As usual, I’m a little late to the punch in writing up a reaction to the 100th episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic entitled “Slice of Life”. The basis of the episode, a focus on the large cast of side and minor characters throughout the series getting ready for the wedding of Matilda and Cranky Doodle Dandy, seemed a rather fun idea. In practice, the episode was a big shout out to the fandom, being stuffed full of fanservice and shout outs to ideas spread throughout the fandom. For the most part, I did enjoy the episode and found it rather fun. There was something that bothered me, however, about the Lyra and Bon Bon scenes and what they mean in the context of Lyra/Bon Bon being one of the earliest and most prolific non-heteronormative ships within the fandom.
Before getting to that, however, let me start with some of the other things about the episode.
Honestly, I’ve never really taken “fan service”, in the sense of writing stories that appeal to or shout to things that fans like/would be aware of, as an inherently bad thing. There is something to be said for creators who interact with fans, though I wouldn’t say doing so is a required part of creation. Almost any problem with fan service can usually be talked about like any other problem in writing. Where fan service becomes an issue is usually when the culture of the fandom and the demands that fans make are themselves something that is problematic (ex: overly sexualized, scantily clad female characters put in simply to appeal to the male gaze). And the MLP fandom is far from exempt of having its share of darker fan works.
Fortunately, and not surprisingly, the fandom nods of the episode focused primarily on the tamer parts of the fandom. Specifically, the episode centered around fan favorite pairings and characters like Derpy Hooves, Doctor Whooves, Lyra and Bon Bon, and Vinyl Scratch and Octavia. I want to talk a little more indepth about Derpy and Lyra/Bon Bon, but I will say that for the most part I enjoyed the canon interpretations of these characters. Some of the smaller ones were okay, though I found the “The horror” joke with the Flower Trio was a little annoying. Gummy’s existential speech was definitely a highlight of the episode though, alongside Luna and Celestia’s little spat. In otherwise, even the minor appearances were generally entertaining.
My favorite of them was Doctor Whooves, which is no surprise considering my status as a fan of the show Doctor Who. His interactions with Derpy were quite enjoyable, his excitable but analytical style working quite well with the sillier personality of Derpy. The visit to his house was a little hamfisted, but I also have to say that I actually find his character interesting. In a world filled with magic, though the magic is at least somewhat scientific, a character completely dedicated to science could be interesting. I fully expect that the series will probably not explore that ever again, however. I also liked the voice work, which could have easily been trying to give a voice similar to that of David Tennant (the Doctor most often associated with Doctor Whooves) but instead went the route of giving a relatively unique voice.
Vinyl and Ocatvia was also a fun segment to watch. The most interesting part of the duo, however, was Vinyl’s role as a mute being a rather interesting interpretation of her character since the fandom often puts her as a loud party-goer type. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen her like that. Her appearance in Rainbow Rocks was done in the same manner. I actually hope to see this reflected in the fandom with a mute Vinyl Scratch being an interesting way to incorporate more representation and diversity in terms of physical disabilities.
Speaking of disabilities….
Derpy Hooves and Disabilities
As I mentioned in my “Flight to the Finish” reaction, I was sympathetic to the position that Derpy’s original appearance in “Over a Barrel” was not exactly a great appearance. This stems mostly from her entire appearance being used as a joke scene in which she caused harm to both Rainbow Dash and the town hall with blissful ignorance. Combined with her eyes and her original voice being similar to the stereotypical “mentally disabled” voice of that kind of slow, deep voice, the scene amounts to basically a character who is disabled causing harm to others, being yelled at, ignorant of the harm they caused, and the scene is supposed to be humorous. One of the common defenses of the scene is that Derpy is such a great character, being kind and caring and other positive traits. But let’s be honest: that wasn’t in her original scene. Those traits came from fandom characteristics: nothing about Derpy sitting down and falling through the floor really paints her as being a kind and caring figure.
This isn’t to say that disabilities can’t be used for jokes, but that one has to be careful when doing so. Toph from Avatar: The Last Airbender is a good example – though not being physically disabled I am not in any way a judge of what is “okay” to do, so this is just opinion – of how to do humor with a disability without it being insulting. One of the things that helps, however, is she’s a fully fleshed out character who exists for more than just for a joke. Unfortunately for Derpy’s original scene, however, her entire role basically amounted to being the catalyst for slapstick jokes with Rainbow Dash.
So with Derpy’s appearance in this episode, it would have been so easy to make her like that with her eyes as the excuse. It could have easily been her knocking into things, dropping things, and causing a whole bunch of accidents and be totally oblivious to her surroundings. Instead, the MLP team did draw from the fandom’s presentation of her and made her a kind and caring pony, if a bit ditzy and silly, who is indeed helpful even while she makes mistakes. All in all, a pretty good side character, and I can even say I would like to see more of this Derpy in the series. Especially if working alongside Doctor Whooves as their banter was pretty good.
Unfortunately, for every step forward….
Lyra and Bon Bon and Non-Heteronormative Relationship Erasure. If there has been anything that can be said to have truly annoyed me in MLP recently, it was the Lyra and Bon Bon banter that was centered around emphasizing just how good “friends” that they were. The reason for this annoyance stems from the fact that the Lyra/Bon Bon pairing is one of the first and still widely enjoyed non-heteronormative relationships* in the fandom. The phrase “erasure”, in this context, refers to the tendency in which relationships that aren’t male/female in media and in real life are often dismissed and underplayed in a manner to remove them of a sexual and/or romantic context. In other words, it’s a denial of the existence of a non-heteronormative relationship by painting it as simply “platonic” or some other way of describing it that avoids calling it a relationship.
Now, of course, I’m fully aware that a Lyra/Bon Bon relationship was not canon in the show and was simply a product of fan creations. Considering this entire episode is based on fan interpretations, however, the argument that the relationship wasn’t really canon seems kind of hollow. The MLP staff are quite aware of the fandom and what’s out there, and for something like Lyra and Bon Bon that have been such a major ship in the fandom since the beginning, I find it hard to believe they were simply ignorant of the couple. Therefore, I have to assume there was a deliberate decision to take this popular fandom couple and have the characters reaffirming how such good “friends” they are.
This is not the same as claiming that their intentions were malicious, however. One common response I’ve gotten from people when I’ve mentioned my complaints is that the scene was a parody. What it was a parody, of course, has differed. For some, it’s a parody of the tendency of fans to ship every pony under the sun together with every other pony. In that case, why choose Lyra and Bon Bon to do that? Why not, say, Derpy and Doctor Whooves? Or Big Mac and Cheerilee? Soarin and Spitfire? Point is, plenty of other choices for that. Another possibility is the action is indeed a parody of this erasure tendency, with the usage of the “friend” terms being a simple wink and a nod to what we all know is really going on between them.
Here’s my problems with that: there are no significantly substantive** canon nonheteronormative relationships in the show. And the show can’t even use the excuse of “well it’s not about romance” when we’ve had: two weddings (one of which was the center of this very episode), three episodes dealing with Rarity’s crushes on some stallion (Blueblood and Trenderhoof), Spike’s crush on Rarity, Twilight’s blushing and implied attraction to Flash Sentry, and an episode involving the CMC poisoning Big Mac with a love potion to chase after Miss Cheerilee.
In other words, the show is awash with heterosexual relationships, but not a single non-hetero relationship to be found. To take a major non-hetero relationship in the fandom and to have them talk about being ‘such good friends” as a joke about erasure or in a “wink and a nod” manner loses a lot of its humor value when your show doesn’t actually have any open non-hetero relationships in the first place. You really can’t get credit for joking about a social issue of great importance to many people when you don’t actually do anything to forward and fight back against that issue in the first place.
Then, of course, there’s the “well they would do it but outrage!” excuse, which is one that I find understandable but increasingly unwilling to accept. Why? The existence of the show Steven Universe on Cartoon Network, which had 5 new episodes in the immediate week. During that time, several episodes focused on or had segments with the character Pearl and her relationship with the late leader of the Crystal Gems, Rose Quartz. While already brought up in the episode “Rose’s Scabbard”, this latest set of episodes solidified beyond pretty much all but the strongest denials (and boy are there some strong deniers) that Pearl was romantically in love with Rose Quartz. Put this on top of the existence of Garnet, a character who is a fusion of two other gems with an expressed romantic relationship with one another (aka a walking One True Pairing), and you have a show that is just chock full of non-heteronormative relationships and characters and doing a fantastic job at exploring them, with flaws and all. I’d recommend this article for a little more discussion on the topic.
So, over all, I find myself cringing just a little at the Lyra and Bon Bon scenes simply because the series had the chance to increase diversity and representation by taking an fan accepted non-heteronormative relationship and make it canon but instead chose to do “we’re such great friends”. And, joke about shipping habits or erasure or not, it left a pretty bad taste in my mouth.
I enjoyed the 100th episode, I really did. I liked the improved treatment of Derpy, and I did find it enjoyable. But the contrast between what happened in Steven Universe versus My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic that week s in regards to non-heteronormative relationships settled something that I had been thinking about for a while. As much as I enjoy MLP, I’ll continue watching MLP of course, because it’s still good and there is always a chance of a turn around, I can no longer say that is truly pushing past the bounds of what children’s television can do. Instead, I’m going to have to give that title to Steven Universe.
*Aka not a relationship between a heterosexual cis male and heterosexual cis female. I’m aware I could simply say “gay” or “lesbian” or something, but usage of the term is just to allow for any interpretations of Lyra or Bon Bon’s gender and/or sexual identities.
**Usage of this term is to go ahead and stop “well what about these two random ponies in the background” claims. Even if they exist, and I can’t think any off the top of my head, that is practically nothing in comparison to the up and front nature of the heteronormative relationships in the show.