My Little Pony – Friendship Is Magic, is about the lives of ponies, unicorns, and pegasus, and later many other kinds of creatures, in a magical land. It is more than it seems.
A few years ago I was doing cardio on my treadmill, and watching huge amounts of video in the process. Someone loaned me the first two seasons of MLP-FIM. I put it in the Blu-Ray player… and ended up watching all nine seasons.
If you are a dude, MLP-FIM can be quite an adjustment. We dudes are taught from birth to eschew all things girly. And not to use words like “eschew”. Cuteness is forbidden. No ponies or pastel colors or tea parties for us. Our range of emotions is pretty strictly limited to those of aggression. Visitors to MLP forums often say “You people are sick!” to which I can only answer; “Absolutely right. Sick of the patriarchy. Sick of performative masculinity.”
When evil toy company Hasbro decided to reboot their My Little Pony (MLP) franchise for the fourth time, they brought in writer and animation powerhouse Lauren Faust as executive producer. Here is my artist’s conception of what happened next:
Hasbro executives: “Can you make it vapid and shallow, and fit into a fifteen-minute timeslot?”
Faust: (Jumps up on table and swings light-saber in wide arc, cutting all their neckties) “How about if we do something interesting instead?”
OK the actual story is a little more tame than that. When she was a little girl, Faust had played with the pony figurines but imagined them very differently from the “smooshy, cutesy-wootsy, goody-two-shoeness” of the original show. At the age of 10, she wrote to Hasbro to tell them they were doing ponies wrong; they should be tough, smart, and flawed. Her letter contained drawings and detailed descriptions.
MLP-FIM has a huge cast, and sophisticated world-building. There are characters and references from mythology, and from popular culture (Star Wars, Doctor Who, ‘Q’ from Star Trek, Weird Al Yankovic, ‘The Dude’ from Lebowski, Batman, to name a few of the more recognizable). There’s an entire episode where the Mane Six get caught in a superhero comic book and must become the heroes to escape. There are multiple time-travel episodes. There are anime and Broadway references, and puns. So many puns.
While some episodes are surprisingly violent, others involve solving problems with brains, teamwork, or even legal technicality. This was Faust’s deliberate intention; in previous versions of the show, she said, characters would “solve problems by crying”.
The show follows a unicorn who is sent by her mentor to live in a distant town to learn about friendship. While she is very intelligent her social skills leave a great deal to be desired. It’s a school of hard knocks.
The stories range from banal to apocalyptic. The first two episodes are about the return of an ancient threat – the sister of Equestria’s leader. There is a multi-season changeling menace clearly inspired by Alien and Deep Space Nine. Smaller tales abound: slapstick comedy around a wedding. A character starts a religious cult and must be stopped. A pair of strangers turn out to be zany con-artists. A strong but elderly character asks for help committing suicide, because he can no longer find a place in society. (Yes, you read that right. Well not quite suicide, just a spell that would turn him into stone and functionally be the same thing.)
In Equestria, most of the leaders and main characters are mares. Stallions are relegated to the background or comic relief. Without explicitly saying “human society is destructively patriarchal” MLP simply frames its storytelling in a matriarchal one.
The same approach informs other social issues. The cast could be in an illustrated copy of DSM-5, but nobody wears a label. For instance, one major character is an athlete with a learning disability. So we have an episode where all her friends help her pass a test, but ADHD never comes up. Ditto for characters who are neurotic, or bipolar, or autistic. In one spinoff movie, a character has a prosthetic limb*, but that is never mentioned in the story.
If you are a fan of musicals, composer Daniel Ingram wrote over eighty songs for the series, which gave rise to an amazingly talented community of fan music in every genre. Country Western? Death Metal? Classical? Techno? All of the above, plus you-name-it.
For being bright and cute, the show does not talk down to its audience, using an adult vocabulary and syntax, and layered storytelling. It’s my conviction that children don’t need us to talk down to them, and adults certainly don’t either. So that’s fitting.
I particularly liked a turn the show made in seasons eight and nine, when it switched from Hub to Discovery network. With most apocalyptic, existential threats handled, the mane characters decided to build a multicultural school – only to confront regulatory racism from government education authorities. (Yes, that roughly coincided with Trumpism and the appointment of Betsy Devos as secretary of education.)
I would describe the animation in the show as “serviceable”, but it gave rise to a whole community of fan-created art and animation – much of it superior to the show itself. The creative fan base is a testament to the show.
So, nine seasons, multiple movies, a spinoff series that takes place in another dimension, comics and more… it’s difficult to encompass that body of work in a single blog post. All I can say is, I liked it, and a lot of other people did too.
- Featured image at top: a frame from the battle between Twilight Sparkle and the Minotaur Tirek. The scene may be a tribute to the battle between Godzilla and Gamera in Japanese cinema. Or as some have suggested, a story in Dragonball. I wonder if anyone has counted the total mushroom clouds in this series.
- Here’s a good question: how do you know when you’ve become a fan of a show? When you see past the screen and begin to care about the characters. An extreme example would be watching the movie District 9 and coming to see the aliens as sympathetic characters. At some point they stop looking like terrifying bugs and you just become genuinely angry at the injustice they suffer. Something similar happens when you see past the pastel-colored ponies and start to think of someone with a name like “Twilight Sparkle” as an immensely powerful but flawed leader.
- **And no, I’m not talking about Captain Celaeno in the MLP Movie, I’m talkin’ about Kerfuffle in Rainbow Roadtrip. The focus is on the fuffle’s personality and actions, not her awesome steampunk leg.
- As with any big franchise, there are of course embarrassingly bad episodes. And the whole ‘Elements Of Friendship as a kind of nuclear weapon’ trope could have been left on the cutting room floor.
- One person asked me: “Are you a Brony?” The answer is that you can call me whatever you like, but I have learned to distrust anything with the word “bro” in it.