In defense of Flash Sentry (sort of, anyway): why “Equestria Girls” got gender-politics right

[EDIT 2013-11-08 12:10pm UTC: Reldan has posted a comment below clarifying their problems with the “rescue scene.”]

In my previous post, I described how Reldan’s post on the traditional princess motif and FiM helped me better understand my problems with Equestria Girls, but I also said that I disagreed with some of their criticisms.  In this post, I’m going to go into more detail on one of Reldan’s critiques; their problems with Flash Sentry.

It might seem kind of weird for me to be defending Flash, given that just last post, I described his presence as “bad writing.”  Like Reldan (and a lot of fans), I think the movie overall would probably be better without him.

But here’s where Reldan and I disagree; I also think the movie would be better with more of him.  By that, I don’t just mean more screen-time; I mean actually developing his character somewhat.

For all the concerns about being anti-feminist or derailing the main character or whatever, Flash pretty much turned out to be a non-entity.  I mean, really what can we say about him character-wise?  He has the hots for Human!Twilight and he plays a pretty good pop-electric guitar…and that’s pretty much it.  The fact that he was willing to help Twilight when Sunset Shimmer framed her and that he took her apparent rejection gracefully says that he’s probably a fairly moral person, but that doesn’t really distinguish him from any of the primary characters, so it shouldn’t really count.

And I wasn’t lying when I said he’s likeable — his voice-acting is good, and his visual design is interesting (fauxcest aside).  He could have been an asset to the film if they’d taken some time to let us know what makes him tick.  Is he confident or uncertain?  Impulsive or contemplative?  Trusting or suspicious?  What does he think of– well, of anything, really?  He can’t be a worthwhile character if his only role is “Twilight’s love-interest”, just as none of the Mane Six could be worthwhile characters if their only role was “Twilight’s friend”.  Now, if he can be an interesting character in his own right, and provide an entertaining romance sub-plot, then so much the better.

I can understand why the writers decided not to go that route — even ignoring concerns of time and pacing, Flash was a live grenade from a PR standpoint.  But if they were going to make him so inconsequential, then better to just not have him there at all.

As-is, he’s essentially disposable.  With the sole exception of proving that Twilight was framed, you could basically just cut out every shot he’s present or mentioned in, splice the film back together, and someone watching the film for the first time probably wouldn’t notice that anything was weird.  And even that action could easily have been done by any member of the Mane Six — and the story would probably have been better off for it.

But here’s my concern: Reldan claims that even that is too much of an active role, saying that it submits Twilight to the Distressed Damsel trope — i.e., a female character is made helpless so that she can be rescued by a male character:

[Twilight] even manages to gets damseled with the whole Luna-office disaster and has to be saved by a “prince” in the form of Flash Sentry. I feel the entire show was behaving out of character on this one – instead of subverting tropes, it reinforced them. Instead of showing how an MLP princess differs from a Disney princess, it made them be one and the same.

And many people seem to agree with this criticism.  But Twilight is “saved” by Flash here only in the sense that she is saved by all other members of the Mane Six throughout the movie — and throughout the entirety of FiM, for that matter.  There have been numerous times that Twilight would have failed or died had it not been for her friends, and the opposite is also true.  Indeed, this is pretty much the theme of FiM: no one can do it all alone.  If the other members of the Mane Six had burst into Luna’s office with that evidence, it would be perfectly consistent with FiM‘s message — Twilight has inspired others by her actions and character, and they have come to her aid as a result.

So why, when Flash does it, is it suddenly problematic?  Well let’s not dance around the obvious, it’s because he’s a) male, and b) interested in her romantically.

Now, if Twilight were consistently in situations she couldn’t handle and needed to be saved by Flash throughout the movie, I could agree with the “Distressed Damsel” criticism.  But this is clearly not the case.  There is one, count it, one instance in the entire movie in which Flash is even materially useful.  And if we are seriously going to claim that this is unacceptable by virtue of his gender and his interest in her, then we’ve got a serious problem, people.  At that point, we are equating an embrace of female agency with a rejection of male agency, and vice-versa.  This is a terrible idea, and it’s also (in my experience) a distressingly common idea.  And I’m convinced that (among other things) it’s a big part of why it’s hard to get men involved in feminist movements — we have consistently been told that the best thing we can do for women’s empowerment is to just go away.

(I mean, there’s also the fact that using “feminism” to mean “gender-equality” is thoroughly misleading and counter-productive, but that’s a whole post in itself.)

[EDIT 2013-11-14 9:38pm UTC: Based upon some comments I’ve received, I now realize I didn’t make my meaning clear in the above paragraph.  I’ve posted a clarification after the main essay.  Sorry for the poor communication.  My bad, y’all.]

Some would argue that, while there is nothing inherently bad about Flash’s actions, the fact that they occur in a world in which the Distressed Damsel trope is common makes them objectionable.  An academic might say something like “we need to be aware of the context of gender discrimination in which this scene occurs”.  I reject that answer.  If we are going to claim that Flash’s gender makes an admirable action into a degrading one, we aren’t “being aware of” gender discrimination, we’re perpetuating it.  And in the process, we’re insulting everyone involved.

The insult to Flash (and males in general) is obvious; he is, the message goes, incapable of cooperating with females in any constructive way, by virtue of his gender.  The insult to Twilight (and females) is less obvious, but still important; that by accepting aid from a male, she is somehow anti-feminist, or a sellout, or weak.  This was a stupid idea in “Applebuck Season”, and it doesn’t become any less stupid when you “only” apply it to half the world’s population.  If we are going to accept that this scene is objectionable, we also have to accept that there can never be true, respectful cooperation between people of different genders.  That idea is patently false, thoroughly destructive, and just plain idiotic (and I highly doubt Reldan believes it).

And here’s one of the great things about FiM: it has never bought into that fallacy.  Reldan cites Cadance’s rescue of Shining Armor in “A Canterlot Wedding” as a great subversion of the Distressed Damsel trope, and it is, but not for the reason they say.  If the big deviation from the norm in that episode were just that the genders were swapped, there wouldn’t be anything particularly clever or progressive about it — and to believe that there would be, we’d basically need to accept that two wrongs make a right.

The reason “A Canterlot Wedding” is a subversion is not that it’s a female rescuing a male, it’s that the rescuee is active once saved.  Those who point to Shining Armor as a male Damsel completely ignore the fact that without him, the protagonists lose in that episode.  Cadance isn’t claiming a prize with that rescue, she’s freeing a collaborator.  And as corny and poorly-executed as the “my love will give you strength” segment is, it makes it eminently clear that FiM‘s message of “we are stronger together than apart” applies to romantic love as much as platonic friendship.  “A Canterlot Wedding” thoroughly rejects the idea that either Cadance or Shining Armor is made lesser by their reliance upon each other.  In fact, it shows us that the opposite is true.  That’s what makes it such a great subversion, not the fact that they’ve swapped the genders around.  If you can swap the genders around and make a statement unacceptable, it was probably never acceptable to begin with.

And while Flash is a far less-realized character than Shining Armor, his “rescue” of Twilight is also an act of collaboration, not prize-claiming.  And that’s made very clear, because at the part where Twilight is “supposed” to accept his request of a date as reward, she (apparently) roundly rejects it.  And in its usual form, FiM does not feel the need to paint Flash as some kind of misogynist to get the point across — he accepts the rejection gracefully and just walks away (I mean, he’s pretty bummed, but who wouldn’t be in that situation?).

I really don’t see how someone can call this scene anti-feminist and still believe that feminism — in its textbook-definition sense of “gender-equality and mutual respect” — is even possible.

[CLARIFICATION: I realize and accept that the generally-understood definition of “feminism” (among academics, at least) is, in fact, gender-equality.  And in that sense, I am a textbook-definition feminist.  I just think that that “feminism” is an inherently poor term for gender-equality.  If my meaning still isn’t clear, then think of it this way; would you describe a proponent of racial equality as a “blackist”?  How about a “whiteist” or an “asianist”?  For that matter, would you describe a proponent of gender-equality as a “masculist”?  My argument is that using the term “feminist” to mean gender-equality doesn’t make any more sense than those examples, no matter how widely-accepted it might be (and outside of academia, it isn’t that widely-accepted).  Sorry for the poor communication.]

[ADDENDUM TO CLARIFICATION: I offer my particularly deep apologies to anyone who, as a result of this essay, is now engaged in the 2,452,358,042nd iteration of the “definition of feminism” debate.  Seriously, I am really really sorry.  As penance, I will now go read social justice Tumblrs for several hours.]

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4 Responses to In defense of Flash Sentry (sort of, anyway): why “Equestria Girls” got gender-politics right

  1. I’d just like to say that I don’t think I ever implied that I felt that the movie would have been worse off with MORE Flash Sentry, so I’m not sure what you think I “disagree” with you in regards to this point.

    The character of Flash Sentry as portrayed in the actual film is not a good character. He has zero character development, and we know so little about him that it’s extremely annoying to us as the audience to see Twilight going gaga over him, or to see him saving the day instead of one of our capable heroines. The problem with Flash Sentry is that as written he’s the Gary Sue of the piece.

    This annoys me further because I think Vincent Tong, who lends his voice to Flash Sentry and to Prince Blueblood before him, is one hell of a voice actor. His talent is wasted here as he’s given practically nothing to work with.

    Flash saving the day is problematic because he’s essentially a nobody to the storyline who has zero impact before or after this one event. Twilight is trapped in a situation that she appears to be incapable of escaping from on her own, but a random nobody dude has the power to save her. It’s a bit of a crock, and it would be no less a crock if Flash were a Mary Sue rather than a Gary Sue. The entire scene diminishes Twilight as a character and for what? Pretty much nothing.

    This could have worked if Flash has been fleshed out – if he became a real boy rather than a caricature stand-in for “high school cool kid.” I would have welcomed another solid male character a la Shining Armor to the cast, and it’d have been great if pony Flash, voiced by Vincent Tong, could show up in the future as a real character. That’s not what we got though.

    • Hsere says:

      Then I would say that is a valid criticism of the scene. I don’t think it “diminshes Twilight as a character” per se, but it’s certainly poor writing to have a character who is neither well-developed in themselves, nor adds anything substantial to the story outside of one scene for which they aren’t even essential.

      Despite my criticism of the character, I would hesitate to call Flash a “Gary Sue”. In my experience, M/Gary Sues tend to be characters who (among other things) are over-emphasized to the detriment of the story they’re in. Flash basically has the opposite problem — he was clearly just chucked in because someone decided the movie needed a romance sub-plot, then mostly ignored. But then we’re getting into the question “what is the definition of a M/Gary Sue?”, which, like many things, is an entire post in itself.

      • Whatever you want to call it then, it’s weak to introduce a character that just starts from the standpoint of being generally well-liked by everybody and then assume the audience will pick up on this and also just like the character, such that no compelling basis for the liking of the character ever need be developed within the story. If there are time constraints I can let it slide, but pair that with “X saves the day” and it’s a recipe for facepalming. And in this movie I don’t buy time constraints as a valid excuse.

  2. Pingback: Old Pony posts archive | The Pony's Litterbox

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