It’s a question we’ve all heard, when we first admit our love of Pony to those outside our fandom; a question we have likely asked ourselves, time and again. Even those who are unabashedly proud to be brony can have difficulty articulating one simple concept: “Why?” Why do we love “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic?” There has to be a reason, yet all too often all we can really say in reply is “because.” The truth is that the reasons are different for each one of us, so the conclusions I come to in this essay are, of necessity, going to be unique to a particular brony named Codex Compendium (that would be me). So, without further ado, I’m going to articulate my answer to the question: “Why do you watch a show for little girls? Why do you love My Little Pony?”
The initial reason is one that seems counterintuitive at first sight; I love “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” precisely because it is not aimed at “little girls.” Ridiculous, right? The show’s creator, Lauren Faust, specifically targeted the demographic at 6-12 year old girls. To which I can only respond that yes, that is exactly true. But as with everything else MLP, what it seems and what it is are not always the same thing. Put another way, the show is intended for young girls, but it is not written down to them.
When we think of children’s shows, what comes to mind immediately are the standards used in typical conversation for belittling and condescension: Care Bears, Teletubbies, Barney the Dinosaur. Those shows are simplistic and dumbed down, their vocabularies limited to the most basic forms of communication. As an extreme example, Barney’s most famous song begins “I love you, you love me, we’re a great big family.” With the exception of the final word, the entire verse consists of single-syllable words. It’s not just simplified, it is almost painfully inane. Sadly, earlier generations of “My Little Pony” fell into this same category, leading to the prejudice “Friendship is Magic” still struggles with.
But “FiM” is not, in any way, shape, or form, those earlier incarnations of MLP. For one thing, the creators realized that the audience would include the parents of those the show was targeting. Rather than force those incidental watchers to suffer through yet another insipid children’s show, the writers elevated the level of the show to be enjoyable, if not outright entertaining. This led to a number of oblique references enbedded in the show which little girls would not get, but would give their parents a bit of a laugh, such as ponies based on The Big Lebowski in a bowling lane and the recurring background pony Time Turner, aka Dr. Hooves.
Ms. Faust obviously wanted to make plain from the beginning exactly what tone she intended to set for this show. The very first episode opens with the prologue mythos of Nightmare Moon, then transitions directly to our heroine, Twilight Sparkle. Her nature is made blatantly obvious when she passes up a party with other ponies to study. From the reactions of those ponies, this behavior is not just normal for little Twilie, it’s expected. She then goes on to reinforce this image when she dictates a note for Princess Celestia, casually tossing off words like “precipice,” “threshold,” “brink,” “disaster,” “prophecy,” and “imperative.” In my experience, not many 6-year-olds, of either gender, commonly use those words in conversation. I’ve known high-school seniors who would have trouble with some of them! Indeed, poor little Spike can’t even spell these words, forcing Twilight to resort to much simpler synonyms for her missive. This was nothing short of brilliant, for rather than forcing those watching the show to pause and look up these words, or worse, simply gloss over them without learning, Twilight actually defines the words she’s using. It’s guerilla education.
The vocabulary used in the show actually reminds me of another recent “children’s tale” with an adult following: Harry Potter. I was in high school when the series came out, yet even so, I found myself reaching for the dictionary more than once for an unfamiliar word. The author of that series, much like the writers of our ponies, seems to be of the opinion that if one’s audience doesn’t know a word, the solution is not to avoid the word, but to use it and inspire the audience to educate themselves instead. In both cases, Harry Potter and My Little Pony, knowledge is a tangible, demonstrable form of power, so the simple act of learning is an end in its own right; it is no accident that the most learned characters in both shows, Twilight and Hermione, are also some of the most capable. Thus, by learning, the audience becomes more like their heroes.
This higher standard for ponies is evident not just in the show’s lexicon, but in its mythology. Young girls would be expected to know about unicorns, pegasi, and dragons, but the show is not limited to the familiar. The ponies face off against cockatrice and manticores as well, and even the species of the princesses is not a commonly known one: the alicorn. Until the advent of Fawkes, the phoenix is another species I would have placed on the “mostly unknown” list, but alas, the lady Rowling got there first. And while the timber wolves are not a properly classical monstrous species, I do have to mention them simply for the sheer beauty of the pun.
Beyond both language and bestiary, though, there is something both deeper and more profound about the show which inspires devotion in its adult fans. Going back to the pilot episodes, Nightmare Moon had real, understandable motivations behind her actions. Rather than the standard trope of bad guys doing bad things because they are bad guys, this was a villainess we could sympathize with. Princess Luna, and by extension, Nightmare Moon was lonely, unappreciated, and jealous of her elder sister. It’s only natural that the overshadowed sister, who worked so hard and so diligently to protect her people would want her, if you’ll pardon the expression, moment in the sun. Jealousy and loneliness is a surprisingly adult themes going back to biblical times, and this treatment of serious issues continues throughout the series. We see the ponies confront arrogance (Boast Busters), corporate greed (Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000), personal greed from those we love (Secret of my Excess), and more. It’s not uncommon for bronies to express the sentiment that they have learned a great deal both about friendship and about themselves from watching the show. It’s not an indictment of what we’ve failed to learn from the first go-round, but instead, it’s an exemplar of exactly how incisive the show’s lessons are.
As a corollary to the idea of adult themes in a children’s show, though, is the possibility of multiple levels of meaning as well. A young child who sees “It’s About Time” is going to see a rather simple parable about not worrying over things that may not even happen. It’s a rather simple theme, and one more people could stand to learn. That interpretation holds up just as long as it takes someone to wonder “what if?” “What if” Twilight had successfully delivered her warning? “What if” she had decided not to cast the final spell at all? “What if,” in fact, she had done anything at all different than what had originally happened? Then we get into concepts such as paradox, causality, and all those fun philosophical discussions which have puzzled great minds from H.G. Wells to Doc Emmett Brown. In this case, the instant a child asks that first “what if,” you get an incredible opportunity to introduce someone to the wonders of philosophy, 4th dimensional cause and effect, and the simple benefits of contemplating the possible consequences of a course of action before following through. Too many times, people say “we don’t have time to dawdle!” I like to counter that, in any situation where you have the time to make the wrong decision, you have the time to make the right one as well. An ounce of prevention, after all, is worth a pound of cure.
In any event, I believe the point is well-made; “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic” simply cannot be classified as “just a show for little girls.” The themes are deep, rich, and varied enough to support, well, some random internet essayist with too much time (not really) on his hooves and too many ideas (massive understatement) in his head.
Of course, that’s not the only reason I love “My Little Pony.” It would be enough to make any show worth watching, but if I stopped there, I’d still be selling the show short. The other side of the coin is that I love this show is because it’s a cartoon made for little girls. Remember what I said before: “intended for little girls, but not aimed at them.” That’s important.
First off, it’s a cartoon. I can’t speak for earlier generations (of people, not ponies), but I was, and remain, a child of the 80s. I have so many wonderful memories of Disney and non-Disney movies and cartoons including, but not limited to: DuckTales, Gummi Bears, Darkwing Duck, TaleSpin, Little Mermaid, Aladdin, all the Grimm’s classics, Looney Tunes, etc. Seeing a new cartoon which harkens back to those roots does awaken a nostalgia for me. And yes, I will admit to thoroughly enjoying the original MLP movie-that-was-really-a-commercial-for-Pegasus-Ponies. Still, you can’t get much more delightfully silly than an enemy named the Schmooze. But I digress.
Part of that nostalgia is not for the times (although the 80s were an absolutely wonderful decade. That’s an essay for someone else, though), but for the simplicity of an earlier time. I have no rose-colored glasses for my younger years, and you absolutely could not pay me enough to relive them; I do understand that the world has never been a simple place to live. In that time, though, we did not understand that. When I was a foal, I thought as a foal, I spake as a foal, but when I became a stallion, I put away foalish things. And I came to understand how complex, and how difficult, life truly is. Parents can’t make everything better, being picked last isn’t the end of the world, and snow days are not the best thing ever. But for 30 minutes, I can put aside the workday, stop worrying about all the complexities of life, and step into a place where you can make everything better by telling the truth and saying you’re sorry, where bad guys can be smacked most royally for doing bad things, and doing the right thing is rewarded, not punished. Or, as the great theologian G’Kar once stated, “we were the good guys; they were the bad guys! And they made a very satisfying THUMP when they hit the ground!”
But not all the bad guys get thumped, which is yet another recurrent theme on the show. Nightmare Moon, the bogeyman for a millenium, was rescued from the nightmare, redeemed, and restored to her sister’s side. Discord is given the opportunity to use his insanity to make things better, rather than inflicting chaos on those around him who cannot live in a world unbound from the normal rules. Even little Babs Seed, the hardened bully from Manehattan comes to realize the error of her ways and founds a splinter branch of the Cutie Mark Crusaders. Looking around, it seems too often we write off people as potential friends because they’re too abrasive, too abrupt, or just too stressed to bother with, when in fact, a little effort might yield an abundant harvest. A bad first impression should be just that: an impression, not the deathknell for any future relationship. And it doesn’t have to apply to only Lords of Chaos and the Thing In the Closet, but to simple interactions at work, on the train, or at the gym.
Which leads to another child-centric theme which should appeal to adults as well: inclusion and tolerance. Children are taught to make friends with the people who are around them rather than seeking out like-minded individuals to create their own personal sounding chamber. Good parents strive to raise well-rounded children who ask questions and seek answers, rather than fall back on rote repetition and tradition. The most important word a child can ever learn, in my opinion, is “why?” If you can figure out why a thing is, why it behaves as it does, then that is the basis for true understanding. “Why” is the single concept which underpins practically all of human understanding, from physics, engineering, and higher technology to the most basic of social interactions. “Why” is, in short, the foundation of all knowledge.
By making friends with those dissimilar to themselves, children learn to keep asking questions and striving to understand the world, and the people, around them. Through understanding and tolerance, children gain a much wider worldview and a vastly expanded sense of empathy. Sadly, in the world today, altogether too many people limit their interactions to only those they are comfortable with. People limit themselves to only those who share their profession, their politics, their religion, or some other factor. “My Little Pony” strives to break that cycle, in which an athlete (Rainbow Dash) is close friends with a nerd (Twilight Sparkle) and a prep (Rarity) enjoys spending time with a farmer (Applejack), which is a pair of association you would be hard pressed to find in any given high school.
And finally, I want to address the appeal of MLP as not just a children’s show, but as very specifically a “little girl’s show.” Gen X and beyond have been raised with the concept of strong female characters, from Cheetara of the Thundercats and Rogue (et al.) of the X-men to Lara Croft of Tomb Raider fame. However, in each of those cases, the female characters have been highly, possibly even over-sexualized. Further, cases of strong female leads are almost always paired with a strong male lead. Princess Jasmine, Rapunzel, practically any Disney princess you care to name had to be rescued by a male protagonist. Even the anti-Disney tale of Shrek followed the same trope of a “damsel in distress” being rescued by a “heroic knight.” Even lampooning traditional patriarchal archetypes, Dreamworks fell into the same trap.
But then along comes “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.” Stallions are present in the show, but are very rarely placed in any lead roles. The closest to a “lead steed” we see is Shining Armor, who doesn’t even show up until the season 2 finale, or possibly Big Mac, who repeatedly defers to his headstrong sister. In the case of Shining Armor, despite being the ostensible “knight in [his name],” he is never the protagonist, and in fact has to be saved, repeatedly, by his wife and his sister. Chrysalis ensorcelled, weakened, and ensnared him, while Sombra simply infected his horn, rendering him impotent.
To the contrary, MLP provides a coterie of strong, independent, self-assured females who continuously come out on top, neither because of, nor in spite of their relationships with males. In the vast majority of cases, the stallions are complete non-entities in terms of conflict resolution, and the mares carry the day all by themselves.
At this point, I’m going to go off on a minor sociological tangent. It’s easy to forget in our age of empowerment, but the idea of women being equal to men is an extremely recent development in human history. The 19th amendment establishing women’s suffrage was passed in 1920; there are still women alive today who were born without the guarantee that they would be allowed to take part in government. Women being treated equally in the workforce is even more recent; that particular social shift didn’t even occur until the 1950’s. The point in this bit of history is that those attitudes can still be found in the older generations. It’s a well-known fact that the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics are woefully underrepresented by women due to a longstanding belief that “women aren’t any good at them.” This belief persists despite its being disproven time and again by truly exceptional women in all fields of study; exceptional, but by no means an exception.
It is this ossified and outdated concept of a “woman’s place” that My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic takes on head-first. Rather than fall into the traditional trap of subverting the patriarchal mode while following it, or even the more recent tendency of directly opposing this thought by pitting mares vs stallions, the ponies sidestep the issue entirely, sidelining stallions to allow the mares not just center-stage, but the entire stage.
I will admit that, as a male, I would like to see more stallions shine in the show, but at the end of the day, I have to admit that My Little Pony is not aimed at me, nor at the brony community. It is, at heart, a “little girl’s show.” All of us love the show not in spite of what it is, but because of it. I still remember that moment when Nightmare Moon lay shattered and scattered on the ground and Princess Luna was awakening from her thousand years of loneliness, when Princess Celestia appeared with the dawn and offered her hope, love, and forgiveness. That moment wasn’t written for me, or for most of you reading this. And we loved it anyway.
The writers have made it clear, with the continued appearances of a certain crosseyed mailmare, the canonization of certain fan names (Lyra in particular), and the callouts to the community specifically in MLP commercials, that the brony community is a focus of the show, but it is by no means the central focus. Honestly, I wouldn’t want it any other way. Changing the focus of the show, its purpose, would utterly change its fundamental nature. I love My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic for what it is, not what I believe it should be. The show, and the characters, will continue to grow, change, and evolve, as it must, but those changes should be, must be, organic, natural and unforced. The moment the story adapts to fit some false agenda, it will lose that indescribable spark which drew us all in the first place.
A show written for little girls that aspires to be more. My Little Pony manages to be complex without being complicated, deep without being preachy, and childlike without being childish. The result is a half hour each week of pure, unadulterated joy. That is why I love My Little Pony.
Author’s Note: I started writing this essay thinking it would be a good idea to write up a quick, easy subject to get back to my journal. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this turned into one of the more difficult essays I’ve written to date, which is why it took three weeks to write, plus another week to revise and edit.