Recently, after hearing it praised again and again, I watched the show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. To my slight amazement, it quickly became one of my favorite animated shows. I mean, I have very broad tastes in entertainment: I can view a romantic comedy, musical, or a Disney cartoon with as much real interest and enjoyment as a John Ford film, an action flick, or a horror movie. I would think nothing of watching Aliens and Emma in the same day. Even so, I didn’t expect to fall in love with a show about magical talking ponies directed at grade school girls.
Now, my taste is fairly unique, and like I say, I have extremely cosmopolitan views when it comes to fiction: if it’s done with quality and care, and has an at least decent moral premise, I don’t care what the premise is. But I’m not alone when it comes to this show: it has a huge male fanbase, and many of them are thoroughly obsessed with it (I wouldn’t call myself a ‘Brony’ because I just think it’s a good show, but there’s a lot of other shows and stories I’m more interested in). That raises the question of why? What’s the appeal?
Yes, raw cuteness is a factor.
Part of it is sheer quality: it’s simply a very well done show with appealing animation, great characterization, intelligent writing and often gut-bustingly hilarious humor. The leads are not only all likeable, but remarkably vivid, three-dimensional characters with believable passions, virtues, flaws, and foibles, sketched with great care and skill and brought to life by some wonderful voice actresses.
Despite being aimed at younger audiences, the show actually tackles some rather complicated themes in surprisingly intelligent fashion. For instance, an early episode featuring a conflict between settlers and natives allows both sides to make good points and ends by suggesting that the natives have ultimately benefited from the spread of civilization. How many kid shows – or, heck, adult shows – do that?
So, it’s a good show; miles better than anyone would expect. But it’s still a show aimed at little girls, and there are a lot of good shows out there: why do so many grown men, like me, find it so appealing?
I don’t think we appreciate how girls come across in a lot of media, especially stories aimed at girls. There’s a sense that the story is of girls triumphing over men, and where the ideal man is one who is supportive, but otherwise content to take a secondary position. See Kim Possible, for instance, or Zootopia or Moana on the big screen. I like all those stories to a greater or lesser degree (for what it’s worth, the ranking would go Kim, Zootopia, Moana), but many of the themes found in them trouble me.
The thing is, this sort of thing is fine once in a while, but become disturbing after seeing it time and again, especially in conjunction with other, more virulently misandric attitudes that we hear all around us, from movies, shows, books, teachers, people in the news, and on and on, all talking as if women were in competition with men, that men are stupid slobs who need to just get out of the way of women, that women need men like a fish needs a bicycle.
‘Unisexuality,’ the idea that men and women are and ought to be fundamentally the same, is a very popular idea these days. We live in a time where it’s actually considered good advice to write female characters exactly the same as male characters, and considered a compliment to say that there was nothing to distinguish the heroines from the heroes. I think, having been raised on horror stories of male sexism, that most people believe it to be a compliment to women to portray them as being basically the same as men, with only trivial or superficial differences. This has become more or less the standard practice of our day; female characters are to be written as male characters, only with an extra dose of resentment from being ignored and oppressed by men. Would Moana have been fundamentally different if the lead were a young man instead of a young woman? How about Rogue One, or The Force Awakens? How many times do we have to hear the heroine complain about the male characters trying to protect her, or not listening to her, or treating her different because she’s a woman?
After a while, this ceases to be original or charming and just becomes annoying. Female characters who aggressively reject being feminine, who treat the men in their lives with brittle resentment unless they fully support them, and who are fundamentally no different from the male characters except for having a nicer shape and a chip on their shoulder eventually become a chore to sit through, even if we don’t want to say anything about it for fear of appearing sexist.
In such a world, finding a show about a group of intensely and cheerfully feminine characters who don’t act like that, who are mostly focused on their own lives, but who show no animosity towards the men around them, and who, by and large, bypass the whole question of feminism, and who are also visually appealing, well-written, and funny, comes as a breath of fresh air. Even guys who agree with feminism must get tired of it after a while and want to spend time with girls who have better things to worry about.
That’s exactly what My Little Pony gives us; intensely feminine characters who are interesting in their own right without feeling like they’re trying to one-up us guys. The characters aren’t just self-possessed, confident, and brave, but they actually have real personalities and interests that they care about for their own sakes, rather than being preoccupied with how they are perceived or what social message they’re sending. In short, it’s a series that embraces normal human emotions about the sexes; that men and women are different, and that they generally like each other that way. It does this simply by allowing its female leads to be unapologetically feminine.
Plus it has stuff like this. That helps.
For instance, you could argue that, say, Rainbow Dash is an atypical feminine character, since she’s obsessed with sports and winning, but the way she’s written is that she cares about excelling for it’s own sake, not for the sake of being a ‘woman who excels.’ Significantly, she has just as much admiration for men who excel as for women. Besides which, Rainbow’s a tomboy, but she’s still feminine; she enjoys gets dressed up for a fancy party, coos over adorable creatures, and occasionally showcases her nurturing side. The point is, she’s still clearly a girl, even though she’s a highly competitive athlete.
Another thing I don’t think we appreciate enough is how much guys like girls as girls: that uniquely feminine flavor to personality, attitude, and perspective. It’s at once mysterious, amusing, and charming, but in the rush to make girls ‘strong’ I think a lot of female characters have lost their particular girlish charm. So, when it is used, it has all the appeal of relief.
This particular appeal stands out especially strong here, where the characters are completely de-sexualized (not that that’s stopped some people in this day and age, but never mind that now). They’re cute, and we accept that they are meant to be attractive ‘in context,’ but it’s their personalities that are the main source of their appeal. The sheer girlishness (not to be confused with ‘girliness’) of the characters, untainted by either the bitterness of feminism or the crudity of sexual desire, stands out in all its beauty.
It also has John de Lancie. That helps too.
In other words, the show gives its male fans something they don’t get very often in today’s world: a chance to spend time with unashamedly feminine girls who are perfectly comfortable in their own skin and who don’t have any kind of grudge against their male counterparts. The male characters are almost all relegated to secondary roles, but that’s simply because that’s the kind of story it is, not because they’re being deliberately sidelined or subordinated. The heroines get along fine with their male co-stars, unless there’s a real reason they shouldn’t.
For instance, when, in an early episode, Applejack argues with her brother about whether she can handle the harvest herself while he’s recovering from an injury, it’s not because he’s a boy and she’s a girl, but because she’s stubborn and proud, while he’s more level-headed and practical. Amazingly enough, the whole ‘sexism’ issue is completely bypassed in favor of a more universally applicable lesson about not letting pride lead you to bite off more than you can chew. This isn’t just more enjoyable, but it’s better writing, making Applejack a three-dimensional character with believable flaws rather than a bland ‘strong woman’ roll-model. Again, the show gives us well-written and cheerfully girlish female characters without imposing tedious feminist shibboleths.
The show gives us this, plus engaging and well-crafted storylines, plus vivid and memorable characters, plus intelligent writing, plus some side-splitting humor, plus catchy music and appealing animation.
No wonder it’s so popular.