Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Cripping Magic: Composing Madness in My Little Pony


"All the ponies in this town are crazy
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic

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Due to pressing engagements in the month of August,
including comprehensive exam preparation, conferences, and articles
a lot of writing has been happening but activity on the blog slowed.
I will conclude the month with a look at the processes of writing itself.

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5 Lessons on Mental Illness

Curated on the online visual arts venue, DeviantArt.com, Hannah Truesdell (a.k.a. PrincessDestiny114) created a series of posters using images from the cartoon My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (MLP), aimed to fight bullying for a variety of deviant bodies, from queerness to body size to disability. One such poster (pictured below) reading "I'm not insane. Stop bullying," features the manic, party-crazed pony Pinky Pie (DeviantArt).

Under the poster, the artist offers an explanation of the project's personal and social relevance to the crippling effects of perceived mental illness and diagnosis: "See my other posters for the background story on why I started these. Pinkie Pie's poster. I chose the theme of mental illness for this one. This one is an issue particularly close to my heart. I'm bipolar and have had to deal with the stigma of it from the moment I was diagnosed. I have seen friends/roommates visibly step back when I told them this fact. I accept it as part of who I am, but it's still hard. Pinkie Pie is the one everyone likes to make crazy. So here ya go" (DeviantArt.com). Following the trajectory of Disability Studies, the poster takes the discussion of mental illness from the medical sphere and makes it into a social issue.

Immediately the MLP poster got backlash based on the premise that mental illness and disability are personal, not social, problems. Skyp3r101012 is one of the most recent to comment, writing "i always get bullied my hole life i just laugh it off so suck it up...." (DeviantArt). Others such as EccentricBrony, who self-identifies with depression disorder, generalized anxiety, obsessive compulsion, suicidal thoughts and autism, offers the truism that "everything works itself out eventually"  (DeviantArt).  The artist worked to defend her argument throughout the comment section, shedding light on the social dependencies that make blaming the individual generally ineffective and potentially violent. A few viewers comment in support of the poster, acknowledging that "there's not a single person without at least hidden issues defined in the DSM-IV" and calling for solidarity across all those who suffer (EarthPhantomTS,  DeviantArt). Receiving both criticisms and affirmations, the cartoon ponies provoked a surprising amount of critical conversation about mental illness.

One of the most common misconceptions about My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (MLP) is that the characters depicted are primarily children concerned with childish problems. It only takes a close reading of the show to reveal that MLP is flush with adults dealing with issues of queer friendships, transgender passing, and dismantling disability in society. This goes to show that childrens' cartoons, children, and their problems are not a distinct category from other social concerns. The writers of MLP critique the wider society as society informs the narratives the show tells.

The show's protagonist, Twilight Sparkle, while a student in the discipline of magic, has a lot more in common with a graduate student (Masters, Ph.D, etc.) than one in college or K-12 education: she is engaged in a prolonged independent research project, she reports to a singular advisor who also functions as a mentor, and finishing her work promises to establish her as an expert in a specialized field. While her adventures are analogous to the school experiences of many younger viewers, MLP is evidently reflecting serious social problems in the academy, not least of them the pressing issue of mental illness.

Issues concerning Disability Studies occur throughout My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. In this examination I focus on "Lesson Zero" from the second season, where Twilight becomes consumed by the pressures of her academic studies sending her into an anxiety driven panic attack that threatens to dismantle her mind, her friendships, and the society around her. In the process I draw on Robert McRuer's "Composing Queerness and Disability: the Corporate University and Alternative Corporealities" from Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability to argue for 5 lessons that MLP elucidates about Mental Illness that draw viewers away from a pathology-based understanding that blames the victims of disabling forces into a critical crip politics that demands improved social investment. Cripping magic in MLP demonstrates that virtually everyone can be affected by socially propelled mental illness and offers specific critiques and alternatives for transforming disability into structural and personal change.


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1. It is Not Nothing

The first thing that "Lesson Zero" makes known to its readers is that mental illness "is not nothing," as Twilight yells at her friends in the middle of a breakdown. The structure of Twilight's independent study and the basis for each episode's lessons is that each week she composes a letter to her advisor reporting the insights that she has gained about friendship. Established in the series reboot pilot, Twilight's project is aimed at mapping the interactions between personal power (magic) and social relations (friendship) towards the thesis inscribed in the show's subtitle: "Friendship is Magic." When a week passes and Twilight finds no lesson to report to her advisor, she turns to her friends in a panic for help. Their refusal to see the pressures her friend is under leads to a personal breakdown and a breakdown in their community.

While the fear of being tardy with an assignment and disappointing her mentor may not be, as Twilight believes, a problem as big as "everything," it does constitute a real and present danger for many academics and their community. Depression and anxiety, McRuer argues, functions as a symptom of capitalism and especially in the education industry where the expectations for constant performance and rigid deadlines maintain "gaps, overlaps, dissonances" between worker's accomplishments and the expectations of the field (McRuer 156). The work one does will never be enough. The finish line will constantly be moved. 

The drive to expand a laborer's output while ever narrowing the material and temporal allowances that the laborer receives is a fundamental character of capitalism's exploitation of workers. Even if Twilight's advisor, Princess Celestia, or her friends do not intend on placing this pressure on Twilight, the system by which the academic is understood and managed is based on the implied demand of a certain kind of productivity. The assertion that Twilight is the intellectual and so she has the intellectual answers ignores the intellectual labor involved in producing these answers every week. One can also glean the experience of the show's writers (many of whom likely experienced the pressures of graduate school) as they strain to develop narratives with appropriate lessons for viewers each week.

By highlighting the pressures and the breakdown of Twilight, the show pulls at the thread of mental disability in society to show that it is in fact not "nothing," and as it starts to unravel suggests that it may possible be tied to "everything." Everyone is virtually a victim of capitalism's pressures and implicated in the execution and exclusion of its mentally ill workers (McRuer 151-152). The ubiquitous nature of capitalism and anxiety can make its violence naturalized so that it may seem impossible to imagine life without "the perpetual panic about students' perceived lack of basic (professional-managerial) communication skills they are supposed to need" (McRuer 153). As a result, the causes of mental illness become invisible and so the victims become marked as hyper visible embodiments of a personalized (as opposed to public) mental disability.


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2.  It doesn't (just) get better

Alienated from her friends and having internalized the problem in her work as located in her body, Twilight begins to spiral as she feels there is no escape from the failure that is her life. Curled up on a park bench, a symbolic fetal position that many workers in and out of academia find themselves occupying, Twilight tries to assure herself that "it's fine, it'll all be fine." This truism is a common tool of many dealing with anxiety or anxious persons. It is a capital device because (1) it identifies the problem in the person rather than the environment, i.e. if only they would realize everything is fine they wouldn't be suffering, (2) it may turn out to be true, and (3) it requires no active changes by anyone involved. Laziness and fear of fault, more than optimism, seems to drive this reductive mantra.

Queer theorists and writers have taken the related idea behind the It Get's Better Campaign that promises youths a future that will be livable for them if only they persist in their current life. Aimed implicitly (sometimes explicitly) at lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth in danger of suicide, queer critiques of the campaign have argued that it isolates the problem at the level of the individual while leaving untouched the social violence that marks and marginalizes the child (Sady Doyle, the Atlantic). It effectively becomes another way of blaming the victim, as it establishes a chain of authority where the world-wise adults correct and subordinate the despairing (supposed ignorant) young person (Alex Eichler, the Wire). What is wrong with you that you don't know that it just get's better? One pathology adds onto the the others.

Twilight is quick to pick up on the false-promises of a "it'll all be fine" culture. "The day isn't over yet," she says rephrasing the drive to wait for the future, "but it will be over soon! My time in Ponyville, my academic studies!" Simply waiting for things to just get better is likely to leave Twilight in her disabled state and leave her pray for the threats aimed at those considered disabled (especially mentally ill) in the academy: the loss of her means of living and the loss of her professional standing (McRuer 148). It is no wonder that she is personally spiraling; the structure of the industry sustains the risks in order to keep laborers continually working to avoid falling down a dangerous slope into the classification of professional (and personal) failure (McRuer 156-158). Things seem directed towards getting worse, not getting better. Left alone and without social change, anyone and everyone may enter into categories of disability. 


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3. It's a matter of time

A common argument for the importance of disability studies is that everyone, if you live long enough, will at some point be considered disabled. It's all a matter of time. The power of the clock to perpetuate disability comes from the regimented time that capitalism inscribes into our bodies. From the formative trajectory from student worker to expert worker, we are trained from a young age to follow the clock. We see Twilight, right in the fit of her panic, showing off her childhood doll, "Smarty-Pants" to several local children. The toy comes, she says, with a "notepad and quill for when you want to pretend she's doing her homework." From a young age we are encouraged to repeat the practice of bringing home work in order to discipline our bodies into the habit of working according to a clock. Tasks are determined to take a certain amount of time for the universal "seamless and univocal" body to accomplish (McRuer 156). This time rarely takes into account the differences in the bodies or environments in which they are performed. The clock, instead of measuring time becomes a tool for enforcing time (McRuer 2-3). When tasks are not accomplished within the dictated period, the failure falls on the worker rather than on the clock.

Twilight's academic anxiety is a matter of time. The pre-determined deadline of one lesson per week was set from the start of her study and each week (each episode) Twilight has been able to accomplish her goals. "The Clock is ticking"  repeats Twilight mimicking the unceasing march of deadlines. When circumstances and flesh get in the way, however, the clock keeps pressing on, causing a conflict between the imagined mechanical worker and the dynamic ebb and flow of real bodies. The ceaseless pace creates a "sense of control" but wears down the body, then the gap between the expected and the real temporality of work (full of stopping, going, and swerving) creates even more tension as failure seems to become a matter of time (McRuer 154-155). Even if Twilight can finish her work this time, the weariness and threat of failure will continue to compound and haunt her like the specter of disability.

As the episode goes on and time passes, the anxiety gets worse and worse, disabling her even more. In the end, the ingrained ideology of failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The same mechanisms that force her to produce, threatens to expel Twilight when her body breaks down. This is the basis of neoliberal capitalism's "raw exploitation" of the worker: use one body until it fails and then replace it with an interchangeable worker (McRuer 2-3). Like the non-human objects on which the industrial theory of labor is based, there is simultaneously an enforced "perpetual panic" and scarcity of employment (creating a certain body of out-of-work desperate workers that threaten to replace members of an industry if ever they begin to slack) as well as an excess of refuse (creating another body of "de-composing" out-of-work disabled workers) (McRuer 154). The weeding out process of academia doesn't begin or end at the graduate level and nor is it limited to students. The whole industry is premised on the idea that nearly anyone, except a protected few who administrate the system, is potentially one failure away from being dismissed (McRuer 152-155). It is this fear that underlays intellectual labor, even as those who bring attention to this anxiety are pathologized and marked for expulsion.


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4. Mental Illness is a Social Problem

When Twilight's advisor arrives and she leaves her friends with a note that the consequences for her failure will likely remove her from her life and work among them, the community finally acknowledges that what they perceived as "nothing" was in fact a real problem and that they are implicated in the violence Twilight is experiencing. Only then, after it appears too late to do anything for Twilight, does Applejack ask "What are we going to do y'all?" At last Rarity declares what Twilight has been telling them throughout the episode, "This is the worst possible thing!" This is a common time-line for many social responses, only after a "personal tragedy" is beyond repair does the wider community work to remember that person and give some measure of political action.

For Twilight it is not too-late for collective identification and action. Just as she is admitting her guilt to her advisor, Twilight's friends come crashing into the room shouting "Wait!" Grabbing the attention of the authority, they collectively beg for the failure to be considered a group and not a personal problem. "We all saw that Twilight was upset," admits Fluttershy. "But we thought what the thing she was worrying about wasn't worth worrying about" adds Rainbow Dash. "So when she ran off all worked up," continues Applejack, "not a single one of us tried to stop her." "As Twilight's good friends," concludes Rarity, "we should have taken her feeling's seriously and been there for her." Taking the responsibility for the escalation of the anxiety, Fluttershy begs, "Please don't take Twilight away from us just because we were too insensitive to help her." Re-narrating the episode, the group of friends challenges both the compulsory demand for solitary productivity (a lack of help), the  insignificance and invisibility of the pressure to succeed (a lack of recognition), and the drive to mark any one body as disabled or failed (a lack of collectivity).

This conclusion and the decision of the advisor that follows is a crip departure from traditional TV narratives that would have ended with the intellectual (nerdy) character realizing that their school work didn't matter that much and they had just been behaving insane; or with the teacher providing a special exception or lesson for the problem student. It is important that not only does My Little Pony veer away from these narratives that blame the person with anxiety but before the problem is "solved" by the authority, the terms of the problem are re-defined from a singular issue to a "collective" issue (McRuer 155). The intellectual labor was not tardy because Twilight is insane or inept, but because when a challenge was posed to group (the lack of a weekly lesson), the group eschewed responsibility to one person and then to disregard the struggles of that person as insignificant. This is not an instance of a group protecting an individual but the group owning up to its own social productions and "collective writing" (McRuer 155).



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5. Failure Can Be Productive

Twilight's attempts at fixing her "personal" problem ultimately fails. Caught in the ruins of her attempts at producing academic labor when circumstances have not allowed for it, Twilight's friends, who had been absent when she asked for their help, show up just in time to witness her downfall. The sun goes down and her advisor shows up in a burst of light, magically fixing the disarray that her student caused, and sternly shouting "Twilight! Meet me in the library." Bowing her head, expecting the worst, Twilight leaves her friends to face the consequences of her failure, "Goodbye girls, I hope you visit. I'll be in magic kindergarden back in Canterlot." As she walks in to face her boss, the anxiety and alienation that Twilight feels reflects the feelings and nightmares of many intellectuals suffering from what gets called "Impostor Syndrome." The problems in the industry become internalized so that the failure becomes identified with the self rather than the impossible demands of the work. The system is expunged from guilt as it expels its failures.

Rather than dismissing Twilight as a professional failure or as mentally ill, her mentor appreciates the pain and pressure that her student has been under and turns the situation into a chance to explore alternative systems that would better allow Twilight live and work without alienation and impossible expectations. When Twilight confesses that she "missed a deadline" and that this must mean that she is "a bad student," Celestia listens compassionately and then begins the work of moving the blame away from the individual. "You are a wonderful student," she assures Twilight, "I don't need to get a letter every week to know that." By calling out the measures for assessment (the letters) as an imperfect and partially arbitrary means for monitoring her student, Celestia is able to put critical distance between the problem of the examination and the problems of the person. 

A failed exam can mean less for the teacher, who knows the student (although not all teachers do), than for the administration looking to get rid of problems that threaten a downturn in their statistics. Despite this "professional-managerial" business model for education that insists on constant, regular, and "seamless and univocal" measurements for the intellectual capacities of students, this often fails to represent what teachers often know about their students: that they are gifted, smart, and diverse workers (McRuer 156-158). Often the test that aims at a universal standard fails to capture the distinct gifts and limitations of a diverse pool of people.

Instead of punishing failure, Twilight's mentor changes the mode of measurement and productivity. "From this day forth" announces Celestia, "I would like all of you [Twilight's whole community] to report to me, your findings on the magic of friendship, when and only when you discover them." With this move, Celestia attends to several problems at once. First, it demonstrates that the drives and rules of the industry are not natural but a social construct that can be changed (McRuer 148). Second, it acknowledges that intellectual work does not succeed or fail in solitude but is a community product (McRuer 155). Third, it places responsibility for improvement on collective rather than on any one individual (McRuer 152-154). Fourth, it reestablishes the timeline for work to reflect lived experiences rather than arbitrarily assigning deadlines based on some mechanical expectation for productivity, "critical thought" rather than "professional-managerial skills" (McRuer 148-149). Fifth, it returns dignity to Twilight by citing her and her suffering as a providing a important social critiques ("the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excess of meaning") that can lead to better communal relations (McRuer 156-159).


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More on Queerness & Transgender 
in My Little Pony
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