It didn’t get off to a good start. My first experience with the current incarnation of My Little Pony was a talking Pinkie Pie toy, bought for my eldest daughter’s fourth birthday. I had fiercely resisted the pinkification of girlhood and Princess Culture, and Pinkie Pie’s catchphrases – “I love to laugh, especially with friends!” and “Let me hear your silliest giggle” – sent chills down my spine whenever I heard it (every 20 seconds for the best part of a year). I wouldn’t let my daughter watch the accompanying TV show, ideologically opposed to any drama that is, essentially, a half-hour advert for a toy. I’d never seen a branded TV series that wasn’t awful. The Lego Friends cartoon, for example, makes Keeping Up With The Kardashians look like avant-garde 1970s feminist improv theatre.
Then one day, my daughter broke me and I heard the theme tune for the first of a thousand times. Nearly five years later, I consider My Little Pony one of the most important feminist narratives of our time. I could win Mastermind with it as my specialist subject, and I could go on Woman’s Hour and defend it.
This is a show created by a woman, about female characters supporting each other, in a land ruled by a female. The origins story, in brief: Princess Celestia of Equestria sends awkward, unicorn Twilight Sparkle to Ponyville to study the magic of friendship. She falls into passionate, complicated, loyal friendship with farmhand Applejack, sporty Rainbow Dash, airhead raver Pinkie Pie, nurturing Fluttershy, and fashionista Rarity. Twilight is pulled out her comfort zone and learns tolerance and compassion.
My Little Pony passes the Bechdel test with flying colours. It presents a world in which the default position is female. The token bloke is a baby dragon called Spike; the Smurfette, if you will. Unlike so many cartoons aimed at little girls, the action is never about the female characters’ relationships with, or reactions to, males. They cause their own stories. Some episodes are about magic and monsters but most of the narrative is driven by the ponies’ own relationships. The values of kindness, honesty, loyalty, laughter and generosity are each embodied by one pony, and explicitly explored. Shifting friendship hierarchies, envy, sporting rivalries and misunderstanding between the friends provide the conflict, mirroring my own daughters’ concerns and, more importantly offering them solutions.
The primary message is that you can be wildly different and stay friends. It is a template for acceptance
They talk them through and work it out. It is gloriously pro-diversity. Gender and race are non-existent. Rainbow Dash and Applejack are sporty and practical but never once called out for being butch. Likewise, fashionista Rarity is never derided as too frivolous. (Rarity, by the way is an originator, never a slave to the frow. She is basically an artisan working out of a Margate warehouse and she’s amazing.) The primary message is that you can be wildly different and stay friends. It is a template for acceptance.
The tunes are banging, too. In-house songwriter Daniel Ingram is a genius, the Elton John of brand-led animation. If one of the songs comes on my iPod, I don’t skip it. The other day in the gym I dead-lifted 20 kilos to a song called Hearts As Strong as Horses.
Of course My Little Pony is not perfect. Just because it’s a funny, well-written ad doesn’t mean it’s not an advert, and the resultant pestering for the latest toy is naturally tedious. I also wish the little icons on the ponies’ flanks denoting the individual’s talent or passion, were called something other than ‘cutie marks’, but there you go.
Actually, my main beef is not the show but the gendered reaction to it. I know loads of boys right up to Year Five whose profound love for MLP is a dirty little secret. One of my daughters’ male friends would happily play MLP for hours then beg, at the front door, that she doesn’t tell anyone because it’s “girly”. Even at seven, he had internalized the idea that a show about females is only for females. It can’t be neutral the way that, say Pokemon can. ‘Girly’ is weak and shameful. This prototype toxic masculinity is about our own prejudice and perceptions rather than anything the show sets out to achieve.
I can’t write about boys and MLP without a nod to the Brony phenomenon – grown men who live and breathe the series and discuss it on what are surely the most harmonious male-dominated forums online. Their stock response to trolls: “I’m going to tolerate and love the shit out of you.” But this sass hasn’t filtered down to Year Three boys in a North London state primary.
My eldest daughter is eight now, and the obsession shows no sign of abating. I’m interested to see whether the movie keeps the TV show’s feminist ethos. Creator Lauren Faust left the show a couple of series back due to creative differences, but I hope her spirit prevails. The strapline of My Little Pony is Friendship is Magic – and so is feminism, and it starts right here.