Friendship is Heroic

On Wednesday, February 22, 2012 0 comments

There is a plague on the internet, haunting forums and message boards like an old woman haunting a bingo hall. It is called My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. The over-night internet sensation has bred a fandom that calls itself “bronies,” and they are by and large grown men who should be too old for cartoon unicorns.

Despite the overwhelming reception of MLP, it isn’t all love and tolerance for the ponies. In February 2011, 4chan temporarily banned anyone who posted MLP related material. This is the same site that is infamous for its “no rules” in posting images. This prompted the brony fan base to start their own image board, ponychan. However, apparently that still didn’t put enough cyber-distance between them and 4chan, as members of 4chan later raided the separate imageboard, temporarily causing the servers to crash.

Rebellion never looked so cuddly

What caused such a vehement reaction? The main line of protest is that MLP is a show for little girls, and therefore should not be appealing to guys. If a grown man likes MLP,they are accused of being feminine or a disgrace. However, you can’t judge the worth of a series by its candy-colored wrapping. Just because there are magical talking ponies, and just because a series is aimed at kids, doesn’t mean that a work is immature. In fact, MLP demonstrates protagonists taking on real-life problems in non-hypocritical, meaningful ways. The realistic, relatable heroes of the series are what make the show more than just a “girl cartoon,” and give it such a strong adult following.

Most toddler-friendly cartoons are so saturated with saccharine happiness that too much exposure to them can cause diabetes. Shows like Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and Dora the Explorer are devoid of conflicts that transfer to the real world. Problems are watered-down and often solved through illogical or unrealistic means. For example, all Dora has to do to deter Swiper the Fox from thievery is shout “Swiper, no swiping!” three times. There is no relation to real-life conflict. Any adult (or anyone over the age of two) who tried to solve a conflict this way would be laughed at and then promptly robbed beyond all reason.

On the other end of the spectrum, some kid shows like Care Bears have protagonists that spout ideologies of endless love and acceptance, but still use violent means to solve their problems. The “Care Bear Stare” is really just a rainbow-hued death ray. The bears literally zap their opponents into submission. Within the mythology of the series, the “Care Bear Stare” is supposed to represent concentrated care and joy. So why do the Care Bears have to use this ultimate weapon? Why can’t they just use love and kindness to solve their problems?
Remember, kids, brainwashing is an acceptable solution to problems

The answer is that most kid shows are caught between trying to show realistic conflict and keeping themselves kid friendly. Supposedly, many shows aimed at toddlers want to instill good values in their audience. They want to show them how to be peaceful and friendly and a good member of society, etc. However, real life isn’t kind to those ideals. Being nice to other people doesn’t mean they’ll be nice back, and telling someone they are hurting your feelings isn’t going to guarantee a pouring out of forgiveness and kindness. So the writers have to settle for making protagonists who are unrealistically idealistic or unbearably hypocritical. The characters can be like Dora, and solve problems in over-simplified, or they can be like the Care Bears, and preach love while practicing hate.

Except MLP is different. The protagonists may be a bunch of talking ponies, but they respond and react like real people. They aren’t some distorted, unreachable ideal. Instead, they are heroes that an audience can both relate to and emulate. They encounter real-life problems, and they solve them in real-life ways.

 Go ahead, watch an episode. You know you want to.

The characters have distinct personalities, which makes them more interesting and complex enough for an adult audience to enjoy. In the episode “Dragonshy,” timid little Fluttershy has to help her friends calm down a dangerous dragon. Fluttershy was always presented as the sweet, gentle, timid pony of the group. She is good with animals, but has trouble asserting herself. However, when the dragon threatens her friends, Fluttershy becomes a force to be reckoned with. She faces the dragon and commands him to behave. She isn’t just a wilting flower. She has multiple facets to her personality, just like a real person. In many children’s cartoon, even the first series of My Little Pony, the characters were often only distinguishable from one another by one-dimensional traits, like being grumpy or funny. However, Fluttershy is more than just the shy one. She is gentle, but she is also compassionate enough to become protective when her friends are in danger.

Another character who shows unexpected depth is Pinkie Pie in the episode “Party of One.” Pinkie Pie comes across as an extremely eccentric cloud cuckoo lander. She routinely breaks the laws of physics, has non-sequitur moments about oatmeal, and throws parties on a regular basis. However, when the other ponies start avoiding her, she quickly becomes paranoid about people not liking her. Instead of laughing it off (a very standard Pinkie reaction), she broods in her house. She is no longer the bouncy, joy-filled pony of sun shines and smiles, but is instead self-conscious and hurt. She acts completely different than normal. This makes her that much more of a realistic character, because people often act differently under different circumstances. When Pinkie experiences exclusion, she is quick to loose her sense of joy and bounciness. Her hurt helps the audience relate to her, no matter what their age is.

Another example of complex characters comes in the episode “Look Before you Sleep.” Applejack, the resident tomboy, and Rarity, the fashion diva, are forced into spending the night at Twilight’s house. At first, their archetypical details mesh about as well as one would expect. Applejack is laid back, and in Rarity’s eyes very sloppy. On the other hand, Applejack sees Rarity’s eye for detail as obnoxious perfectionism. The two are able to come to terms and learn to enjoy each other. However, it isn’t because Applejack learns to be more girly or Rarity learns to be more of a tomboy. Instead, Rarity admires Applejack’s resolve and work ethic despite her tendency to be a slob. In turn, Applejack appreciates Rarity’s sensitivity towards the feelings of others and her attention to detail. Unlike most children’s shows, the characters are given traits beyond being “girly” or “tomboyish.” They have distinct traits that they can admire in each other that are independent of their placement on the sliding scale femininity. Because there is more to them than how deep their wardrobe is, people besides little girls can relate to them.

 The best thing about adult fans is they can do awesome stuff like remixes

Once again Rarity shows that she is more multi-faceted than a diamond in the episode “A Dog and Pony Show.” When Rarity is taken captive by a group of jewel-grubbing dogs, the other ponies fear that she won’t be able to protect herself. When they do finally come to her rescue, though, they see that Rarity was never in need of assistance. She was able to fend for herself against the dogs with some clever verbal parrying. Even though she is girly, Rarity didn’t panic in the face of conflict. She was able to hold her own, proving that there is more to her than an insatiable need for clothes.

The characters also have faults and make mistakes, which makes them more realistic. Like in the episode “Boast Busters,” when Trixie the enormous brag comes to town and starts showing the other ponies up. Twilight is afraid to stand up for her friends because she doesn’t want to be seen as a show-off, either. The conflict doesn’t merely arrive from some character doing bad and the other characters trying to show them the right way. Instead, it comes from the moral dilemma when a character is presented with a conflict where they aren’t sure what the right choice would be. Twilight expresses genuine fear over loosing friends. She is not some moral titan who automatically knows what is right.

The cast may be cute and cuddly, but don't mistake them for shallow

Then, in the episode “Suited for Success,” Rarity, the resident fashion designer, decides to make dresses for all her friends. Unfortunately, her friends’ fashion taste is lacking, and they don’t like the clothes Rarity poured so much effort into. It’s rude; it’s ungrateful; it’s mean. However, Rarity swallows her pride and changes the dresses according to her friend’s suggestions. They turn out hideous looking, but Rarity wants to make her friends happy. Unfortunately, when people see the ugly designs, Rarity’s reputation as a fashion designer is ruined. Her friends realize their mistake, and decide to put on a fashion show with Rarity’s original designs so people can see how talented she really is. This isn’t a glorified depiction of friendship. Sometimes, friends make stupid mistakes and hurt each other. The cast of MLP isn’t perfect. They are occasionally ungrateful or insensitive. However, they learn from their mistakes. Rarity was willing to give her friends the dresses they wanted, even if they hurt her feelings. She does express hurt, but she is willing to put it aside for the sake of her friends. In turn, when her friends realize that they selfishly hurt their friend, they are willing to make amends.

Sweet little Fluttershy also has her faults. In the episode “A Bird in the Hoof,” she abducts Princess Celestia’s pet bird because she feared the bird was not being well taken care of. When Twilight finds out, she panics, and persuades Fluttershy to bring the bird back without letting the princess know what they did. Both characters are guilty of dishonesty, because they do not want to admit their mistake to the Princess, so they sneak around and try to bring the bird back covertly. Fluttershy also thinks that she knows what is best for the bird even though it is out of her jurisdiction. She is prideful and that pride eventually leads to them getting caught. However, after realizing that her actions were selfish and hurtful, she expresses regret and a desire to make amends. Unlike some children’s shows MLP isn’t afraid to show the characters doing misdeeds if the characters are going to grow as a result.

Being a brony. It feels like this.

Another example of the characters not being perfect is in “Bridle Gossip,” when a zebra named Zecora comes to town. The other ponies have never seen anything like her, so they react with fear. Initially, Twilight acts as the moral light. However, after a few misunderstandings, she too misjudges Zecora and gives in to gossip. When she finds out she was wrong, and Zecora really is nice, she feels guilty. All the ponies do, because they were all in the wrong. Because the characters were mean, they were able to learn from their mistakes. If a character is perfect, they can never progress. However, Twilight was fearful enough to make the mistake of labeling and excluding someone. This makes the lesson more powerful, because it gives the show the chance to show the characters correcting their mistakes. After all, if a character never makes mistakes, then there is nothing to learn from.

The third sign of maturity in MLP is the stakes. The conflicts are real, and the characters are at risk of losing. For example, in the episode “The Ticket Master,” Twilight Sparkle is given two tickets to a very high profile party. Unfortunately, she has five friends, and she has to choose which one to take. As each pony-friend tries to bribe and curry favor, Twilight realizes that there is no way to avoid hurting somepony’s feelings. Instead of candy-coating the dilemma in eternal friendship, the show provides a real problem. Twilight is genuinely concerned about loosing a friend, and no magic way out appears. In the end, Twilight decides she wants to give up her tickets, because if she can’t enjoy it with all her friends, then she isn’t going to enjoy it at all. Of course, in the end Princess Celestia gives her enough tickets for all her friends, but Twilight was willing to make a sacrifice for her friends. MLP doesn’t hide the fact that sometimes there is no perfect solution to a problem. Instead of a solution appearing out of thin air, Twilight has to face her problem head on. Her solution is realistic, meaning that the audience can relate to her problem. The viewers don’t feel cheated by the resolution. Instead, they feel like they learned a valuable lesson about friendship that they could use in their own lives.

There are dozens of fan communities dedicated to creating and sharing fanart like this

Then, in the episode “Winter Wrap Up,” the ponies must clean up winter in order to make way for spring. While the concept is clearly fantastical, in pony world Winter Wrap Up is serious business. If the ponies don’t learn how to work together, then they risk being trapped in winter. The show establishes that the actions of the ponies will have an effect on the environment, for either the positive or the negative. What they are doing matters within the context of their world, so the audience is invested in the outcome. A good ending is not assured, because the ponies are doing something where failure will mean extended cold and an inability to grow food. Because there is a real risk of negative consequences, it highlights the struggle against it and makes the lessons learned more meaningful.

Animation, and cartoons especially, are often accused of being inherently childish. While it is true that most cartoons are marketed at children, that does not mean that they have to be childish. It is the result of lazy writers, not the medium, when a show presents flat characters and minimizes content. However, as studios like Disney and Pixar have shown, kid’s entertainment does not have to be equated with dumb entertainment. It is a matter of the writing staff to choose whether or not they are going to weave a story that is complex or one that is laughably simplistic. In the case of MLP, the producer Lauren Faust decided that she wanted to create a series where the life lessons actually were applicable. Since humanity is the same whether you are age four or forty, a show that realistically relates themes of friendship and dealing with other people can still be a valuable experience.

Ponies can be every bit as heroic as any other American hero

People might still argue that men should not be watching something girly like MLP, but should instead seek hero symbols in more masculine series. This argument is inherently sexist and flawed. First, it assumes that a show that tries to relate to females will somehow be of lesser quality or will not be applicable to men. This is false. Unless the authors reduce femininity to stereotypes like materialism and fashion, the characters should still think and feel. And according to the observations of leading authorities, females are still human. Therefore, their thoughts and feelings should relate to the human experience as a whole. This means that if a series does its job well, by portraying realistic characters and conflict, then people can still find heroes to look up to regardless of gender.

The conflicts in MLP aren’t sanitized versions of reality. Yes, the world is Technicolor, but it isn’t filtered with rose-colored glasses. It presents real problems that aren’t clear-cut and easily solved. This makes room for the heroes to be realistic. They react like actual people would. This is the secret behind MLP’s wild success. The audience can actually relate to the characters. The ponies have attributes that are admirable, but at the same time they are realistic. There’s no guardian who always has the right answers. The characters can’t solve their problems by spouting the word “friendship” three times fast. MLP gives the audience a colorful cast can show them how ideals like friendship and caring can be applied in real-life. That’s something an audience can appreciate, no matter what gender or age they are.


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