Sometimes you just not look forward to an episode. Whether it’s the synopsis, unimpressive preview, or whatever, something didn’t click. Personally, I looked forward to it, although I understand why some didn’t. It had the makings to being the worst episode of the season at this point. Fortunately, it’s not. In fact, it’s a sneaky great one.
For one, there’s a whole lot of really good comedy. Like every other episode this season, there’s a huge array of facial expressions, and they sell the jokes really well. My favorites are:
- Rarity looking very cross after Yona burped munched Brussel sprout on her muzzle.
- Gallus and Smolder teasing each other, the latter including a wink.
- Rarity’s smiles, such as asking Yona what she wanted at the Boutique and pronouncing sophisticatedly.
- Silverstream’s sass as she gobbled potato chips first and a really nervous grin the next.
- Yona romantically blinking at Sandbar, triggering giggles from her friends.
And there’s also all of Yona’s antics as she tried to “fit right in.” When she tried the first time, she caused either a little commotion or chaos, ala damaging Rainbow’s classroom by accident. Then after she succeeded, she pretended to be Rarity in hilarious fashion, all the way down to her accent, dress choice, and mannerisms.
Observe the title. It references the 90’s cult hit, She’s All That, which in turn was inspired by Oscar-winning musical My Fair Lady. I'm not familiar with the former (never watched it), but I am with the latter, and you can find similar tropes used for My Fair Lady in at least three other Disney films: Aladdin, Pocahontas 2 (the one best compared to All Yak), and Mulan. As such, there’s no denying how cliché this type of story is, and this episode’s formula (despite a wide variety of emotion carrying it, and I put not much focus on total clichés nowadays) may be a little too on the nose with it and could do more by straying away.
But there’s no denying the emotion that drives this episode. Yona, being the least ladylike of the Young 6, is justified to be uncertain of Twilight's Amity Ball.
The Amity Ball trophy's taken from Ponyville's annual Fetlock Fête, a dancing competition with an award going to the winner, and the poster features two ponies, no other creature. Additionally, pay attention to the language:
Twilight Sparkle: And we'll have all the old Fetlock Fete traditions – the Pony Pal Contest, the lucky pot dinner. You'll love it! So, like this says, "get your pony pal and come along."
To be fair to the teachers, it's not wrong for them to teach non-ponies Ponyville traditions. Twilight also changed the name so non-ponies can feel more invited. But there are problems. Today, Ponyville remains a homogeneous society, and the School's next door to Twilight's castle. She's supposed to teach a more inclusive Magic of Friendship, yet so far hasn't taught traditions from other cultures. Despite their efforts, it shouldn't surprise anyone why the unfortunate implication pressured Yona to assume she'd have to be a pony to qualify for the Pony Pal trophy.
The event also showed how those same implications impacted the rest of the Young Six. Observe their faces. Ocellus's is blank. Smolder rolled her eyes. Gallus looked cross, implying he felt tokenized by ponykind. While everypony and Spike danced, they sat out and played cards.
Outside of expression, Gallus expressed his concern, too.
Gallus: I'm just glad I'm here with you guys. Least I'm not the only non-pony in the crowd.
Prior, when ponies went to a faraway land to teach the Magic of Friendship, they risk very imperialistic implications, suggesting that those creatures are inferior. Two episodes that fell into this trap were Dragon Quest (stereotyping dragondom thanks to misogynistic teens) and Lost Treasure (treating friendship as the go-to method to fix a desolate, corrupt country). Thankfully, they've been more cautious lately, but this type of episode opened itself up to it.
So how did they bypass those implications?
Instead of coming to her and telling her she had to change, Yona came to them. She understandably assumed that she had to change into a completely different character. Therefore, by seeing all those dresses, she also assumed that she had to dress like a pony in order to "fit right in" with the rest. That little, innocent accident produced further doubt and fear into Best Yak's childlike psyche.
But at no point does the episode look down on her or see her as stupid. Throughout, it listened to those fears and let airing her doubts whenever without interruption. When she tried to persuade Rarity to design the right dress for her, Rarity reluctantly agreed. When she struggled, everyone — and by extension, the episode — encouraged her to improve.
On the other end, when her friends saw how she was speaking and behaving, their first impressions were worry. They wondered what was going on with her, and all giggling aside, they were concerned the entire time. Sandbar, who asked her out, was also getting increasingly worried after she nearly spilled punch all over her dress.
Rarity's reluctance plays another key. Why does Yona's visit take her aback? Because she doesn't expect anyone to dress. Yes, the Fetlock Fête's a more formal tradition, but the Amity Ball isn't, and Twilight didn't announce dresses as a requirement. Thanks to peer pressure, Yona thought she had to. Rather than say no, Rarity agreed to her demand. After all, she's her client, and objecting may only worsen things.
One little line subtly adds to this doubt:Quote
Rarity: Don't worry. We shall find something to make you stand out.
Yona: Yona not want to stand out. Yona want to fit in.
Rarity: [sighs] Quite.
Rarity suggested she stand out for Sandbar. Yona corrected her. Instead of thrusting her beliefs onto her, she listened and, despite being opposite her morale, obliged.
Everyone else actively wanted to help her improve. At first, Yona struggled mightily. The Pony Catillion chart really confused her, 'cause all of the colors and hooves overlapped each other, and Yona (hilariously) smashed up Dash's classroom when trying to learn the Pony Prance. Meanwhile, Pinkie's quick organization of the ingredients comes second nature to her, but Yona was overwhelmed. Seeing how she needed help, they started from scratch, modified their instructions, and slowly worked upward as Yona improved.
Another big improvement here in comparison to other episodes is how they remained in character the whole time. Nopony looked down upon her the entire time. Instead of forcing her to agree, Yona came to them for help, and they worked the best they could to her demand. Did they get flustered, insult her, or treat her or her culture as inferior? Nope. They genuinely believed they were helping her accomplish what she wanted. Come the end of the montage, everything was according to plan.
Unfortunately, they had no idea that, despite the best of intentions, they unknowingly perpetuated the same imperialistic "out-of-pony" stereotypes. What they intended was to help Yona impress Sandbar, have fun, and win Best Pony Pal. But their coaching accidentally suppressed Yona, who was beginning to treat her own identity as a yak as a weakness and took their lessons as means to become more self-conscious.
This line further implicates this:Quote
Fluttershy: And are so well spoken!
Pay attention to the last two words. "Well spoken" is a microaggression. It may "sound" nice on the surface (and sometimes not intended to be offensive at all), but when a Caucasian calls an African-American "well-spoken," they say he's better not talking like "other" blacks, a.k.a., anyone who speaks Ebonics. Regardless of intent, it's racist and not a compliment whatsoever. In FS's POV, she's complimenting her, and Yona accepts it without a second thought. Albeit very on the nose, Fluttershy's supposedly innocuous line further backs up the episode's anti-assimilation theme and, along with the rest of the coaching, made her really vulnerable to shame and distressed if she messes up.
And boy, did she mess up. Surprise surprise, Yona became very ashamed and depressed, hiding in the Palace of Solace. Recall what the Tree told them four episodes ago:Quote
Tree of Harmony: Whenever you seek solace, come here. Your friendship, and the friendship of future generations, will always be safe within these walls.
Within the Everfree Forest's castle ruins, this treehouse provides a safe space for anyone who needed it. After the biggest humiliation of her life, Yona needed to air her despair, and this was the best place. Her song to begin Act 3 ranks up there with The Pony I Wanna Be, Moondancer's rant, Sunset losing her memories, and Grand Pear's apology as one of the most heartbreaking moments of the entire series.
However, what happened during the lowest moment of her entire life resulted in one of Pony's most heartwarming moments. Sandbar's a fine addition to the Young Six, but he's the most mellow, so he doesn't have plenty of oomph. Thankfully, he more than makes up for that by listening to her, treating her as an equal, and showing that he won't trade anything away that made her the way she was. His unconditional support for her and empathy cheered her up and reignited her self-confidence, demonstrating what helped make this show so successful: not only teaching us the Magic of Friendship, but proving it.
Just to balance the perspectives more, I would've liked to see Sandbar sit inside the Palace just after the intro. That way, we get to see his insecurities a little more. But this is a nitpick, so carry on!
Let's go back to Fluttershy's "well-spoken" line. Again, it's supposed to mean well, but has unintended consequences, staying true to the episode's critique of assimilation. The RM6 had absolutely no intention of leaving any non-pony out, but someday, someone was going to take these unfortunate implications to heart. Being the most emotional and vulnerable of the Y6, Yona was the perfect vessel. Even though they believed they did the right thing by trying to teach her the Fetlock Fête's traditions, they inadvertently cleansed her psychologically and culturally. They wanted nothing more than to make her happy, but not by taking away what made her so special. Apologizing to her and reassuring they love her for who she is is the right call.
As for the sporadic critique of Yona and Sandbar winning the Pony Pal trophy, think about this. Once more, as Yona suffered the deepest humiliation of her life, Sandbar offered his ears, patience, and a proverbial shoulder for comfort. His actions embody the School of Friendship's values; they more than deserved that award.
In addition, cleaning up meant they had plenty of time to rethink the Amity Ball's purpose. Why did they change the award's name and dress one of the pony statues up as a yak? To symbolize how friendship crosses boundaries and cultures. Thanks to their own mistakes, they can improve the Amity Ball to include everyone much better.
Look at how everyone joined in her Yakyakistan Stomp. They show how much she means to them. For the ponies, this will be a lesson in working with non-ponies to make the School of Friendship and its activities feel more welcoming. Given the show's flaw of ponies sometimes acting as the savior to non-ponies, it's a long-time coming for the show to not only address this problem, but flip it to make the ponies learn this lesson.
Also, if you believe this episode's moral is "be yourself" and a near-copycat of past episodes, such as Common Ground, you're overlooking the nuances. Common Ground's are to not use bitterness to isolate someone from being part of a family and to not pretend you have to follow a passion to bond with someone. The primary lesson from She's All Yak is not to feel like you have to erase your own identity to belong. They're not the same.
Pony's on a hot streak. Since Matter of Principals, they haven't released one mediocre or bad episode, and aside from a rare fine one, they're all good to really good. So far, every season 9 episode is really good at least, and this is the fourth great one in a row. I'm unsure how well it'll age over time, but today, all I need to say is that She's All Yak is sneakily great and could (hopefully) land near the top of S9's best episodes