What kind of week has it been? Occupy Wall Street is spreading. The GOP presidential contenders are an increasingly madcap circus act absent only the clown noses. Canada is about to get slammed with ridiculous “tough on crime” mandatory minimum sentencing laws that even Texas Republicans say don’t work. Carson Kressley got voted off Dancing with the Stars. And it’s raining so hard tonight that one half expects to spot a bearded man gathering two of every animal. What better time to talk about… My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic?
At first you might think that I have finally lived up to the name of this blog and gone, accordingly, crackers. But the spread of this latest pop culture phenomenon is fascinating and worth some discussion. Besides, I feel like I’ve gotten awfully serious in the last few posts and I, not to mention readers, could probably use a little bit of fluff to part the clouds.
Last year, HUB in the U.S., formerly Discovery Kids, began airing My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. The animated series follows the exploits of studious young unicorn Twilight Sparkle and her friends: countrified orchard keeper Applejack, posh fashion designer Rarity, tomboy speedster Rainbow Dash, sweet and timid Fluttershy and basically bonkers Pinkie Pie, learning lessons as they tangle with relationships, responsibilities and the occasional monster. It sounded for all intents and purposes like just another girly, glorified toy commercial.
But then the series hit the Internet, and like the proverbial wildfire, exploded, as a demographic beyond the dreams of the show’s creators seized upon it and began extolling its virtues on popular discussion boards like 4chan and Memebase. Episodes were dissected, minutiae memorized. An animator’s error crossing one of the background ponies’ eyes gave birth to a fan-fiction character, “Derpy Hooves,” with a history and personality all her own. Teenage boys and even older fans adopted the show’s catchphrases and dubbed fellow enthusiasts “bronies” – a portmanteau for ‘brother ponies.’ It did not take long for fandom to spread beyond cyberspace - the phenomenon became so large that bronies were deemed worthy of mocking (unsurprisingly) on Fox News, Stephen Colbert gave bronies a shout-out on his show, and even President Bill Clinton was quizzed on his knowledge of Friendship is Magic on a recent radio appearance. (For the record, No. 42 got all three questions right.)
What the hell, the unconverted might ask. What do all these people see in a kid’s cartoon?
Firstly, it’s funny as all get out. Series creator Lauren Faust has The Powerpuff Girls on her CV, another ostensibly “girly cartoon” that peppered its plots with enough clever pop culture references to amuse any adults who happened to be in the room half-watching along with their kids. The humor in MLP:FIM doesn’t rely on tired allusions to worn-out zeitgeist staples like say, Family Guy might, but instead manages to find the humor in its characters, often in a wink to an awareness of its own absurdity as a world inhabited by anthromorphic ponies. Witness an episode featuring a horse-drawn carriage, where the horse dragging the carriage stops, looks back at his fellow horse riding inside it and says “Ok, your turn to pull now.” Secondly, despite the fantastical setting, the problems faced by the “mane six” are very real, and very relatable. Unlike so many anime-influenced cartoons where of a twenty-two minute running time, ten of those minutes are devoted to fight scenes, six to redundant transformation sequences and the last few on actual character and plot, the ponies’ adventures often find them simply overcoming jealousy, petty rivalries, xenophobia, prejudice and ignorance, forging tighter bonds of friendship through understanding rather than a super-mega-plus-over-9000-uber-power explosion.
Thirdly, perhaps most of all, the characters are likeable and truly endearing. Each has a charming quirk that never veers into pretense. For Applejack, it’s her Southern drawl and her myriads of relatives all named after breeds of apples, from older brother Big Macintosh to doddering old Granny Smith. Rainbow Dash scores for her Maverick-esque love of and need for speed. Pinkie Pie’s unpredictable non-sequiturs and never-ending cheerfulness lead her to steal every scene she’s in. But the most popular has turned out to be the milquetoast pegasus pony Fluttershy (seen above), whose tender voice – performed by actress Andrea Libman – and mannerisms practically dare you not to sigh “awww,” as if you were looking at your umpteenth YouTube kitten video. Fluttershy’s most notable moment comes in an episode where Rainbow Dash is trying to teach her how to cheer, and Fluttershy can only respond with a pathetic, whispered “yay.” Of course by the end of the episode she explodes with excitement at her friend’s triumph in achieving the fabled “sonic rainboom.”
If it all sounds awfully saccharine to you, you’re probably right. Why then does it rate so highly with people who would otherwise dismiss it as childish nonsense? MLP:FIM has become a shining example of what I referred to when talking about Star Wars a few posts ago, the idea of remix culture – art that is no longer the property of one but is instead shared and shaped by legions. Indeed, the show’s creators have embraced their internet following and have even incorporated some of the fan creations into their own canon, transforming the series essentially into an interactive experience. More than that, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic succeeds, I think – and why for Fox News its popularity does not compute – because it is completely devoid of cynicism and snark. When so much of our popular culture and indeed our humor is devoted to mocking the shortcomings of others, MLP:FIM stands apart as a warm, innocent and welcome throwback to a yearning that many of us have buried inside, that our problems can indeed be solved with compassion and without tearing each other down. Sometimes it’s good for the soul to embrace the sweetness and simply enjoy something on a visceral level without pausing to take the piss.
And if that makes us bronies, then I guess I’d just say, after Rainbow Dash, that we’re 20% cooler because of it.