My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (2010-present)
created by Lauren Faust
Recommended? Hells, yeah.
Bechdel Test: Every episode passes with flying rainbow colors and the occasional “sonic rainboom”.
I have a not-so-secret secret, which is my great enthusiasm for My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. If I was a more bashful person, I’d be embarrassed about my borderline obsession. But I’m not. You’ll find me talking ponies to the dudeliest of dude-bros, defending my love for a kids’ animated television series about magic, friendship, and little horses. And I’m not the only adult on board; there a plenty of “bronies” to back me up.
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is the latest iteration of the My Little Pony franchise. Having been a girl growing up in the ’80s during MLP’s first major reign (rein?), I was attracted to the new show for nostalgic reasons and due to a smattering of good reviews from fellow nerds. I started watching it while recovering from a mean infection, and it quickly became my source for cheer, energy, and optimism. A year later, I re-watch episodes when I’m feeling down, because Friendship is Magic is, well, magical.
The series focuses on a group of five young mares, including main (mane?) character Twilight Sparkle and her dragon assistant Spike. The premise of the first season is as follows: studious, introverted unicorn arrives in small-town Ponyville at the behest of her princess-mentor to study the magic of friendship, a magic both literal and figurative. The audience follows Twilight’s struggles to make friends with a diverse group of ponies and learn how healthy relationships work. Each pony has their strengths and weaknesses, which serve up both external and interpersonal conflict in each episode. Pinkie Pie is bubbly and extroverted, but suffers mood swings and self-esteem issues. Hardworking and honest Applejack has a hard time relaxing and asking for help. Rarity is creative and generous, but at the same time narcissistic and selfish. Well-known for her strength and loyalty, Rainbow Dash struggles with insensitivity and apathy. Fluttershy is caring and emotionally trustworthy, but an extreme introvert with anxiety issues. At the end of every half-hour show is a simplified lesson, a report written by Twilight and her friends and sent by magical dragonbreath to the princess.
Friendship is Magic is compelling and refreshing, with strong writing and character development minus the violence and manipulation present in a lot of popular fiction. The bright colors and lively animation evoke the emotional landscapes of characters and their world. The pony realm of Equestria is lush and deep. The show is a fantastic example of how good writing can make a non-violent utopia incredibly interesting.
Seasons 1 and 2 focus on intra- and interpersonal conflicts many of us can identify with: struggling with self-confidence and the awkwardness of meeting new people, knowing when to ask friends for help, or figuring out how your inner demons affect how you see the world. Occasional songs in the first two seasons amplify the themes and are integrated within the storyline. I find Season 3, on the other hand, somewhat lacking. The conflicts become more external and less interesting, there are too many awkward musical numbers, and the lessons are not as apparent or meaningful.
Creator Lauren Faust is my hero for writing the deep, diverse characters that make Friendship is Magic such a success. Previously best known for her work with The Powerpuff Girls, she’s an outstanding storyteller rooted in girl power, and not just the pink, frilly kind. (More the pink, filly kind?) Ms. Faust created, developed, and wrote for Friendship is Magic Season 1, and served as a consulting producer for Season 2. Perhaps Season 3 kind of sucked because Ms. Faust stepped out of the picture. Season 4 is currently airing, and I’ll eventually watch it not for the stories, but to get a better picture of the world. (Equestria and its surrounding realms are pretty rad.)
From a feminist’s perspective, I’ll argue that Friendship is Magic kicks some butt. Despite (or enhancing?) the pastels, princesses, and fluffy pony theme, the girl power exuding from the show is real, not the plastic, 2-dimensional Barbie version of pink power overwhelming girls’ fiction. The characters are deep, and the fillies do everything from designing dresses to herding rabbits to bucking at demon-wolves. They do science and throw parties and compete in sports. They’re multifaceted, real people who have their own individual personalities and needs, but work together to better each other and their communities. Plus, only two or three of the dozens of episodes I’ve watched reference romance, which seems to be the fallback theme for most girls’ fiction. How refreshing!
Almost all recurring characters in the series are female, with male characters serving in comic relief or support roles. That in itself is a complete 180° from most of the science fiction and fantasy I consume. Not that this gender-flip is anywhere near perfect, or desired; ideally, trans*ponies, mares, and stallions would be working side-by-side in true equality. ‘Til then, I’ll take Equestria’s Amazon utopia, where mares and fillies rule the world. They’re the business owners and government leaders, the movers and shakers from agriculture to industry. Ladies tackle issues concerning security, skepticism, pacifism, and power. Occasionally, the female-centrism is interrupted by more obvious, harmful gender stereotyping; for example, an episode in Season 3 featured a rare male-dominated construction crew, the most dudes concentrated in one scene throughout the entire series. (Side note: ponies with facial hair = best.) Fillies can do anything; unfortunately, colts seem to be limited to construction work, castle guards, and the pony equivalents of pedicabs.
The fact that Equestria and its provinces are ruled by monarchy is a bit upsetting to an anarchist who would have all her cartoons take place in consensus-based intentional communities. However, governmental control is loose at best, save for when the kingdom comes under attack and martial law is invoked. Most ponies in Ponyville seem to go about their daily lives via the practice of mutual aid, and the importance of individuals in the community is at the center of many episodes’ storylines. When ponies go through adolescence, they obtain “cutie marks” on their haunches, pictures or symbols that represent a part of a pony’s identity or special talent. Because the ponies live in a utopia with seemingly unlimited privilege and resources, each pony is able to follow their passions, and is accepted into the community based on those passions. The pony with the rolling pin cutie mark becomes the town baker, the mare sporting the scroll symbol becomes the librarian, and the colt possessing a drum on his flank is welcome entertainment. No one goes hungry; no one seems to suffer. Life as a pony seems pretty swell.
Obviously, real life is not like Ponyville or Equestria, and their matriarchy, albeit peaceful, is still authoritarian. But I think we can learn a lot from how individuals within their society treat each other. If we channel our inner Twilight Sparkles, we, too, can spend our lives learning about the power of friendship and community, how to respect and empower those around us. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic gives this cynical anarchist a little bit of hope, and I’m proud to call myself a brony.
Afterthought: The “brony” subculture has fallen under deep criticism by some feminist nerd communities, and for an interesting perspective, I implore you to read a fellow reviewer’s take on the brony documentary, Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Male Fans of My Little Pony. I quite enjoyed the documentary, but do not have much interaction with brony subculture to reference when considering its “propaganda” status.