The controversial couple may have a lot to say about how character development in MLP works.
If I ever had the chance to talk with Meghan McCarthy at a convention panel, I’d nervously blurt out something about how I thought Class of 3000 was alright before booking it out of the room. But hypothetically, if I wasn’t an idiot, I’d ask her: “So what’s the deal with Flash Sentry?”
Here we go again…
With a second Equestria Girls movie last year and another one over the horizon, I’m once again engaging in the by-now semi-annual ritual of discussing whether this guy is worth a damn. After watching the first film, I wrote a blog entry in which I defended his existence and also made an argument for why he doesn’t really do anything wrong, and how circumstances that go down to very core of Equestria Girls and My Little Pony in general are working against him. Back then, there was really no other choice than to call it a “defense”; 2013 lives on in Internet history as the most turbulent year for discussions about MLP online, not just with a brand new princess, but also the brand’s first spinoff series, and many were not very happy about it, to say the least. It was a very immediate, very heat-of-the-moment kind of thing; passions were high and I wanted to make my voice heard. Now, after a year and another movie, I think it’s fair to look back at all this and see if anything has changed; if there’s any position or point I should re-evaluate, if there are any loose ends I need to deal with, and if the course that the MLP franchise and the EQG movies have taken so far has to say anything about what the future could hold for this much disputed character.
Insert your own dialogue here.
If I’m gonna write about this topic again, I can’t just fall back on the same for/against arguments that have been made by myself and others ad nauseum in the past. I knew I had to find something new to add to the discussion. At the beginning, this editorial was going towards a very mean-spirited place, where at one point I would’ve made the “acknowledge criticism” portion of this focused on the “stole my waifu” thing and the problematic implications that come from this. I’ve noticed that, generally, people who throw this meme around always put the blame on Flash, McCarthy, Hasbro, etc. but basically never on Twilight Sparkle. It rubbed me the wrong way how these people would treat her as this pure, angelic figure while treating everyone else as if they were looking to corrupt her. These people don’t seem to care about what having a love interest would imply for Twilight as a character or what that says about her in any way. All that matters is that she needs to be defended. Now, while I could go on a ramble about how this particular behavior borders on the objectification, or even fetishizing, of a female character by a predominantly male audience, it’s probably not the best way to go about this, especially since I don’t want this to turn into a full-on shouting match. With that in mind, here’s all I have to say on the matter: I don’t think people should be denied their fantasies; they can be a fun, escapist experience that allows people a certain comfort. What I do ask is for people to consider where to draw the line between fiction and the real world. If the direction a show is taking doesn’t line up with your personal vision, it’s understandable to feel a sting at first, but you have the potential of getting over it with time. Besides, you should be secure enough in your own fantasy to not let the outer world affect it. After all, you control every aspect of it. However, this is no excuse to berate the people responsible for making the show or other fans in general for going about things a different way than you would. It’s one thing to share criticism in a constructive manner, but it’s another thing to demand that the show and everything it touches answer to your demands because the show is not what you imagined it would be. In my experience, it’s the people on this side of the argument who tend to be the most aggressive towards others on matters such as this, and I don’t believe they deserve any acknowledgement beyond calling them out on their reprehensible behavior, if it applies.
Vincent Tong has embraced the meme quite well. Power to him.
Despite this, there’s a very reasonable side to this squabble, which, for the sake of fairness and debate, I will now recognize. I can at least understand where people with a genuine problem with who Flash is (and not just hate him because he exists) and his relationship with Twilight are coming from. Twilight is easily one of the most popular and relatable characters on the show, particularly to bronies. I think it’s safe to assume that the majority of bronies can be described in some capacity as nerds. So, it’s definitely going to be appealing for us when we find a fictional character that can embody certain traits and mannerisms associated with nerds (bookish, intellectual, high-achieving, etc.) and cast said character in a very positive light. It’s easy for anyone who’s ever been nerdy in any way to find something to like in Twilight. While there are other aspects to who she is, these are the parts of her that bronies find more engaging (see also: Fluttershy’s meekness, Luna’s fish-out-of-water mannerisms, Trixie’s notions of grandeur, etc.) With that in mind, it’s understandable why any new aspect introduced to Twilight’s character that isn’t particularly nerdy, whether it’s turning into a princess or having a crush on a guitar-playing pretty boy that she barely knows…
…And maybe also this guy….
…is going to bother certain fans, especially when she has shown no interest in romantic relationships until that point.
“I’m a big princess and I do what I want!”
That’s about all I have to say about this topic. If this even approximates how you feel about FlashLight, I think that’s fine. It’s a valid criticism and it deserves to be acknowledged.
Now, let me recap some of the points I made last time. While I said that I like Flash, I also said that I, much like others, can’t say that I like him without putting a big, fat asterisk above that statement. (E.g. “I like Flash…even though he’s just there to be a love interest.”) I don’t really buy the “no character” argument; there is, but he’s just doesn’t get to show much of it or be the most engaging. However, that isn’t necessarily a problem. While he is a token love interest, at no point does Twilight Sparkle force herself to choose between the guy and her responsibilities to her friends and Equestria (In fact, there’s a scene in EQG1 where she’s given the chance to do just that, but almost immediately realizes: “Oh yeah, I got more important things to deal with”), or suddenly becomes more important to the plot than what he needs to be (he only gets one scene in the first film where his input was necessary to further Twilight’s mission). He gets to hang around the margins of the story with his own little subplot which allows Twilight to deal with her priorities while still spending a few notable moments with him. I still stand by everything I said back then. That being said, I feel like there must be something else to say about this, given that people opposed to Flash can argue about writing, character development, world building, etc. yet the best arguments that can be made in favor of him are about the potential he could only hypothetically fulfill or, if all else fails, because they think he and Twilight are cute together.
You can’t deny that Flash brings out the cute in Twilight. More so than usual, anyway.
In theory, this should be enough, right? The show’s fandom not only celebrates cuteness, they embrace it. There’s minor characters that have developed massive followings even though most of their time is spent standing around while looking cute.
There’s at least three ponies like that in this one image.
Still, because of his connections to Twilight and the series’ insistence on keeping him around, many feel like he should be doing bigger things. So, in the interest of that, I’m gonna take a look at all the depictions of romance in MLP and see how FlashLight stacks up to them, starting with….
The very first thing we learn about Spike (other than his status as Twilight’s assistant) is his crush on Rarity. At first, his attraction to her seems to be exclusively physical, but over the course of the series, it’s clear to see that a strong friendship has grown between the two. His friends seem to be aware of his feelings one way or another, and don’t make a big deal out of it. It’s unclear how aware Rarity is of these feelings, but it seems she doesn’t think this is a cause for alarm or something to “deal with”. Whatever the case, she (obviously) doesn’t feel the exact same way. If I had to infer, both the Mane 6 and the creators seem to treat Spike’s feelings as something very innocent and childish, which is probably the reason why the only episode exclusively about his relationship to Rarity is aimed squarely on whether his actions will put his friendship with her in jeopardy. It can be inferred that he’s aware that he doesn’t have a shot with her, but will nonetheless be there for her when she needs him.
Since the early days of the show, Rarity has been shown to be the only one of the Mane 6 that (openly) shows any interest in romance, which may be part of why this is accepted as part of who she is. In the Grand Galloping Gala episodes of Season 1, she declares her very fairytale-esque desire to go to the big dance and win the heart of a handsome prince. Of course, the punchline is that Prince Blueblood turns out to be a complete jerk and the fantasy turns out to be better than the reality. Rarity gets fed up, calls him out on it, and that’s the last time we ever see him outside of a few background cameos.
The second time Rarity was looking for love was in Simple Ways, this time eyeing a traveling writer called Trenderhoof, who she hopes to impress by sharing her knowledge of high class society. However, she finds herself fighting for his attention when he becomes smitten with Applejack.
If these two scenarios have something in common, is that they’re both played out as an extended joke. The idea is that Rarity has high expectations for a romance and expects things to go smoothly, but it’s funny when things don’t go her way. The audience is already aware that she’s a romantic at heart, to the point where she develops these flowery visions in her head where love is an inevitable conclusion. She’s trying to force a romance to happen rather than letting it occur organically, which results in misfortune for her.
It should also be noted that so far, she seems to be attracted not to particular ponies, but rather the ideals that they represent. She had never met Blueblood, but it was good enough for her that he was royalty (and that she would receive perks from that). She wasn’t infatuated with Trenderhoof because she knows for a fact that he’s a great guy, but because he shares her fondness for fashionable things. The same thing happens when Trenderhoof becomes fixated on Applejack. He’s not attracted to Applejack the caring, diligent, down-to-earth pony, but rather Applejack the farmer. It becomes clear that his attraction is based on an aesthetic appeal when he declares that he’s willing to give up his job/lifestyle to be a farmer as well. This, of course, is tied into the lesson of that particular episode about not changing appearances so that others can like you.
Shining Armor and Princess Cadence
Ever since they were willed into existence, these two have been a couple. However, their relationship has never been the primary focus of a show’s episode. In the end, the emotional core of both A Canterlot Wedding and The Crystal Empire are about Twilight overcoming a certain challenge. That being said, Shining and Cadence are a key component in the defeat of the enemy in both cases. Up until that moment, their role is strictly secondary. Since then, while Cadence has had a steady supporting presence, Shining has been relegated to cameo-land. However, they got a chance to take center stage in the MLP comic 2-part issue, Neigh Anything, the story of how these two met in (pony) high school and hooked up. We’re told that Shining fell for Cadence since the moment he first saw her; the reveal of her being framed as a case of love at first sight. While we don’t get to see this moment from Cadence’s POV (she never really gets a “moment” as ornate as Shining’s), it’s heavily implied that it was very similar to his. As such, the crux of the story is about Shining and Cadence trying to win each other’s heart, where the joke is that they’re already there and the main thing that’s keeping them apart is typical high school popularity nonsense orchestrated by a big-man-on-campus type bully.
Princess Celestia and King Sombra
In the Reflections arc of the MLP comic, we learn that many years ago, Celestia and Starswirl the Bearded traveled through a magic mirror to an alternate version of Equestria governed by a benevolent version of Sombra. During their first meeting, it’s clear that both he and Celestia have a mutual attraction. Over time, they continue to see each other, becoming more amorous. It comes to a point where despite being warned by Starswirl to stay away from the other world due to the potential of altering the balance between both, Celestia continues to sneak into the world to see Sombra. When she’s found out, Starswirl destroys the mirror. Regardless of this, most of the story is told from the Mane 6 (and Spike’s) POV as they explore the new world and try to piece together a solution that will return balance to both of them as they find themselves under attack by the evil counterparts of Celestia and Luna. Celestia’s past is revealed to us in the form of flashbacks, where we see her becoming progressively closer to Sombra, with the majority of their scenes together being about going out on dates and broad declarations of their love for each other. By the end of the arc, they cannot stay together due to Sombra making a sacrifice that leaves him full of evil magic, leaving both him and Celestia heartbroken, but hinted at getting over it with time (in Sombra’s case, he’d slowly lose himself to the dark magic).
(Side note: word has it that originally there would’ve been a kiss between the lovers, but it was left out by the editor.
Hearts and Hooves Day
In Season 2, we learn that Equestria has its own version of Valentine’s Day. However, we spent most of it through the perspective of the Cutie Mark Crusaders, who think that Cheerilee deserves to be happy on this day and, according to them, the only way is by having a date. They try to force a romance between her and Big Macintosh, going so far as to using a love poison that almost ends up ruining their lives. The girls learn that you can’t hurry love and Big Mac and Cheerilee remain on good terms.
I could go on talking about other confirmed couples in the series, such as the Cakes and the parents of the Mane 6 that we know of, but we’ve never seen them in a scenario where their relationship is the hub of a story, so there isn’t much to say.
Now, putting all of these scenarios side-by-side, I began to see a few recurrences. First of all, despite having several instances where a story features a couple we’re meant to see as official or to be taken seriously, not only is this a relationship that starts as a straight-up meet cute scenario, but the mechanics of said relationship is not the core of the story. Instead, for the most part, they’re a feature of a bigger story, and their main purpose is to put larger events into motion (clash of two worlds, the Changeling coup, etc.) or to finish them. Second of all, it’s seems that MLP has so far had a very easygoing, very lighthearted, downright innocent approach to romance. In this franchise, starting a relationship doesn’t seem to be very complicated.( In fact, there’s a pony with magic that can just make love happen). The majority of the scenarios mentioned above feature a chance encounter between two characters, and find themselves hitting it off almost immediately.
You can see where I’m going with this, right?
The setup of these relationships, at least the ones depicted in the comic books, isn’t very different to that of FlashLight: they bump into each other by chance and something clicks between them right away. Of course, all of this could be a massive coincidence (obviously, the comic book team is not the same as the animation team), but it’s apparent to me that this approach is the way it is not because it’s an afterthought, but because it’s by choice; it’s an intended feature of the series. For all we know, this is a informed decision by the writers or the Hasbro executives that get to approve scripts or send notes to the writing teams. Either way. when I began to expand this aspect of the franchise and see it in the context of its bigger picture, it fits into its tone and sense of theming.
When fans talk about how this generation of MLP is interesting and complex, they usually refer to the main characters, pointing out how despite being built around a certain archetype, they’re not entirely defined by it and they still have a broad range of traits, aspects, and emotions. However, something that isn’t very complicated about it is its morality. Since the beginning of the series, despite not being the overly-saccharine reflection of its predecessors, it has always been very earnest about its sentimentality. The moment Twilight arrives in Ponyville for the first time, every pony she runs into wants to be her friend right off the bat. In that episode, once we get to the confrontation with Nightmare Moon, they begin to make grand affirmations about how friendship is literal magic and how Twilight must stay in Ponyville to study it. It’s syrupy and downright corny, yet the show is so sincere about it that it just works. While this approach may have been refined and toned down a bit subsequently, much of it is still there. All you need to know is that the majority of episodes still end with the characters announcing the lesson of the day right to the audience.
“Something something something friendship”- Basically every episode of the show ever. Again, not a critique of the show, it’s just a feature.
This is probably the main reason why I don’t have a problem with the existence of Flash. There’s something rather charming about how uncomplicated his circumstances with Twilight are. It’s clear to me that his primary function so far is to make something cute out of it, and as far as I can tell, it’s a success. Twilight still gets to be the compelling lead she’s always been, and can still have this relationship on the side. I think it’s refreshing how this is one of the few budding relationships that I know of in general fiction that don’t follow the conventional approach to using love interests. Flash doesn’t get close to Twilight because he gets caught up in her quest to protect both worlds (not entirely, anyway), and therefore becoming an essential asset to her mission. Instead, it’s played in a very simple fashion. When people meet like this in real life, they see whether there’s some kind of connection and if they’re worth each other’s time. While this plays out in EQG as a very convenient and simplified version of that, there’s no large contrivance to make Flash more important to Twilight outside of what he’s delegated. Still, in the interest of things always having the possibility to be better, I gotta ask: Is there potential to actually make Flash more important than what he is in a way that makes him feel developed and integral to the series?
Several fans have discussed the viability of having romantic relationships as the focus of stories in MLP. They believe that there’s potential to tell important lessons to children about what it means to have one, the problems that may arise from it, and what can be learned about oneself or others from it. It wouldn’t be that far of a stretch, since not only romantic love can be a different kind of friendship, and young kids are smart enough to at least understand the most basic concepts of romance. Nonetheless, the various incarnations of FiM so far have chosen to have a very jovial approach to it. Part of the reason why FlashLight gets a rep as bad as it does is because it’s directly connected to the series protagonist yet it has no transcendent effect on her or elsewhere. Surely, both Hasbro and the creators know which characters are the biggest draw for the target demo (Mane 6 and the princesses), but still, why introduce a character with such ties to Twilight and not give him room to grow?
Wouldn’t be the first time.
I don’t know how much credence I can lend to this theory, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the reason why he gets to exist primarily in the EQG movies the way he does and not really in FiM is because EQG is meant to bridge the gap between the younger fans of the show (mainly young girls) and the girls who may be getting a little too old for ponies and may or may not start to get interested in boys. This is tricky to discuss given that they both share the same basic DNA. Not only do the movies pay respect to FiM’s continuity, they incorporate details of it unto their story. Having the same writer as the head writer of the show, same voice actors, and even same underlying style and tone, both movies so far are basically extra long episodes of FiM. Still, is it really that farfetched to imagine that someone in the higher-ups at Hasbro has made the conscious decision of keeping romance outside of arms’ length? Is Hasbro just plain not interested in using this franchise for that purpose? Is the idea of using candy colored horses (and sometimes candy colored people) to show a sincere depiction of what a romantic relationship would be like simply not in the interests of the people running this franchise in the first place? I wish I had the answers but unless I was a fly on the wall at Hasbro’s HQ, I wouldn’t know. My best possible guess is that executives want to keep the focus on friendship, and keep romance as something secondary. Still, this is not a very satisfactory answer.
It’s speculation time.
Let’s imagine for a moment that at some point Hasbro and FiM’s development team bites the bullet and decides to give Flash a shot at having a major role to play in the series (In this case, “major” means he’s an essential aspect of the story). Unless another aspect of who he is introduced, his relationship to Twilight would surely be the focus. Since we’re talking about FiM, this would mean its his pony version that gets to show up. Twilight’s relationship to human Flash notwithstanding (and most likely not brought up at all. As far as FiM is concerned, the events of EQG are not to be directly brought up.), the episode would most likely be about a scenario in which either Flash gets to contribute to a lesson that Twilight needs to learn (ala the Rainbow Reflection episodes of Season 4), or he gets to learn something from her, which results in both coming closer together and either officially going the whole nine yards into a relationship or just building up to it. I honestly can’t see a scenario where this wouldn’t be an inevitable outcome , mostly because it’s in the show’s nature not just to have a happy ending for basically every episode, but also, for the most part, to have the happiest ending possible for the main character. This is why we’ve had an episode where Fluttershy is tasked with the seemingly impossible task of reforming Discord and succeeds. It’s why we’ve had an episode where Rarity is tricked into forfeiting a competition and has to make a sacrifice so that her friends can have a good time on their trip to Manehattan, but then another pony comes along and fixes everything. It’s why we’ve had two different episodes where Rainbow Dash proves that she’s morally superior to the Wonderbolts, giving her every possible reason to no longer wanting to associate herself with them, yet they admit their mistake and Rainbow’s dream of joining them is still alive and well. I also don’t think this is a relationship to (permanently) end in a break up because I doubt that Hasbro would dare to pull the trigger on a story where their star goes through that, let alone introduce more love interest characters. So far, despite its brief presence, the EQG movies are asking the viewer to take Flash’s relationship to Twilight with sincerity. So far, the only sincere relationship in this iteration of MLP that has ended poorly is that of Celestia and King Sombra. Then again, emotional baggage has been a part of Celestia’s character before, so it kinda fits, not to mention that the comic’s tone has a sharper edge than that of the animated series.
Underneath the regality and elegance, Celestia has her scars.
Still, after one or two episodes, Flash would most likely disappear and only show up from time to time to remind us that he exists (and maybe also mentioned by name sometimes). I used to think this is a problem exclusive to male characters on the show. With the exception of a few episodes centered on Spike or Discord, all male characters have been villains, one-shots, or bit characters with recurring appearances, but not much development. This is a show without a true male protagonist (not a bad thing at all), and the few secondary characters it has tend to get shafted in favor of the Mane 6 (and sometimes the Cutie Mark Crusaders or the Apple family). All things considered, the show has a pretty big cast of protagonists so it’s already pretty hard to let everyone have an equal share of importance. However, this issue appears to stretch to the show’s supporting cast in general, especially in recent episodes. The show seems to be more comfortable in introducing a new one-shot character to fit a given scenario rather than creating stories where we can go back to characters that have already been established and expand on them. While it can be said that this is a decision made to fit an overarching story, it still makes recurring cast members such as Cheerilee, Zecora, the Cakes, Diamond Tiara, etc. feel pretty overlooked and not have many chances at growth or spotlighting. Even the royal sisters are lucky to get something outside of the recent season premieres/finales, Even then it’s Twilight and friends doing most of the heavy lifting.
When characters like these show up, they’re most likely going to do exactly what you’d expect them to do.
Every character, regardless of relevance, seems to have very strict parameters about who they are. We know who’s good, we know who’s bad, and we know what roles they play. Even when our heroines learn a lesson, especially regarding one of their shortcomings, those flaws don’t disappear just like that. For example, just because Rainbow Dash gets called out on being a pompous jerk one time didn’t stop her from being egotistic later on. So far, there’s only been two characters that have been able to blur these lines by way of repeat appearances. The first one is Discord, who effectively went from evil to good despite several speed bumps (probably the only character in the show to achieve something remotely close to moral ambiguity). The second one, though on a lesser note, is Trixie.
Well, Pony Trixie, at least.
She’s made her peace with Twilight and gets to team up with several members of the Mane 6 in various comics. While she’s defined by her boisterousness and ego in both her major appearances on the animated series, she’s had a different purpose on both occasions. In Boast Busters, she’s a traveling magician trying to prove that she’s better than all other ponies. In Magic Duel, she’s driven to get revenge on Twilight after the events of her previous visit to Ponyville, slowly going more mental with the power of a magic amulet. It’s the same character framework, but with a different approach (So far, all her appearances in the comic show that she seems to be in relatively friendly terms with the Mane 6). Characters with a similar development would be the Flim Flam Brothers, who first appear in The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000 as legitimate businessmen, selling a product to make a profit, while trying to screw over a competitor, and then return in Leap of Faith with another moneymaking scheme, only this one is a complete sham. While practicing different approaches each time, they’re all about making money solely for their own benefit. In spite of this, they get away and they’ve yet to give up their evil ways.
They live to write elaborate song-and-dance routines about their products another day.
Taking all of this into consideration, let’s see what are the possible avenues that Flash can take. If his pony form became an established part of FiM, the most idealistic scenario is that he gets a similar position as Discord and successfully integrates himself into the inner circle of the Mane 6, with a few episodes here and there. A more tame approach would be if he’s treated on a similar capacity as Trixie and gets only one or two episodes to call his own. If he were to show up more than once, he’d need to have a slightly different angle every time. The most likely scenario, however, would be to have a single episode centered around him, and then keep him around for cameos. It’s likely that even if he’s established as Twilight’s love interest, unless Twilight suddenly needs her castle to have a guard force, he’d probably go back to his day job at the Crystal Empire. (Relevant: even though Cadence lives in the Crystal Empire, Shining seems to still have his job in Canterlot).
“Shouldn’t you be at home with your wife? I heard she’s really bored.”
At this point, it’s a given that he’ll show up in future EQG projects.
Unless he’s once again kept strictly in the love interest zone, as was the case in the first movie, or gets to be a quasi-antagonist/device for the villain to further a goal as in Rainbow Rocks, something additional, hopefully important, should be found for him to do. While the girls will most likely still be the center of our attention, it’s hard to pinpoint what the most likely position would be for him due to the small emphasis on him between two movies. The comic is probably the most viable route to make something more special out of him. It seems more willing to take liberties and decisions that we would not see on the show otherwise (I’ve often humored the idea of a Friends Forever comic about his relationship to Cadence as one of her subordinates).
So, whatever the future may hold in store for him, what’s important is that Flash must be given a chance to grow. It doesn’t have to be big (or at least as big as the Mane 6), but give him a chance to prove himself worthwhile to the masses beyond what he has already offered. Even though the only thing we know about him is that he has a crush on Twilight, he may not need much else to expand. What does this relationship say about him? What does it bring out in him? What does it drive him to do? What can be found here to make him more sympathetic? I feel this would be the most fair approach, both to him and the series at large, given that it doesn’t deviate that far from what we currently have. I don’t think it’s a lot to ask if, say, in the third EQG movie, he’s finally able to offer something greater (the inability of doing so in the past could be a good motivator). He doesn’t need to move that far away from where he is, all he needs is a little push in the right direction. His quest for greater relevancy doesn’t have to be so steep. Even if he ends up with a similar fate as the majority of the series’ supporting cast, it would be satisfying to at least see him have his shot.
Going back to that question to Meghan McCarthy, I would ask her whether she’s ever considered taking a chance with Flash and letting him truly impress us. Given what we’ve got, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch. Nonetheless, speaking only for myself, even if he is going to stick to being a silly love interest, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
“We should do this again next year.”
“You mean hug and awkwardly flirt with each other? OK, sounds fun.”
Fanart Source: http://www.deviantart.com/art/I-m-Watching-You-Bub-378594569