I admit it, I was skeptical when I first the buzz about the new My Little Pony show. I like a My Little Pony as much as the next fully grown woman–usually if it’s been modded to look like Star Trek’s Borg or something–but the offerings sold to young girls these days are fairly uninspiring at best, horrible at worst. It’s hard to walk through the girl’s department of a toy store without getting an eye-strain from all the pink, and even harder to imagine a spinoff shilling Hasbro’s evergreen toy series being particularly engrossing for a five year-old – let alone an adult viewer.
But at the prompting of Aishwarya Subramanian, Global Comment’s resident expert on children’s literature and matters wondrous, eventually I managed to sit down to watch an episode. And what I found was a delightful, well-written, funny show with strong characters, helmed by a woman (Lauren Faust) to boot. So then I watched another episode. And then I forced my partner to watch one with me, and another, until we were finished with the first season quoting the characters (Pinkie Pie’s hissed “foreverrrr” is a particular favourite) and scanning Equestria Daily searching for fan-created works to get us through the long wait until the next season. Welcome to the herd.
There’s a lot going on with MLP:FiM, including a sizable adult male viewership (of which, more later), but the most important thing to me about the show is this: it presents a world in which the normative position is female. The five main characters of the show are female, as is the ruler of the show’s setting in the kingdom of Equestria, Princess Celestia. In fact, so many of the show’s characters are female that among the show’s fans the assumption is generally that even non-speaking characters are female–an interesting change from the default male setting that still dominates most areas of culture (try mentioning your doctor and see how many times you get a “she” assumption… not many, in my experience).
The show offers a wide range of types of female characters–from the conscientious scholar Twilight Sparkle, the fashion-conscious Rarity, the farmhand Applejack, the brash Rainbow Dash, the softly-spoken animal-loving Fluttershy and the hyperactive, frequently nonsensical Pinkie Pie. Each has her own talents, desires, and personally quirks. They’re active, not passive. Even better, many episodes demonstrate a layered, even wise, approach to character; appearances are never quite what they seem to be. In “Swarm of the Century,” Pinkie Pie’s decidedly uncommon sense is dismissed by the other characters, right until she saves the day with a one-pony polka.
And the action doesn’t centre on girl’s relation to men and boys, it primarily focuses on their friendships, their relationships with one another. Conflicts arise naturally, from misperception, selfishness, arrogance, thoughtlessness… but not by the horizontal pitting of girls against each other in kyriarchical narrative fighting for male approval. There’s only two minor plotlines centreing on romance – Spike the dragon’s crush on Rarity, and Rarity’s Prince Blueblood at the Grand Galloping Gala in “The Best Night Ever.” Neither is a very central storyline, and in the case of Rarity, the Prince is shown to be selfish and rude, a poor substitute for a night with her friends. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of romance in children’s stories (though I suppose it’s too much to ask a mainstream show to have canonical queer children), but there is often a disproportionate emphasis on it. In contrast, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic doesn’t just pass the Bechdel test, it shatters it.
There is only one male regular character on the show, the aforementioned baby dragon Spike, and he’s relegated to a marginal sidekick kind of role. This is a clever reversal of what feminist essayist Katha Pollitt two decades ago called “the Smurfette Principle,” the way in which male characters dominate, with a lone female character rounding out the cast.
Pollitt argues that:
The message is clear. Boys are the norm, girls the variation; boys are central, girls peripheral; boys are individuals, girls types. Boys define the group, its story and its code of values. Girls exist only in relation to boys.
Sadly, this remains as true now as it is then. For adults as well as children, texts in which men dominate are still largely considered “neutral,” whereas those which feature a similar female predominance are relegated to the chick-flick bin, watched only by women. The logic goes: men won’t watch shows or films about women, they can only identify with other men.
Yet MLP:FiM, of all shows, puts the lie to this well-worn, if nonsensical, cultural dogma. To the surprise of all concerned, MLP:FiM has managed to attract a huge adult male fanbase dubbed “bronies” (adult female fans are called pegasisters), who’ve become figures of fascination and derision in equal measures. Despite this, the number of bronies seem to be growing by the day, shrugging off the disdain for their culturally inappropriate fandom with their trademark “I’m going to tolerate and love the shit out you” rebuttal.
Ironically, of course, the bronies’ own behaviour en masse in the fandom reinforces the same old male-centre/female-margin dynamic, as does much of the media coverage. Female fans are squeezed from the frame as objects worthy of consideration of their own. Some have proposed the male-centric term “brony” be applied to applied to all adult MLP fans, an unreflexive marking of the male as universal. This is indicative of a broader claiming of the text as normatively the domain of men, a far from unique dynamic in fandom – just one of a million reasons why a feminist narrative like MLP:FiM is still so sorely needed by girls and women.
Still, that there are large numbers of male fans of a traditionally “feminine” text is significant and important in its own right, and should be taken as a challenge to parents. As we saw recently with the overblown furore over J. Crew’s boy-wearing-pink-toenails “toemaggedon” advertisement, there are serious kinds of anxiety directed at assumed-male children, afraid of any sign of femininity, so much so that some parents will attempt to beat it out of their children. It’s hard to see many parents letting their boys embrace My Little Pony like their older brony brothers.
The point of gender-diverse parenting, and the goal we can keep in mind when evaluating each choice before us, is not our children’s coercion into uniform unisex-ness, but freedom to figure out gender for themselves: what gender they are, what being that gender means to their society, and how, and to what extent, to perform it.
My Little Pony gives children of all sexes–and adults too–a broad range of meanings to draw from on what it means to be a girl, what it means to be an individual, and what it means to be friends. And for that, I love it. Foreverrrrrr.