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

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Episode 45: "Putting Your Hoof Down"

Aired 3/3/2012, written by Merriwether Williams (her third episode); story by Charlotte Fullerton (her sixth)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: Fluttershy has trouble feeding her aggressive animals, especially Angel Bunny, who insists on a fancy salad.
  • Act 1: Fluttershy is pushed around at the market while purchasing ingredients for Angel's salad. Pinkie and Rarity insist she stand up for herself, but she's just no good at it. She is able to make the salad, except for the cherry. Angel is irate.
  • Act 2: Fluttershy attends an assertiveness seminar from minotaur Iron Will. Encouraged by his catch phrases, she begins assaulting anypony who ruffles her feathers. Pinkie and Rarity initially applaud her feistiness, but she quickly turns on them as well.
  • Act 3: Fluttershy blows her fuse at a mailpony and a tourist, then drives her friends to tears. She then realizes she's become a "monster" and shuts herself in her cottage. When Iron Will comes to collect his pay for her training, she politely but firmly refuses to pay on the basis that she is not satisfied. Reflecting on these events, she writes Princess Celestia a letter about being assertive without being a bully.

Character: A lot of people like this episode for Iron Will and the scenes of "assertive" Fluttershy. So I'll take some extra space here to explain my low ranking of this story.

Three major problems weigh this episode down. The first has to do with Fluttershy's development. Part of the fault lies outside this episode: The series really doesn't give her the straight-line character growth we see in Twilight Sparkle and Rainbow Dash, or the well-defined complexity of Rarity and Pinkie Pie, or the fairly static consistency of Applejack. Instead we see writers taking their best guess on just how shy and fearful or bold and dedicated Fluttershy should be in any given situation. It's hard to say that the "old Fluttershy" is in line with what we've seen up until now, or that any of her assertiveness here really sticks in the episodes to come. The fact that the wording of her letter implies this is a flashback doesn't give us any help in working out her development, either. Given the absence of Twilight, the main events could be happening prior to the first season, for all we know.

Part of the challenge in writing Fluttershy is the fact that her most evident weakness is the basis for her character and even her name. She can't ever really not be shy, or she won't be Fluttershy anymore. Sometimes it's exaggerated for comic effect, and sometimes she seems to overcome it and "learn her lesson." The better episodes will take a fundamental flaw and temper it rather than "fix" it, as in Dragonshy, where she's fearful except when her friends need her protection, or in Wonderbolts Academy, where Rainbow Dash is a show-off except when it puts others at risk. As the story stands, I'm ready to accept Fluttershy going off the deep end with Iron Will since we've seen the nasty/snarky side of her peek out on occasion, but her "doormat" behavior in the first act is an exaggeration of her personality. It's during the supposedly in-character part of the episode where she's out of character.

Related to this is the second problem, which is the populace of Ponyville. I've described them as fickle before, but they've never been outright jerks. Many background ponies, as undeveloped as they are, have always seemed basically pleasant and ought to have some knowledge and appreciation of Fluttershy by this point in the series, but they're just unbelievable here. (Shoeshine especially, and was Cherry Berry telling what in-universe would be a racist joke?) If Ponyville has always been like this, how has Fluttershy coped so long? If this is what she has to put up with normally, then she's not just shy, she's broken. But in most episodes she's a generally happy pony who just has a very narrow comfort zone. It seems the gruffness of the town was put in place for this episode to drive the plot and will likely never be seen again.

I'm not really bothered by the fact that Rarity and Pinkie confront Fluttershy's "doormat" tendencies. It's true they and the other friends have accepted Fluttershy for who she is in past episodes and haven't tried to "fix" her shyness, but they also don't like to see her taken advantage of, and it's a running theme of the show that friends will pursue you to try to help you grow to become your best self. However, as noted below, I have some issues with Rarity and Pinkie's ideas of assertiveness, but they are at least in-character. We've seen Rarity turn on the charm before and it's part of the Dark Feminine personality we've come to associate with her. Pinkie using an old Looney Tunes device is equally fitting. The lengths they go to for their friend, including getting in Iron Will's face after the way she's treated them, are the best part of the episode. These are ponies who understand friendship and have the sort of commitment we should expect at this point in the series. She may get less attention, but Fluttershy is as important to them as Applejack was in The Last Roundup.

Iron Will deserves some attention. Fluttershy repeatedly insists he's not a monster, and at the end we find out he isn't. At heart he's understanding and fair, and on reflection he probably doesn't realize how his message of assertiveness is turning the bullied into bullies. (Hmm. Perhaps the Ponyville jerks have just come out of one of his seminars themselves?) It'd be nice to bring him back.

Angel's domestic abuse? NOT funny. But abuse is one of my soapbox issues, so maybe that's just me. Moving on...


Lesson: There's no shortage of lessons out there on the need to stand up for yourself and be assertive. But the message demonstrated here is a warning: Impia sub dulci melle venena latent—Cruel poison may be hidden under sweet honey. Even the kindest of us can turn bitter when we make the subtle turn from standing up for ourselves, to living only for ourselves. That negative lesson is well taught here, but it leaves us with the question of what rightly standing up for ourselves should look like.

That's my third and biggest problem with this episode: that it counters Fluttershy's bad example of assertiveness with three also-poor examples presented as viable strategies:

  • Rarity offers a dishonest way of dealing with others. Emotional manipulation and flattery are not the tools of a friend or any upstanding member of society, and I could easily see a shy person getting into major trouble upon sending mixed signals.
  • Pinkie's strategy is likewise problematic. Trying to trick someone in a business transaction through fast negotiation is a real-life tactic that retail staff ought to be trained to beware of. In a Bugs Bunny cartoon this is funny because it's all gags and antics. But MLP aims to teach kids lessons about interpersonal ethics that they can put in practice in their own lives.
  • Finally, Fluttershy's bare "I'm not satisfied" without explanation is definitely assertive but is inconsiderate if left at that. If I've made an error in my work or failed to satisfy a customer, I want to know why so I can correct my mistake. I wish Fluttershy had explained the reason for her dissatisfaction so Iron Will could see the error of his ways. I've read a couple fanfics that deal with this, and giving him such an epiphany would have helped redeem this episode.

This episode might have risen to a Gold-tier rating by answering the question of assertiveness with a truly positive strategy that viewers who are like Fluttershy could use, perhaps something she works out for herself. I'm thinking something along the lines of gentle forthrightness. On a larger scale, it's also true that acts of kindness can make others more favorably disposed, and so more demonstrations of this kindness to others should break through some barriers that normal assertiveness cannot. That probably deserves its own story.


Resonance: Of all the Leather-tier episodes, this one has the most effective humor. I enjoyed the visual gags with the goats, Iron Will's shopping basket, and the fact that the minotaur's seminar is held in a hedge maze. Many of Pinkie's reaction shots are great as well. Bon Bon cheering up Lyra at the market is a nice little background moment, and Fluttershy's disturbingly lame attempt at flirting makes my day every time I see it. There's a pretty strong tearjerker moment as Fluttershy rips into Rarity and Pinkie when they're already on the verge of tears, then begins crying herself. They could have played it even sadder, but it's already the most dramatic moment of the episode.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: I try to stress that even the lowest rated episodes of MLP aren't bad; they're just outshone by all the others. But there are reasons why they're outshone that divert our attention from what there is to appreciate about the story.

Pacing is leisurely here; all that goes on takes place in a few set locations and we have plenty of time to feel and think about what's going on. This makes the episode's strong points more powerful but also makes its weaknesses more obvious. One strength here is the music, and I particularly liked the shout-out to the "Lonely Man" theme from The Incredible Hulk as Fluttershy walks back to her cottage near the end. The stomping applause is back, which is also nice.

The total absence of Applejack, Twilight, and Rainbow is very odd, and the retrospective nature of Fluttershy's letter ("When I first tried it..."), as well as her occasional displays of assertiveness in season one, have led some reviewers to locate this story very early in the timeline. Nevertheless, I think the fact that Pinkie and Rarity seem to have a good understanding of "lesson zero" puts this most naturally in the second season portion of the timeline. The presence of Pipsqueak, Royal Riff, and a few other second-season ponies also supports a recent placement. Any inconsistencies with Fluttershy's earlier assertiveness are there simply because she's an inconsistently written character. She's still my second favorite of the Mane Six.

Most of my problems with this one are in the first act. The second act is a bit uncomfortable but mostly as a matter of personal taste. The third act is excellent, but my character and lesson objections are just too strong for one good act to pull the episode out of the bottom tier. Another example of the uneven middle portion of the second season.

(Note: As much as the show's creators care about their work and interact with fans, it's possible they may come across this review. If you helped make this episode and I'm offbase in my understanding of it or have overlooked its strengths, you're welcome to give me the "Marshall McLuhan from Annie Hall" treatment and show me the insights I've missed.)

 

Putting Your Hoof Down armor rating: Leather Vest
Ranked 25th of 26 season-two episodes
Ranked 142nd of 147 stories overall

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