Wait, no, hold on, let me say that again, because I doubt the absurdity of that statement has really sunk in.
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has done more for the cause of feminism than any writer, artist, theorist, activist, or anything or anyone else in the Last. Ten. Years.
I sure hope somebody was shocked by that, because otherwise this is going to be a really freaking boring article. In fact, I'm really hoping your keyboard is covered in coffee that just spewed forth from your mouth in shock. Listen, I've had a trying day and I'm feeling vindictive. But let me go ahead and put my money where my mouth is. And by money I mean overblown prose, because I'm not made of cash.
Let's rewind to some of the basic causes of feminism. Generally speaking, feminism in its modern incarnation is largely concerned with both the physical realities of inequality--whether it be the physical reality of violence or the monetary reality of the continuous economic disenfranchisement of women--and the cultural and psychological impact that our patriarchal, heteronormative society has upon both women and men. Lately there've been quite a number of truly worthy movements--from the slutwalks to the outpouring of support for Planned Parenthood--adding strength to the existing campaigns against violence and inequality. It's tough at times, what with the newsosphere largely proclaiming Mission Accomplished, 1 but generally the movement has continued to make progress in the world.
There's one cause that feminists have never really managed to achieve, though. One victory that has ever eluded us.
And that is the cause of making girl stuff cool, too. In particular, the cause of making girl stuff cool without simply reinforcing particular gender roles for women. After all, it's difficult to say, "Cooking can be really fun," when there are people seemingly crouched by (in? under?) the eves ready to bellow, "...Because women belong in the kitchen!"
I think this comes largely from the priorities of the early modern movement. There's always been a sense running through feminist rhetoric of "everything you can do we can do too" or, hell, better even, maybe. And that's a great, important rhetoric to have when your whole argument is that women and men should be equal. But the problem with that--and this is, let me make clear, in no way a criticism of the feminist movement so much as it is an observation of a fundamental rhetorical limitation--is that it reinforces the idea that what everyone should be aspiring to is boy things.
Then, of course, there's the fact that a lot of stuff marketed towards boys just has traditionally been, well, cooler, and often better put together. Do not ask me why this is the case. But for whatever reason, there just isn't a crossover market for a lot of stuff targeted for girls, even though there is a weird unexpected crossover market for boy's media. (And marketed in a rather patronizing way, as TV Tropes points out.) Hell, look at the dumb toy commercial shows of the 80s and 90s. A lot of the boy's shows, despite being toy commercials, are still remembered fondly. This nostalgia has provided us with the modern horror of Michael Bay movies. But I'm really struggling to remember any girl's shows from the period, partly because I honestly didn't watch a lot of TV but partly because, well, girl stuff just wasn't particularly interesting for the most part. 2
This is the point where I'm floundering a bit because I'm honestly not a historian of cartoons. But either way, the prevailing wisdom has been that girl's stuff can't be cross marketed. And that prevailing wisdom has collided with the rhetorical feminist strategy of "we are worthy of boy stuff too" to lead to a devaluation (if it ever had value in the first place--a lot of "women's work" has been devalued since the Industrial Revolution moved certain types of work outside the home into factories) of Stuff For Girls.
Enter My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. This show, due to its large tertiary demographic, has succeeded in breaking out of its demographic box and existing as a cross-appreciated, albeit not explicitly cross-marketed, work. This, to me, is hugely revolutionary for a number of reasons.
For one thing, it means that girl stuff isn't inherently stupid to a lot of the guys that like the show. I suspect rather strongly that, by extension, girls might seem a little less inherently stupid too, which is always a good thing. But this strikes me as an important step towards greater acceptance of boys liking "girly" things. It is becoming quite a bit more acceptable for girls to do things like wear boy clothes (although even girl pants tend to be weird lobotomized versions... ever noticed how hard it is to find women's clothes with pockets? Yeah) but for a guy to wear a skirt? Probably not going to go over too well. This makes sense from the Anything You Can Do rhetorical environment: after all, guys have the cool stuff; it makes sense that girls would want to get in on the action. What My Little Pony suggests is that it's ok for guys to get in on the girl stuff as well.
Furthermore, the show provides a great range of female characters for people to follow and empathize with, from the tomboyish Rainbow Dash to the fashion-obsessed artiste Rarity to the quiet friend to all the little animals Fluttershy. And despite the fact that Fluttershy is clearly the best, they all get fairly equal time in the show and their characters and motivations are all complex and well fleshed out.
This means that there is no default way of performing femininity or masculinity in the show. There are just a whole bunch of different characters. Kinda like (this is the part where I blow your mind) real life, huh? And since there is no judgment placed upon the personality types and interests the characters represent (despite their periodic personality conflicts) the viewer isn't pushed to like or empathize with one over another. I ended up empathizing most strongly with the members of the cast that display either "feminine" or introverted characteristics (or both): the bookish workaholic Twilight Sparkle, the nervous and somewhat agoraphobic Fluttershy, and the obsessive aesthete and fashionista Rarity.
In fact, the characters could perhaps be seen as fitting together on a scale that looks something like this:
|We Call It... THE PONY WHEEL!|
This is perhaps the greatest key to the whole project, and the final thing that makes it so revolutionary. What this show argues, simply by existing, is that girls deserve well designed media, too. Lauren Faust, the show's mastermind and one of a few individuals now virtually deified, 3 realized that if she made a damn good show, other people outside the original demographic would watch it. I have to wonder how much of this was planned in advance. However intentional it is, it sure does make a clear point that it's much, much easier to say that girl stuff is cool, too when the girl stuff is actually cool, too.
All of this means that My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has done something few other things have managed in American culture. It's made it ok to like being a girl, no matter who you are.
And that is truly something magic.
I wrote this article while listening to "Bitches" by Mindless Self Indulgence on repeat, at 11PM. My life is strange. As always, feel free to leave comments, complaints, or, best of all, your own interpretations, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org . And, if you like what you've read here, share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Xanga, Netscape, or whatever else you crazy kids are using to surf the blogoblag these days.
1 We tend to prematurely declare things finished here in America. My European readers may, in fact, quote me on that, in any context.
2 The only one that's really bubbling up in my mind is Totally Spies. I can still remember their idiotic valley girl affectations. Excuse me while I go lobotomize myself with a spoon, y'all. What-evar.
3 Literally virtually deified, actually.
UPDATE ON 1/12:
This has hit Reddit, thanks to my good friend and guest contributor Ian McDevitt. Hello Reddit! I've been reading the commentary there and have a few responses to all of your input:
- Yup, I am, in fact, a guy. I do wear skirts, though.
- Those of you pointing out that I don't delve into the plots much are exactly correct. That was, to some extent, a conscious decision on my part. I wanted to explore this topic from a perspective that I hadn't really seen anywhere else. This is the reasoning behind focusing on the roles in the show rather than the actions: sure, all the ponies can defeat dragons and David Bowie-referencing cavedwellers, but what interests me is the roles they play. Contrast with the aforementioned Totally Spies--a godawful show, to be sure, but problematic not just in its terrible writing and hideously oversaturated colors but also in the roles the characters take.
They are all the same character.
Now, if I was analyzing their actions alone from a feminist perspective, in a way the show is good. It's girls kicking ass! Cool! But the problem is, not only do they all kick ass in exactly the same way, their everyday life is also identical. There is very little way of determining a favorite based on distinct personalities because they all share the same interests, the same speech pattern, the same clothing style, and so on.
The difference with My Little Pony is that the characters all have distinct interests and personalities that can be easily summarized (they're iconic in personality as well as being, as I've pointed out before, iconic in color) while not coming across as stereotypical.
So, one of the revolutionary qualities, to me, is the fact that A. it's popular and B. it has a varied set of personalities that are all presented as equally valid forms of femininity.
- On the other hand, the action in the show is great. Like I said earlier, there's a reason why it was so appealing: it's really well put together, barring a few episodes here and there. So, yes, I'm probably going to have to do another article eventually about the narrative structure. Will it be what people are asking for on Reddit? Mmm, probably not, since I tend to have a super structuralist approach to art. I like delving beneath the skin to the bones of what holds stuff together. But for what it's worth, People Of Reddit, I agree with you: this article is just the start, and I do need to explore these ideas in more detail. I frankly was not expecting to have so many people find it in such a short amount of time.
Nice to have you here, though, and I hope to see you around in the future!
I said this in the comments as well, but I don't want people to miss it.
Thanks to everyone who read the article, and especially thanks to those of you who took the time to leave a comment. I really appreciate it, even if I didn't reply directly to you. It's great to know that there are so many other intelligent people out there on the Blogoblag.
Big wag of my finger, though, to that guy on the Ctrl Alt Del forum who thought this article made no sense because, and I quote, "I really do think that most people watch my little pony ironically for a laugh."
Oh well. You can't win 'em all.
And you folks are the best.
Hope you stick around for a while. I'll be revisiting this topic eventually, I'm sure...