Monday, July 29, 2013

What’s Eating Rainbow Dash (aka How I Learned to Quit Writing and Read Two Stories That Will Forever Be More Popular Than My Own Pretentious Drivel)

Who doesn't love a long title?  I love a long title, and I've got a long post to go with it.  Today's post comes from the prolific (and pouch-obsessed) shortskirtsandexplosions, who takes an oddball tour through some of the fandom's more notorious works; a tour full of whimsy, self-depreciation, and the occasional bit of cleverly disguised .  Specifically, he tries to figure out why these works are so pervasively popular in the first place, and comes up with some answers both obvious and surprising.  Click down below the break to see what he has to say about... well, I'm sure you can guess the first fic in question from the post title.

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When Chris, the one and only lemur of literature, the Hitman, the Excellence of Execution, contacted me through Fimfic's PM, asking me if I wanted to write an article for his esteemed blog, I had one supremely sincere and professional response: “Is this some kind of hoax?” [He really did. -Chris]

Nevertheless, after a little bit of prodding, he proved to be himself, which is fantastic, because if he was not himself then I have no dayum clue how these words have somehow gotten up on this page that y'all marsupials are now browsing. Seriously, I'm not a good writer; I simply write a lot. If I injected myself into the Internet in data form and then got run over by a hentai bus, I'd put that as a slogan on my digital tombstone, planted in a quiet garden somewhere between Equestria Daily and the Disney section of Fanpop. My contribution to the pony fandom is a lot of words: a lot and a lot and a lot of stupid words. When you produce a lot of crap, a good tentacle-full of marsupials are bound to notice it, and enough of them will be immune to the stench long enough to label themselves as your “fans.” Why? Because numbers... or panties... or something. I dunno.

As you can guess, I couldn't fathom what kind of an article I'd be able to make in contribution to Chris' wondrous site. I never read anything; I mean that as sincerely as I can type it while farting in my parents' junk-filled garage. I'm too busy writing and vegetating and talking nightly to a certain zebra about impossibly epic stories that I can never find the time to give back to the fandom all that it has generously (and perhaps psychotically) bequeathed me.

So, with the fandom in mind, I thought I'd tackle commenting on two stories that hold a great deal of significance with my favorite pony, who—wouldn't you know it?—also happens to be best pony! Why, that's Rainbow Dash, of course. If you don't believe me, the castration shears are lying over there. And for any pegasisters reading this... well... the castration shears are lying over there.

Rainbow Dash, Rainbow Dash, Rainbow Dash: what is it about this pony that makes us hate and love her all at once? In its hate, the fandom has ripped her to shreds and psychologically wrecked her through grimdark fic after grimdark fic. In its love, the fandom has [censored!] of gratuitous clop fics(?). Come to think of it, I guess it's all hate for Rainbow Dash, really. After all, hate is just love inside out. I know this personally, on account of all the marsupials who hate to love to hate me. For what it's worth, I love to hate to love to hate on loving you hatefully too, my loves.

Seriously, though, Rainbow Dash dwells upon the frigid/burning poles of brony comprehension. She's either represented as the most awesome thing since cosmic expansion or the most pathetic thing since... cosmic expansion. One can either adore or savagely abuse Rainbow Dash; there is no middle ground, and the seldom few authors/artists/singers who are willing to embrace the pegasus for all her grays are somehow intelligent enough to avoid all of her spectral caricatures. They are also less popular for it; but that's what you get for being smart, I suppose. I wouldn't know, 'cuz I can only “write” Rainbow Dash as if she's pony Jesus (would that make Scootaloo the prophet Mohammed? [and Tank her Joseph Smith?{show biz!}]).

In speaking of crucifixion, there's a somewhat notorious story that was written in the primordial spawning pools of the fandom, long before Adrenal Glands and Metabolic Boost were researched. It's a fic that shows how much a writer can show affection for Rainbow Dash... by ripping her Nietzsche-damn wings off and gutting her like a voice-cracking fish (How can your voice crack with gills? Never mind, Ashleigh Bell scares me.). So, in the spirit of “analyzing” the fandom, grimdarkness in general, and everybody's favorite and totally-not-a-lesbian pegasus, I present you an immortal ditty written by Sgt. Sprinkles. That's right, you mouth foaming female dogs, it's Cupcakes time.

Once upon a potty, the pony fandom was a grand canyonesque void, full of sound and fury signifying nothing. You could have sneezed randomly into that deep fertile vacuum of thought and created something legendary, which is precisely what happened. For the longest time, I thought Cupcakes was something of grand, epic scale, considering how often marsupials pontificated about it with forums and foghorns. Heck, the thing even once had an EqD link, and we all know how family-friendly Sethisto's little hub of the Interballs is, r-right? Alas, when I finally sat down to read Cupcakes for this theatrical “review” thang, I realized what a tiny, insignificant underwear stain of a fic it is. I mean, hell, Sprinkles could have written the whole dayum story on a single page of tissue, which is probably what he did, using [censored!] as his ink.

I read what I believe to be the original upload of the fic. I can tell, because aside from being as short as Metal Gear Rising, it frighteningly resembles many of my own oneshots, so impulsively splattered upon the Mos Eisley of our subconscious with nary an edit to be had. The syntax feels somewhat mechanical, like staccato gunshots trying to frame a generic slice-of-life-turned-horror-story. There are verbs and articles missing in key places, superfluous clauses, and sentences beginning with conjunctions. I know that there's an edit of it somewhere, but I'm wary of that kind of crapola. My abdominal cavities are still recovering from the leviathanic girth of George Lucas' childhood-destroying retcons, so no thanks, good sir.

What's more, the fic's characterization feels a bit... off. Well, duh, it features Pinkie Pie disemboweling Rainbow Dash like Ed Gein in a rejected Skyrim dungeon. What I mean to say is, for the nature of the story and the dialogue being used, the characters could have been more expressive. There could easily have been a crapton more exclamation points, especially in Pinkie's lines, and no matter how twisted a version this is of the dreaded party pony, I couldn't legitimately imagine her saying any of the things that she did. If she was given more of her innate cartoon colloquialisms, then maybe that would have painted the sequences more digestibly... pink?

Really, though, this is a very hard story to take seriously, which I suppose is the entire point of ever engaging its bloody words to begin with.  It’s meant to be a joke, a train wreck of deliciously gory proportions.  After all, it was uploaded back when bronydom was a slightly mammoth thing, instead of the insanely friggin’ huge mammoth thing it is now, so wooly-elephanty that Hot Topic has acknowledged the fandom’s existence with t-shirts and navel rings.  Could you imagine sitting at your computer desk, huddled within your cubicle, wary of a barbarian boss prowling the far corners of the linoleum forest, when someone slips you this sandwich of intestine-spewing goodness disguised as a tale of happy ponies doing happy things, only with a cadaver’s knife hidden beneath the lace cuff?  You’d glance at it, cringe in disgust, go “lulz those silly Internet freakazoids” and then go back to watching digitized snuff movies of Muammar Gaddafi being sodomized to death, or just whatever the blue fudge sane people did back in 2011.

There really is no depth to be garnered from the piece.  So, to take it at face value, one can assume its purpose is exclusively to amuse the poor saps who grace its paragraphs.  Does the piece accomplish this task well?  Honestly, there were several moments when it could have implemented far more hilarious mechanics.  Nothing about the two ponies involved (more like one and a half, since Rainbow Dash spends half the time becoming a corpse) is outright knee-slapping.  Their dialogue is relatively dull and generic at best.  You could have replaced Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash with Phineas and Ferb or maybe Doug and Skeeter or that blue jay and the weasel thing, and it still would have had the same effect.  Honestly, I didn’t come close to snickering until Pinkie Pie started playing games and making puns with the various organs that she was ripping out of Rainbow’s gut, and by that time I was too busy cringing and wishing the whole stupid thing would just end, ‘cuz poor friggin’ Rainbow Dash.

Still, if I made my heart even blacker and more nihilistic, I’d venture to say that the fic would have been way funnier if—say—Pinkie Pie didn’t show any sadistic qualities whatsoever, but rather treated the entire dayum thing as a party game, completely innocent of the horrible crimes that she was committing.  In that way, the sheer irony of the fic would have been used as a device, instead of simply a spectacle, which is precisely what it is in the way it’s actually used.  The joke of the fic is simply on the reader for spending the time and effort to read it.  The first two pages lure the unwitting marsupial into a false sense of security, kind of like a venus flytrap, or those mid 90s trailers to My Girl, starring Dan Aykroyd and some poor mid-pubescent larva whose home doubled as a mortuary.

Today, such a fic is par for the course for the kind of stuff that’s uploaded to the front page of Fimfic on a daily basis.  How many “This Character Does an Ironic Thing In a Questionable Manner” stories have we seen, spilled out before us like a slimy plate of Ethiopian cuisine?  And just how many of them are rated M, featuring genitalia or at least the mutilation of said genitalia?  There was a time and a place when that sort of stuff would actually have stood out against the plump, rosy cheeks of the fandom (or the Internet in general, there’s a saucy wench), and Cupcakes was posted at just such a time.  This is precisely what makes it a legend then, where otherwise it would have made no more waves than a digital belch echoed against Knighty’s passive/aggressive british bandwidth now.

Seeing as I have had my grimdark works compared to Cupcakes on more than, like, several hundred occasions, a part of me desperately seeks some form of hidden poignancy to the story, beyond blatant shock humor and sadism, I mean.  In the end, I can only conclude that it’s just absurd torture porn at its most absurd, tortuous, and pornographic. There really isn't much of a twist to the narrative either. Yes, there's a part at the end where it's Silver Spoon's turn to do the tango on the torture rack, but then Apple Bloom crashes Pinkie's party, only to reveal herself as (gasp!) the torturer's assistant. What's with the “guess who gonna be a blank flank” bit at the end? Is that supposed to be a stinger? Is there some sequel waiting in the wings? Some sort of preschool saturday morning edition of Hostel featuring baby horses?

I wanna respect grimdark as a category, I really do.  I’ve written several fics with that tag, and I can’t truthfully support the school of bronies who utterly banalize it.  The “magic” of grimdark, I believe, is that it feasts on the fandom’s knowledge of the show, but more importantly their comprehension of the sweet, innocent, and morally poignant bits of the show.  To that end, the purpose of grimdark is not so much to shock readers as it is to show the happy/pleasant facets of MLP in a much warmer light, as perceived in stark contrast to a universe created by the fanfic that would hypothetically be devoid of the safety and comfort that the show itself usually grants both the ponies and the audience.

This is achieved through catharsis, which I think is the quintessential heart of classic tragedy, or some other really smart-sounding thing like that.  We don’t really want to see our pastel poni poni poni friends suffering or being ripped apart limb by limb, but if their personalities are put to the test, mechanized through some hideously disturbing gauntlet or another, well, it draws forth qualities in their character that otherwise would not see the light of day in a perfectly squeaky-clean Rated G environment.  Finding the means of projecting relatively simplistic stereotypes, crafted for a kids show, into an adult scenario or a horrifically mature situation is kind of like emotional sci-fi, because it deals with the hypothetical, while at the same drawing parallels and illustrating depth to what is otherwise flat and predictable.

The problem with finding any legitimate meaning in Cupcakes, or so many other torture porn fics to follow in its shadow, is that there really is no catharsis.  There is only suffering; and suffering, no offense, is pretty dayum boring.  If the fandom was all about misery, then our primary literature site would have been called RepublicOfCongoFiction.net, or maybe SerbiaDaily.com, or just another Sonic webpage.

Face it, this story is a product of irony, born out of irony. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is a fantastic show, but I'll be the first to tell any marsupial that I didn't get into it for the content itself. True, I absolutely loved the characters after watching the first season, but it was the fandom and its propensity for making amazing works of creative expression that got me hooked. What's more, it was something that I wanted to take part in personally. Finally, I had a vessel through which I could weave pretentiously gargantuan tails of sapphiric pegasi with prismatic manes propelling themselves over purple mountains while mint green unicorns battled quandaries of philosophical ennui with music notes and stone-gray hoodies of brooding angst.

But, y'know, some people just wanna rip Rainbow Dash a new one—literally. Regardless of all the fanart, fan music, and (unnecessarily convoluted and purply prosaic) fanfics out there, most bronies—I suspect—aren't quite that invested. This is the Casual Generation, after all, where Minecraft and Plants vs Zombies echo against more household walls than Dark Souls and Infitits. Ask yourself a question: “How far does a brony gallop into a forest?” The answer, much like it was for the proverbial “dog,” is “only halfway.” The average brony sees mountains of creative crap, is turned off by the dense corn kernelage, and only wants to take samples as small as his or her flaring nostrils will allow. It is we, the witless and lifeless creators of poni poni poni mirth, we princes of Maine, we kings of fanfiction New England, who are willing to go beyond the veil of sanity and expose ourselves to the best (but mostly the worst) that Internet culture has to offer.

But for most marsupials, irony is what irony does. “You want to watch a show made for little girls? Well, good. Let's see if the same stomach that allowed you to humble yourself before moralistic juvenile television can let you digest a tale about Rainbow Dash's best friend carving her skin off.” This isn't fanfiction; this is the 2 Girls 1 Cup of bronydom. I'm sure there isn't a reader of this site who doesn't already know this, even if they haven't read Cupcakes. But, I wonder if any of us has ever gone through the lengths to ponder the reason why something like Cupcakes—and all the grimdark fics to follow it, serious or not—must necessarily exist.

Regardless of society's opinions on civilization and the evolutionary progress of humanity, I contend that people—more specifically masculine homo sapiens—are cursed with perceiving all things at three angles: “can it be killed? / can it be eaten? / can it be screwed?” So, when encountering something as sweet, innocent, and questionably effeminate a subject matter as pastel colored ponies, and then being encouraged (or maybe even obligated) to lurve the material, a typical young male of the fandom subconsciously ponders “how do I kill, eat, or have sex with this?” Such a knee-jerk reaction, I believe, is the underlying factor as to why so many male bronies, especially newcomers or late bloomers, flock to grimdark stories and clop fics.

Statistically, then, it's not improbable to imagine one marsupial out of a million being ahead of the curve by suggesting “Well, shucks! Why don't I just do all three?!” Sgt Sprinkles was one such genius, and that unmitigated upchuck of inspiration is what produced the likes of Cupcakes. If you had become a brony and you wanted a literary vomitorium where you could go to unleash all of your gratuitous fluids simultaneously, Cupcakes was the arena, the feast hall, and the brothel all in one.

While reading the story, I saw so many directions it could have taken, so many angles it could have embraced that would have made it far more interesting, haunting, and maybe even compelling. I felt myself imagining a new and entirely different story concept, a fanfic that broke the fourth wall by manifesting the innocence of the T.V. show as some sort of perceptual complex that all the ponies innately possessed. I imagined a scenario where one pony (like EdGein!PinkiePie) was not born with this perception, and that allowed her to kill and torture those around her without consequences because nopony else was capable of perceiving malice, much less possessing the means of punishing it. My mind reeled with what impact such a situation must have on an individual's psyche, to be the only one to perceive pain and loss, and feeling compelled to inflict endless amounts of anguish on innocents in a desperate bid to feel something... anything. Imagine if the protagonist of such a story was Fluttershy, who also was born without the veil of innocence, and yet her perception of the evil and injustice of the world forced her to become withdrawn and reclusive. What if this Fluttershy and the elusive Pinkie Gein discovered each other's immunity to the world's ignorance? What kind of a relationship would that have made? Would Pinkie have wanted to torture Fluttershy, or instead have taken her under her wing (or one of Rainbow Dash's; she keeps tons of them lying around) and made the timid pegasus her apprentice? Such a story would make for something dramatic, something twisted, something psychologically nuts on par with Psycho or Silence of the Lambs.

And in thinking about all of this, in coming up with all of these potential grimdark concepts almost instantaneously while reading, I think I finally understand the hideous beauty of Cupcakes. The fic is a springboard, an archaic piece of brony evil, a blueprint of all that's wrong about the grimdark genre, so that bronies could respond to it by producing all that's right. It takes a lot of manure to bloom a beautiful rose, and I think Cupcakes knew when and where to plant the fertilizer. It's hard to come upon such a realization and somehow claim that Cupcakes has no worth at all in the fandom's library. Would I read it again? No, most definitely not. This story, as paltry as it may be, reminded me how queasy I can truly get. It also gave me an incessant desire to hunt down a real-life Rainbow Dash and give her a long, adoring hug.

And that brings me to yet another popular story that's also contributed a great deal to this lovely trolley car called “bronydom” that I can't seem to jump off...

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That's right, a cliffhanger!  Lots of the authors I contacted went well over my suggested word count, and I mostly just accommodated it--more words means more to read, right?  Everyone wins!  But SS&E, in a twist absolutely no one could possibly have seen coming, dumped so many words into my lap that they really need to be split into two posts.  Look for the conclusion on Wednesday!

...And for those of you who went into skim mode while you were reading (or who skipped to the end to see what "the point" was), count back up eleven paragraphs to the one that begins "I wanna respect grimdark as a category" and start again from there.  SS&E likes to bury his points, but that doesn't mean they aren't worth considering, once located.

18 comments:

  1. Professor WhoovesJuly 29, 2013 at 12:32 AM

    That is definitely SS&E.

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  2. Professor WhoovesJuly 29, 2013 at 12:34 AM

    Awaiting lengthy opinion piece on MLD.

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    1. Looking forward to it. MLD has puzzled me for over a year now. It raises complicated questions about what a story is, and whether it makes sense to call a story "good" or "bad". What do you do with a story that's bad in so many way, yet moves so many people so deeply? Much more difficult to dispose of than Cupcakes.

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    2. Professor WhoovesAugust 1, 2013 at 2:37 AM

      Baffles me as well. As SS&E says, it's easy to attract views with sex or violence — the ten most-viewed FIMfics include "Princess Molestia", "Cheerilee's Garden", "Rainbow Factory", and "Xenophilia". But something about MLD has attracted more views and thumbs than the next four runners-up combined.

      The plot is simplistic and its execution mediocre. The fic's literary merit is nil. But ROBCakeran53 obviously did something right. What are the implications for how we evaluate "proper" literature? What do readers want in a story? What deserves to be popular?

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  3. This took longer to find than it should've...

    http://www.equestriadaily.com/2011/12/story-whats-eating-rainbow-dash.html

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  4. Long, rambling, a tad disjointed unless you squint your eyes and cock you head the right way, just the right dash of sincerity mixed with a sprinkle of pretentiousness...

    Yes, this is very much SS&E's work.

    What I could make out (this font honestly hurts my eyes and makes the paragraphs blur together) seems to make a lot of sense. Leave it to SS&E to take something like Cupcakes and turn it into a launchpad for a full-on essay. And if the title is any indication of Wednesday's topic, I will definitely be back for that.

    ...Still not over Background Pony.

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    1. Every time I've ever heard someone talk about Background Pony, it's always been in a positive way. I personally still haven't gotten more than four chapters in because I haven't found the time and there were other things on my read later list that were shorter.

      What was wrong with the rest of it that got you? I'd like to know.

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    2. See the thread following Chris's review of it (review 141). Any attempt to speak it it will otherwise end in me ranting.

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    3. Oh, thank you. I didn't see that comment thread when the actual review went up.

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  5. I will say that “can it be killed? / can it be eaten? / can it be screwed?” bit got a chuckle out of me.

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  6. Those links were great. Never seen them used as footnotes like that before. Although I am wondering what the connection is between the Casual Generation and fans of Homestuck.

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  7. Cleverly disguised what? D: Don't leave us hanging!

    the Hitman, the Excellence of Execution

    headcanon'd forever

    it’s just absurd torture porn at its most absurd, tortuous, and pornographic

    Never has Cupcakes been summed up so perfectly. Spoilers! It's headed to the Pony Fiction Vault for some reason. :B

    I've only ever read two of ss&e's stories, because they were both submitted to writeoffs. One I, well, not hated per se, but severely disliked, and the other I liked despite being pretty much the only one who did. I look forward to someday reading Background Pony and all his other stuff. But these rambling ideosyncracies? I could read these all day. I never get tired of his journals. Each is an experience truly unto itself.

    Also I hope he does this "veil of innocence" thing someday because that sounds really fun.

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  8. Okay - so it's not just his stories then; even the essays descend into rambling - at least it's not pointless rambling. I'll take the little things.

    What's with all the fake TV Tropes links, though? They don't really do what I'd expect footnotes to do, so why bother including them at all? All they do is break the flow when you go to check on them, and after a while, I simply stopped bothering, which means I probably overlooked one or two "real" links scattered across this text. In general, this felt far too much like reading a German academic text for me - and no, that's not a compliment; German academic writing takes pride in being as dense and inaccessible as remotely possible, which to me runs counter to the point of writing. It's understandable in stories, but I've never heard any good reasons to do it in non-fiction.

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    1. No, you didn't miss anything. I didn't care much for the fake links either, and only checked them all because I can get obsessive about such things. It would've been better to use actual links, creating a collage of sorts

      SS&E's the Hegel of the brony fandom :D

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  9. So, does anyone else think that the hypothetical alterno-"Cupcakes" SS&E suggests would--or at least could--be to "The Country of the Kind" what darf's "A Single Step" (and I understand at least one other pony fic) is to "The Last Question"?

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    1. Professor WhoovesAugust 1, 2013 at 3:22 AM

      "A Single Step" is a reinterpretation of "The Last Question". (As is "Our Last Goodbye".) Anon is suggesting that "Cupcakes", done well, could have been a reinterpretation of "The Country of the Kind". I think it's a nice thought. For context:

      [Title] by [Author]: [Summary]
      "The Last Question" by Isaac Asimov: A powerful AI is instructed to fix the problem of entropy. After the heat death of the universe, it starts the world anew.
      "A Single Step" by darf: Princess Twilight Sparkle has cared for her little ponies for a very long time. She foresees the death of the universe, and when the time comes, she reboots it.
      "Our Last Goodbye" by RagingSemi: Spike and Twilight outlive all but the last of the dying stars. When Twilight dies, Spike's love for her fuels the universe's rebirth.
      "The Country of the Kind" by Damon Knight: In a world of peace and complacency, one man has the gift of artistic expression. He is also violent and antisocial, and so is isolated from the rest of society.
      "Cupcakes" by Sergeant Sprinkles: Pinkie Pie kills Rainbow Dash. Blood and gore.

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