How analysis can improve the fandom: a response to Tommy Oliver

Tommy Oliver has proposed that analysis of Friendship is Magic has harmed the fandom as a whole, decreased people’s enjoyment of the show, and just generally made things worse:

Before the rise of the analysis videos in this fandom, one rarely heard anything negative stated about the show…

Now that analysis is a huge thing two years down the road, we have lots of people criticizing all sorts of aspects of this show.

I think…there was a side-effect to all this…people started to like [the show] less.

[People] take this honest, critical commentary on something they love so much as a personal slight.  And on a certain level, I can’t blame them, because negativity from inside the fandom can chip away at one’s armor they’ve built up to the multitude of detractors they’ve undoubtedly come across, and will continue to come across again.  And hearing what could be perceived as negativity and naysaying can make fans, especially new fans, start to believe that perhaps they’re wrong for liking this show.  And self-doubt is the last thing that anyone wants.  As a result, I think that for a large majority of people, some of the magic was lost from Friendship is Magic.  And the analysis community — and by extension, myself personally — are at least partially responsible for that. [Emphasis mine].

Similar concerns have been raised before.  Overall, it boils down to a question Canned Cream asks in one of his videos: “Are We Ruining Our Own Fun?”.  Are we ruining the fun of others?  Should we even be analyzing My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic?  Or are we all just being, well…

neckbeard-trilbyTo answer those questions, we first need to answer another; why are we doing this?  Why do we spend time and energy analyzing a cartoon about magical ponies?  Everyone will probably have their own answers to that question.  Here are mine:

First and foremost, because it’s fun.  I genuinely enjoy thinking and writing about the narrative techniques of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.  That probably makes me weird — but I don’t think that’s much of a loss.

Second of all, to better understand it.  PaleoSteno was the first person to make pony analysis vids, so he’s heard “that show is for little girls!” plenty of times.  His standard response is the best I’ve heard:

Then why do I like it so much?

That question basically drives this blog.  Why do I, a twenty-something male, thoroughly enjoy a show designed to appeal to girls between the ages of 6 and 12?  More significantly, why do so many other people outside the target demographic enjoy this show?  I’m a scientist by inclination and by education — when I see something that doesn’t make sense, I want to understand it.  In that sense, I’m following yet another of Pixar’s Rules of Storytelling:

#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

And to understand why this show has succeeded in the way it has, I need to accomplish my third reason for analyzing FiM: to better understand the art and science of storytelling (which seems like a pretty worthwhile goal in itself, honestly).  If you want to understand how something works, looking at a successful example is a good first step.  Whenever I write a piece of analysis, I try to answer one central question: What can this episode teach us about storytelling?  Honestly, whether the episode itself is good or bad isn’t really an interesting question to me.

That, I think, helps save me from the negativity that the analysis community is criticized for; if I criticize something, it’s as a means, not an end.  If I spend 1,000 words complaining about Twilight’s teleportation, it’s to show how in-universe limits can actually improve a story.  If I decry the plot of the first Equestria Girls as “boring”, it’s to demonstrate the importance of conflict to a good story.

And honestly, it’s a good thing that I don’t focus on whether an ep is good or bad, because otherwise this blog would get pretty repetitive and pretty boring (well, more boring than it is now, anyway).  I may lose some credibility for this, but it’s the truth; there isn’t an episode of Friendship is Magic that I would call “bad.”

There are episodes that are bad as Friendship is Magic goes — but that’s true by definition.  Even the worst of FiM‘s episodes are at least decent, relative to most other cartoons.

There are aspects of episodes that are bad, but they generally have strengths that more than compensate for those flaws.

Seriously though, what were they thinking?

Seriously though, what were they thinking?

There are (a few) episodes that I don’t enjoy watching, but most of those either come down to personal taste, or have “objective” flaws that affect me more than they affect most other people.

When I try to think of bad episodes of FiM, the only ones that even come to mind are “Friendship is Magic, Part 2” (which is understandable, the team was still getting their shit together), and “Magical Mystery Cure” — which isn’t so much “a bad episode” as “a half-finished fantastic episode”.  Even Equestria Girls 1 was only mediocre.

But let’s talk about those episodes that I don’t enjoy watching, because there’s something valuable to be learned here about the role of analysis and criticism.  In fact, let’s discuss my least-favorite episode of Friendship is Magic: “Look Before You Sleep”.

Ha, betcha thought it was gonna be "Feeling Pinkie Keen", didn't you?  Joke's on you; that's only my second-least favorite episode.

Ha, betcha thought it was gonna be “Feeling Pinkie Keen”, didn’t you? Joke’s on you; that’s only my second-least favorite episode.

Twilight is written really badly in “Look Before You Sleep”.  Her usual nerdy awkwardness is replaced by full-on social idiocy.  This is inconsistent characterization (and therefore bad storytelling), but more importantly, it’s just irritating, rather than endearing.  She’s badly-written in this episode.  She’s not “written in a way I don’t like”, she’s badly-written.  And if I can’t convince you of that, let’s just pretend for a moment that I could, because it helps to illustrate an important point.

So, Twilight is badly-written in “Look Before You Sleep”.

BUT:

I would never say that “Look Before You Sleep” is a bad episode.  It’s not.  It has some really great moments, and the bickering between Rarity and AJ is well-written, funny, and entertaining.  Twilight’s bad depiction means that the episode is flawed — but show me something that isn’t.  Those flaws affect my enjoyment of the episode more than most people because I recognize the objective truth that Twilight Sparkle is best pony Twilight is my favorite character (among other reasons).  I have tried to enjoy the episode despite Twilight’s depiction — and every time, I have failed.

For you, that’s probably not the case.  You may not even have realized that Twi is badly-written in “Look Before You Sleep”.  Or you may have noticed it, but it didn’t affect your enjoyment of the episode very much.  And more power to you — I’m glad you can thoroughly enjoy the episode despite its flaws; that’s the same thing I do with the other 88 episodes of Friendship is Magic, so percentage-wise, I’m actually doing really well.  For me to tell you that you shouldn’t enjoy this episode because it’s flawed would be 1) completely nonsensical, and 2) kind of a dick move.

And honestly, even if you tell me you thoroughly enjoyed Twilight’s depiction in “Look Before You Sleep”, I’ll still say “more power to you”.

“How the hell does that work?” you might rightly ask.  “You just said that it was flat-out bad.”

Indeed I did.  But that doesn’t mean “no one will enjoy it”.  That doesn’t even mean “no one should enjoy it”.  In the context of storytelling, “this is bad” just means “if you do this, most people will enjoy your story less”.  Yes, some people will enjoy it anyway, so there are exceptions to the rules of storytelling — but that’s the case for most rules.  So it is entirely possible to state that a piece of storytelling is good or bad without saying that a particular person should or shouldn’t enjoy it.

And here, I suspect, a lot of people (analyst or otherwise) fall into a trap.  They treat analysis as though its role is to dictate what people should or shouldn’t enjoy.  I can only speak for me, but I tend to find this approach both uninteresting and misguided.  Instead, it seems far better to explain why people enjoy what they do (even if those people are just “us”).  To borrow some terminology from Fillydashon, I try to make my analysis descriptive, rather than prescriptive.

In that spirit, I generally try to “work backwards” when analyzing FiM.  Maybe I’m generalizing from myself, but there’s often a temptation to sit down and analyze an episode as you first watch it, looking for aspects that are particularly bad or good.  I tend to find that this approach is counter-productive, because I’m too busy analyzing the show to really watch it, if that makes any sense.

Instead, I usually try to (for lack of a better term) “cooperate with” the episode — I do my best to enjoy it, and if something comes up that bothers me or pulls me out of the story, I mentally note it and then try to move on anyway.  For example, when Shining Armor and Cadance were introduced in a puff of saccharine and I felt the urge to roll my eyes, I said “okay, this is kind of annoying”, and then just tried to move past that aspect and accept the characters as they were presented.

Then, once I’d seen (and enjoyed) the rest of “A Canterlot Wedding”, I went back, looked more closely at the introduction, and tried to understand why the cuteness here made me grimace, rather than smile.  And when I did, I realized that the episode was doing a lot of telling, rather than showing.

In fact, this approach — explaining why, rather than dictating whether — is kind of how I got into doing pony analysis in the first place.  The first piece of FiM analysis I ever wrote — my review of the first Equestria Girls — was really just me trying to explain to myself why I didn’t enjoy it as much as FiM, despite it having many of the same strengths and the same team behind it.

And here’s why I question Tom’s assertion that fans want affirmation, not analysis; the “why, not whether” approach seems to be working for me.  I’m about to sound like a narcissistic ass, and I apologize for that, but this is actually relevant to my point: 8 of my posts have made it to the front page of the main My Little Pony subreddit.  7 of them have made it into the top 5 slots — that much positive feedback from the general fandom is rare for analysis works.

Yes, I self-post to Reddit.  Bless me father, for I have sinned.

Yes, I self-post to Reddit. Bless me father, for I have sinned.

And I’m a good writer, but I’m not a fantastic writer.  I’m certainly not good enough to make people enjoy material they would usually hate.  The difference isn’t in my delivery, it’s in my approach — specifically, it’s in asking “what can this episode/character/scene teach us about storytelling?”.

Furthermore, my posts aren’t universally complimentary toward FiM.  I certainly investigate the show’s good points, but I also critique its shortcomings.  In one of those posts, I devote half the word count to criticizing “A Canterlot Wedding” — one of the most beloved episodes of the series.  And yet, that post has a 90% positive vote rate.  So it seems like there is a market for critical analysis in the general fandom — if it’s done with the goal of understanding, rather than dictating.

That said, most of my posts do praise FiM (which makes sense — I really like this show, after all).  But that doesn’t mean they lack value or insight.  And this brings us to an unstated assumption that TO makes in his vid: he seems to equate “analysis” with “criticism” (in the sense of “negative feedback”).  In my personal experience (so grain of salt), this assumption is widespread in the analysis community.  This strikes me as a mistake.  Certainly, we don’t want to become so enamored of the show that we refuse to acknowledge its flaws.  But we seem to have the opposite problem — I think we underestimate the value to be gained in examining what Friendship is Magic does well.

Now, I’m not advocating an “OMG FIM IS SO AWESOME!” circlejerk (well actually I am, but not under the guise of analysis — save that for reaction vids and liveblogs).  But there is a difference between a circlejerk and positive analysis, and the difference comes in understanding and insight.  Saying “I really liked this part” isn’t the end of the discussion — it’s the beginning.  The real work comes in trying to answer Paleo’s question: “Why do I like it so much?”.  When I investigated why I enjoyed The Crystal Empire so much, I found that it excelled in a lot of areas in which FiM‘s two-parters have generally struggled, and I gained a better understanding of the value of flat characters.  When I investigated why FiM‘s humor works so well, I gained a greater appreciation for both Applejack and for straight-characters in general.  Yes, there is value in comprehending where FiM goes wrong, but there’s just as much value — perhaps more — in looking at the show’s successes, and trying to understand them.

And that, I think, is key to how analysis can make the fandom better, not worse — understanding.  Understanding doesn’t immediately make people agree, but it can turn a fight into a debate, and (if we’re lucky) turn a debate into a discussion.  People, especially fans, are always going to disagree about things (pony-related or otherwise) — but maybe we, with our ridiculous blogs and channels, can help other fans disagree constructively.

I’ve seen a few people link my post on Equestria Girls to explain why they disliked it, and that’s remarkably satisfying to me.  Because it means that (hopefully) I helped turn a fight into a debate.  The people in that discussion might still be arguing, but at least they’re arguing about something clear and concrete — they’re no longer saying “the movie was awful” or “the movie was great”, they’re instead saying “the movie didn’t have enough conflict” or “the movie did have enough conflict”.  Those are statements about which evidence can be be collected and coherent arguments can be made.  They might still be disagreeing, but at least they’re disagreeing in a way that’s more likely to be interesting and insightful.

And honestly, if that’s all I accomplish, I’ll take that.  Maybe I couldn’t convince you that Sombra is a well-utilized character.  But if I provided some insight about the proper use of flat characters, then that is the greater victory.  Maybe you still think Zecora’s depiction is racist.  But if I helped you better understand why stereotypes are (or sometimes aren’t) a problem and how best to address that problem, then that’s more important.

Even though you are totally still wrong, so nyeh!

Even though you are totally still wrong, so nyeh!

If we in the analysis community do this right — if we can provide insight and explanation, not just assertion and dictation — maybe we help create fewer flame wars and more constructive debates.

Maybe — this is the internet, after all.


Want to know when I’ve thought of something new and interesting about the narrative techniques of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic?  Yeah, neither would I, probably.  But just in case, you can follow The Pony’s Litterbox on Tumblr, or follow me on Twitter.

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3 Responses to How analysis can improve the fandom: a response to Tommy Oliver

  1. isilionnele says:

    Good insight and explanation.
    It’s always a pleasure to read your work.
    You may be one of the few “real” analysts of the herd. Many claim to be analysts but do little more than just venting their own preferences and wishes, providing the viewer/reader little to no understanding of the show

  2. Pingback: The Five-Sentences Hypothesis of narrative conflict, and how “Friendship is Magic, Part 1″ hooked us all | The Pony's Litterbox

  3. Pingback: “It’s for kids” is not an excuse | The Pony's Litterbox

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