The Cultural Gutter

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My Little Pony: About 20% Cooler

Carol Borden
Posted September 15, 2011

I was uncertain about My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.  I don’t fondly remember the toy-hawking cartoons of the 1980s and I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with the girly.  Dying my hair pink in my 20s was my solution to the impossibility of girlhood.  But then I saw Lauren Faust was making it and I’ve been a fan of hers for a long time.

Faust worked on Powerpuff Girls as an artist, writer and director and she was involved in nearly every aspect of Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends.

But following Faust to My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (MLP: FIM) wasn’t easy. As a girl,  I tolerated She-Ra. I hated Strawberry Shortcake. I did not love My Little Pony.  And Hasbro is producing MLP: FIM  for their tv channel, The Hub.

Cartoon Brew argues that The Hub represents, “The End of the Creator-Driven Cartoon Era.”  While I share their concern in general, I think Faust’s case is different.   With her talent and credentials, Faust probably could’ve gone on to create an original cartoon—if she hadn’t been pitching a smart one for girls.  As she said in 2008, “There’s not a lot of room for animation for girls in the industry. Nobody’s going to tell me that girls don’t like dolls, so I’m making dolls.”

Nearly by definition, girl stuff is cootietastic, de-manning even little boys.  The rule is that girls consume media targeted at boys, but boys avoid media targeted at girls.  So girly projects aren’t funded.  Again, as Faust writes:

“The belief that boys shouldn’t be interested in girl things is the main reason there’s hardly anything decent for girls in animation—or almost any media, for that matter. It’s a backward, sexist, outdated attitude.”

It’s not ideal, but Hasbro stepped up when Cartoon Network and Warner Bros. would not. Lauren Faust got her show. It’s not big budget, but she received a lot of creative control. And, honestly, the merchandizing isn’t very noticeable. If anything, what I notice is a general promotion of mercantilism in Ponyville. Applejack wants to sell her apple products to buy her elderly Granny Smith a hip replacement, for instance. Either there’s no universal health care in Equestria, or Granny”s off the grid.

And MLP: FIM is proving that nearly everyone will watch a good girls cartoon. The fanbase name, “bronies,” even implies fans are male.  Bronies are getting a lot of airtime. They’ve upset Fox News. And, in an geeky gender twist, guys are pleading for men’s sizes in comments threads for MLP: FIM t-shirts. (The gender dynamics involved in all this are a whole ‘nother article).

One of the things I like best about MLP: FIM is the variety of girls represented. Because there are six main female characters being female is not an identity or an identifier. Not which pony? The girl. But which pony? Twilight Sparkle, the  student; Rainbow Dash, the competitive daredevil; Fluttershy, the shy animal-lover; Pinkie Pie, the playful extrovert; Rarity, the elegant clothing-designer; or Applejack, the hardworking orchard owner. And while turnabout can be nasty fun, Spike himself is not,  “the boy.” He’s a dragon with his own quirks.

All the characters are quirky.  As Paul Chapman points out in his podcast, every pony has a complete meltdown in the course of the season. And I like that. It’s actually something I liked in both Powerpuff Girls and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends as well.  In Foster’s,  Bloo creates imaginary imaginary friends when he feels rejected and Pinkie Pie does the same, befriending a stack of rocks, a sack of flour and a bucket of turnips.  It’s funny and it shows kids that bad feelings are normal and can be dealt with.

I also enjoy the references to Heart of Darkness, David Bowie and Dr. Who as well as the cow from Wisconsin and the Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld  ponies. (I want a Tim Gunn pony).  And I think the focus on friendship is quietly radical.   The show is great for a monster lover—Ursa Minor, Ursa Major, cockatrice, griffin, manticore,  a phoenix (vaguely reminsicent of Cheese), dragons, a hydra. The monsters’ Classicism remind me of Wonder Woman,  another property targeted towards girls, and the “Olympians” game my sister and I played with dolls and a Barbie home (representing Mt. Olympus).

MLP: FIM actually captures a sense of children’s play narratives in the quiet strangenesses of Equestria.  I see it the most in the way that the ponies change Equestria’s seasons themselves. They clear snow, knock down the leaves and even move storm fronts around. A little girl might well pretend that her pony must wake all the cute sleepy animals in the spring.  Similarly, a child would never notice the strangeness of herbivorous ponies keeping pigs. And the show is smart enough to project awareness about all this—for example, the ponies are disturbed by the nearby Everfree Forest because the animals, shudder, take care of themselves.

While the show is great overall, I do have some concern about the ponies having been inadvertantly racialized in two episodes. In one, the ponies initially fear a mysterious zebra. In the other, frontier relatives of Applejack contend with a herd of bison over the bison’s traditional stampeding ground. Within the Equestria of the show, the lessons about respect, understanding, communication and prejudice are good ones. But I worry that on the Equestria of the playground or the living room, little kids could be told, “No, you can’t be a Rainbow Dash—you’re a zebra!” or “You’re a bison!” like I was told to be the girl in whatever cartoon kids were re-enacting. And that ponies would become white girls by default.  I hope not.

And I worry a little because Lauren Faust will not be  involved in season two “beyond story conception and scripts.”  But I will hope that the show continues on its trajectory, becoming a sonic rainboom of awesome.

~~~

Carol Borden is about 20% cooler than she was before she watched My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.

Comments

7 Responses to “My Little Pony: About 20% Cooler”

  1. Carol Borden
    September 16th, 2011 @ 3:52 am

    Since I wrote this post, Equestria Daily has posted an interview with Lauren Faust. She talks a little more about how the show came about–She approached Hasbro about a Milky Way and the Galaxy Girls show–and the way some of Hasbro’s “nicey-nice” restrictions play into the storytelling:

    http://www.equestriadaily.com/2011/09/exclusive-season-1-retrospective.html#more

  2. Michael Robert Lockridge
    September 17th, 2011 @ 8:08 pm

    “Either there’s no universal health care in Equestria, or Granny”s off the grid.” I did, indeed, laugh out loud at that one.

    In my Internet wanderings I have come across many blogs attending to the issues of gender and orientation bias. I recognize the issues and have a generalized sympathy, but am not sure what adult white males ought to do. Really, how do we relate honestly with issues we don’t actually experience?

    In my novels I strive to be honest with my characters, whatever they happen to be. In fantasy adventure you have a lot of ‘whatever.’ I don’t know what else to do. I hope it is enough.

    You are invited to read Marcus of Abderus and the Inn at the Edge of the World, the first novel in an exciting new fantasy adventure series, available now at Barnes and Noble.com. Did you enjoy visiting Middle Earth? Valdemar? Spend some time at the Edge of the World. Come for the view. Stay for the adventure.

  3. Nefarious Dr. O
    September 18th, 2011 @ 8:48 am

    That last picture should be on a T-Shirt, and your parting phrase “Sonic Rainbow Boom of Awesome” should be there, too.

  4. Carol Borden
    September 18th, 2011 @ 9:14 pm

    Thanks, Dr. O– I fixed your comment so it was not longer saying it was me.

    Michael– Thanks for the comment. I think that listening is key. After all, plenty of people relate honestly with the experiences of white men all the time. I do and I’m not one. Good luck with your novels!

  5. Samual I.
    September 18th, 2011 @ 10:46 pm

    It’s called “The Everfree Forest”, not “The Evergreen Forest.

  6. Samual I.
    September 18th, 2011 @ 10:47 pm

    I don’t meen to be rude, but yah.

  7. Carol Borden
    September 19th, 2011 @ 1:40 pm

    You weren’t rude. I fixed it. Thanks!

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