Friday, May 23, 2014

Passing is Magic: Transgender in My Little Pony

Twilight Sparkle has a transgender bathroom experience

"What if they find out 
just how different I really am?" 
My Little Pony: Equestria Girls


A Strange New World

Previously, I've examined the Erotics of My Little Pony, demonstrating how this reboot of the classic toy-inspired cartoon series has adapted a variety of non-normative affects and relationships into pony-form in a way that explores queer issues under the nose of potential censors. While this analysis became one of the most read posts on Transliterature and cited on the Huffington Post, there remains a number of aspects that need to be unpacked.

A critical aspect of the show's queer feminism is how it deals with Trans issues. In LGBTQ politics, the "T" continues to be a silent remainder. The structure of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic plays out a problem that Lesbian Feminism has had a hard time expunging: transphobia. Because the world of Ponyville is populated largely by cis-gender women (well, ponies), there is a lot of room to play with same-sex erotics but at the risk of naturalizing and privileging certain gender identities. The pixie-haired Rainbow Dash and the butch cowgirl Applejack help are sites where the topic of "female masculinity" (to borrow a phrase from J. Jack Halberstam) but these characters do not occupy the precarious position of having to transition.

The danger of trans-exclusion in Ponyville is what makes the film My Little Pony: Equestria Girls (2013) remarkable as an engagement with topics of transgender, transition, and alliance. The film opens with the protagonist Twilight Sparkle struggling with her new status as princess (as of the end of Season 3), only to have her crown stolen at her very first "Princess Summit" by her mentor's former apprentice. Chasing after the thieving pony, Sunset Shimmer, a mirror image of Twilight's name and personality, the two disappear through a magic mirror that leads them into "a strange new world." Suddenly in high-school and transformed into a "tall fleshy two legged creature," i.e. a human, Twilight must deal with the Trans issues of passing, access to technologies of change, and alliance forming in order to retrieve her crown and return back to her home and embodiment. While not overtly identifying as transgender (just as she never identifies as queer), in this film Twilight Sparkle occupies the position of a trans body and plays out public anxieties around gender transition through her transformation into a human.

Twilight Sparkle has a Transgender moment looking in the mirror

Twilight Sparkle

Discovering that her body has changed from pony into human form, Twilight panics. How is she supposed to walk on two "skinny" legs? What are these finger "things" where her hooves should be? How does one adjust to wearing "funny clothes," like a skirt? Running into the closest building (a high-school mirroring the social structures and personas of Ponyville) Twilight seeks refuge in a bathroom. No sooner has Twilight caught her breath than her feeling of safety is shattered by a stall door opening to reveal a boy screaming at that a "girl" is in the Men's Bathroom. Many trans people will recognize this fear of being seen as out of place in bathrooms, where privacy and security is replaced by abjection and an interrogation of one's gender.

Playing out the transgender/trans-human trope, as the scene concludes, the image of the bathroom door with the ominous Men's Room sign fades over the humiliated Twilight. For a moment the images blur on top of one another, picturing Twilight caught in the shape of the Man, signaling an analogy between passing as a man (i.e. human) and passing as a man (i.e. masculine gender). For a show that reliably demonstrates a commitment to feminist politics, the spectral positioning of masculinity as the literal sign of humanity may very well have been intentional. In any case, the scene establishes the uneasiness of Twilight's transition in the context of queer gender politics. A critique of the human remains inextricable from the critique of gender models established over a long history of male dominance. 

Furthermore, the danger surrounding Twilight's artificial humanity draws on social discourses around the artificial bodies and gender of trans persons. What will happen if Twilight's transition is discovered? In answering this question, we are bound to draw on the violence we see publicly directed at trans persons: shame on failing to occupy an identity, humiliation and ridicule, bullying, exclusion from public office (including becoming King or Queen of a high-school dance), fear of rejection from friends and potential lovers, and expulsion from bathrooms. In one fashion or another, all of these come to pass when Twilight's failure to sufficiently perform her humanity are made public through cyber bullying, when Sunset Shimmer releases a viral video on You-Tube. Reflecting a common-place scene in many Trans films, Twilight stands in front of a mirror looking at herself and internalizes the alienation that is being directed at her trans body.

Fluttery experiences shaming for her queer orientation towards animals


Given the analogy of the film between transgender and trans-humanity, it fits that the first ally that Twilight makes in this strange new world is Fluttershy. While distinguished as not "that" Fluttershy, the pony from Ponyville, this teen girl is marked by the same name, coloration, butterfly motif, and personality as her pony counter-part. Twilight first encounters this Fluttershy in the halls of the school being harassed by Sunset Shimmer for being weird (read: queer) because of her inordinate affection for "stray animals." Previously, I have noted how this trans-species eroticism marks Fluttershy as breaking from the normative expectations of same-species, opposite sex attraction. Here, the orientation (if not sexuality) opens her up to be Twilight's first ally as a trans human.

Witnessing the verbal attack and physical intimidation of Fluttershy, Twilight jumps to protect her and forces away the bully. Already, Twilight's trans perspective is affecting her actions. First, the feeling of alienation is immediately recognizable and objectionable to her after running from the Men's Bathroom. Even if this person is a stranger, like many queer bodies, they share a common marginalization that prompts mutual defense. Second, transitioning from pony to human has trained Twilight to look for constancy across change as the world "starts to look familiar." Twilight looks different as a human but retains certain aspects (hair, color, cutie-marks) and so she is able to quickly recognize Fluttershy. Even though her bashful friend is a counter-part and not the transformed version of her friend, Twilight is able to recognize the potential for kinship in this stranger.

Likewise, Fluttershy's cross-species orientation allows her to see affection and potential alliance in unfamiliar forms. She recognizes Twilight's care for her and for her "dog" Spike, as reflecting her own love for animals she keeps in her backpack. In very short order, Fluttershy turns from stranger to friend, helping Twilight to navigate the high-school. Assisting her in hiding Spike, getting food, mapping out the political structure of the high-school, Fluttershy gives Twilight a perspective on this new world that matches Twilight's position on the margins. Rather than offering help in a condescending or policing manner, Fluttershy recognizes Twilight as another oppressed subject in the system of violence and directs her accordingly.

Pinky Pie performs bisexual and pansexual eroticism

Pinky Pie

Second in the order of allies that Twilight gains in her new body and environment is the hyper-relational, hyper-affective Pinky Pie. Previously I have noted how Pinky Pie's excessive energy reflects an eroticism that is not counter to hetero-normativity but beyond it, overflowing it. Pinky Pie gets "excited" by seemingly everything and everyone. In other words, she opens herself to the same marginalization felt by many bisexual or pansexual people. The stigma against moving from man to woman, woman to tranny, etc. that paints many bi and pan people as sluts, shallow, or fake, and the common demand to "pick one" reflects a distaste in society for people who love "too much." Although this Pinky Pie is not overtly involved in legible sex-acts, her immediate relation to Twilight in this world shares the same radical openness to new objects and the willingness to cross new boundaries, including personal space.

While Fluttershy's friendship required mutual oppression to facilitate becoming friends, Pinky only requires proximity to latch on to her new friend. As in Ponyville, Pinky is particularly interested in Twilight. As ponies, Pinky follows Twilight around and frequently bursts in on her during private moments, suggesting that she has been stalking her. Only knowing her for minutes, Pinky is ready to sign on to help the stranger with whatever she needs. This intimate friendship, plays out how bisexuality and pansexuality compliments transgender, even in their stereotypes. Whereas the trans person is seen as secretive, the bi/pan person hyper-extends. As the trans person is subject to inconstancy in their body, so the bi/pan person is subject to inconstancy in desire. The trans person embodies too much and the bi/pan person desires too much.

This willingness to embrace change, which frequently accompanies a trans person's life time and time again, allows Pinky Pie to be the first person to affirm her alliance with Twilight as she continues to undergo shifts in her identity. When Twilight becomes publicly humiliated by the viral video released of her awkwardness as a human, she temporarily hides in a new outfit and persona. Bursting into the room, however, Pinky immediately recognizes the changes Twilight has undergone and affirms her transition with facial expressions (leaning forward, checking her out up and down, staring with half-closed eyes), and cooing, "I like your new look," reeking of flirtation. 

Later, when Twilight is about to come out to her friends as trans-human, Pinky interrupts her confession and suggests all that Twilight was about to say with oddly specific detail. Has she been stalking Twilight? Are they so complimentary that Pinky knows what she is thinking? Is Pinky so open and receptive that she knows the thoughts and plots going on around her? Perhaps, Pinky Pie's excessively queer desire suggests we embrace all of the above.

Rainbow Dash and Applejack play out a butch lesbian relationship

Rainbow Dash and Applejack

While the whole group enacts queer female friendships, Rainbow Dash and Applejack seem to play out the most overt tropes of lesbian relationships, including the potential to lock out other members from their community. In the show, Rainbow Dash and Applejack are often found alone together already in the middle of an untold story that gets interrupted when Twilight and her gang comes knocking. So too in the film, where Applejack enters the drama incidentally on a delivery of apple cider for the school dance. At this chance meeting, Twilight convinces Applejack to help her to become the queen of the dance and thus receive a crown (which turns out to be the one Sunset Shimmer stole). In exchange, Twilight promises to help Applejack with her own problem: her and Rainbow Dash split.

Encouraging Applejack to talk it out with Dash, the group moves to the soccer field where Dash and Applejack speak intimately in the distance while the others speculate on what must be going on from the bleachers. As in the show, we do not hear or know exactly what passes between Applejack and Rainbow Dash. The extent of their relationship as friends (or potentially lovers) is not divulged. The audience is left, like Twilight, to speculate from the outside on the exact nature of what is going on in their relationship. All we know at the ending of the conversation is what Pinky Pie observes, "Hugs! Hugs are always good!" 

In many respects, the closed circuit of the relationship between the sports-obsessed rainbow pony with a pixie cut and the rough and tough southern cowgirl reflects the distance between lesbian feminism and trans politics. At times outright trans-phobic, traditionally the tension has been one of exclusion rather than harassment. Despite any willingness for a trans-alliance, there remains hesitancy for many butch lesbians to identify with trans men or to allow trans women to join in their community. Applejack and Rainbow Dash are open to being friends, but maintain their own distinct lives and critical distance from the group.

Joining the group, Applejack introduces her good friend Dash to the others, describing her as "captain of the softball team," common code language for being a lesbian as the sport where many queer women find community. With this pair on the team, the group jumps into action with a musical montage where they convince the whole school to shift their votes from Sunset Shimmer and ally themselves with Twilight. 

As those who get things done, Rainbow Dash and Applejack offer Twilight some of the best of what the lesbian community has to offer trans persons: established social networks and resources. Rainbow Dash is able to pull strings with her sports teams to lobby for Twilight. Applejack is a successful business with capital that might be mobilized. While the montage cuts over the details of how each of them help, it is evident that things cannot get moving for the new trans student until she gets the butches on her side.

Rarity acts a Feminist ally for Transgender and queer rights

Spike and Rarity

Of the many enigmas and untold stories that are suggested but not declared in the show and the film, Rarity's relation to the others is consistently one that goes without explanation. The most wealthy and the most passing in heteronormative circles, showing the greatest signs of sexual attraction to men, Rarity seems as though she does not need the others in the same way that they need her. Associated the Element of Charity, Rarity's social status and relative normativity offers her the privilege that affords her the ability to make it on her own. In a more mainstream movie, the audience would expect Rarity to be the snooty rich popular girl that is too good for the band of misfits (at least at the start of the film). 

Yet Rarity, in the film, as in the show, jumps at the chance to help the others. She appears when Twilight is most in need as the viral video is released, offering her momentary safe haven when the hallways brim with people laughing at her, then without stopping to explain gives Twilight a change of clothes and a new identity. Rarity continues to give to the queer group and to her trans friend without any specific reciprocity, because it is the right thing to do. She offers the costumes that the group wears to convince the school to vote for Twilight. She makes the dresses that her friends wear to the dance; many different dresses in fact as each girl has many complaints and adjustments they want rectified. She even offers a box full of her own riches so that the girls could all have pretty jewelry to wear.

In this way, Rarity stands in the place of cis-gender straight feminists who reach out to their queer and trans sisters. Afforded the financial and social benefits that come with a longer history of privilege, Rarity is indeed a "unicorn:" the best non-explicitly queer friend that a group of queers might want. Her willingness to admit her social status and to use it, even divest it, for the sake of others shows that Rarity is a powerful model for feminists allies to LGBT politics. Rarity gives herself to her friends, joins with them, and offers what she can without lording it over her friends. She could live in a world without them, but that is a world that she does not want.

In a queer move of her own, Rarity possesses an explained intimacy with the film's purse dog, Spike. As the shows only regularly speaking male, he inordinately desires the hetero-like Rarity. This eroticism continues even though there is an evident gap in their age and species, which as the film demonstrates, reflects a gap in gender as well. What is remarkable is Rarity's willingness to feed Spike's desire for affection. In the film, she calls him "adorable" at first meeting, locking eyes with her as their faces come within kissing distance. At the conclusion of the film, Spike is feeling a bit left out of the celebration of female-friendship and Rarity picks him up, telling him how much she cares about him. Spike melts at Rarity's touch with an orgasmic "Oh, yeah!" Again, this moment is opened up without explanation. In this sense, Rarity practices the act of queer friendship, allowing for intimacy without the need to pin down or police relations or identities. Rarity is on board for whatever the future offers the ever changing world of her queer and trans community.

My Little Pony concludes with something like an LGBT right campaign

Elements of Harmony

The conclusion of the film is (not surprisingly) the least queer thing about it. It tries to tie up loose ends rather than leave things open to possibilities. Yet despite its desire for closure, that works towards homogenizing politics where we "put our differences aside" rather than attend to the lasting critique of social inequalities and violences that these differences suggest.

After a campaign song and dance number, the school won over by the message: "we may seem different as the night from the day but look a little deeper and you will see that I'm just like you and you are just like me." If nothing else, we can all rally behind school spirit (here a stand in for the government/nation). This reflects the argument that we are all "humans" so that transgender rights are human rights. This however closes down the conversation about cross-species identification or community across differences that does not try to homogenize or cover over those differences. 

However the film opens up room for radical difference, noting through music that "things are only starting to get better," it concludes with the platitude that "things are only gonna get better" without the need for any radical changes to the status quo. Twilight Sparkle's success at becoming the princess of the dance and receiving back her crown sparks a final battle between herself and Sunset Shimmer. Stealing the crown, again, Sunset turns into a winged demon and transforms her friends into hell-spawn. What began as a complicated series of social politics is suddenly reduced to a flat and dualism between good and bad that can only be settled through violence, or else magic. 

Using the crown, Twilight calls upon the Elements of Harmony (and "the magic of friendship... the only magic that can truly unite us all"). By coming together, the team emits a beam of rainbow light that spreads throughout the community and hitting Sunset destroys her power. Using the LGBTQ rainbow, bringing together many different colors, the trans outcast is saved by the force of unification and integration. The film thus ends as one of its songs promises "it's alright... we will come together in the end."

Whether or not one can buy into the inevitability of progress, even cynics, radical queers, and trans feminists can appreciate an air of optimism. The show is targeted to children, after all is said and done. That means, for instance, that there is a strong push from producers and distributors of children's media to conclude with hope and bite-sized lessons. Just as putting trans community in the seemingly benign context of ponies allows for more complex visions of gender and sexuality to be presented, so too can a ridiculously simple (however out-of-place) ending provide a glossy frame to a potentially counter-cultural drama. It is part of My Little Pony's magic formula: a spoon full of sugar and cutie-marks helps the queer politics go down.

My Little Pony celebrates the rainbow