MLP:FiM Episode Reviews: Character and Story Analysis by Half the Battle

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Episode 12: "Call of the Cutie"

Aired 1/7/2011, written by Meghan McCarthy (her second episode)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: Cheerilee teaches Apple Bloom's class about cutie marks, and Apple Bloom is embarrassed to be one of the only students without one.
  • Act 1: Diamond Tiara announces her cute-ceañera, prompting Apple Bloom to appeal to Applejack to help her get a cutie mark before the party. She tries apple-selling to no avail, but her friend Twist gets her cutie mark making candy.
  • Act 2: Rainbow Dash coaches Apple Bloom through a number of tasks, and the filly makes cupcakes with Pinkie and begs Twilight to create a cutie mark with magic.
  • Act 3: At the party, Apple Bloom tries to hide but is cornered by the bullies. Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle stand up for her, and the three decide to form a team, the Cutie Mark Crusaders.

Character: We're well-acquainted with Apple Bloom at this point, and we know she has an inner strength and the encouragement of Applejack and the others. But even ponies who can handle themselves and have a circle of support still end up in difficult situations. The adults here are encouraging but careful to try to impart their own wisdom, Rainbow Dash having an understandably different take on things by virtue of her own experience and her aggressive personality. Apple Bloom's failure to heed the best advice comes from the "I want it now" impulse universal among children, egged on by Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon.

The other two crusaders aren't fleshed out yet since they only make their debut at the end of the show, but Diamond and Silver are realistic bullies, as opposed to the villainous beating-you-up/lawbreaking variety seen more often in fiction than in real life: rarely if ever physical, but orchestrating embarrassment and pointedly saying the most hurtful things as a form of emotional abuse. Adults are usually not present to witness this, but Cheerilee's failure to address it in the first scene is distressingly common in real life. Here and elsewhere we see glimpses of a somewhat softer side to Silver Spoon, and there's some fascinating fanfic dedicated to unearthing the "real" pony underneath each bully's harsh exterior. (Of course, in real life some bullies are just mean to the core.)


Lesson: The "late bloomer" predicament is something every growing person (or pony) needs to understand, and parallels between gaining a cutie mark and entering puberty are almost certainly intentional. In the world of MLP, the cutie mark ties in not only with maturity, but with identity, future employment, and one's place in the community.

No cutie mark = endless potential? A good consideration for young adults struggling to choose a college major, seeking a job or a place to live, or tired of being single. Enjoy the early season of freedom (responsibly, of course), since the time will come when you'll need to settle down.

The specific issue of bullying receives more focus later, as the show comes back to it repeatedly, not just with the CMC but also with the backstories of Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, and to a lesser degree Twilight Sparkle. (Applejack and Pinkie Pie's backstories involve negative pressures of a different sort.) Bullying seems to be of particular interest to the writers. It definitely attracts more attention in our society today than it did when I faced it growing up, though it's still often true that appealing to an adult may not help much and can actually make matters worse. This episode sends a message I would have benefitted from greatly in my early years: that I wasn't alone and this is in fact a common aspect of growing up.


Logic: Technically, the flank is the indented area on the side of an equine behind the rib cage and just in front of the legs. Cutie marks normally appear directly above the legs or slightly further back, on the haunches or hindquarters. This would be a forgettable slip on Cheerilee's part, except that it inspires the "blank flank" insult and has made "flank" an erroneous synonym for the rear end in a lot of fanfic.

The cultural implications of a cutie mark system are vast, and it potentially helps explain a number of idiosyncrasies of the MLP universe, including the schizo tech, the lack of general academic knowledge such as history, the absence of a "high school" or adolescent-looking ponies, and the advanced abilities of the young-adult ponies in the cast. Later episodes have complicated the question of just how cutie marks work vis-a-vis occupation, but I have my own theories.

Connections: Obviously, the debut of the Cutie Mark Crusaders. Word has it that it was first conceptualized as a potential spin-off, but the CMC were instead kept within the show as a kind of secondary cast. This has the benefit of teaching lessons on matters specific to children and growing up, or addressing issues the Mane Six should already have down by now.

 

Resonance: The bullying in this episode is a real tear jerker for anyone who's gone through it. That's offset, however, by the tremendous amount of fun in this episode. Among the many standouts are the tennis player pony; the literal dark cloud; Apple Bloom's motor mouth; her spinning around to look for a cutie mark; the shout-out to Rollerball; and Berry Punch's defining moment. We also get a good feeling from Twist's continued friendship after getting her own mark, and Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle standing up for Apple Bloom. The latter scene's positive characterization of being unmarked was my main takeaway on first viewing. I also liked seeing Princess Celestia with Twilight's letter. To me these reports really are the heart of the series, and that comes across especially when we see the lessons actually being read by the Princess.

 

Digression: I'm going to make this next point somewhat at length, since it applies to the entire concept of the Cutie Mark Crusaders. From the beginning, we know that trying to find one's cutie mark through a brute-force method is doomed to failure. Spending time on things for which one has no experience, knowledge, or desire is actually counter-productive: It takes time away from the core interests and abilities one has already demonstrated, and thus may actually delay the appearance of a cutie mark. (Why was Applejack last in her class to get a cutie mark? Probably the months she spent in Manehattan trying to pull off a Pygmalion-style transformation.) The adults make this point frequently in the CMC episodes, but the Crusaders are never willing to listen.

The CMC concept is thus a one-trick pony (no pun intended), a Gilligan's Island premise in which the characters' success would mean the end of their journey as we've known it. If the writers' purpose is to communicate lessons of self-discovery but the CMC are prevented by dramatic inertia from discovering themselves, what does that teach? My dream episode for the CMC would be one in which somepony sensitively but firmly makes them see that they will never get their cutie marks by doing things they're not good at, and that they have already demonstrated talents they have been neglecting. They then devote themselves to more appropriate tasks, each getting their cutie marks in their own time (across the season), and in the meantime making their team about moral support, commiseration, and mutual protection, as it should have been from the beginning. I'll still evaluate each CMC episode on its own merits, but I think the crusading idea is contrary to the spirit of the show—not for its attention to fillies outside the Mane Six, but for its limitation on the characters that prevents them from learning the lesson most relevant to their role in the series.

None of this is to malign the characters themselves. Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and especially Scootaloo are all fascinating characters and could easily carry their own series. But their best episodes are generally the ones where crusading for cutie marks is least emphasized or absent altogether.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: It's curious that Diamond Tiara seems to be the main bully even though she only just now got her cutie mark. This suggests that Apple Bloom's lack of a cutie mark is just an excuse for bullying and not the underlying cause...and therefore, the bullying would not stop even if the Crusaders got their marks. It's a pity no one on the show points this out.

This episode is a world of cute that manages not to be off-putting because of its context within the series and the authenticity of the characters and their situation. Writers always take a risk of alienating adult fans of a show when focusing on or introducing child characters, and it can lead to disaster if not done with the utmost care. (Phantom Menace, anyone?) For the most part, MLP avoids the pitfalls here. No significant missteps here; it's important both for the show's continuity and the messages it sends, and it resonates, albeit mildly. I'm putting this a little below Bridle Gossip, which has a slightly more powerful message but less effective humor.

 

Call of the Cutie armor rating: Leather Armor
Ranked 18th of 26 season-one episodes
Ranked 122nd of 147 stories overall

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