My Little Po-Mo: Unauthorized Critical Essays on My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic Season One by Jed A. Blue - Read Online
My Little Po-Mo
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Summary

Grown men and women watch a show created to sell toys to four-year-old girls. Are they confused deviants? Rebels standing bravely against repressive social norms of gender and age? Or a circle of friends just trying to have fun?

This first volume of essays adapted from the blog My Little Po-Mo combines a critical study of the first season of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic with ethnographic examination of its adult fans to explore these questions and the show which inspired them.

This volume includes:

-Critical essays on every episode of the first season
-An examination of the series as a whole as a feminist work
-A brief history of the last fifty years of American animated television
-Essays on the psychology and experiences of adult fans in general, and the experiences of the oft-overlooked adult women in particular
-And more!

Published: Jed Blue on
ISBN: 9781301609970
List price: $4.99
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Notes

1.Dear Princess Celestia...Dear Princess Celestia...Dear Princess Celestia...

So, there’s this kid’s show—more of a family show, really—and it’s really popular with adults. It’s one of the biggest fandoms out there right now, and one of the best shows on TV. So one day, this guy decided he would make a blog where he goes through every episode and analyzes it as a work of postmodern art, as well as a cultural and historical artifact.

He called it TARDIS Eruditorum,1 and it is quite possibly the most intellectually stimulating Doctor Who fan blog in existence. Philip Sandifer has covered topics as diverse as left-wing utopian thought in 1960s Britain, the influence of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn on comic books, Qaballah, and the French Situationist movement, all through the lens of a television show.

On discovering the (still ongoing) blog, I devoured it hungrily. When I was caught up, I said to myself, Hey, I could do this. I mean, probably not nearly as well—Sandifer’s a Ph.D., all I’ve got is this measly little B.A.—but what the hey, I can certainly take a crack at it.

So, on what happened to be the second anniversary of the premiere of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, I launched My Little Po-Mo.2 Six months later, after I had enough articles covering the first season of Friendship Is Magic, I decided I could add a couple of supplementary essays, expand the episode articles, and release it as a book. This very book you are now reading, as a matter of fact.³

Why Ponies?

Why not? I love Friendship Is Magic. It’s got stellar production values, a great cast, sparkling art, engaging characters, and a fun story.

But thousands of fans already know that. It takes little more than a Google search to find large numbers of fans enthusiastically praising the show. What’s quite a bit harder—and was harder still when I started this project—is to find anything that goes deeper than the surface. What is Friendship Is Magic? What is it about?

And don’t dare say, Nothing, it’s a kids’ show. Works created for children are of vital cultural importance. They are the first forms of art and entertainment most of us encounter, and thereby help form our notions of what art and entertainment can do, and are for. Their intended audience usually adds a degree of cultural scrutiny to convey positive, useful lessons, and remove offensive content, which in turn can provide insight into what a culture really values (as opposed to what it might say it values). And while some creators of children’s entertainment may say Eh, kids aren’t picky, I can slack off, at least as many others put in the effort to make their creations as artistically valid and important as anything created for adults.

Second, nothing’s about nothing. It’s impossible to create work that isn’t about at least three things: itself, its medium, and the world in which it was made. So at the very least, digging deeper into Friendship Is Magic will tell us more about Friendship Is Magic, animation, and English-speaking culture at the moment of transmission. Further, all exploration is to some extent self-exploration, and thus exploring Friendship Is Magic should tell us more about ourselves.

But again, we could do that with any work. Why Friendship Is Magic? Ultimately, the only reason to explore anything: because it’s there. Because as near as I can tell, nobody else is doing it in quite this way. And, ultimately, because it seems like it’ll be fun.

Po-What Now?

What do I mean by Friendship Is Magic being postmodern, and how exactly do I plan to approach the content from a postmodern perspective? For that matter, what does postmodern even mean?

Well, that’s complicated. Postmodernism is difficult to define; some people even claim it’s impossible to define, preferring instead to give examples of, or criteria for, works that fall under the broad heading of postmodernism.⁴ But if I’m going to be wildly overambitious, why not just give it the old college try?

Postmodernism is rooted in the idea that the way in which we perceive and understand reality is shaped by social constructs—systems of ideas that society collectively creates. Our constructs enable us to draw connections and find patterns in the world around us, but they also make it harder to see different patterns, like trying to hum one song while listening to another. Most of the time, we are unaware of these constructs that shape our reality, so postmodern works try to draw attention to the constructs in play, usually through techniques that strip away or alter those constructs’ context, such as subversion, parody, and genre hybridization.

Friendship Is Magic does this all the time.

For instance, one of the simplest types of social constructs is the binary. Simply put, a binary splits the world into two opposites: good/evil, male/female, light/dark. Binaries are good tools for making quick assessments, but they also blind you to a lot of underlying themes, motivations and moral play, as well as obscuring any concepts that lie between or outside of the binary elements. For example, a black/white binary denies the existence of grays, forcing you to pick a more-or-less arbitrary dividing line between being black and being white. But, more importantly, it obscures the existence of color: not only is red neither black nor white, but if you draw a line from black to white, red is nowhere on it.

That might not seem like such a big deal, but consider something like the gay/straight binary, which not only denies the existence of bisexuals (which is bad enough), but obscures the existence of other types of sexuality that are on a different spectrum entirely (asexuality, for instance). That can be a serious problem if you identify as one of those obscured groups, and have to convince people you exist, especially when their picture of the world has no room for you.

There’s a few binaries that Friendship Is Magic likes to subvert, and I’m sure we’ll find more as we continue, but the two most obvious are male/female and child/adult. Simply put, Friendship Is Magic is a show for little girls with a large audience of grown men. This is mind-blowing if you’re wedded to those two binaries. Read pretty much any article about bronies (the self-adopted term for adult, and especially adult male, fans of Friendship Is Magic) in the mainstream press, especially a source that’s never covered bronies before, and the most common reactions are astonishment,⁵ contempt, derision, and hostility,⁶ with some sources adopting an apologist stance.⁷

All of these approaches assume that there is something wrong, either to be criticized or justified, with adult men consuming media designed for young girls, taking for granted that for children and feminine necessarily meant not for adults and not masculine. Friendship Is Magic and its fans reject these assumptions and thereby interrogate the binaries behind them.

Another way to draw attention to the constructs in a work revolves around playing with genre: stretching definitions, mashing tropes and idioms, pulling ideas from one context and putting them in another. This is Ihab Hassan’s hybridization and carnivalization, which as he describes is simultaneously a form of play and a subversive act.

Friendship Is Magic loves this approach, as we’ll see when explore each individual episode. It is a show that can do a typical sit-com plot (babysitter with no childcare experience bites off more than she can chew), then interrupt it with a horror movie about a monster attack—and then have the resolution to the horror plot solve the sit-com plot, too.

So What Exactly Is This Book?

Let’s start with what this book isn’t: this isn’t a guide to Friendship Is Magic. You won’t find much in the way of plot summaries, character charts, or behind-the-scenes production information here. It’s possible you might be able to gather some of that information from the articles, but in general this book is not intended as substitute for watching the show.

This also isn’t a jargon-heavy deconstruction aimed at an academic audience. These essays are meant to be scholarly in content, while maintaining a tone and diction that is both accessible and engaging for any Friendship Is Magic fan or interested layperson. I have written them with the assumption of a reader who is intelligent, open-minded, and literate, but who may not have read any critical theory before.

So what is this book? As it says on the title page, this book is a collection of critical essays about the first season of Friendship Is Magic. The bulk of these essays are expanded and revised versions of essays originally posted on the My Little Po-Mo blog, but others were originally published elsewhere or are exclusive to the book version.

The essays that originated on the blog include this introduction, plus 25 essays that between them cover the 26 episodes comprising the first season of Friendship Is Magic. Each is titled with a quote from the show, followed by the episode title in parentheses. Most are fairly straightforward critical essays, though one or two experiment with the format a bit, generally to reflect the format of the episode—hybridizing the show with the critical essays with the effect of carnivalizing the latter, one might say, if one were so inclined.

The remaining essays cover assorted other topics relevant to Friendship Is Magic, and are generally placed where they would be most useful in understanding the following articles.

Acknowledgments

Before we start in with the first essay, I’d like to thank some people without whom this book would not exist. First, of course, are my parents, without whom I would not exist, and who did everything in their power to ensure that I would end up the kind of complete nerd who writes books about cartoons about magical ponies. Thanks, Mom, Dad, and Miranda!

Second is Viga Gadson, who, when I told her my impossible dream of doing something like this, answered with the mind-blowing question, Well, why don’t you? She also designed the logo for my site and the cover of this book. And of course I’ve already mentioned Dr. Philip Sandifer, whose brilliant blog and books were the inspiration for that dream.

Then there’s Charles Dunbar, who copy-edited the manuscript; he’s the reason this isn’t riddled with typos, awkward run-on sentences, and unsourced, sweeping blog-logic claims. Any mistakes or overreach which may remain are entirely down to me, despite his insistence and pleading with me. He also helped out with formulating the fast and dirty (his words, not mine) fieldwork conducted at BronyCon 2013.

I also want to thank everyone who responded to my requests for women’s experiences in the fandom, without whom Chapter 29 would not exist, everyone at BronyCon who consented to be interviewed, without whom Chapter 8 would be far shorter and weaker, and Andrew O’Donnell for asking the questions that inspired Chapter 31.

Finally, I want to thank everyone who contributed to the Kickstarter campaign that raised the funds to pay Charles and Viga.

2.Hiiiiiiiiii Giiiiiiiiiirls... (The Mare in the Moon/The Elements of Harmony)

Before we get to the ponies, let’s start by fixing our position in time.

It’s Sunday, October 10 through Friday, October 22, 2010. Bruno Mars tops the Billboard charts both weeks with Just the Way You Are. The top movies at the weekend box office are, consecutively, The Social Network, Jackass 3-D, and Paranormal Activity 2. The first of those is going to matter in a couple thousand words.

In other news, anti-gay protestors and police clash at Serbia’s first gay pride parade in a decade, while President Obama promises to end the don’t ask, don’t tell policy and allow gay and lesbian Americans to serve openly in the military. The Nobel Prize winners for the year are announced, the U.S. lifts a temporary ban on deep-water oil drilling, which was started in response to the Deepwater Horizon spill six months prior, and the last of the Chilean miners trapped in the Copiapo accident is rescued. And, most importantly for this discussion, WikiLeaks releases secret documents that reveal U.S. war crimes in Iraq, including the torture and execution of POWs and the murder of hundreds of civilians. No, really, that has something to do with My Little Pony. Bear with me.

Away from all this, in the blissful oasis of TV Land, fledgling network The Hub innocently airs the first two episodes of its new show, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, with apparently no idea of the force it is about to unleash.

It’s worth taking a moment to consider the significance of that day: the Hub was a young network—it launched the same day that The Mare in the Moon aired, as a matter of fact. Young networks often struggle to find enough programming to fill the schedule, and generally respond in two ways. First, they snatch up rights to oldie-but-goodie syndicated shows that have fallen into bargain-price territory. Second, they green-light risky or experimental shows which the established networks would pass over (or as some might put it, turn up their noses at).

In the Hub’s case, the highlights of the former category included Doogie Howser, M.D., The Wonder Years, the 1960s Adam West Batman series, Batman the Animated Series, and Batman Beyond. The highlight of the latter category was Friendship Is Magic.

But how can Friendship Is Magic be considered experimental or risky? It’s both a revival and a reboot, in the midst of an age of revivals and reboots, backed by a major corporate powerhouse, and tied to an ever-popular toy line with a thirty-year pedigree! What possible risk was there?

The short answer: It is not a financial risk, but a creative one.

Artistically, Friendship Is Magic has all the elements for a complete disaster: It’s a blatant cash-grab, remaking a show about a major 1980s toy brand in the wake of a movie series about another popular 1980s toy from the same company, Transformers, becoming a box-office hit despite being panned critically.⁹ It’s a show designed around a toy line, instead of the other way around, a strategy which has rarely (if history is any indicator) produced quality children’s programming. Plus, since children’s television executives appear to be utterly convinced that interest in dramatic conflicts, action, humor, and varied characterization are all functions of the Y chromosome, cartoons for girls have a historical tendency to low quality, as well (see Chapters 3 and 5 for additional discussion of this phenomenon).

And yet, from the first moments of the cold opening of The Mare in the Moon, Friendship Is Magic announces for all the world to see that it’s doing something new. Barely animated storybook images accompany a narrator as she recites the ponies’ eclipse myth: the Moon Goddess, angered by the failure of the ponies to show her proper respect and appreciation, becomes a dark and terrible being who briefly imprisons the Sun Goddess and plunges the world into darkness. She is Fenrir devouring the sun, the cave that swallows Amaterasu, the primordial terror that the sun has vanished and will never return. She is Nightmare Moon... and she is coming back.

That’s not a story that prior girls’ cartoons (such as Jem or Trollz) could ever even dream of attempting. It’s a story previous incarnations of My Little Pony might flirt with, but would never really explore. As daring openings for a cartoon go, it sits up there with Avatar the Last Airbender’s depiction of genocide, or Batman the Animated Series’ famous opening credits, in which the name of the show is never mentioned and its main character is shown for only seconds. It’s a blaring announcement that this is not going to be quite like anything else on television.

The storybook opening gives way to a credit sequence that, for a moment, seems like a return to typical My Little Pony form, reiterating the sweet, gentle song from the original cartoon and pairing it with a balloon drifting through a blue sky with white fluffy clouds—but after the first two lines, Rainbow Dash smashes through the clouds and the music switches to a much more energetic, modern pop song that emphasizes fun and adventure. This is a statement of something new, and nobody’s ashamed to display it.

The story begins with a short scene of Twilight Sparkle (our group’s resident scholar and keeper of arcane knowledge, and main character for much of the first season) walking through Canterlot, ignoring friendly overtures from other ponies while she ponders the myth she just read, not unlike any student of folklore, or inquisitive youth with a thirst for lore, history, and knowledge. Although this scene isn’t crucial to the plot, it is vital to what this episode is attempting to create.

As stated in the introduction, one of the necessary topics any work must in some sense be about is itself, and this is particularly true of a series premiere. Part of the job of a premiere is to attract viewers who will stay with the show. Therefore, the premiere has to inform the viewer of what kind of a show they are watching. The first few minutes of Mare in the Moon accomplish this admirably, switching from an eclipse myth to a reference to the original show, then to a new theme song before ending with a small, but very effective, character scene.

In other words, this is a show that can do a grand, mythic scale when it wants to, but grounds itself in its characters first and foremost. It is a show that respects those elements of its My Little Pony past that deserve respect, but is unafraid to break out on its own. And, most importantly, it is a show willing to take risks.

As The Mare in the Moon and The Elements of Harmony continue, they accomplish the basic tasks of a premiere: Introduce the characters to the audience and each other, give them a crisis to resolve, and showcase their developing relationships. The episodes perform these tasks admirably, with an attention to detail that will characterize the series from here out. There are many examples of this as the series progresses, but I will highlight only a few that I have not seen mentioned elsewhere:

In response to learning that Twilight Sparkle is from Canterlot, Rarity, the proprietor of and designer for a fashion boutique in Ponyville, reveals that she loves Canterlot and always dreamed of going there. What we can see of Rarity’s shop in these shots is purple and gold, and Rarity herself is white. The color scheme of Canterlot at the beginning of the episode? Purple, gold, and white.

In the first episode, the only times we see the Mane Six gathered together, party pony Pinky Pie is in the center of the shot. This makes sense, as she is friends with everyone in Ponyville and therefore a friend to all the others, while we know from later episodes that they were not all friends with each other before this episode (at the very least, Rarity and the apple-farmer Applejack were not friends). By the end of the second episode, Twilight Sparkle is at the center of all group shots, showing that she is now the one who is friends with all of the other five.

In the tale of Nightmare Moon, we see Luna and Celestia (the dyad of goddesses upon whom the mythos of Equestria seems to be founded) forming a yin-yang symbol. This foreshadows the resolution of the story, in which balance is restored not by destroying Luna/darkness, but by reuniting her with her sister Celestia/light. Astute readers of Taoism might chuckle at this, especially given the obvious yin-yang symbol the sisters form when introduced in Twilight’s book.

One beautiful detail is actually much more: At the climax of the second episode, Twilight Sparkle activates the Elements of Harmony, a set of six very powerful magical artifacts that each represent a key virtue in the moral universe of the show, in a sequence that draws heavily on the iconography of magical girls. For those not familiar with Japanese anime (and its attached tropes), magical girls is a genre in which adolescent girls with magical superpowers fight evil, empowered by attributes Japanese culture associates with femininity, such as love, friendship, and beauty. The most famous example in the United States is probably Sailor Moon, though contemporary fans might have seen many of the same notions in 1997’s Revolutionary Girl Utena (which simultaneously challenged those same tropes while cloaking them in the trappings of Greek mythology) or 2011’s brilliant Puella Magi Madoka Magica.

As in Sailor Moon, most magical girls have a recurring transformation sequence in which they activate their powers and their superhero costumes coalesce from light around them. Specifically, the way the ponies pose, the spinning motion of the stone shards, the way new clothes (well, jewelry) materialize on them, and the fact that Nightmare Moon just stands there off-camera while all this is happening, are all strongly reminiscent of the typical magical girl transformation sequence. And of course, weaponizing friendship is exactly what the Elements of Harmony do.

In most times and places (the 1980s series The Care Bears, for example), depicting friendship as a magical force that spits rainbows and defeats evil would be unbearably cheesy. In 2010, however, it’s actually a very powerful statement, especially due to the particular social forces climbing to prominence in the contemporary culture.

Consider the Elements of Harmony: Honesty, Laughter, Generosity, Kindness, Loyalty, and Friendship. (Yes, I know it’s stated as Magic in the show. But the title of the show tells us Friendship Is Magic, so we’re substituting it in.) Let’s unpack how each of these manifest in the second episode:

Honesty is open communication that can be trusted.

Laughter is a positive force that keeps otherwise overwhelming terrors at bay.

Generosity is a willingness to help strangers, out of a primarily aesthetic sense that things should be better than they are.

Kindness is a desire to understand others, learn their needs and struggles, and comfort them based on that knowledge.

Loyalty is not to a cause or a