At Terrible Minds, Chuck Wendig writes about Mad Max: Fury Road and Game of Thrones. “So, two very popular storyworlds. Two portrayals of a world where women hold dubious power and are seen as ‘things.’ One of these is roundly criticized for it. One of them is roundly celebrated for it. Game of Thrones catches hell for its portrayal of women and this subject. Mad Max is wreathed in a garland of bike chains and hubcabs for it. What, then, is the difference? Let’s try to suss it out.”
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 It’s a backward, sexist, outdated attitude.”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.