gen_is_gone: two one way arrows pointing in opposite directions (Default)
[personal profile] gen_is_gone
Having just finished ‘The Golf War’ in my rewatch leading up to ‘A Tale of Two Stans’, some thoughts on bully culture and narrative influence:

First off, let’s just get this out of the way: Pacifica Northwest is a bully. She actively seeks out and torments a girl, an age peer, and derives entertainment and satisfaction from seeing her suffer. Now let’s get another thing out of the way: Pacifica never apologizes for this, in universe or through the narrative.

One of the problems I continually find with Gravity Falls but can usually work around is its lack of actual adult role models. No, Stan doesn’t count here. Neither does Soos. Wendy is a teenager, and behaves as such, and is definitely not an adult. TvTropes has a term for this, Adults Are Useless. Now, Stan, for instance, has plenty of good moments, and is more or less a decent guardian, and is reasonably supportive of the twelve year olds he’s watching except when he’s not* (but that’s another post altogether). But Stan has been proven, over and over, to not be a reasonable, mature caretaker. “This seems like something a responsible parent would disapprove of. Good thing I’m an uncle!” “Remember, when there’s no cops around, anything’s legal!”

It’s funny, and given the age demographic the show is shooting for, understood and accepted as humorous statements, rather than object lessons. But it sets up a paradigm within the show that the adult with whom the twins are closest isn’t someone to turn to for help in a situation that requires reasoned, measured thinking. Stan’s first reaction to seeing Pacifica insulting Mabel to her face in ‘The Golf War’ is to threaten to punch her, and while I’m sure everyone was pleased at his anger on Mabel’s behalf, it’s obviously not the solution to the problem. This feeds into the much larger problem I have with the power of narrative influence, in this episode in particular and with regards to Pacifica’s treatment of Mabel as a whole.

‘The Golf War’ is framed around rivalry, and its message is focused on how rivalries are silly and mean and pointless. Problem is, Mabel and Pacifica aren’t playing out a story about rivalry, they’re victim and victimizer in a larger story about bullying. At the end of this episode, Mabel apologizes to Pacifica for cheating, and by doing so, inadvertently endangering her, and the story ends with the two of them parting on something of a high note. When ‘Northwest Mansion Mystery’ brings Pacifica back for her second outing in season two, her antagonism towards Mabel is ignored as she interacts almost completely with Dipper. Particularly after NMM, the fandom rallied around Pacifica as the victim of parental emotional abuse, and reframed her relationship with both twins as friendly or romantic. Pacifica moved forward a hero in the fandom’s collective consciousness, and so fandom has largely elected to ignore her behavior in every episode prior.

Just so we’re clear, ‘The Golf War’ infuriates me. After having been bullied for two months, after Pacifica insulted her looks, her clothes, her friends and her family to her face, Mabel apologizes for cheating. The object lesson focuses on the pettiness and ridiculousness of the Lilliputtians’ rivalry and presents Pacifica’s antagonism as a mutual hatred, rather than a one-sided attack. The episode ignores every time Mabel turned the other cheek and forwent revenge and laughed off Pacifica’s attacks, and all because Mabel made one mistake. The moral of the story becomes “The root of your uncharacteristic misbehavior doesn’t matter, because you misbehaved. The fact that you spent all summer forgiving and attempting to placate the person bullying you is irrelevant because you cheated once. It’s only in the nature of bullies to be cruel, but one mistake made by a “good girl” matters more than anything they do and must be punished because you are supposed to be nice.” Calling Mabel and Pacifica’s relationship a rivalry is a retcon and a lie. The point of the episode (or so I’ve heard) was in part to add depth to Pacifica’s character, as many people felt she came across as an unrealistic mean girl stereotype, but in my experience, immature children picking someone to attack is perfectly realistic; there are plenty of kids whose sense of empathy hasn’t developed and whose parents don’t discourage bad behavior.

When NMM reveals the extent of her parents’ emotional abuse and neglect, it seemed to lay to rest all of Pacifica’s cruelty in one go. I would absolutely love a longer storyline with Pacifica defying her parents, running away, and yes, sure, even laying out a sleeping bag in the Mystery Shack’s attic with the twins, but only if and after she apologizes to Mabel. Her own history of abuse contextualizes her reasons to bully, but it doesn’t excuse or overwrite it. Much though I disagree with most of AA’s rhetoric, the concept of owning up to past mistakes, making amends with no expectation or demand of forgiveness, is important. Pacifica needs to be rescued, but Mabel owes her nothing. Befriending her brother doesn’t count toward that apology, and Dipper doesn’t speak for Mabel, much though he staunchly defends her. The only way to stop cyclical abuse is to recognize the pattern and choose act differently than the people who hurt you, to stop lashing out at external targets.

Frustratingly, I highly doubt this is where the show is going. It would be difficult, though by no means impossible, to pull off a nuanced and frank discussion about abusive cycles and the reasons kids bully in a twenty minute episode of an action adventure series, but given the show’s history of tone-deafness when it comes to addressing kids’ phobias, anxieties and insecurities in a sensitive and mature fashion**, I have little hope. Nevertheless, as I rather enjoy Gravity Falls and would like it to continue to improve, I thought I’d add my voice, in hopes of starting a slightly less anemic dialogue about this character and her arc.

*hi ‘Dipper vs Manliness’, ‘Little Dipper’, ‘Boss Mabel’ and every instance of Stan mocking a child for, essentially, not being an adult (and a hypermasculine and aggressive adult, at that).

**you could make a fascinating and compelling case for the ways in which Stan’s blatant favoritism of Mabel speak to a Boomer mentality caused by growing up in an aggressively masculine and probably single-parent household, and how that informs Stan’s “toughening up” Dipper by being harder on him and less willing to stand up for him, but this is a kids’ show and I don’t think one should have to write a dissertation to get to that conclusion.

#gravity falls #mabel pines #pacifica northwest #northwest mansion mystery #bully culture #emotional abuse
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