Those Damned Ponies

posted February 17, 2011 by Jer


It's time to make this official. My Little Pony is the best show on television.

I'm going to repeat myself. I want you to read what I just wrote a second time, and understand that I am being deadly serious.

Hasbro made a new version of the classic "My Little Pony" franchise called My Little Pony, Friendship is Magic, which is produced by Lauren Faust (Fosters Home for Imaginary Friends, Powerpuff Girls), and it is the best program on television at this time.

I'm lucky. I have a long tradition of being an eccentric cartoon lover with a total disregard for gender roles. None of my friends even flinched when I started going nuts over this thing. Most men on the internet are not so fortunate. Message boards are flooded with 20-35 year old males who cluster together in fear of judgement and gender expectation regarding their love for a colorful cartoon with an all-female cast. Some call these fans "Bronies."

Now, I'm not the first to report on this by any stretch. This phenomenon has been building since the show launched in October. Honestly, in all my years of trolling the internet, I've never seen anything like the response to this show. The most common initial reaction to the show is "Why do I love this?"

I've spent some time as an art critic trying to divine exactly what makes MLP-FiM good. It's fairly well written, fairly well animated, extremely colorful and genuinely funny at times. It has its hit or miss moments, but what really sells it for me is the pacing. The conversation and action are all well timed and choreographed, (in contrast the Hasbro's latest iteration of Transformers, which despite it's beautiful rendering, has such forced pacing it's almost unwatchable). Judging by the sum of it's parts, I'd give it a rank of pretty-good, but as a whole there's just something mind-blowing about it that I can't really identify. Fortunately, the show has an episode about accepting that things can be awesome for no reason. Funny thing, there was some controversy about that, but I digress.

What I find most fascinating about the Pony phenomenon is what it says about American gender roles. A quick look at any of the youtube statistics shows just how popular this "show for girls" is with adult male humans. This begs the question: how would one define a "show for girls?" Would it be a show with a mostly-female cast, or a show that focuses primarily on traditional girls' interests? Cartoons from my childhood like Transformers, Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles and Looney Toons all had primarily male casts and focused on fighting, roughhousing and palling around in very guy ways, but were considered cartoons for everyone - and in fact, almost all of my female friends enjoyed these "shows for boys." I suspect the enjoyment of these shows was less a measure of the content or gender role, and more about the overall quality. Now suddenly, there's a genuinely enjoyable cartoon with an all female cast and episodes about makeovers and fashion shows. The internet lost its mind.

The ponies did not start this, either. We've already had Powerpuff Girls show us a girly show can be just plain cool. I think what's throwing everyone for a loop is the My Little Pony legacy. Powerpuff Girls was brand new - it had no baggage to weigh it down. The entire world knows what My Little Pony is. Any boy alive in the 80s grew up with clear distinction between "cartoons for everyone" and "cartoons for girls." While the girls of the 80s were breaking out and enjoying whatever they damn well pleased, the boys had to stick to their end of the spectrum. None of the boys realized how limiting their judgment and prescribed gender roles were, it was much too important to be proving they were boys.

I'm speaking as a boy here. The world of gender roles is by no means fair, and I'm making no comment about which gender has it rougher. For a great article from the other perspective, check out Kelly Turnbull's essay about manly people doing manly things.

Girls have been gradually, steadily breaking out of their prescribed gender roles for almost a century now, but boys are still a slave to it. In a lot of ways, we bring it on ourselves. We're afraid. The slightest hint of effeminate tastes illicits the most aggressive homophobia from our fellow men, and the only defense against this we are culturally offered is hair-trigger offense. Fortunately, thanks to a silly cartoon about ponies, boys are not just discovering, but accepting what girls have known for ages: that there's fun stuff on both sides of the gender fence.