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Thursday, May 19, 2016

I Have a Pony in this Race: My Little Pony and the Hugos

You know, it’s kind of appropriate that My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic was nominated for a Hugo in order to troll people. Our entire fandom was built on some trolling.

Way back in 2011, some guys on 4Chan started posting My Little Pony pictures and memes from the then-new series, Friendship is Magic. Other people complained, and being 4Chan, they responded by flooding the site with pictures of ponies.

But somewhere in there a strange thing happened. People checked out the show, whether because they thought the characters were cute or because they thought it would be dumb and wanted to mock it, and they liked it. Not ironically, and not because it was subversive or slipped adult humor in under the radar. They just really liked the simple stories about Twilight Sparkle and her pony friends. And Bronies were born.

I personally come from a unique place in pony fandom. I’m a 33-year-old woman, and I watched the old My Little Pony cartoons back in the 80s, but I was never a big fan. I joined the Friendship is Magic fandom about four years ago, and two years after that I had a daughter, so I’ve gone from looking at the show as a fan, to looking at it as both a fan and a mom. It shines in both ways; it’s a rare show that a two-year-old can enjoy, with messages I’m happy to have her grow up on, and that I still wake up for on Saturdays, even when her father is letting me sleep in (parents of small children know how big a deal that is).

So, from my perspective, I hope this Hugo nomination can do what the show has done from the beginning: turn something sour and ironic into a chance for new people to enjoy it, and offer people some friendship and harmony in a situation where it’s sorely needed.

But Hugo voters are not 4Chan kids; they’re people who are neck deep in the best the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre has to offer, with sophisticated taste and some good reasons to want to avoid feeding these particular trolls. So, the question is, why should Hugo voters spend 44 minutes giving an episode of a children’s cartoon a chance?

There’s plenty to recommend about the show: clean, creative, and often adorable animation; catchy songs that are often up there with Disney; character-driven comedy and development. Those are all things that make Friendship is Magic great, but I’m not sure I’d argue that they’re why you should check it out. There are other shows, even kids shows, that can boast those things.

What I think makes My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic unique is that it’s a show about diversity, and through its unique characters, setting, and design it does a better job portraying that than any other media I’ve come across. It’s not about diversity in the sense of races, or genders, or political views, or any other box you could tick on a form. It’s about diversity of perspectives, passions, values, and talents, and how very different kinds of people can be good and bad, and still care for each other, help each other, and teach each other.

The main cast of characters are six ponies (the “Mane Six”-- the show and the fandom love their horse puns) who are easily and broadly defined in every aspect, from their names, to their voices, to their character design: Twilight Sparkle is a somewhat naive bookworm, Applejack is a hard-working farmer with a close-knit family, Rarity is an appearance-focused fashion designer, Rainbow Dash is a competitive athlete, Fluttershy is a shy animal lover, and Pinkie Pie is a hyperactive extrovert who throws parties.

This might seem one dimensional, but in the hands of the writers of the show it becomes archetypical instead. Different episodes explore different aspects of these types: Rarity is an appearance-focused fashion designer; through the show that means she’s a dedicated artist, a drama queen, a tough business woman, a stickler for details, a bit shallow, a proper lady, and a skilled social manipulator. Her point of view or methods might be right or wrong, or something that’s both needed and needs to be moderated. The same is true of all of the characters. By exploring very different aspects of seemingly simple “types,” the show is able to be supportive of all of them while still disapproving of their flaws.

And the show doesn’t stop with the main characters. The same broad strokes of personality and design have allowed the writers and animators to populate the setting with an enormous cast of colorful and memorable characters, almost all of whom require little in the way of introduction in order to play their parts in the story. They can be used to complement, contrast, or challenge worldviews of the main characters, or simply to provide other ponies with stakes in the outcome of the episode. By having so many unique characters the show rarely feels like the main characters are the only ones who matter, even while they remain at the center of the show.

The setting and world building of the show continue the theme of diversity of perspective; Equestria, the kingdom where the ponies live, ranges from the small town of Ponyville, to the almost fairy tale city of Canterlot, to bustling urban Manehattan, to the wild west of Appleloosa. The ponies who live in all of these places are a mix of the three primary tribes: earth ponies (regular ponies without wings or a horn), unicorns, and pegasi. As tribes, they each have their own magic and importance to the running of the kingdom, though it doesn’t define the places of individual ponies. That comes down to Cutie Marks, the symbol each pony has on their back hips. Cutie Marks are magic, and appear when each pony discovers their “special talent;” both their place in the world and the thing that makes them unique.

These themes -- that everyone is an individual, with a different way of seeing things, and that every individual has their good points and bad points and might be right and wrong in different situations -- seem like simple kids show stuff, but they’re something that most adults I know rarely remember.

The episode up for a Hugo, “The Cutie Map,” speaks to these themes directly, by sending the Mane Six to a town where the ponies all have the same equal sign Cutie Mark, the same hair styles, and are all suspiciously happy about it. It will probably be obvious to adults watching what’s going on, but there are some surprises and interesting details in how and why they succeed in resolving the issues.

From here on out I’m going to be talking about some spoilers. If you’re already interested, I hope you’ll check out the episode. If not, you might want to keep on reading for more specifics on why it’s a creative take on the idea.

So, “The Cutie Map” is a pony take on the classic Harrison Bergeron idea of enforced equality. All of the ponies in a town have gotten the idea that if none of them have the unique talents that come with their Cutie Marks, they’ll never have conflicts. But there are a few things I find really interesting about how the show in particular handles things.

First of all, they’re right, in a way. While they do secretly miss their Cutie Marks, the ponies in the town don’t argue and are always friendly to each other. As the musical number that establishes their philosophy puts it: “You can’t have a nightmare if you never dream.” And the ponies make it clear that’s why they made the trade-off, and it seems to work, even if they’re not always totally happy with the results.

The show contrasts this with the bickering of the Mane Six over why they’re there and what to do. The towns ponies are shocked that they can bicker and still be friends, and while this particular argument is to set up that point, it’s easy to see that with their different viewpoints the characters have been through far worse disagreements.

In this episode, the most widely different points of view are portrayed by Pinkie Pie, who’s outright suspicious of the smiles in the town and how happy the ponies there actually are, and Fluttershy, who’s sympathetic to their ideals and appreciates the peace and friendliness they’ve fostered.

Now, Pinkie is proven right when the leader of the town corners the Mane Six and forcibly removes their Cutie Marks, then locks them up to try to indoctrinate them. But, and this is the part I find really interesting, it’s Fluttershy with the biggest part in saving her friends, because Fluttershy agreed with the town's ponies.

Fluttershy is the most conflict averse and socially awkward of the main characters. It’s shown at the beginning of the episode when she doesn’t want to travel and offers to stay behind with Twilight’s assistant Spike, then balks when she finds out he was planning a “guys weekend” with Applejack’s brother Mac -- a situations well outside of Fluttershy’s comfort zone, which is enough to send her off on the adventure with her friends. So she can easily see the allure of a town where there’s no conflict, no differences, and everyone is happy.

But Fluttershy loves her friends in spite of their differences, and once they’re captured she understands that this isn’t the way to achieve that peace. So, having already shown the ponies that she’s in favor of the idea, she’s the one able to convince them she’s been indoctrinated and discover the secrets of the town.

The plan only works because the Mane Six have points of view so diverse that one of them can agree with the villain, while still condemning her methods when they’re harmful. That’s a pretty impressive celebration of diversity to me.

Another interesting thing about the episode comes at the climax. It’s revealed that the founder of the town, Starlight Glimmer, has secretly kept her Cutie Mark, proving that the ponies in the town were never truly equal in the first place. The town's ponies rush to get their own Cutie Marks back, while Starlight Glimmer escapes with the Cutie Marks of the Mane Six. Left without their special talents, the Mane Six are unable to catch her.

So it’s the town’s ponies, working together with their own special talents, who chase Starlight Glimmer and save the Mane Six. The climax is resolved not because the main characters themselves are powerful, but because the idea they shared is powerful in itself. It’s not their diversity that’s important, it’s everyone’s diversity, even four characters that the audience has never seen as individuals until that moment.

(It’s also worth noting that Party Favor, Double Diamond, Sugar Belle, and Night Glider are excellent examples of the show’s ability to characterize unique ponies with next to nothing in the way of screen time.)

I feel like "The Cutie Map" demonstrates some of the best that Friendship is Magic has to offer: it takes an idea without much nuance, and by drawing on its strengths it gives it a surprising complexity. It focuses on some unique world building in the setting, introduces new supporting characters, and throws in a catchy song while it’s at it.

I hope that’s enough to convince you to check it out. God knows the Hugos need the magic of friendship these days.

1 comment:

  1. I did watch the episodes weeks ago, and was pleasantly surprised by all the factors you mentioned. There's been some discussion of grimdark burnout in some corners of fandom, and whether that was a factor in the popularity of The Goblin Emperor last year. I wonder if will give a boost to ponies this year? Thanks for sharing your thoughts!