Unicorn Ethics: A Fragment on My Little Pony

It is the job of fusty, addlebrained academic sorts to take things we all enjoy and take for granted, and then dissect it with the ponderous seriousness of a graying doyen of our particular art. Especially in the social sciences. Teasing out social messages, identifying wider imbricating discourses, and seeing patterns with relation to the media is usually a sombre affair filled with sad news. This is how this movie reinforces patriarchy, this is how this television show transmits transphobic messages, this is how our media is coarsening social attitudes, this is how this commercial is making us hate our bodies, and so on and so on. It is a rare, rare joy indeed when I get to turn my critical eye towards explaining how something in the media is positive in its influence on our society.

When a good friend of mine nudged me into watching My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic I internally scoffed. It sounded cute, and nothing was wrong with cute, but I’m a woman in her 20s, jet setting and on the go, kicking patriarchy’s ass and sipping skinny lattes while jogging between classes and speaking engagements. What use did I have for girl’s television anyway? What’s more, it was probably the usual problematic pap encouraging girls to be docile, quiet, restrained and feminine in a deeply unnerving way, another Cult of Pink devoid of all that can be good about growing up.

To say that I was dead wrong on all counts is an understatement.

The Sociologist as Children’s Hero?

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic began to arrest me when I realised that the main character was a bookwormish unicorn named Twilight Sparkle who was a serious minded, organised, knowledgeable student with a profound magical talent, proud of her tutelage under Princess Celestia– the benevolent ruler of Equestria– who’s known far more for her wisdom than her beauty it seems. The pilot episode finds Twilight learning several lessons that I would not only feel comfortable with my future daughters learning, but I’d actually fall over myself to get them into this programme. Twilight had to learn the power of friendship, yes, a rather old and clichéd concept in children’s programming. But what sets MLP apart is both how this was done and with whom it was done.

Twilight Sparkle expressing pony values.

Twilight Sparkle is sent to Ponyville by Celestia to make friends as Celestia worries for her star pupil’s social skills. But the plot does not revolve around Twilight dulling her intellect to become a social butterfly; far from it she learns her to use her talents relationally, as a member of a diverse group of ponies who all have distinct skills. She learns a group ethic; teamwork, in other words. One of the show’s most heartwarming messages is that you cannot always do great things alone; this message is a beautiful, at times subtle, contradiction of the selfish ethic of heroic individualism that has become like a cancer on our society. It is not just a paean in one episode, but rather a theme underlying every single one. It is the language through which the programme is expressed.

In all of this, Twilight’s skills and intellectual acumen are not blunted but become essential to her friendships. Her friends love her for who she is and are proud to know the “smartest Pony in Ponyville.”

I rather love Twilight Sparkle—when having her first slumber party she used a reference book on the subject to help her organise it. She is portrayed as an intellectual, she always lives somewhere surrounded by books—I envy her library. She is readily portrayed as a capable leader, a (community?) organiser, and maven of the world’s lore always ready to teach the ponies some esoteric fact. But perhaps the bit that really melted my heart was that Princess Celestia told Twilight to deliver a report about friendship every week, relaying her “findings.”

That’s right, Twilight Sparkle is a budding sociologist. I was sold.

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The Revolution Will not Be Puppetmastered

By now word of the great Gay Girl in Damascus hoax has spread throughout the western world and the blogosphere, becoming a much ballyhooed object of derision, snickering, finger wagging, tut tutting and all the rest. For those of you not in the know, here’s Color Lines’ Akiba Solomon’s deft summary of recent events— it precedes an analysis I highly recommend:

On February 19th, shortly before Syria’s Arab Spring uprisings began, an American-born Syrian lesbian named Amina Abdullah Araf launched “A Gay Girl in Damascus.” Araf had been posting comments and debating Middle Eastern politics online for years, but created her own space at the urging of Paula Brooks, co-founder of the news site “Lez Get Real.”

Araf’s blog featured her erotic poetry and her coming-out story—risky material since homosexuality is illegal in Syria. She also spread news of the government’s brutal crackdown on protestors, prompting Time.com to call her “an honest and reflective voice of the revolution.” In late April, Araf claimed that Syrian security forces visited her father’s home and accused her of “conspiring against the state,” “urging armed uprising,” and “working with foreign elements.” Subsequent posts found Araf “going underground,” although she was still able to “encourage other women in Syria to be more upfront” via an email interview with cbsnews.com. Last week, a cousin posted a dramatic account of Araf’s abduction by three armed men. Like the rest of “Gay Girl in Damascus,” that entry is now unavailable to the public.

Because they’re human beings, members of the LBGT and progressive blogesphere took to Twitter, Facebook and petition sites demanding information and protection for Araf. Days later, the blogger’s “Catfish”-style caper unraveled due to skeptical tweets from an NPR reporter; news of fake photos on Araf’s Facebook page; and an unnerving interview with a Montreal woman “Araf” had seduced via Facebook. On Sunday, The Washington Post revealed “Araf” to be Tom MacMaster, a white 40-year-old from Virginia who was raised a Mennonite and attends a graduate program at the University of Edinburgh.

At this point, MacMaster should have just said, “I’ve come down with a terrible case of white, male privilege. Please medicate me.”

Let me explain this very plainly: As a trans, queer woman of colour who writes authoritatively about her experiences I am very directly affected by the aspersions cast by this hoax. My words have power only if you believe them.

Now, this is hardly to claim that this little plague of white cis het guys in women costumes are the sole cause of all doubt and derision cast on those of us women, people of colour, LGBTQ people, PWD who speak out and speak loudly as we testify to our truths. That is certainly not the case. But they play so very deftly into the hands of that rash of men who say that there are no women on the Internet and that everyone claiming to be is really some creepy neckbearded guy in his mum’s basement. It gives a very powerful excuse to people who want to ignore us, erase us, marginalise us further, and another reason for them to simply shut down their minds whenever they read words of power from those the mainstream media almost never listens to.

In impersonating women of colour and queer women, the two fools behind Gay Girl in Damascus and Lez Get Real have done immeasurable damage with their high profile ‘outings.’ When so many of us out there are not listened to, are not given interviews with Time Magazine and CBS News to tell our stories in our own voices, what these two men have done is given every reason to news corporations to be even more gunshy about taking sources seriously if they do not come through the “proper channels.” It was likely as not a battle for some reporters to get their bosses to seriously accept ‘Amina’ as a credible interview subject, for instance. Now it will be an impossible battle when a real woman of colour has something to say to the mainstream press.

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Trendy as a Tote Bag: Part II

Times are very hard, to be sure, and as I am now working in the fundraising department of a radical transgender rights oriented organisation I’m seeing yet another dimension to the endless Great Recession unfolding before me. Simultaneously, what I am constantly astonished by is how people in the most economically disadvantaged communities always manage to find a penny here and a penny there to help their sisters, brothers, and siblings in need. We’re out there looking out for each other and that never fails to give me hope.

It sounds a tad bit cheesy, yes, but for all of my snarky sarcasm and the like, I’ve always put a lot of stock in that gift from Pandora’s Box. It’s a precious resource in the trans community. So, what am I waxing all poetic about and what not? Well, this time around I’d like to solicit you all to fundraise for a charity near and dear to my heart– so much so that I’m actually working for them. The Sylvia Rivera Law Project, an organisation for low income trans people of colour, has radical aims that dovetail with the themes I often speak of on this blog. It is hard to imagine a better organisation for me to devote my time and energy to. Indeed, it’s part of why I’ve been a tadbit too busy to write these days. But it is the Goddess’s work and it feels decidedly good.

On that note, this is our latest fundraising project:

I’ve been pretty busy helping with the organising and the fundraising that an event like this requires but for the moment I’ve been given a pet project and if any of my readers are interested in doing a spot of good then you can hop on over to Indie GoGo and check out our online fundraiser leading up to this gala. Please feel free to contribute, but if you don’t want to or are unable to, then I encourage you to pass the link along to any friends, colleagues, allies, and so on who may be interested. With initiatives like this every dollar helps.

My work here has been, in no small measure, interesting and a crash course in many things. But it has, above all, been a beautiful insight into the community that my sisters, brothers, and siblings have forged and of which I am proud to be a part. I’m not the kind of woman who is easily persuaded into advocacy and I would have never offered my blog as a place to help our fundraising efforts if I couldn’t say the word “our” with confidence apropos SRLP; if I didn’t feel a sense of ownership, a sense of community, I’d have never mentioned my blog. But I did so eagerly because SRLP isn’t just where I work. It’s a workplace where I can be out as a trans woman without the slightest second thought, and it’s a place where all of the markers of isolating distinction and discrimination do not count against you. A place where I could seek support from everyone on staff when I experienced a transphobic incident a couple of weeks ago.

In sum, I do believe in SRLP and what they do; they practise what they preach and I love them to bits. They are that rarest of organisations that will make my usually cold onyx heart melt and go all mooshy.

This is one of only a few nonprofit organisations that reflects the radical vision I have; radically gender equal and positive, feminist/anti-patriarchal, and as much as possible a non-hierarchical organisation that constantly militates against forces compelling them to sell out. As much as possible, I can say with confidence having seen things from the inside, we really do try to ensure that the trans community has ownership of this non profit and that we are never beholden to the powerful or the “great and good.” Small donations from (yes I’m using the PBS phrase here) people like you make that radical goal possible.

Okay I’m done being all sappy. If y’all are generous I may throw a slug comic up here soon when I get home. Thanks in advance.

~Quinnae