The latest episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is about fandom – I half expected it to be a rousing chorus of “Hasbro’s writing team is not your bitch“, but it ended up a little different to that. The premise is that Rainbow Dash, now self-proclaimed biggest fan of the Daring Do book series (don’t we all hate fandom converts, i.e. anyone who joins after we do?) is itching for the new book. When she hears that its release is going to be delayed, she convinces her friends to come with her to meet and ‘help’ the author to get the book out more quickly.
The beginning of the episode highlights some examples of dangerous or negative fandom attitudes – Rainbow Dash is well suited for this in her role as the brash and often selfish member of the group, with Twilight Sparkle taking the role of voice of reason. First of all, Rainbow Dash shows extreme entitlement: every thought she has about the author relates to how she wants the book, and she acts as though the author owes her something for her dedication (“two more months! I’ve been waiting so long already!”). On top of this, she portrays herself as the series’ biggest and most devoted fan despite being a latecomer to the fandom, after initially mocking and dismissing it – something many bronies can probably relate to. Twilight is also a knowledgeable fan, and has been for much longer, but Rainbow Dash repeatedly ignores or overlooks this in her own enthusiasm. One might compare the occasional opposition between fans of Game of Thrones, the tv series, and A Song of Ice and Fire, the source books.
So, Rainbow Dash is that kind of fan – very public and insistent in her excitement for the books, proud of her own status as a huge fan, and treating her consumption of someone else’s creative work as an entitlement. If Daring Do had a Tumblr fandom, Dash would be in it. She then decides that in order to get what she wants (a new book to read), she should take it upon herself to ‘help’ by getting Twilight to find out where the A. K. Yearling (Rowling reference?) lives, and meddle in her life until she’s free to write.
(Incidentally, when they arrive there is a notable absence of “oh my, Princess Twilight, what an honour, what can I do for you?” – although I suppose one could excuse that as Yearling living deep in the wilderness rather than the writers not be willing to follow through on all the implications of their little plot twist.)
Anyway, after they arrive the episode takes a rather different turn. The first half seemed to be setting up a message about respecting the creators of work you love, including their privacy and creative freedom. I expected a “don’t meet your heroes” theme in which Rainbow Dash finds that being an adoring fan doesn’t mean the author will love you back, or appreciate your meddling in her private life. Instead, these themes are almost entirely counteracted by the way things work out. It turns out that – plot twist! – A. K. Yearling is Daring Do, all the stories are real, and the “remote part of Equestria” where she lives is a jungle where world-threatening calamities really do happen and get stopped by a lone adventurer on a regular basis. And, what, it’s outside Celestia and Luna’s jurisdiction..?
The first problem with this is that the moral of the story soon switches to “even lone wolf adventurers can benefit from help sometimes” – not bad in itself, but problematic when it implies “tracking down an author’s private address and turning up at their house is ok because they might need your help!” All Twilight’s caution about respecting privacy is cancelled out by the fact that Daring Do and Rainbow Dash get to be bestest friends after Dash sticks her nose into her business. Rainbow Dash gets to help save the world with her (until recently fictional) hero, and Daring Do respects her for it and no longer minds the breach of privacy, not to mention meddling against her explicitly stated wishes.
Aside from problematic story morals, though, I didn’t like this premise for a number of reasons. First of all, having the fictional character be real seems to kind of undermine the point a bit. Sure, we all love to imagine if our favourite fictions were real… but they’re not. Fandoms get to do what they do because they’re not. When Rainbow Dash gets to go out and meet hero fictional hero – and become best friends with her like a bad fanfic – is she one of us anymore? I would have preferred the show to play on real world fandom and to acknowledge that love and adoration for a fictional characters is totally fine, as long as you can separate reality from fiction and respect the author as creator. Instead, Rainbow Dash’s sense of entitlement is rewarded with the fulfilment of a fantasy. I’m not sure that’s a good message to send.
Secondly, the original Daring Do Episode (‘Read It And Weep’, in which Dash discovers that reading is cool) featured an injured Rainbow Dash finding pleasure in the adventures of a fictional heroine. Daring Do was pictured as basically a re-coloured version of Rainbow Dash herself, which made perfect sense in context – she was imagining the scenes we saw, taking Daring Do’s perspective. The parallel of Daring Do fighting on despite an injured wing which mirrored Dash’s own injury was not lost on anyone, I’m sure. She enjoyed the book because she related to the heroine, who was like her but more so, exaggerated to fictional proportions and having a life of bold adventure that doesn’t really happen. If she and her adventures are real, where does this leave us? The part of the story that was about fiction and its power over us is all but nullified.
I’m willing to bet that the writers will not have Rainbow Dash making regular trips into the jungle to help her new friend fight of fiends and threats. This was an episode written as an excuse to feature another fan-favourite minor character, as many episodes have been of late. There’s nothing wrong with this in itself, I suppose, even if I don’t like seeing one-shot characters brought back for tenuous reasons, or thin fan fiction plots made canon. It does become a problem with it clashes with existing characterisation, though – the biggest offender being Discord’s integration into the everyday cast last season, which I thought was unnecessary, terribly handled, and difficult to buy into. This episode may not have caused major canonical upheavals, but I don’t like the fact that it spoiled the potential for any further commentary on fiction in the show (not to mention the mixed messages about fandom; Hasbro, if fans start turning up at your offices, you have no one to blame but yourselves).
I liked it when Daring Do was a fictional character. I could relate to that. I can’t relate to the books being secretly real all along with no one knowing, or to Rainbow Dash becoming the Mary Sue in a fan fiction she lives and getting away with it. I didn’t appreciate the inadequately thought out pandering to fantasy here, and I won’t appreciate it in future when you proceed to pretend this didn’t happen and more or less ignore Daring Do’s existence until the next token episode.