Guest Blog: Caitie O’Neill: My Little Pony: Not Just for the Guys Anymore

If you spend a lot of time on the Internet, then you are likely aware of the existence of “Bronies;” adult male fans of the children’s cartoon series My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. If you don’t know about them, then this may come as something of a shock, but the show, intended for young girls, is incredibly popular with older men.

Why, you ask? Well, you can look that up somewhere else. There’s tons of material exploring the Brony phenomenon all over the ‘net. That’s what I’m here to address, in fact. Everyone is fascinated by the concept of Bronydom. So much, in fact, that I find the show’s target audience can easily be forgotten. Okay, we know the show is popular with older guys for various reasons, but what about the kids? Well, as it turns out, the show is, in my opinion, the ideal show for young girls.

Why? Well, for one thing, it’s actually incredibly well done. The animation is simple, elegant and expressive, the voice acting and songwriting is of remarkably high quality for a kid’s show. The most important quality is probably that, ironically for a franchise that has often been used to represent all that is girly, it doesn’t perpetuate gender stereotypes.

Yes, it’s a girly show, in the sense that all of the 6 primary characters are female. However, their gender does not dictate their character traits or behavior in any way. In addition, they’re realistic. They have their good traits, and also have consistent flaws that appear sometimes, (often identifiable as actual psychological problems) but the characters are accepting of each other and help to learn to overcome their limits.

Rainbow Dash is the token “tomboy” of the group. She possesses many traits that are usually more commonly associated with male characters, particularly in kids’ cartoons. She’s highly athletic and competitive, brash to the point of occasionally being obnoxious and conceited, but also fantastically loyal, dedicated, and brave. Her primarily goal is to become the best flier (she’s a Pegasus) in all of Equestria, and join the “Wonderbolts”, which are something like the world’s version of the Blue Angels stunt pilot team. Even her voice, speaking patterns and mannerisms appear rather more like a boy than a young woman, (all the main characters appear to be in the pony equivalent of their early 20s), and she is in fact often mistaken for male. This is assisted by the fact that her gender is never emphasized. Nobody ever points out that her sportiness is unusual for a girl. In the episode “Sonic Rainboom”, where she is being bullied by (male) former classmates, they say she can’t win the race, it’s because they think she is clumsy and incompetent—the fact that she is a girl isn’t even mentioned. This is really quite remarkable for a children’s series, where any character as tomboyish as Rainbow would probably be told “But you’re a girl!” at some point in the series. Friendship is Magic is unusual in that nobody, anywhere in the series cares in the slightest that Rainbow’s a bit butch.

It’s worth noting briefly that Rainbow’s boyishness prompts many of the “Bronies” to make jokes about her being a lesbian, despite their own insistence that their fondness for a “girly” show doesn’t make them homosexuals.

Rarity is Rainbow’s polar opposite, the show’s token girly girl. She’s very generous, talented, and mostly very kind, though she displays some narcissistic behavior as well. She’s also a professional fashion designer. But that’s the thing—she’s a professional. It’s not a hobby, it’s a career, and she works hard at it. The episode “Suited for Success” showcases this. Rarity generously offers to design dresses for her friends, and the work involved in pleasing everyone brings a great deal of stress to her. There’s nothing wrong with young girls wanting to be fashion designers, but Rarity is a good way of showing the girls that any career, no matter how apparently glamorous, involves real hard work and commitment, and so even the token “girly-girl” has good, positive lessons to teach young ladies.

What about the other characters? Well, the rest are nowhere near the extremes of femininity versus masculinity that Rainbow and Rarity represent, they also are good examples of not being constrained or defined by their gender.

Twilight Sparkle is generally considered the “main” character. She’s an academic and a perfectionist, and at the beginning of the series, not terribly social, though this changes as she gains friends. None of her traits seem especially feminine or masculine. You see highly bookish male characters quite often, and females occasionally too. She is mostly very level-headed and practical, though occasionally her perfectionism manifests as obsessive worrying and panic. An episode that demonstrates this well is “Lesson Zero” where homework-related stress sends her into full-blown crazy mode, including a brief Gollum-esque exchange with her reflection. (It is a cartoon, so of course things are occasionally blown out of proportion). Fans often mistakenly identify her as having OCD, but really it’s more of an anxiety issue.

Applejack speaks with a southern accent and is very warm and welcoming of everyone. She works hard and appears to be the head of her household, even though she has a brother, which is yet another positive representation of females. She’s very responsible and honest, and her key flaw is probably that she can be something of a workaholic. Applejack is unfortunately one of the less developed of the “Mane 6”, with few episodes centered around her.

Fluttershy is a Pegasus who rarely flies, prefers the company of animals, and suffers from crippling social anxiety. As someone who suffers from similar troubles I identify very strongly with Fluttershy and she is probably my favorite characters. She is incredibly caring, generous, and thoughtful, willing to do anything to help, but she’s also virtually incapable of standing up for herself and tends to let people walk all over her. However, she’s a great example for shy girls because, while she may be very timid and quiet, she cares very deeply for her friends, and while she can’t stand up for herself, she can certainly stand up for others. In the episode “Dragonshy” she takes the role of Bilbo in a story that blatantly and shamelessly pays tribute to The Hobbit, as they go to confront a dragon (Somebody who writes this really likes Tolkien). And while she’s thoroughly terrified and useless for most of the journey, when the gigantic dragon harms her friends, she proceeds to defeat it…by giving him a stern talking-to. And the dragon breaks down in shame from the verbal bitch-slap. This may be my favorite dragon-slaying in the history of fiction.

And last but not least there is Pinkie Pie, who is really not even a remotely realistic character, but damn, she is fun. Pinkie frequently breaks the laws of physics and is very fond of partying. However, even Pinkie, known for her spastic and overly enthusiastic nature, has some realistic traits. For example, she is prone to over-thinking things, often trailing off on long stream-of-consciousness monologues that take her from A to B in a way that only really seems to make sense to her. Sometimes this is just quirky, but other times it’s the root of some serious problems. For example, the episode “Party of One,” where she gives too much thought to her friends all turning down her party invitations and arrives at the entirely wrong conclusion that they don’t like her anymore. This also shows that despite her upbeat, cheery nature, Pinkie has some insecurities she doesn’t let us see very often. Perhaps this is why this character is so intensely devoted to making everyone else around her as happy as possible.

In addition to well-developed characters that can act as positive examples for young girls, the show’s episode format involves one character or another learning some valuable lesson about friendship, and explicitly stating the moral of the story in a voice-over monologue reading a “Letter to Princess Celestia,” who is the almost god-like ruler of the land of Equestria. Ignoring the fact that Celestia is some sort of immortal dictator with a four-thousand-year rule, the lessons each episode teaches are always very applicable to real social situations that most young girls will probably find themselves in. They aren’t cut-and-paste morals like “lying is bad” or “pride goes before a fall.” For example, I mentioned “Lesson Zero” earlier. In this episode, Twilight is incredibly stressed out about something that both the audience and the other characters can see is absurd, and her friends initially dismiss her worries. However, it’s still important to her, and she continues to stress. The moral her friends realize at the end is that okay, maybe it was silly, but it was making her upset, and as her friends they should have tried to be more understanding and helpful from the get-go. Quick, raise your hand if you’ve been in a similar situation in your life. Most of you probably have. Girls panic about dumb things all the time. These are valuable, realistic lessons. There’s also episodes like “Suited for Success” which teach not to look a gift horse in the mouth, and “Putting Your Hoof Down,” a Fluttershy-centric episode that discusses the importance of being assertive without being aggressive. All of these have practical real-world applications that the young viewers are likely to encounter.

Now, one thing that tends to crop up a lot in children’s fiction is, oddly enough, man-bashing. Even in fiction aimed at boys, guys tend to be portrayed as stupider than women. Sandy Cheeks is clearly the most intelligent character on SpongeBobSquarePants. Wanda was brighter than anyone else on FairlyOddparents, even if she was annoying. MLP, despite being largely female, manages to mostly avoid this. Okay, Spike, the primary male character, isn’t very bright. However, most of Spike’s foolishness is attributed to his youth and not to his gender. One of the other common male characters is Applejack’s brother Big Macintosh, who at first seems a bit slow, but if you watch a few episodes featuring the character you will come to realize that he isn’t stupid, he just doesn’t talk much. When he does have something to say, he’s perfectly intelligent. Other prominent male characters include the villain Discord, who is clever and scheming, though of course guilty of enough stupidity to let the heroes defeat him. There’s also Twilight’s older brother Shining Armor, who is an all-around good guy.

Something that has always bugged me in entertainment meant for children is the presence of characters having or desiring romantic relationships. Really? These kids are what, eight? These girls don’t need a man in their life yet. Friendship is Magic does a wonderful job of deconstructing the idea pushed on many young girls that they need a male romantic partner to be happy. Only one of the Mane 6 even seems to have an interest in such a thing, and even then it’s only in one episode. Rarity looks forward to attending an even where she can meet Prince Blue Blood, whom she refers to as her “prince charming.” After considerable fantasizing and daydreams, she finally meets the prince, who…well, turns out to be kind of a douchebag. Rarity immediately sees her mistake, grows frustrated, and kicks him to the curb by the end of the episode. This shows young girls that A) Men are not always the beautiful creatures they may initially appear to be and B) If a man treats you badly, don’t put up with it. These are two important lessons to see in a genre where characters often maintain crushes on those who consistently reject and belittle them (Trixie Tang from Fairly Oddparents, anyone?). In one of the only other episodes centered around romantic relationship, some characters attempt to pair up others by use of a love potion so they won’t be alone on the Equestrian equivalent of Valentine’s Day. The moral of the episode is that their behavior was invasive and rude, and that we should all take our time to form a healthy relationship because we love that person, and not just because society expects us to have a date for a certain day of the year. Hard to argue with that, right ladies?

In the end, I think we can all agree that My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic sets some wonderful examples and teaches some important lessons to its young female viewers. So, sorry Bronies—it is for little girls, after all.

Further viewing:

PBS Idea Channel explores Bronies:

Hank Green doesn’t have a favorite pony with a bonus about the Evil Baby Orphanage, which has nothing to do with ponies but is funny.

“Smile, Smile, Smile” I challenge you all to view the entire song without at least smirking.