My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic
It took me a little while to warm up to the series that made tiny colorful ponies cool again for little girls (and unfortunately, cool to deviant perv adult men). Fans who fondly remember the original will love this one. Just beware of the Bronies when hanging out online with your enthusiastic children, please. I can’t emphasize that enough and that’s why it’s up front.
That said, the show hooked me with its characters: Twilight Sparkle, the main (or mane, as fans like to call her) pony of the story is a purple unicorn who is a bit of a bookworm and not very well socialized— geeks can relate. Her sidekick, Spike, is a purple baby dragon of indeterminate type who has the ability to transport missives between Princess Celestia in Canterlot and wherever he happens to be. My favourite colour is purple, so the show caught my attention from there.
The artwork is relentlessly cute, full of bright colors and pastel backgrounds. The music is cheerful, surprisingly catchy, and does not seem confined to one type. Best of all, the writers and creative team have paid respect to the idea that attentive and involved parents will want to watch with their children. The show is written with that in mind, and there are dozens of clever references in each of the four seasons (so far) that will go over a child’s head like a Sparkling Balloon, but will hit adults square in the funny bone. Look for homages to Benny Hill early in season 1, and Hunter S.Thompson and The Big Lebowski in later seasons.
The series respects the animation trope of “every episode must contain a lesson for child viewers” and embraces it—Celestia has exhorted Twilight to share letters and reports containing what she’s learned about friendship every week. That expands after season two to her five best friends.
Speaking of the friends of Twilight, they are, as Lauren Faust has gone on record as saying, proof that there is no ‘one right way’ to be a girl, and that girls with different interests and preferences can still be good friends. Unlike most cartoon characters, Twilight and her friends are very balanced, with flaws as well as their standout good traits. There’s even a tiny bit of body type variance in the Mane Six and the other Ponyville ponies. Earth ponies tend to be a bit more buff due to their great strength. Pegasus ponies tend to be slimmer and aerodynamic. Unicorns don’t have one set body type.
Applejack is a hard-working farm girl Earth pony with little to no time for frou-frou girly stuff. She personifies honesty, but has the flaw of being rather stubborn and a little dismissive of things that don’t matter much or make sense to her. She also has a tendency to try too hard which could be middle kid syndrome as her brother Big McIntosh is older and she wants to set a good example for baby sister Apple Bloom.
Fluttershy is a meek, mild-mannered Pegasus who is more comfortable around animals than other ponies. She personifies kindness. Her shyness is her flaw. She hates anyone to be angry or upset with her, and has a hard time showing her own temper unless really provoked. She also tends to be a people-pleaser as a result, and has difficulty saying “no”. The show’s character development gets praise here, as Fluttershy is gradually learning to become more assertive as the series goes on, and can set healthy boundaries when her friends try to push her outside her comfort zone.
Pinkie Pie is another Earth pony and the party girl, literally. She personifies laughter and considers it her personal mission to make other ponies smile. It’s a point of pride for her that she knows every pony’s birthday, and remembers to give them greetings on their special day. She possesses boundless energy that often confounds friends new and old. Her flaw is that she tends to be a little frivolous and easily distracted. She also tends to forget her table manners, and is a little socially awkward, in that she doesn’t always get polite hints or cues from other ponies that her over the top approach isn’t necessarily appropriate for the situation. Pinkie also has a dangerous sweet tooth, giving parents the opportunity to advise their kids about eating a balanced diet.
Rarity is the fashionista; she speaks in an uptown accent, calls everyone “darling”, and owns her own boutique in Ponyville. She is the only pony of the six who wears makeup at any time other than for special occasions. She personifies generosity, but it is balanced by her flaws of being vain and melodramatic. She can be quite insensitive, taking advantage of Spike’s crush on her, and forgetting in her enthusiasm for her own ideas that not every pony feels the same way about style as she does. She also has a little problem with snobbishness, but overcomes it for the most part.
Rainbow Dash is the star athlete and speedster, who dreams of being an elite flier for the Wonderbolts—the show’s version of the Air Force. Her trait is loyalty, countered by her flaw of being arrogant and a bit full of herself. Like Applejack, she too can be dismissive of things that don’t interest her. Unlike Applejack, Rainbow Dash tends to be overly blunt about it, to the point of being insulting at times; it comes across as her not stopping to think of how hurtful her words might be perceived. She shares the common trait with Pinkie Pie that her enthusiasm sometimes gets in the way of her social graces. She also has surprising integrity—when she saw things at the Wonderbolts Academy that made her question their priorities, Dash was willing to give up on her lifelong dream rather than compromise it to be part of a group that might not value concern for teammates or safety.
Twilight is not without flaw either; hers is her tendency to obsess over things, to take minor things way too seriously, and to not recognize that not everyone thinks of books as the answer to life as much as she does. She displays traits of the other five put together, and ends up being rewarded for her leadership abilities. Fans were concerned about the method in which the show portrayed this, but it was done in a realistic and sensible way that makes it easy for kids to understand: as you learn, you grow into greater knowledge and responsibility, but that doesn’t mean you’re not you anymore; nor does it mean you have to give up your friends.
The Mane Six’s most prominent traits combine (a la Captain Planet) to form the Elements of Harmony, a magical force that can dispel evil magic.
The only foreground boy in the cast, is Spike the dragon. Like Twilight, who has raised him since hatching, he also shows all six traits. His flaws include insecurity, conceit, and a trait that’s specific to dragons—greed.
There are other boys in the series: Applejack’s brother Big McIntosh and Twilight’s brother Shining Armor, for example, as well as Ponyville timekeeper Doctor Whooves. Discord joined the cast in Seasons 3 and 4, and is becoming more prominent. Despite the strongly female cast, the show has a following of boys in the age group it aims for as well.
The Mane Six, except for Rarity, aren’t really interested in romance despite the number of boy ponies. None of them have boyfriends in contrast to so many other girl-centric cartoons in which the starring girl character isn’t considered complete without chasing after a boy. There are occasional romantic moments—such as the Cutie Mark Crusaders in “Hearts and Hooves Day” thinking that their teacher deserves a special some-pony because she’s so nice, and trying to fix her up with a boy pony. It turns into a disaster, but because their hearts were in the right place and their meddling is forgiven.
The show is not without flaws but remains unflinchingly good-intentioned. I can only think of a handful of problematic elements in the four seasons the show has been airing. The ones that parents will need to watch for include:
Bulk Biceps: An extremely bulked-up, muscular, white Pegasus, with crazed, red eyes and … tiny wings. He also has a tiny intellect, which makes him a “dumb jock” type. On the other hand, he is not remotely embarrassed or ashamed of wearing the frilly outfits Rarity makes, so he’s not the sort of jock who has to prove his manhood despite his muscles.
Spike: A baby dragon, easily as intelligent as the ponies. He is their note-taker and frequent letter-writer since he has hands. He also does a lot of the chores around Twilight’s home, and cooking for her events. But he sleeps in a pet type bed at the foot of Twilight’s bed. Compare and contrast with “May the Best Pet Win!” in which the ponies have actual pets who aren’t capable of speech or literacy. He is also treated about the same as an indentured servant (one step above outright slave). One of his spotlight episodes, “Dragon Quest”, gives the unfortunate message that Spike is better off with the ponies than he is with his own kind, because they’re cruel, violent jerks (which analogues uncomfortably with white people who adopt outside their race as white saviours.). Finally, as a dragon he eats gemstones, apparently fairly common in Equestria, but he mostly ends up eating the same things the ponies eat: hay, alfalfa, flowers, sugar cubes, etc.
Zecora: Not a pony, but a zebra from some unrevealed place in the world
analogous to Africa. That she is a zebra is not sufficient to convey this. She is also garbed in gold necklaces and bracelets, analogous to a real life tribeswoman, and she has an accent. She is also a wise woman and a great sorceress who can do magic without being a unicorn, making her the pony version of a literal Magical Negro. She is the only character who speaks in rhyming couplets. Finally, she doesn’t live in Ponyville proper; she lives alone in a thatch-covered hut in the dark, spooky, mysterious and dangerous Everfree forest —which puts her segregated from the rest of pony-kind. The only other pony-type creatures who don’t live with pony-kind are the evil Changelings, who only live with pony-kind in order to parasitically feed from the ponies.
The Buffalo: In “Over a Barrel”, the buffalo are portrayed as analogous to Native Americans. For the most part this is handled well, but the contention between buffalo and ponies is that the settlers have built a town on land that the buffalo have been using for generations. The feathered war bonnets being used as a visual identifier also contributes to the idea that it’s okay to dress up as an Indian, when in truth the war bonnet or feathered headband is a significant part of Native American culture more analogous to medals of honor in American culture.
This being a kids show, the dispute is settled with a pie-fight rather than bloody battle or a Trail of Tears, and there’s a peaceful conclusion. The settlers don’t move off the buffalo land, but come to a compromise that leaves both sides willing to peacefully co-exist.
“The Mysterious Mare Do Well” is another episode with a problematic message alongside the intended one. Rainbow Dash’s flaw of arrogance and overconfidence has gotten the better of her after doing a heroic deed, and she decides to become Ponyville’s greatest hero. The other five ponies decide the best way to draw Dash’s egotistical behaviour to her attention is to create a superhero pony who outdoes her at every turn and gets Ponyville’s attention off her, rather than sitting down and talking to her about why her bragging and vain-gloriousness is off-putting.
There’s a little cross-eyed grey Pegasus who was originally created as just a background pony. She is occasionally depicted delivering the mail. But fandom took a shine to her and began calling her “Derpy Hooves”. The show tried to honor the fans by actually referring to her by that name and giving her a couple of lines in “The Last Roundup”. Unfortunately, “derpy” is considered an ableist pejorative, and the voice the actor used for her only emphasized that she sounded like a mentally-challenged character. In an attempt to be sensitive, they pulled the episode and released it again without the name and with a new voice, which upset the fans who don’t see anything wrong with the “Derpy” moniker. However, the show has done much better since then in its portrayal of non-typical characters.
Lastly, although the show’s world is a matriarchy, the areas they rule over are considered “kingdoms”.
Getting back to the show’s good points: characters have tackled jealousy (“Green Isn’t Your Color”), peer pressure (”The Ticket Master” and “Sweet and Elite”), bullying (“One Bad Apple”), growing up (The Cutie Mark Crusaders), not judging others for visible differences (“Bridle Gossip”), gossip (“Ponyville Confidential”), and shame (“The Last Round-Up”). The fourth season has really stepped up their game, with some episodes that can be used to springboard conversations with kids about important issues. “Simple Ways” emphasizes being yourself and not trying to change yourself to suit another. “Trade Ya” had a number of disabled ponies, as did “Leap of Faith”.
But the episode that knocked it out of the park was “Testing Testing 1 2 3”. Rainbow Dash must take a test on the history of the Wonderbolts to become a member of the Wonderbolts Reserves. She has a very hard time studying, and the way the story line progresses, it comes off like Dash suffers from ADHD or dyslexia, as she cannot focus on studying the printed page without becoming distracted or bored. This fits in with earlier episode “Read It And Weep” in which Dash dismissed reading for fun as an “egghead” pursuit until she learned that she just had to find a genre she enjoyed. She has no problem reading for fun afterward, but learning still eludes her. As a result, without anyone saying it to her, Dash becomes convinced that she’s stupid and a loser for not being able to retain the information she’ll need to pass her test. This being a show about friendship, Twilight enlists the entire town of Ponyville to assist Rainbow Dash once the former twigs to the latter’s workable method of learning. Placing handicapped ponies and learning disabled ponies in stories without making them any less capable shines a light on how important representation is for people who are atypical in any way.
The fifth season is in the works with no firm season premiere date, so new viewers have plenty of time to catch up on the colourful, wacky, Ponyville fun. Each episode is half an hour. The first and second seasons are each twenty-six episodes long. The third season is only half as long, and the fourth season is also twenty-six episodes long. This will give new viewers who want to catch up before season five plenty of content to marathon watch.
Finally, viewers will want to watch the show in order, because there’s actual episode-to-episode continuity—a new trend in animated series which I hope becomes the norm because it treats viewers as smart enough to follow a long story arc.
And for viewers who have already watched the show and want something different, IDW comics has two My Little Pony titles. My Little Pony Friendship is Magic, featuring the Mane Six, written by Katie Cook. The other is My Little Pony Friends Forever, which pairs up ponies from all over Equestria in adventures that would take away from the Mane Six if put into an episode.