Unicorn Ethics: A Fragment on My Little Pony

It is the job of fusty, addlebrained academic sorts to take things we all enjoy and take for granted, and then dissect it with the ponderous seriousness of a graying doyen of our particular art. Especially in the social sciences. Teasing out social messages, identifying wider imbricating discourses, and seeing patterns with relation to the media is usually a sombre affair filled with sad news. This is how this movie reinforces patriarchy, this is how this television show transmits transphobic messages, this is how our media is coarsening social attitudes, this is how this commercial is making us hate our bodies, and so on and so on. It is a rare, rare joy indeed when I get to turn my critical eye towards explaining how something in the media is positive in its influence on our society.

When a good friend of mine nudged me into watching My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic I internally scoffed. It sounded cute, and nothing was wrong with cute, but I’m a woman in her 20s, jet setting and on the go, kicking patriarchy’s ass and sipping skinny lattes while jogging between classes and speaking engagements. What use did I have for girl’s television anyway? What’s more, it was probably the usual problematic pap encouraging girls to be docile, quiet, restrained and feminine in a deeply unnerving way, another Cult of Pink devoid of all that can be good about growing up.

To say that I was dead wrong on all counts is an understatement.

The Sociologist as Children’s Hero?

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic began to arrest me when I realised that the main character was a bookwormish unicorn named Twilight Sparkle who was a serious minded, organised, knowledgeable student with a profound magical talent, proud of her tutelage under Princess Celestia– the benevolent ruler of Equestria– who’s known far more for her wisdom than her beauty it seems. The pilot episode finds Twilight learning several lessons that I would not only feel comfortable with my future daughters learning, but I’d actually fall over myself to get them into this programme. Twilight had to learn the power of friendship, yes, a rather old and clichéd concept in children’s programming. But what sets MLP apart is both how this was done and with whom it was done.

Twilight Sparkle expressing pony values.

Twilight Sparkle is sent to Ponyville by Celestia to make friends as Celestia worries for her star pupil’s social skills. But the plot does not revolve around Twilight dulling her intellect to become a social butterfly; far from it she learns her to use her talents relationally, as a member of a diverse group of ponies who all have distinct skills. She learns a group ethic; teamwork, in other words. One of the show’s most heartwarming messages is that you cannot always do great things alone; this message is a beautiful, at times subtle, contradiction of the selfish ethic of heroic individualism that has become like a cancer on our society. It is not just a paean in one episode, but rather a theme underlying every single one. It is the language through which the programme is expressed.

In all of this, Twilight’s skills and intellectual acumen are not blunted but become essential to her friendships. Her friends love her for who she is and are proud to know the “smartest Pony in Ponyville.”

I rather love Twilight Sparkle—when having her first slumber party she used a reference book on the subject to help her organise it. She is portrayed as an intellectual, she always lives somewhere surrounded by books—I envy her library. She is readily portrayed as a capable leader, a (community?) organiser, and maven of the world’s lore always ready to teach the ponies some esoteric fact. But perhaps the bit that really melted my heart was that Princess Celestia told Twilight to deliver a report about friendship every week, relaying her “findings.”

That’s right, Twilight Sparkle is a budding sociologist. I was sold.

Meet the Ponies

“Sold” is, perhaps, a very apt term. The entire programme is a gigantic advertising vehicle for Hasbro’s line of toys. This made me uncomfortable with both watching it and writing this piece. I do not like shilling for corporations, to be quite sure. But this show, I felt, was so good in terms of its messages that it warranted comment from me. People are watching it, liking it, and given its communalist, empathetic, and even feminist messages, I think this is fundamentally a good thing, irrespective of Hasbro’s profits.

Twilight’s friends present young girls with a range of character archetypes, none of them evoking what sociologist Raewyn Connell called ‘emphasised femininity.’ Emphasised femininity is particularly that dominant form of femininity oriented particularly to the interests of men, a femininity that reproduces women’s subordination to them. While some of the ponies are “girly” none are in any sense subordinate.  Pinky Pie is perhaps the most girly of the lot, with her giggles and pink, bouncy, almost maddeningly ebullient character. But she is more complex than she first appears, her quirkiness and oft-remarked-upon randomness actually seem to hint at the fact that she thinks differently. Indeed, she saves the day more than once.

Rarity is another pony, a unicorn, who seems at first blush to be a stereotype. She is the beauty queen of the lot, preening her appearance and so forth. But she owns her own business, a boutique where she plies her passionately pursued trade of clothesmaking. What’s more she is not purely vain, but rather someone who—in my view—appreciates beauty and elegance. She presents an image of glamour without the objectifying restraint that normally accrues to that image. When her love of beauty gets in the way, it’s the other women who talk her out of it and teach her to be less self-absorbed.

The other ponies are all, in various ways, athletic, rough and tumble, hardheaded and practical. Rainbow Dash’s strengths lie in her physical abilities as a flying pony, and her job—clearing the sky and helping to change the weather—is avowedly physical. Her distaste for and outright contempt for femininity is a marked part of her character. The same can be said for Applejack, who speaks with a Southern twang and runs a farm. She does a roaring trade selling apples and apple products, and is also unafraid of getting her hands…er… hooves dirty.

Fluttershy is the final pony. Her quietude and motherliness is also a feminine stereotype but she is, in my view, handled very well. She is given opportunities to overcome her meekness, find strength to raise her voice and her fists… er… hooves, and to learn more about herself over the course of the programme.

The point of the foregoing is to suggest that we are presented with various modes of gendered expression here, with Applejack and Rainbow in particular drifting far away from the various tropes of femininity. Far from being snapped out of it, they remain powerful characters in their own right.

Community, Diversity, and Pony Equality

Throughout the programme there are numerous little things that one notices which are of interest. All authority figures are women, ponies (the vast majority of whom are female) are shown as being capable of all manner of jobs—whether typed masculine or feminine. An entire episode revolves around the virtues and pitfalls of scientific empiricism. Unicorns can, apparently, specialise their magic in subjects like math.  All of the characters themselves, what’s more, are both flawed and funny. This is crucial; patriarchal media usually denies women the personhood that would enable us to be represented as flawed human beings and/or comical characters.

Some male characters in the programme, like Spike, Twilight’s baby dragon assistant and secretary, are shown to actually enjoy things that are typed as feminine. Rarity saves the day by using her skills to help a male river serpent who was rather proud of his hair, for example.

These are by no means indications that the show is perfect. It can certainly be picked apart with a finer toothcomb than I freely admit I’m using at the moment. However, it is my feeling that in general this programme presents a rather positive series of images for young women. This is a world that is made up almost exclusively of women characters who are in no way defined relationally to men, motivated by them, or otherwise orbiting them. Their goals are often noble and relating to hard, important, and often physical labour. Each pony uses her various skills to help the group, or help the wider community. Major events are shown as communal affairs where everypony (yes I used that word) does her part. The whole of Ponyville comes together for events like changing the seasons, which is something done manually in this intriguing fantasy world.

Understanding the feelings of others is part of the show’s empathetic marrow; but so is not allowing yourself to be overwhelmed by the needs of others. One of the historic problems we as women have faced is that, unlike men, we are called on to care for others but always at our expense if necessary. We are not, as sociologist Carol Gilligan pointed out, often empowered to include ourselves in the universe of needs we must tend to. In MLP, by contrast, navigating the balance between one’s own needs (self-care) and the needs of others is important. It is learning to achieve this balance that Gilligan identifies as the road to maturity for those women who think in relational ways.[1] Presenting it to young girls can only be good for their self definition.

One interesting example of this balance is how Twilight Sparkle, as a powerful mage and otherwise brilliant pony, learns how to show off her talents and take pride in them without being unkind to others in the process. Rather than teaching girls to be silent and bashful about their skills, the programme shows that there is a middle path—complicated but navigable—to showing the world what they can do with pride and dignity.

The fluffy messages of peace, love and understanding are sappy and cheesy… and yet I love them to bits. It actually made me feel quite good to realise that I’d not become so jaded that I couldn’t dance along to the show’s jaunty theme song. This is not a perfect show by any means, but it constitutes what I feel is a very good start to producing less problematic television. Perhaps the worst moment for me was when Rarity fantasised about marrying one of the few male ponies we see in the show. This was more than a little eyeroll inducing, and a none too subtle reminder that the only permissible sexuality is heterosexuality. But the show remains largely free of men inhibiting the mass of women ponies, and their goals and desires have much more to do with their individual talents than with achieving something for or otherwise in relation to a male character.

The range of archetypes presented to young girls is very important here. The fact that I found myself in Twilight Sparkle, even as a radical feminist, is perhaps very telling. I would certainly not go so far as to say that there is a pony for every personality here, but it should not be difficult for a range of girls to see bits of themselves in each. There’s ample room for the girl who won’t be quiet and is more comfortable climbing trees than playing with Barbie dolls. But crucially, the spread of characters accommodates the many girls who are comfortable doing both. It shows that there need not be a tension between what is socially typed as masculine and feminine, that you can pick and choose what you want to do and who you want to be based on your own desires and feelings, and not just on whether something is correctly gender-typed.

Is friendship magic? I… am going to have to say, in my professional opinion, that… yes, it is.

Endnote:

Hasbro’s marketing strategy with regards to My Little Pony, as well as the unexpected surprise that came in the form of young het men enjoying the show, are discussed beautifully and engagingly by web designer and marketer Sabrina Dent on her blog here. The lecture is worth watching and is quite funny.

I also very much encourage my readers to see what Lauren Faust herself, the creator of this reboot of MLP, had to say about her show on the Ms. Magazine Blog. It is indeed very heartening to learn she’s a feminist and that I read her intent so well (I’d not seen this piece until after I published today’s blog post).


[1] It is very much worth emphasising here that Gilligan is not, as some have wrongly accused her of being, an essentialist feminist. This implies that she believed women were born with a certain innate ‘essence’ that predisposed us to certain behaviours or ideals; to put it very briefly, that is not what she said. Her argument was that in broad terms due to a confluence of socialization and women’s negotiation with the reality in which most of us live, we develop a certain ethic that is less common among men. It is this social fact to which I refer when I speak of “women who think in relational ways.” As a trans woman I myself have found myself absorbed in that ethic, even when I was very young. It was never easy for me to put myself first, it was never easy to prevent my empathy from getting the best of me, it was always a struggle to accept that I also had needs. I will not speculate here on the vicissitudes of this for trans girls in particular, but for now it is enough to say that it is real, it is largely a product of socialization and culture, and that maturing under these conditions requires one to learn how to accept one’s own needs as equally worthy of consideration and validity.