Film critic Sherilyn Connelly’s first work of scholarly sparkliness, Ponyville Confidential: The History and Culture of My Little Pony, 1981–2016, was recently published by McFarland & Company. This is an excerpt from the Introduction.
As a child, I was in a big hurry to grow up. When I was treated like the five- or six- year-old that I was — say, when I was handed a children’s menu at a restaurant — I felt like I was being stripped of what little dignity I had. (And if the waiter tried to give me crayons, I wanted to curl up in a ball under the table.) Even worse were the things that kids were expected to watch. The 1970s and 1980s were not a golden age of children’s fare, and I was offended to my core by being expected to watch most of the cartoons being produced, or inexplicably popular Sid & Marty Krofft shows like The Bugaloos. Seriously, did they think we were stupid, or what?
It helped that I grew up in a permissive family, and I wasn’t forbidden from watching things meant for grown-ups. Admittedly, most everything made for broadcast television up to that point was designed to be non-offensive, but M*A*S*H and Star Trek were my favorite shows because they were what my siblings and parents enjoyed. (Both the live-action and animated versions of Trek were in regular rotation for a while, and they were equally valid to me.) The only new cartoon I watched with any kind of regularity in the 1980s was Inspector Gadget, because it was the voice of the guy from Get Smart — another favorite of my family. It had interesting stories that were set in something resembling the real world, and, most importantly, the real hero of the show was gadget’s young niece (who inevitably saved the day using her intelligence and her confidence). That, I could appreciate.
I started watching My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic in mid-2011, shortly after the end of Season 1. I’d been vaguely aware the show existed and that it had a rabid fanbase in corners of the internet that I generally ignored, but the tipping point was an article by Todd VanDerWerff on the A.V. Club, my favorite pop-culture website. He compared it to the recently concluded Battlestar Galactica series, in that they were both remakes and far superior to their source material, yet with legacies and titles that made it difficult to recommend without adding an “I know how it sounds, but trust me” disclaimer. (Plenty of people in the months to follow laughed in my face when I told them that My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic was actually really good — and also more recently, when I told them I was writing Ponyville Confidential.)
Though VanDerWerff ultimately praised the show, the tone of the article was hesitant at best. In addition to describing it as “a show built to advertise a toy line” and “a way to create new toy ponies to sell to little girls,” and that “in some respects, it may be a toy commercial, sure,” he cited Friendship Is Magic’s greatest obstacle as being the fact that it’s about “fucking cartoon ponies.”
He was distrustful of what he described as the show’s “sheer and utter joyfulness,” but that his inclination to watch it with an “ironic sneer of detachment” was worn down by the time he was “giggling maniacally at a tiny cartoon pony being dragged against her will toward a giant rock, adorable frown affixed firmly to her face. She was such a cute little pony! Yes she was!”
The scene was a flashback of the character Rarity (who is the best) from one of the best episodes of Season 1, and it is indeed funny, but the infantilization of the character makes no sense. Further A.V. Club coverage of the show would similarly indulge, such as a January 2012 article about an online character generator of which Genevieve Koski wrote that, “Regardless of what you think of the series and its attendant web-phenomenon status, it’s hard to deny that those ponies are da kewtest widdle ponies eva yes dey are!” Though she clarified that she was not a fan of the show, I still found myself wondering, was she even referring to the same My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic that I watched? And if so, where did the baby talk come from?
What I had discovered when I started watching is a show that featured well-developed characters, strong writing — even if I could tell where an episode was going, I could never tell how it was going to get there, or what might happen next — and a deeply humanistic, occasionally morally ambiguous worldview that eschewed the “magic” of the title. It also helped that it was beautifully animated and nice to look at, with a purple-heavy palette that appealed to my own aesthetics.
What’s more, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic has a strong feminist bent, showing its cast of female ponies as fully rounded individuals with their own strengths and weaknesses. They gain much of that strength from their friends, but are also able to work out problems on their own, often under extreme duress. They can do anything a boy can do, and never need a boy to save or complement them. There were some strong indicators of children’s television, of course, such as an often ham-handed attempt to shoehorn in a moral at the end of each episode during Season 1, often followed by the deeply hacky “Everybody Laughs” ending — the kind where someone makes a weak joke, everybody laughs, and the credits roll.
But I never felt condescended to while watching My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, or as though I were watching something that presumed the viewer was unintelligent or immature, regardless of their age. Nor, even, that I was watching something inappropriate for a taxpaying grown-up in her late 30s. This wasn’t The Bugaloos, nor did it resemble the bits and pieces I’d seen of the 1980s series My Little Pony ’n’ Friends. This was something new, different, and a notable alternative to what was still a largely male-oriented animation world.
I also found a show which rewarded close attention, with a season-long arc in the first season that ended with “The Best Night Ever,” one of the best-written, most emotionally satisfying half-hours of Friendship Is Magic. Or any other show.
Sure, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is about fucking cartoon ponies, and the Equestria Girls movies are just about teenage girls, but by that same logic, all that needed to be said about the critically acclaimed Battlestar Galactica reboot — which Time had frequently listed as one of the best shows of the given year — was that it was about sexy killer robots in space. See? Being reductive is never wrong.
From Ponyville Confidential: The History and Culture of My Little Pony, 1981-2016
© 2017 Sherilyn Connelly by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc.
Box 611, Jefferson NC 28640, mcfarlandpub.com