me of Sailor Moon!

And it had a squad member who was extremely girly.

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However, I realized that Rarity carries herself differently than most characters like her. In fact, everything about Rarity is nuanced and it’s easy to miss those nuances if we dismiss her too quickly.

In the season 1 pilot, Rarity is confirmed as the element of generosity when she gives Steven Magnet her tail to replace the side of his mustache that had been torn off. At first glance, this seems like a pretty weak way to show generosity since it’s so grounded in fretting over outward appearance. However, I don’t think Rarity or Steven Magnet’s particularities about their appearance comes from being insecure or having self-esteem issues. Instead, I see their particularities as specific expressions of identities that they are quite comfortable with. Rarity knows who she is as an artist and an individual. Her fabulousness on the outside is an outpouring of the fabulousness on the inside. She gets upset when her mane isn’t coiffed because the outer self is not accurately representing the inner self.

How do we know that Rarity has such a strong sense of self and that the dresses and makeup are not impermanent ways of creating self-confidence where none exists?

Well, I think the answer is that Rarity is posh despite her family.

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Neither her parents nor Sweetie Belle are as flamboyant in their dress or mannerisms as Rarity is. The family isn’t at the top of Equestrian society nor do any of them show signs of wanting that life, so where did Rarity get it from? Perhaps she’s rebelling against an uncouth and mediocre upbringing. This could be why she and Applejack clash so much at first. Yet to distinguish oneself so much from one’s family suggests a powerful and secure sense of identity.

So I think Rarity very much knows who she is and she has very specific ways of declaring that to the world. This doesn’t mean that she never struggles with confidence issues–look at that whole Trenderhoof thing.

What’s refreshing about that episode, at least, is that the “desirable” version of femininity is the practical, worker type that Applejack exhibits. Many other times, when a girl in the TV show or movie is changing how she looks to impress a boy, she does so by becoming more traditionally feminine. Rarity tries (terribly) to become the opposite of herself for someone besides herself. That is among many reasons why her attempts are so laughably bad. Another is that her self as a fashionista is too strong to be contained. That inner fabulousness will always exert itself.

That inner fabulousness may also be why Rarity does things like choose the perfect hat for a stranger without being asked. On one level, it could be an intrusion (no one asked you, Rarity!). On another, it could be that Rarity perceives and inner fabulousness in everyone and constantly looks for ways to bring that out. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes she gets too caught up in playing by the rules of Equestrian high society (or helping others to play by those rules) that she forgets to focus on inner fabulousness.

Maybe all of this only makes sense to me, but that’s okay. I’m still not that feminine in my gender expression and probably won’t be for a lot of reasons (unless it’s 100 degrees outside or I’m in a wedding party), but I love this idea of not being particularly feminine myself and yet loving a very feminine character. It compels me to reject the tendency to roll my eyes and dismiss those girly girls.

The Gospel of Bronycon

This past weekend, I attended my second Bronycon as a panelist. I reunited with my teammates from last year and we presented a panel called “Cutie Marks and Branding: The Importance of Social and Mythological Identity Formation Among Friends.” The turnout was great and we got overwhelmingly positive feedback on our presentation! One person even said ours was the best panel they’d been to at the con up to that point.

 

The panel covered the very, very broad topic of identity. Brian Newby began with providing basic definitions of identity and of “normal” vs. “deviant.” Bill Ellis then explored identity in a mythological sense, particularly with the heroes and villains of MLP. I grounded these ideas in cutie marks as an exploration of identity within the show itself (in other words, basically using a New Criticism approach) and then looked at what happens when we fans bring our own understandings of identity to the show as we watch it (i.e., Reader Response Criticism), specifically in the case of “Brotherhooves Social” and the discussions around it being helpful/harmful trans representation. I’ll add a link to the video recording once it’s available.

During the panel, Purple Tinker, who founded Bronycon, got word of the discussion and she started giving away pride flags at her booth in the vendor’s hall. Stay tuned for a guest post from her about this topic!

I did a couple last-minute things as I finalized my portion of the panel and the result is that I lowkey took y’all to church. First, I included this slide:

A Powerpoint slide says, "No matter who you are or where you are on life's journey, you are loved."

This is a slight modification of a common refrain in the United Church of Christ, which goes, “No matter you you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

I felt that this message was in line with all of the affirmations I heard throughout the weekend. “You are important. You matter. You have a community here. You are not alone.” All of these were spoken in the face of struggling with suicidal tendencies, recovering from addictions, healing from bullying, and so many other hurts.

The second way I lowkey took y’all to church was by leading the audience in singing a modified version of “This Little Light of Mine.” We sang “This Cutie Mark of Mine,” which makes perfect sense for the panel topic and the MLP fandom as a whole.

If only we had a Hammond! The closest we got was the neat Gothic choir music they played before the panel began (if it were up to me, I’d have gone with Kyrie Eleison).

However, I saw so many other examples of the gospel at work over the weekend and it honestly seems like another instance of God working with and through the least likely and least “qualified” communities.

We all know that My Little Pony has a bad reputation specifically because of bronies. Sometimes, there’s this sense that no upstanding feminist would bother with the series or the fandom because there’s always a brony who’s misogynistic and/or creepy and the most feminists ought to do is point out the fact that he’s a brony to explain that he’s a misogynist.

I’m not dismissing criticisms of misogyny within the fandom or ignoring the problems folks have with giving more attention to the shock value/transgression of men liking ponies than to all the awesome female empowerment the show has to offer. In fact, this is why I talk about this series through my experience as a woman and focus more on what it does for girls/women. Plenty of folks talk about bronies redefining masculinity and while I have no problem with that discussion, I do feel like people often stop the conversation at what the show does for bronies and what bronies do for the show. And I get it. It’s not as weird for me to like My Little Pony because I’m a girl, hence why the whole girl empowerment aspect isn’t as sensational.

As with any fandom, there’s a lot of crap that makes people say, “why would you associate yourself with these people?” That’s a big reason why I typically don’t get deep into fandom drama. Yet as a Christian, I’m quite used to loving and being involved in something with a terrible reputation. Yes, there are unsavory aspects of the MLP fandom. Maybe some unsavory things happened to some people at Bronycon. I can’t dismiss that possibility, but this is what I saw:

I saw Tara Strong, who voiced your entire childhood, give a signed Derpy plushie to a girl who flew in all the way from Belgium and had been struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts due to bullying–to the point of needing professional help. Tara invited the girl and her sister on stage and told her she was beautiful, loved, cherished–all of these affirming things. When she handed over the Derpy plushie, she said she chose Derpy because Derpy isn’t perfect, but everyone loves her anyway.

I saw a young man crying while standing in line for the microphone at the bullying Q&A panel. Another young man standing in front of him held him for the longest time. A middle-aged woman rubbed his back. A Princess Celestia cosplayer rose from her seat to give him a hug.

I saw a panelist pause and try to gather himself while sharing his experiences with alcohol addiction and how My Little Pony approaches the topic of recovery.

I saw over $27,000 raised for charity.

I saw a teary-eyed vice con chair describe attendees who had gathered in the main lobby to prepare care packages for the homeless around the convention center. I’ve seen this happen at church conferences, but never fandom conventions.

I saw the last few minutes of an accessibility panel where people shared creative ideas on how to make even loud events like the rave party more accessible to attendees with noise sensitivities. I’m sure there were many other great ideas as well.

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I saw a Princess Celestia and a Princess Luna cosplayer read letters written to their characters over the course of the weekend. Some letters rehashed hilarious memes. Others told the saddest stories.

“Dear Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, my best friend died five years ago. I was at a pony convention when I found out. I still struggle with feeling alone.”

“Dear Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, this world is full of scary things. Cops killing people. People killing cops. I wish you could come to our world to teach us more about friendship. Signed, nobody important.”

To which the Princess Luna cosplayer emphatically replied, “You are very important. Every. single. one of you.”

For all of these reasons, I understand why so many people feel like the MLP community is their home and conventions like Bronycon their sanctuary. I know how freeing and healing it is to find that second family. I’ve found mine at my church, which makes me a rare case among people my age.

Even so, I strongly believe that all works like what I described above are God’s works. God is present through all things and meets us where we are. That includes people of little or no faith who also face constant misunderstandings about their views and yet have found a community in the MLP fandom.

What can the church learn from these happenings at Bronycon and vice versa? What would it look like for these two very different communities to work together? Joint service projects built into the con schedule that attendees could choose to sign up for?

It’s funny because while I was happy to be going to Bronycon this weekend, I was also bummed that I’d be missing church. Instead, God reiterated the theme of UCC General Synod 2015:

Grace in unexpected places.

Comparing Matriarchies: My Little Pony and Steven Universe

Both My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and Steven Universe present matriarchal societies in which women fulfill the most powerful roles in their worlds. In My Little Pony, it’s the alicorn princesses. In Steven Universe, it’s the Great Diamond Authority. Yet both of these matriarchies show vastly different applications of power. Equestria’s matriarchy is more caring and collaborative while the Great Diamond Authority is strictly focused on colonialism and conquest.

Reasons why these two systems are so different vary. Some of it certainly has to do with the show creators’ intentions and the target audience for both series (Steven Universe, to me, seems aimed at slightly older children than My Little Pony). But a lot of it also has to do with the core ideals each society is built on.

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In My Little Pony, we’re largely made to view Princess Celestia’s rule as peaceful and just, especially as her court expands to Luna, Cadence, and Twilight Sparkle (who then forms a court of her own). The Elements of Harmony and the magic of friendship are the foundations on which everything else is built. In recent seasons, Twilight Sparkle especially has used her status as Princess of Friendship to reveal not just the power of friendship in general, but the power of redemptive friendship. In the Equestria that Twilight Sparkle now continues to shape through her position in this matriarchal hierarchy of alicorns, nothing that causes separation or despair is allowed to exist. If it does, it’s posited as antagonistic, or at least non-affiliated with Equestrian royalty.

This means that justice occurs through this system. Is it challenged at times? Absolutely. Are mistakes made? Of course. Is Princess Celestia a giant troll? Duh. But we don’t see oppression stemming from declarations made in Canterlot or from subtle notions that one race of pony is superior to the other two. Once Luna is free from Nightmare Moon, we don’t see an alicorn who wants to conquer. More recently, Twilight Sparkle’s actions both in the regular universe and in Equestria Girls extends an invitation to those who formerly tried to disrupt the foundation of harmony and friendship. Equestria’s royal matriarchy seems to adequately provide for the safety and well-being of its subjects. Ponies are allowed to live free, independent lives pursuing whatever occupations their cutie marks call them to. There aren’t many prominent examples of super strict class or gender expectations either.

In these ways, My Little Pony presents the opposite of real-life patriarchal structures that we’re more familiar with. It provides a hopeful answer to the question: what does a sociopolitical system not run by men look like? It’s peaceful, harmonious, and just.

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But Steven Universe gives us the opposite answer, or at least a criticism of the idea that simply placing women in authoritative roles typically held by men will necessarily create a more just society. Gems are an all-female alien race, so women naturally appear in every single role from ruler to techy to lackie. We’ve learned from the recent Steven Bomb (and other episodes too) that Homeworld has very strict and specific ideas about which gems are the most important and which are disposable or common. It’s not just that each gem has their own specific role. It’s that these roles seem hardwired in their very physical structures. Rubies are stout and headstrong because they’re made to protect. Peridots are tiny and have large heads partly because they’re adorable goobers, but also because they’re made to be technicians.

So it seems that gems are crafted to fit a particular role in the colonial and industrial Homeworld structure. It’s not 100% clear at this point if the Great Diamond Matriarchs are actually the creators of all gems, but it’s very clear that they run this well-oiled machine of a structure. This matriarchy is built on a foundation of supremacy and conquest. In our own world, we’ve seen these systems play out in the hands of men who had exclusive access to these powerful roles. Steven Universe is showing the same type of system, only with women filling those roles instead. It flips the script, but it also shows that it’s not enough to just change the gender of those in these roles. The meaning of those roles and the structure itself must also change.

Steven Universe gives us plenty of examples of this. Everything the Crystal Gems have done flies in the face of Homeworld’s values. They have left the structure and now defy it. Garnet is an anomaly not just because she’s a fusion, but because she’s a fusion of two different gems, which was unheard of until Ruby and Sapphire accidentally fused. Together, they redefine the purpose and implications of fusing.

Whereas My Little Pony posits that a system with clear hierarchies and traditional structures can be just if the ruling parties build their systems on foundations of redemption and harmony, Steven Universe suggests that justice can only be found outside of such systems. Homeworld structure cannot be redeemed or changed from the inside. Instead, gems must break away from it and dismantle it from the outside. Redemption and harmony are only possible outside of this system, as we’ve seen most recently with Peridot. In Steven Universe, a matriarchy that functions with the same roles we’ve seen in real-world patriarchies is just as harmful for its subjects, showing that keeping the system but swapping the genders isn’t enough of a step to enact actual change or justice.

This is why many feminist theories don’t suggest that replacing patriarchies with matriarchies is the ultimate goal. Those that do may be presenting a utopia of sorts, and while systems run by women certainly could be different than those run by men, there’s no guarantee that they would be the solution to oppression, especially if the power dynamics remain the same.

If there were to be a totally just matriarchy, it might be more like what we see in My Little Pony where all have access to the fundamental power on which the system runs (friendship in this case). Lack of friendship, no space for diversity, and no room for redemption or harmony are the things that threaten this system. When they creep in, we start seeing familiar things like classism (e.g., conflicts between unicorns, earth ponies, and pegasi). Equestria and its systems were more or less established to dismantle those threats rather than embrace them for the purpose of expanding territory or conquering other nations.

So, these two matriarchies give us different implications of women being system-builders, system-runners, and even system-breakers. As both series continue, we might see some more nuances–for example, other gems with high status might start questioning the system or ruling powers in Equestria might continue to become decentralized. Either way, both shows convey interesting explorations of feminine power and agency.

Tradition Tension: Your Hearthwarming Must be My Hearthwarming

A couple weeks ago, I shared some reflections about advent, the anxieties some Christians feel about its perceived secularization, and the reactions they have as a result of this sense of loss. I described how a strong faith with a minimal connection to the history of traditions can easily breed a perception that Christ must be on every element of mass culture to be relevant. It can also breed a notion that there is only one proper way to celebrate Christmas. However, those who do understand the how and why of traditions can also get caught up in a mentality of properness because the knowledge of the historical richness of traditions makes them more compelling in the here and now.

This is precisely what Applejack struggles with in the episode “Heartbreakers.” It’s Hearthwarming season in Equestria and the Apple family is off to spend the holiday with the Pie family. Applejack and Pinkie Pie look forward to the celebration as some confirmation that they’re cousins by some distant family connection. It’s certainly plausible since they’re both earth ponies and both families tend some type of farm or land for a living.

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Applejack thinks this possible oneness means that both families will have the same Hearthwarming traditions, manifested in the exact same ways. Applejack also has a strong sense not only of the origins of the Hearthwarming celebration, but also how each of her traditions connects to the historical and symbolic significance of the event. Every last thing that her family does on this holiday commemorates the founding of Equestria via the unity of earth ponies, pegasi, and unicorns. She directly connects to this history through the traditions that she has always known. Applejack feels such a deep connection to these particular manifestations, that she becomes legalistic about them and her innocent questioning of why Twilight Sparkle and Spike are opening their presents on Hearthwarming Eve hints at her sense that there is a certain way to celebrate Hearthwarming. Anything that doesn’t follow that way looses touch with the significance of the holiday.

But Applejack anticipates that the Pie family will have the same traditions and those traditions will confirm that there’s some greater unity between them.

Of course, she’s in for a big shock when she discovers that the Pie family celebrates the same milestones of Hearthwarming, so to speak, but in entirely different ways. Rock soup? Hiding presents? Making dolls out of rocks? Hanging the flag on a boulder? Not only are these traditions foreign to Applejack, but they also make no sense. They seem both drab and chaotic, and Applejack can’t understand how they’re affirming to the family or how they connect with the significance of Hearthwarming.

So, Applejack’s reaction is to impose the particulars of her family’s traditions onto those of Pinkie Pie’s family, believing that she’s improving on something that makes no sense and isn’t clearly connecting to Hearthwarming the way she understands it.

I know they have their traditions and we have ours, but I just want them to see how much better theirs could be.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard or sensed this sentiment in Christian contexts. I myself am continually getting over my own elitism about tradition, much like Applejack does in this episode. High-church folks like myself wonder why we need new versions of “Amazing Grace” while contemporary folks strip away churchiness in an effort to not get bogged down by doctrine. Meanwhile, the low-church/no-church folks avoid any religious structures due to their history of imposing oppressive ideologies. Having experienced two of the three types here, I have heard and believed the tradition elitism on multiple sides.

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Applejack’s “improvements” to the Pie’s traditions involve clearing away the rock farm to make room for candy cane yard decorations, strings of lights, and a new flagpole. These decorations are familiar to many audience members because they resemble how we typically decorate at Christmastime. In other words, they are signals of a dominant way that Christmas is celebrated while the Pie’s ways come across as confusing, uptight, and depressing. Applejack has solved this “problem” by making vast changes and even building new structures on a land that doesn’t belong to her without even understanding the significance of the rock farm she destroyed or knowing where fault lines lay. Naturally, this invasion upsets Pinkie Pie’s family and it’s only made worse when Holder’s Bolder tumbles down the hill after the fault line, aggravated by the new flagpole, cracks. What Applejack believed was improvement was actually destruction.

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This prompts the Apple family’s swift departure. Now, the differences between traditions and families seem impossible to mend. On the train ride home, Granny Smith explains why Holder’s Bolder is so important.

I got so caught up in the things they were doing, I never asked why they did ‘em.

Applejack realizes that she cannot simply run away from the mess she caused and wait for it to blow over. She stops the train to return to the Pie family and apologize immediately. She acknowledges her mistakes without any platitudes or expectations that her feelings will be coddled, and offers her own labor to push the bolder back up to the barn.

Here, reconciliation takes place and the last scenes of the episode show a mixing of traditions. Applejack recognizes that you can be one big family without having the exact same traditions, and learning each other’s ways ultimately enriches both families.

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Christians talk about all of us being one big family–siblings in Christ–yet American Protestantism alone has dozens of separate denominations that produce dozens of different traditions. Many of us are entrenched in one tradition or another and when faced with another form of Christianity, tensions may arise. I went to a predominantly Protestant college and I had two very Catholic friends who faced disrespectful, ill-informed comments about Catholicism from students and professors alike. When they revived my college’s Neumann Club, I attended each meeting and gained an appreciation for what Catholics believe and practice, taught by actual Catholics instead of Protestants with a lowkey agenda of presenting Catholicism unfavorably.

I firmly believe that Christians can enrich each other by understanding–and I mean actually understanding–the multitude of traditions within Christianity. We can’t expect to successfully navigate a pluralistic society if we can hardly handle the nuances of our own faith. This Hearthwarming episode of MLP gives us a metaphor for what tradition-sharing within the same general group might look like.

 

Cutie Marks and Calling Redux: Finding Purpose in Loving the Enemy

About four years ago, I wrote my first analytical blog series about My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Up until that point, I had almost exclusively written reviews because they were relatively easy to churn out and I could never think of any compelling analytical angle I could use to talk about what I watched with more depth.

Today, those three posts are the only remnants of my first blogging days that are still live and for various reasons, they often bring the most traffic to my blog. Although many of my views have matured and shifted since I wrote those posts (and I hope my writing style has improved as well), they are still relevant to the majority of the work that I do here. They were my first attempt to integrate pop culture and Christian theology and tease out some complex, or at least interesting, themes. It took another couple years for me to “find my blogging voice” (since fiction voice and blogging voice are distinct things for me). Taking Critical Theory my senior year helped immensely, as did absorbing Tumblr’s discourses on the multitude of phobias, archies, and isms we navigate through on a daily basis.

All of these wider criticisms help inform how I analyze stories and what, if anything, I’ll write a blog post about.

So today, I’m revisiting what I wrote all those years ago specifically about cutie marks in light of MLP’s latest episode and a deeper faith and knowledge than what I had back in 2011.


 

Guess who finally got their cutie marks!

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Frankly, I didn’t expect the Cutie Mark Crusaders to get their cutie marks at all. I thought the writers would’ve left that space open for audiences who struggle with finding their purpose in life to have some relatable characters and to keep showing the joys of discovery and growth before committing to something. That said, I’m not at all disappointed in this turn of events. This season has provided more insight into cutie marks and what they mean for each pony. They raise questions of identity and define a pony’s life purpose. When the Mane Six’s cutie marks act up, they must literally go where they’re called. This is powerful stuff–no wonder Apple Bloom has nightmares about getting stuck with a cutie mark that she doesn’t like or understand.

With all of this build-up around cutie marks, it fits that the CMC would finally get theirs. We’ve seen their journey of discovering them and now that they’ve been “called,” we’ll get to see their journey of living it out.

Especially since their purpose is to serve others.

Helping others find their cutie marks: that’s what the CMC is good at–what gives them a sense of fulfillment and purpose. It’s a selfless calling and its selflessness is more apparent than that of other cutie marks.

Such an overt call to service–to building up the community rather than the self–nicely parallels Christian practice (or what it should be). This whole time, the CMC have been searching for their cutie marks for their own sake. Cutie marks would answer that “Who am I?” question. Instead, their cutie marks answer that “What must I do?” question and said action is directed toward their community (other ponies who don’t have their cutie marks) rather than themselves.

But it’s not like the CMC have totally denied themselves or have no distinction among them. Their cutie marks are all clearly a set, but each has a different symbol within the shield, one that signifies how their uniqueness comes together for a united purpose.

As nice as it is that the CMC got their cutie marks because they realized that they love helping others find theirs, what I think is the most compelling from a Christian standpoint is that the act of service and helpfulness that made the CMC realize their calling was directed toward an enemy: Diamond Tiara.

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Diamond Tiara is the typical mean girl bully. She represents the antagonistic, super feminine villain type that I’ve discussed before while the CMC are the protagonist, less feminine hero types. MLP has a tradition of presenting this narrative only to break it, and now they’ve done it again.

As it turns out, Diamond Tiara is very much a product of her strict mother and the expectations of her social class. This is one of the few times so far that we’ve seen MLP overtly deal with economic class as a dictator of the company one should or should not keep. Because the CMC, at Apple Bloom’s prompting, decide to show concern for Diamond Tiara rather than bask in the vindication of seeing her lose the school election, they learn about her insecurities and show her compassion by inviting her into their community. She doesn’t have to meet any social expectations to hang out with the CMC at their clubhouse.

This act of love and compassion for an enemy is transformative–literally. It’s easy to help your friends, but it’s much harder to help someone who you have a reason to dislike or hate. In some cases, it’s not even possible to show love and compassion because some enemies are downright toxic and abusive.

Diamond Tiara isn’t that extreme. She’s a bully, but like every MLP antagonist or villain, she’s not beyond reform. In a show called Friendship is Magic, everyone gets a second chance at the embrace of a welcoming community. Christians ought to be in that business as well. Are we? Certainly not all the time, especially on institutional levels, but hospitality is one of our basic callings.

Loving an enemy is transformative because it requires you to push away the pride at seeing that person fail or protecting your own self-interest by knowing and hating only one facet of that person. It’s when the CMC decide to look closer at Diamond Tiara–to pay attention when they could’ve left her alone–that they learn of her complexities. Those complexities at the very least make it more difficult to leave someone alienated.

We’ll see if Diamond Tiara takes the reformed mean girl route like Sunset Shimmer has, but for now it’s clear that the CMC will keep themselves busy with helping other ponies both discover their cutie marks and perhaps help them remember what their cutie marks mean.