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 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.