What if I told you there was a show that:
- Passes the Bechdel test in multiple scenes of very nearly all of its 65 episodes.
- Was specifically created to portray–and affirm as equally good–multiple ways to perform femininity.
- Portrays women in every role of society, from farmers and factory workers to the highest echelons of government power.
- Portrays women in not only the overwhelming majority of speaking roles, but also as the default for background characters and extras.
- Is critically acclaimed as among the best-written shows in its genre, with very strong characterization, excellent humor, and engaging plots.
- Was created by a woman, is written mostly by women, and has a woman as its current showrunner.
- Is the most popular show on its network and enjoys strong support by corporate sponsors, with large demographics of both tracked genders in several age ranges.
This is a fantasy of the kind of show we’d get in a feminist utopia, right? Nothing like that could possibly air on modern television.
Yet it does. And of all things, the show is a remake and reboot of one of the definitive, and definitively terrible, toy company-driven “cartoons for girls” of the 1980s, My Little Pony. Specifically, it is the cartoon associated with the fourth generation of the toyline, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.
This bizarre dichotomy is a little easier to understand with a little context from recent history. In brief: Lauren Faust, the creator and first showrunner of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, distinguished herself as an animator in the 1990s, working mostly in collaboration with her eventual husband, Craig McCracken. She worked her way up through the ranks on the show Powerpuff Girls, from initially being one of many animators to eventually writing the theatrical feature film based on the show. On McCracken’s next major project for Cartoon Network, Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, Faust took on a leading creative role, including serving as head writer, character designer, and storyboard artist.
During her tenure at Cartoon Network, Faust repeatedly approached the network executives about her ideas for a new show with an all-female cast, but was repeatedly rebuffed. The executives gave two reasons for rejecting the show: The first was that boys wouldn’t watch a show with a female lead, an obvious falsehood in an era where Powerpuff Girls, Dora the Explorer, and Kim Possible all had large followings of boys in their target age group. The second was a stereotype of cartoons for girls as generally being lower-quality and less popular than cartoons for boys. This was closer to being true, but mistaking correlation for causation.
The real reason cartoons for girls were generally poorly received was that cartoons for girls, in North America at least,were generally formulaic, poorly animated, and cheaply made, with shallow characterization and little in the way of action or humor. Prior to the 1980s, there was more or less no such thing as a cartoon for girls; the overwhelming majority of cartoons were intended equally to be viewed by both genders. (In practice, this still meant that they were made by men and privileged a male perspective.) In the 1980s, however, the first true merchandise-driven cartoons emerged: cartoons based on pre-existing toylines, and funded primarily by the toy manufacturers themselves. Unlike pre-1980 cartoons, toys are heavily gendered, and the cartoons based on them followed suit, mapping neatly onto the stereotypes: He-Man, G.I. Joe, and Transformers for boys, My Little Pony and Jem for girls.
With vanishingly few exceptions, these merchandise-driven shows are execrably bad. They are pure money-grab, generally badly written, poorly animated, and cheaply made, with the primary purpose neither to enlighten nor entertain, but rather to showcase as many characters, vehicles, weapons, and accessories as possible so that kids will want the associated toys. While these shows never went away entirely, their period of dominance was thankfully shortlived, as by the late 1980s and into the 1990s, syndication and cable enabled more creative freedom and new profit models and launched what is now known as the creator-driven era.
As a general rule, creator-driven shows were not gendered, which is to say they went for the cultural default of male-dominated casts of characters and catering primarily to an audience of boys, with an understanding that girls would watch, too. This had the effect that shows about and for girls were nearly always merchandise-driven, which as previously mentioned, were nearly always awful. Of course this is just as true of merchandise-driven shows for boys, but that’s where cherry-picking the data to justify a conclusion arrived at by pure sexism comes in. The perception that there is something inherently bad about girls’ cartoons is exactly the circumstance Faust wanted to rectify, and exactly what executives prevented her from doing with their circular logic.
Meanwhile, Discovery Kids, a child-friendly sister network to the Discovery Channel, was struggling financially. Toy manufacturer Hasbro purchased half of the network and began plans to relaunch it as the Hub, a “family” network with syndicated cartoons, plus new cartoons and game shows based on Hasbro products. Faust approached the start-up network to once again pitch an idea for a cartoon with an all-female cast. Her pitch was rejected, but the Hub made a counter-offer.
Faust could write the show she wanted to make; she has said in interviews that her two goals were to “explore multiple different ways of being a girl” and to create a show that parents could actually enjoy watching with their children. The Hub’s only requirement was that it had to be based on the new line of My Little Pony toys the company was launching.
On the first day of the Hub’s broadcast, the premiere of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic aired, and it was, in a word, outstanding. Well-animated, funny, fun, and a solid adventure, that initial two-parter astounded a lot of people who were (understandably, given the typical awfulness of “girls’ cartoons” in general and My Little Pony in particular) highly skeptical of the show, even with a big name like Lauren Faust attached. Most notably, it drew the attention and boosterism of 4chan’s cartoon board and the Onion AV club; since that initial broadcast Entertainment Weekly has become another supporter. Childless teen- and twenty-something men and women have become a major secondary audience for the show, and Wired‘s “GeekDad” column referred to it as a rare example of “girl-focused shows that a geeky dad can appreciate with his daughter.”
What really makes the show great–and makes it interesting and valuable from a feminist perspective–is its cast of characters. Most television cartoons suffer from what TVTropes calls the Smurfette Principle, in which there is only one token woman who must stand in for all of womankind; if you’re very lucky you might get two distinct female characters. MLP:FIM, however, has six main characters, all young women (well, ponies), and all unique and complex in their own right. All six have distinct interests, hobbies, attitudes, goals, and careers, all six have those odd internal contradictions that make the difference between a caricature and a character, and five of the six have arcs that develop their characters over the course of the series.
Twilight Sparkle is the first of the main characters to appear, and the closest thing the series has to a singular main character. She is a scholar and an extremely talented magic-user whom the nation’s ruler, Princess Celestia, assigns to study the “magic of friendship.” Initially a bookish, antisocial loner, Twilight grows into a leader both in her field and politically. What’s best about this arc, however, is that Twilight never stops being bookish or scholarly, and at no point does the series suggest that this trait is wrong or unfeminine, which is a welcome relief from similar storylines in other shows.
The second main character is Pinkie Pie, Twilight’s near-opposite. Pinkie is a classic Fool, flighty, silly, funny, and oddly likely to possess information and inuition the other characters lack. She is a social butterfly who loves parties and sweets, can be extremely clingy to her friends, and yet she is able to repeatedly prove herself an invaluable member of the team–more than one episode’s moral has been a variation on “don’t ignore Pinkie Pie just because you don’t always understand her.”
The third character is Applejack. Like Twilight, Applejack is an extremely hard-working and driven pony, but unlike Twilight she is both very strong (both in the physical and emotional senses) and highly competitive. She works as a farmer, and notably, despite having both a living grandmother and an older brother, is presented as the owner of the farm and leader of its inhabitants. Applejack is fiercely devoted to her family in a show where most characters’ families are shown rarely if at all. Unfortunately, she is basically content with what she has and sees little reason to change, meaning she has had the least development of any of the main characters.
Fourth is Rainbow Dash, a brash, outspoken, confident athlete who may be the fastest pony in the world. She is as hypercompetitive as Applejack, but also prone to laziness; because she knows she can do her job faster than anyone else, she will often take naps or slack off until the last minute. She is a fangirl for, and dreams of joining, a stunt-flying team called the Wonderbolts.She’s also got one of the stronger arcs; initially somewhat arrogant and prone to jumping into situations without considering the consequences (she kicked a dragon in the face once, which accomplished nothing but making it angry enough to attack her friends), she mellows out considerably as the series progresses.
Fifth is Rarity, who is possibly the most interesting character but also probably the hardest to write, given how often her characterization comes off as shallow or petty. Rarity is the result of Hasbro insisting that there be at least one “fashion pony” among the main characters, who would give them an excuse to sell lots and lots of pony dresses for kids to dress their Rarity dolls in. Rather than go the obvious and boring route of a “shopaholic” or vain fashion plate character, Faust gave us a fashion designer, a passionate, dedicated, hardworking artist (and another business owner) whose medium happens to be clothes. Temperamental, fussy, materialistic, and a bit vain, Rarity is nonetheless incredibly generous with nonmaterial things like her time and effort. While in narrative terms her arc has been a slow and steady rise in the fashion world, Rarity’s character development has been less of an arc than a negotiation, a constant struggle of balancing her dreams of fashion-world stardom with the bonds she shares with friends and family.
Last but most definitely not least is my favorite pony, Fluttershy. As her name suggests, Fluttershy is extremely shy, timid and, at least at first, literally afraid of her own shadow. However, her compassion, especially for animals, is even stronger than her fear. She works as a healer for the wild animals that live near her house on the edge of town. In addition, when the chips are down, and especially when people she cares about are in danger, Fluttershy is capable of showing a (firmly nonviolent) core of steel: she’s used a combination of stern tone and dominant body language to reduce a rampaging dragon to apologetic tears, beaten a cockatrice in a staring contest, and out-manipulated a trickster god. Fluttershy is a keen observer of behavior, which serves her well in caring for animals; much of her arc has consisted of her learning to trust those same skills to function socially around other ponies and slowly become comfortable within her circle of friends.
The diversity of the cast, as I said, is one of the show’s greatest strengths. Their careers range from the traditionally feminine (animal caretaker, fashion) to the traditionally masculine (scientific research), but there is no suggestion that any of their career paths are inappropriate or less-than. Their strengths and weaknesses outside of their jobs are likewise assigned without regard to gender norms. For example, Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie tend to be impulsive, while Fluttershy and Applejack are more cautious. Rarity and Twilight Sparkle are given to overreaction, but Applejack and Rainbow Dash are more even-keeled. Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash are brave in the face of physical danger but out of their depth in social situations; Rarity is the opposite. None of the characters is easily stereotyped as the Smurfette, none is a stereotypical tomboy (Applejack is too much of a nurturer to count, Rainbow Dash too willing to put on a dress) or “girly-girl” (Rarity has kicked a manticore and threatened dragons with violence, and I’ve covered some of Fluttershy’s achievements). At the same time, the characters all do “girly” things at some point; some hang out at the spa more than others, but they’ve all been at least once, for instance.
I could go on for thousands of words about the characters, the themes, the world, the way the show structures itself (and indeed, I have done so and will continue to do so for at least another year), but the main thing I want to get across is this: a show, watched by hundreds of thousands of people of all ages and genders, but especially kids and young adults, consistently manages to successfully portray women as people, albeit pony-shaped people. It quietly but insistently and celebrates “woman” as a category that comes in the same infinite variety as the category “human.”
There are other good shows on television. There are better shows on television. But My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is the only show on television that gives me hope for the future.