Thursday, February 13, 2014

"I used to wonder what friendship could be..."

((This became much longer than anticipated, so bear with me. But pictures!))

Every once in a while I encounter a movie or television show I wouldn’t normally be interested in, but for some reason decide to watch it and in it find unexpected love. Remember "The A-Team?" And I don’t like horror films or zombie movies, but I really liked “Cabin in the Woods,” which is a horror film with zombies.

So having never really been interested in the girly girl world I associated with “My Little Pony,” I never thought I would end up watching the show and falling in love with it. I knew a couple of “bronies” (adult fans, usually heterosexual men) but had no idea what they were so involved in. My sister Liz posted on Facebook that the documentary “Bronies” was available on Netflix and that everyone should watch it. I added it to my queue and promptly forgot about it.

A few days later, I was looking for something to watch and decided to watch the documentary. Suddenly I had a glimpse into this very unusual and very wonderful fandom: people who are not small girls who love “My Little Pony.” The love, friendship, and enthusiasm they shared for Twilight Sparkle and her friends in Ponyville was contagious, and my heart was warmed.

More importantly, I was very interested in what creator Lauren Faust was saying as she talked to the fans about the show. She wanted to create a show that reflected young girls and their interests, which is evident in the show’s production design and writing. But she was also gratified there were all of these people showing support for her creation, proving “that girls and what they are interested in is worthwhile.”

Curiosity got the better of me. I wanted to know what this was all about. I wanted to know what kind of show would create as passionate and large a following as the most recent interpretation of “My Little Pony.” The first episode was enjoyable and entertaining. I liked the bright colors, the interesting characters, and the clever writing. I kept watching. And then this happened.

There is an early episode where the “principal” pony (I say principal, although there is just as much screen time/emphasis on the other ponies in her group of friends), Twilight Sparkle, is practicing magic with her assistant and friend Spike. Later they are walking through Ponyville, and Spike comments on Twilight’s incredible abilities with magic. He says, “I thought unicorns were only supposed to have a little magic that matches their special talents.” And Twilight replies, “True, for ponies whose talents are for things like cooking or singing or math.”

I almost paused the show right then and there. I think I did. Wait a minute. A show for young girls, filled with pink and sparkles and cupcakes, that offers alternatives to domestic pursuits? A show for girls that promotes learning and self-exploration not limited to “traditional gender roles?” I had to keep watching.

And what I saw was incredible. A cast of complex characters living in an elaborate, complicated world. Equestria is a matriarchal society, led by the beautiful and wise Princess Celestia, in which each episode focuses on the adventures of the female ponies of Ponyville. There are stallions around, and although (as one commenter pointed out) they do share important roles in Equestria society, it is not their status that dictates that of the female ponies. Rather, it is the mares who are in positions of authority, and around whom each episode focuses. And each episode delves deeper into the complexities of the diverse group of ponies Twilight befriends.

One could generalize their characters, of course. Twilight is the smart one, Applejack the rustic hard worker, Rainbow Dash is the reckless athlete, Pinkie Pie is the comic relief, Fluttershy is timid, Rarity is snobby. But I could do the same with all my friends and family, and I wouldn’t be doing their profound and intricate personalities justice. The ponies learn and grow in a way that reflects the real world to a startling degree.

In every episode one of the ponies learns a lesson about friendship, but each lesson is both complex and meaningful. In one episode, athlete Rainbow Dash is laid up in the hospital with a hurt wing. Scoffing that “reading is for eggheads,” she refuses to read the books available at the hospital until she is so bored she picks up a recommendation from her more “egghead” friend Twilight. And once she begins, she can’t stop. She comes up with excuses to keep her friends from visiting so she has more time to read. When her wing is healed and she has to leave the book unfinished, she tries sneaking back into the hospital to steal the book so she can find out what happens next. When she finally admits to liking the book and asks to borrow it from Twilight, she says, “I thought reading was only for smart people.” And Twilight replies, “Just because you’re an athlete doesn’t mean you’re not smart.” And just because you like reading doesn’t mean you can’t also be good at sports.

In another episode, cheerful Pinkie Pie, friend to everypony in Ponyville, tries to befriend newcomer Cranky Doodle Donkey. He will have none of it. She persists to an obnoxious degree, desperate to make him smile. In the process she learns he lost his one true love and, after a lifetime of searching for her, has finally given up and is settling down to live alone. She discovers this lost true love is one of her friends living in Ponyville, and succeeds in bringing them together again. She is rewarded with Cranky’s friendship and the smile she was so desperate for. And the lesson she learned is there are different kinds of friends, and that some of them would just like to be left alone, and that’s just fine.

And in one of my favorite episodes, Rarity gets kidnapped by the rough and cruel Diamond Dogs while she’s out searching for gems for the gowns she creates. One of her magic talents is the ability to find jewels, and so she is taken against her will to find gems for the Diamond Dogs. The other ponies (and especially Spike, who has a crush on Rarity) rush off to her rescue, sure that she is helpless against the dirty and disgusting conditions of her capture. When they arrive, however, they find that she has used her wits to outsmart the Diamond Dogs, and they end up leaving with all the jewels she was forced to find for them. The lesson? “Just because a pony is lady-like doesn’t mean she’s weak.”

Each episode follows the same pattern, where a pony learns a lesson in friendship and self-discovery. And each lesson is similarly far from simple, from Fluttershy becoming a bully when she tries to learn to assert herself, to Spike having to decide between his friendship with the ponies and the dragons he wants to impress. And in the finale of Season 3, I can't help but tear up when Celestia sings to Twilight Sparkle about her very real, very great potential. Twilight's journey is far from complete, and Celestia shows her that she has the strength and courage to "go where she will go, and see what she will see." Her potential is unaffected by cultural or personal limitations. It's beautiful and inspiring. “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and “The Legend of Korra” are the only other children’s shows I know that offer comparable lessons in life and friendship.

I have a theory, that we all harbor a human need for imaginative play, a need that extends into adulthood. As children we have free reign to explore this need, but as adults I believe that although the need is still present, we have less “acceptable” avenues to pursue it. That’s why we love films and television. That’s why we cosplay, and why we write stories and songs and plays (and why actors are like children). And that’s why a ridiculous number of adults are fans of “My Little Pony.” We recognize in it the quality of imaginative play we crave as grown-ups, and appreciate the importance the show gives to young girls and their need for positive growth in a sometimes very disheartening world.

And very simply, “My Little Pony” makes me happy. I love the lovely animation and the clever writing. I love that they use colloquialisms like “everypony” and “somepony.” I love that they stamp their hooves to applaud. I love that Equestria is filled with cities like “Cloudsdale,” “Manehatten,” “Trottingham,” and of course the capital is “Canterlot.” I love that I can never tell whether they are calling the head of Ponyville the “mayor” or  the “mare.” And I love that the show is filled with great puns, like my favorite ponies Lickety Split, whose cutie mark is an ice cream sundae, and Minuette, whose cutie mark is an hourglass.

I can be having a terrible day, and I just need to watch an episode of “My Little Pony” to brighten my perspective. I can be reminded of life lessons I have forgotten. I can laugh at Pinkie Pie’s strange antics, and feel connected in Fluttershy’s love of animals. And I can know that there is a television show that celebrates little girls and all that they love, whether it’s pink ruffles or sports or books or nature. So yeah, I guess I am a Brony. And I love every minute of it.


Just me said...

I love it :) Seriously, it's the simple things in life that remind you life is awesome. Whether it's a TV show or something else, you gotta embrace it!

Miss you!! Happy Birthday in 5 days!


Anonymous said...

"There are stallions around, which as far as I can tell are used primarily for labour and (presumably) reproduction."

What nonsense, Equestria is obviously an egalitarian (gender equal!) society. There are plenty of successful male characters in the show that stand alongside the many equally successful female characters.

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Into the Maze of a Mind by Rebekah Whittaker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.