Observations on MLP: Authorial Intent

Text version:

I have a rather complex relationship with the concept of authorial intent, and it’s something I’ve really gotta talk about if I’m gonna keep bringing it up. You may have noticed that in prior videos I’ve simultaneously used authorial intent to drive home my thoughts, while also proclaiming that I’m a fan of the death of the author. It’s not that I’m being inconsistent, it’s that my reading of the show is complicated.

Actually, before I continue that train of thought, I want to address the idea that my videos might be reading “too deep” into MLP. Ordinarily I’d ignore these vapid comments, because obviously I’m doing these videos for fun, and other people are enjoying them, which is proof positive that analyzing this show is worthwhile. Moreover, I can analyze absolutely fucking ANYTHING on this level if I want to. The reason I don’t watch TV with my parents is that when I’m watching, I constantly analyze everything that happens, including all of the commercials, and my parents tell me to shut up, so I get bored and leave the room. I have no off switch for this.

But more importantly, I do TOTALLY think that this show has a ton of thought put into it, and in fact I think that’s true for most shows. A lot of shows are just built on stupid and boring thoughts, more so than they are built on thoughtlessness.

As a creator myself, I know how difficult it is to write something thoughtlessly. When you watch one of my videos for instance, everything that you see and hear is thought out. Even though I write these videos in one breakneck sitting, there’s still a lot of little considerations along the way. I chose my words carefully, I edit my sentences so that they flow well. I read my stuff in a voice that’s easy to listen to, and I edit out mistakes and breaths. I often throw in little jokes, either in the text, in the dialog, or in the editing, and all of these are on purpose. My color choices, my font choice, all of these are chosen with a purpose, even if that purpose is simply, “I like it.”

I also know how easy it is to make mistakes. Every day I get a comment about why Fluttershy raises chickens, and a comment about how I mispronounced femininity. These are things that slip through the cracks. I also fail to get my point across sometimes. I can tell from a lot of the responses to my Destiny video that I did a poor job of clarifying what the word destiny means to me. Even though everything in the video was thought out and not careless, I still made a mistake and didn’t get my point across well enough.

I got onto this train of thought, because the other day I was listening to this excellent interview with Dave Polsky over on Celestia Radio. If any writer has faced accusations of thoughtless writing in the show, it’s been Polsky, and if there’s one thing he proved beyond a shadow of a doubt in this interview, it’s that he puts PLENTY of thought into his episodes. In fact, the things that make his episodes feel distinct are in fact, things he brought to the table on purpose, and even his interests as a math and philosophical science major play a role in his writing.

In this interview, Polsky talks about the message that he and the rest of the staff were going for with Feeling Pinkie Keen. He mentions that in the process of making the episode, no one had really considered the idea that the message could be taken from a religious angle. The story that they’d set out to tell was more about trusting your friends, and trusting in things that are clearly true, even if there isn’t yet an explanation for them. He actually brings up a famous moment in science history as an inspiration for the events in the episode. I’d go into more detail, but you may as well just listen to the interview yourself. In it, he also basically corroborates my ideas about Fluttershy in Keep Calm and Flutter On, as well.

But the reason I’m bringing this up isn’t to say that anyone has been reading the episode the wrong way. Polsky himself recognizes why people interpreted Feeling Pinkie Keen the way they did, and recognizes their reading as valid, even if it’s different from his own. And I feel the same way—I don’t think we should necessarily follow creative intent, so much as our own idea of what’s been presented. I’ve seen cases in which fans consider the author to flatly be *wrong* about what happened in the episode, and that’s fine. Headcanons are fascinating precisely because they allow for individualistic expression in response to given content.

The reason that I find authorial intent fascinating has less to do with trying to read a show the “correct” way, and more to do with the fact that the way I read a show usually lines up with authorial intent *anyways.* I don’t know why, but I’ve always been pretty good at reading through the text into the author’s feelings, and in cases where I can’t confirm that I’m on the mark, I’m always wondering whether or not the author feels the same way about their work as I do. The more I watch interviews with the writers of MLP, and read their twitter feeds, etc., the more I feel like I get where they’re coming from.

My friend Misfortune-Dogged wrote a lengthy expansion of the ideas from my Over A Barrel video, in which he really got into the bones of things that I kind of glossed over in my video, and he actually got Polsky to read it. Polsky found the post to be “very much on the mark.” Meanwhile, I got M.A. Larson to watch my Alicorn Princess video, which he said he’d have liked to retweet, but thought he shouldn’t get involved. Good idea: my video has weird and contentious points in it. I involved my own headcanons about Starswirl the Bearded, and took a relatively forceful tone regarding aspects of canon, so supporting it beyond the sentiment would be kind of dangerous. Nevertheless, I think the sentiment counts.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about authorial intent for me is that it *is* possible to read through or around it. I’ve done my share of reading through authorial intent into my own headcanons, but I usually don’t try to read around it. Not because I think reading around it is invalid, but because when we enter the realm of personal interpretation, we can go anywhere. I usually try to limit myself to what I see as “THERE,” things that are present in the text to me, so that I don’t end up going off the rails with my canon and making it unrecognizable to anyone who isn’t living inside my own mind. That said, I do think that headcanons can be awesome, and I’d love to see people share their visions of the true nature of the show.

3 thoughts on “Observations on MLP: Authorial Intent

  1. W-w-w-wait, isn’t this getting into Pontifus’ omnifan/discerning/focused thing? Though the constantly-repeated thing was that the post was about meaning-making itself, rather than the reasonable selection of more likely interpretations. I never got the distinction, myself, because the experience is never totally self-centered. There are always mental reference points, and our curiosity rises or falls over time.

    Anyway—we do often go wrong in assuming that only one writer “manifests” the work (which happens when work is built through multiple media); most people know this pattern of thought to be illogical. It’s the higher-ups who decide that the product “works,” so some text-readers unjustifiably take the cue as signifying that anything they find within the text is “intended” or “correct.” It’s…understandable, because we tend to think of show writers as book writers, who must describe EVERYTHING we see (in the original language: translation changes things).

    The problem is that there can actually be tensions. An artist might decide to draw an ambiguous expression on a character’s face and it slips through the cracks. “Significance,” logically, has breadth and depth; some individuals don’t think as far ahead in implication as others do, when it comes to the creation, or as precisely in terms of history, previous works, and cultural narratives. Plus we all come from “unique” contexts. What we have to ask is whether the product has “sufficient” unity in the end. Which a faith thing, really. In some cases people believe in it more, in other cases less. Some entirely disbelieve it.

    Ultimately, “authorial intent” strikes me as a stupid term, particularly if we aren’t specific about what we mean. Maybe I’m just messing with semantics bullshit, here. It seems to me that “Death of the Author” is very obviously real; so is deconstruction over time and culture gap (the inevitable, unintentional sort of deconstruction). “Beowulf” is a key example: we don’t even know when it was written (the time period was fraught with rapid cultural and tribal change). Even so, we claim to “get it,” and “get it fairly well.” In this sense, “authorial intent” in the sense of knowing why an author did something is impossible. The best way of getting at it would be insanely detailed notes on events (I still want a documentary detailing the creation of MLP, or biographies, but I doubt it’ll happen), multiple interviews/documents, and finally hypnosis (if that shit actually works for recovering memories). This is useless for our purposes, because few are doing this. So it isn’t what we mean.

    If we mean to ask, “What was the most likely ‘conversation’ or pattern of thought the creators wanted to engage in doing things a particular way,” then we’ve got something a little better. Still a bit incoherent, because the *exact* pattern of thought can’t be recovered. What we *can* do is cut our losses with something more equidistant, breaking down the flow of the story into a cause-effect, action-reaction series of sequences. Then we can pattern the thing and try to make “reasonable” guesses at what the patterns and hypothetical insinuations mean. How? We sift through vast reserves of history and aesthetic narrative (ridiculously difficult for your standard work of fiction), and then use the simplest understanding that best explains the patterns. Aside from agreeing that element(s) are not a random and clashing occurrence, this is where value judgments come in, such as my tendency to label conceptions as “wrong-headed” or naïve.

    Ultimately what readers do are—uh, duh!—“readings.” Good of you to point out this terrible misconception. In light of the fact that there’s a lot of so-called gray area between incongruity and bad-writing (it really comes down to how carefully you read—if you read carefully rather than fastidiously or arbitrarily, and it still seems wrong, that’s a potential red flag). Some readings are well-researched, so seem more convincing. They may not be “truer” in terms of what went on in the creators’ heads (which nobody can know), but they resonate more because they present the narratives the more likely explain the stirrings we feel.

    I do believe that sometimes, readers try too hard to make readings work. Sometimes a fuck-up is just that—a fuck-up. But I have doubts, too, when I re-consider both author and reader. When I spoke to you about FPK, we both thought I was trying too hard. Even so, I couldn’t quite let go of the reasoning. Then the FPK post happened, and eventually the “Over a Barrel.” Then I found out Polsky’s interests, background, and style and I was like, “Wait, are you SERIOUS?” Knowing my thoughts about writing and my reading had existed weeks or months before I ever heard the interview makes me feel like something really aligned.

    A lot of people slip in their biased opinions of “bad writing,” too; these assumptions clutter the otherwise happy and necessary existence of multiple readings. Or rush into thinking that their ideas are supported, without careful assessment of the patterns they claim to see. They’re—at least, as it seems to me—too foolishly quick to say “this is inconsistent with X.” That characterization bullshit, for example. Or the creators making tough narrative choices. This stuff doesn’t mean that the story utterly fails, only that a tension now exists. If the story fails for other reasons, it can be a nice seal of approval to slap on, saying the characterization thing. But that’s psychological, more than anything else. For example, it’s easy to say “Bridle Gossip” is solely about critical thinking—until one points out that Twilight’s error may in fact be quite reasonable (notice that she reacts to Spike’s comment of “A curse!” with regards to the book that he’s holding? And that he looks like he’s been reading it?), or that there is no specific indication that she’s read *all* of the books. These assumptions are critical to supporting an entire premise upon which some judge FPK.

    At risk of sounding douchey, my standards of “bad writing” are considerably fairer and more adult (“fairer” meaning that I tear bad work to shreds, as do you) than the quality I’ve noticed in most of the fandom. I think fiction is mostly careful, and I err on the side of optimism (but am tough with what I do find). Even my reading of “My Little Pony Tales” was “careful.” Characters are not gods, nor are they *us*. I don’t feel the need for fiction to be didactic and loudly hint/outright tell the “right way” to do things, because that information is situational inherently unreliable. Fiction is about the uncomfortable realizations of survival, not claims in themselves or reason. Lies are occasionally helpful. Ignorance sometimes spares us. The evil do thrive. The just do perish. The world may be decaying into meaningless void. Certain truths may be ungraspable, we come to believe or disbelieve this, and we react. It’s bullshit to hide this from children, especially those who face very real hells. Which is, teehee, why I’m like folktale more and more (Perrault and the Brothers Grimm might be argued to have failed in their goals of didacticism, precisely *because* they tried too hard).

    I figure my pointing out the “Birth of Venus” in my “Over a Barrel” post is an example of this tension. I *could* have been stupid about the matter. I *could* have said it was hinting or communicating the Western Civilization bias (for hundreds of years, Greek culture was elevated as “true” culture or ideal thinking—something that arguably led to its demise and to its replacement by “Roman” culture—quotation marks because the Romans were overt assimilators, something that a lot of cultures tend to hide). The appeal to (aesthetic) ideals is recognized, then used as a standard in order to reject the performance.

    Instead, I simply pointed out experienced incongruity. In my bias, of course, I thought this was easy to see for the honest and curious reader. True, a reader might not know of the historical background and highly sexual symbolism of the sea shell (think it was conch) in ancient times. And that’s limited to a specific context, anyway—even though it’s STILL highly sexualized. But at the very least, the curiosity leads back to a “well-known” source, tackling an artistic subject that depicts both erotic and non-corporeal ideals. Whereas the two can coexist in Botticelli and Bouguereau, Pinkie’s sappy preachiness and the insatiable person we’ve know her to be (and the stereotypes associated with what she’s wearing), hint only a mere double-take. I might have taken this thought onto even shakier ground as suggested a train of logic: ‘the theory and application of economics is premised upon scarcity.” That is, each person can’t just eat everything. In our desperation, we might even conclude that, if we were all Pinkie Pie and using limited space or resources, society would be doomed. Oh, wait: “Too Many Pinkie Pies?”

    Are you seeing some of the big issues with this particular reading? Ultimately, someone might have just thought this would be a cool way to make Pinkie Pie look “high-end” or “ideal.” He or she might have seen it in a movie (dunno which one). Maybe he or she *was* thinking of “Birth of Venus.” But however detailed the thinking was, you eventually (we wager pretty confidently) go back to something that was read in a way ideologically in line with “Birth of Venus” (or is “Birth of Venus” itself). Having extensively logged discrete elements of the text and patterned it, we think of as many historical and psychological associations as we can, we take note to clarify the line between the elaboration of our personal reaction and what we are actually seeing, and we make a reasonable, simplified conclusion about general effect. We then assume that the effect is intended. If we’re careful, we’re not giving credit to authors for every little thing; we’re giving them credit for effects (heavily generalized and simplified for broader logicality) brought about by patterns—the more accurate and precise, the better.

    May not be “what they were thinking.” But it’s hella more thorough, hella more generous, and more likely to get on paper “the general idea of what they were going for.”

    • Here’s what I want to do: close read every single episode of the show, with the most simple and convincing method of reading and assuming, just as we’ve been doing. Then, run through again, and be INSANE. Make EVERY assumption, take it as far as possible, go ballistic. This moment symbolises this moment from this epic tragedy, this facial expression signifies the end of the world. Not to be fake (but to some extent, to be silly), but to get out whatever pent-up desire we might have to completely divorce the “author” from the work and take it into our own little universe.

      • lol like when AK totally ‘sploded people’s minds by deconstructing Gunbuster? I think some people went wild when that series was posted.

        Psh, I get to thinking that, hell, maybe that’s the way you should do it. Doing what’s responsible at the end of the day, but cutting loose and just having fun tearing the text to shreds.

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