Kevin (erf_) wrote,

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bronies before honies: fandom is magic

Shit, there's no way to measure it
Not everypony grows up to be a pegasus
You gotta let people be hypocrites
Count your blessin's and mind your business

- Atmosphere, "Like the Rest of Us"

If, twenty years ago, you had told me I would be voluntarily attending a My Little Pony convention, I probably would have run into traffic. Twenty years and two death-defying auto accidents later, here I am, dancing to a techno remix of a song about dressmaking with a bunch of teenagers in homemade unicorn costumes.

This isn't as Lord of the Flies as it sounds. I can explain. Honest.

For those of you who haven't been hanging around the more 4chan-infested corners of cyberspace, the newest incarnation of the '80s-kitch My Little Pony cartoon has sort of become a thing on the Internet recently.

A thing thing, you ask? Like a 4chan meme?

Heavens, no. Advice Dog is a 4chan meme. Rage comics are a 4chan meme. They show up for a while, they produce lulz, they appear on signs at anti-Scientology protests and confuse newscasters and produce even more lulz. In the vicious, anonymous wilds of imageboard culture, memes like those are just language--an attention-grabbing way to quickly make your point to people with attention spans too short to grasp it with words. (And, intentionally or not, a way to repeat that point endlessly to the rest of the internet, transcending barriers of culture, language, and sometimes basic human decency.)

The continued Internet presence of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic on messageboards, imageboards, and IRC is more than a meme. It's more than a fad. It's more than a fandom. It's the mind-virus from Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. It ate 4chan.

This show has its own supercategory on your Know Your Meme for a reason.

Imagine this: A cartoon for eight-year-old girls, featuring a cast of adorable, sparkly, rainbowy ponies in soft pastel colors, written by an outspoken feminist to make a point about the market for quality cartoons for a female audience, is accidentally unleashed upon a board full of insecure, misogynistic, grimdark-reveling teenage sociopaths. Do you remember the mediocre 1980s cartoons, with their endless tea parties, high pitched voices, and neon-plastic brushable manes? Can you imagine a more perfect antithesis to the violent, testosterone-pumping culture of '90s antihero masculinity that so permeates /b/? What do you think would happen when a thousand Invader Zim and Teen Titans fans from that community, seething with self-righteous anger over the show some industry commentators had prematurely declared the final nail in the coffin for auteurism in animated television, descend upon that show to tear it apart?

You want to know what happened? The impossible happened. Something Hasbro never expected, something the show's producers never expected, something the /b/tards themselves never expected. Something no one who has ever taught, raised, or been an adolescent male would ever have expected.

The show was good. So good that even the /b/tards, with their misconceptions and their biases and their own deep-seated insecurities about their masculinity, admitted they loved it.

So good, in fact, that it turned them. Like so many zombies, back into the earth, before the commanding gaze of a high-level Dungeons and Dragons cleric.

Can you imagine what it must have been like for them? Ridiculing their fellow anons as child molesters, homosexuals, furries, man-children--why else would a grown man watch a show for little girls about fabulous glitter pony friendship--and, upon harvesting episodes as fodder for ridicule, coming to realize that they absolutely fucking love it?

The sheer quality of this show--the graceful animation, the surprisingly complex, likable characters, the clever yet innocently earnest writing--turned out to be a cognitive dissonance bomb of Stephensonian proportions. Anonymous likes to say that it does not forgive, that it does not forget. But almost overnight it learned to love and tolerate.

In a matter of days /b/ had descended into civil war. Half of /b/, inspired by the show's bold, brazen positivity, flooded the board with fanart and image macros related to the show, infuriating the hell out of the other half--a bewildered and unbelieving old guard who could not believe their beloved bullies' playground had been overrun with sparkles and cupcakes. Surely this must be a troll, they said. Surely this must just be ironic hipster postmodernism at work. But no. The fandom was real, and the innocent earnestness of the show had blown away their cynicism. /b/--that Lord of the Flies-like hellhole of perpetual adolescence where pictures of female users are captioned "you gonna get raped" and the word "fag" is so overused it just means "person"--a place singlemindedly devoted to the art of schadenfreude--actually, despite vicious resistance, had transformed into a magical land of friendship and unicorns and rainbows. Literally. It was like the opposite of a riot. One moment, all is well in the Internet Hate Machine, the next, SONIC RAINBOOM. Sharing, love, tolerance, and kindness! By the time the mods managed to lock it down it had already escaped 4chan and spread, like a roaring carpet of Parasprites, to the furthest corners of the Internet.

This, ironically, makes the explosion in MLP:FIM's popularity the greatest troll 4chan has ever pulled. The victim? Itself.

Let's take a moment to consider the implications of this. 4chan has shrugged off hacker attacks, lawsuits, Church of Scientology cease-and-desists, ISP censorship, and even the occasional FBI investigation. /b/ (and /co/, and various other parts of 4chan) crumpled like a wet sock under My Little Pony's message of love and tolerance. This, notes an anonymous YouTube brony, makes My Little Pony more powerful than the FBI.

But it didn't end with 4chan. Soon ponies were everywhere, the way ALF was in the late eighties. Handles like "RainbowDash20" and "PinkiePie" started appearing on servers for violent video games like Team Fortress 2 and Modern Warfare 3, their avatars decked out in bright pink ballistic armor and sparkly purple bandoliers. YouTube videos popped up of particularly daring young high schoolers using MLP:FIM to give physics and history presentations to their classmates. Colleges started My Little Pony clubs, in which frat boys, nerds, and preppies would get together on a couch in a dorm lounge, forties in hand, and watch the Cutie Mark Crusaders have sleepovers at Fluttershy's house. Even Stephen Colbert got in on the hype, opening an episode with a shoutout to all the My Little Pony fans. (Ha ha, Colbert! That was a joke, right?....Right? OMG BRONIES ARE REAL WTF)

The existing, venerable MLP fandom on the Internet--mostly women who grew up with the '80s toys, and had turned their childhood pastime into a serious hobby by collecting and modifying the plastic dolls--was mobbed with a huge surge of male fans, many of them the very same males who had teased them for their love of ponies decades ago. Fathers found a new way to bond with their daughters (and sometimes with their sons!), husbands creeped out their wives ("is this your way of telling me you're gay?" asked one disbelieving ladyspouse), brothers raided their little sisters' toy chests. Never in the history of fan culture, I imagine, has a fandom had its gender ratio upset so dramatically in so short a time. And that, my friends, was how the brony ("bro" + "pony") was made.

If I were an advertising executive, I'd be throwing myself out of a twentieth story window right now. 16-to-34 single adult males are one of the most coveted demographics in advertising, and one of the best understood--there's the perception that we are the age group most willing to part with our money. Entire brands, entire careers, have been built around marketing to us. Look at all the shameless bullshit that American TV has pushed onto this demographic for the last twenty years--the Lingerie Bowl, AXE deodorant, six-bladed Gillette razors, Two and a Half Men--all the millions of dollars spent on giving us all the gruff antiheroes, tailgate partying, fart jokes, and sexy cheerleaders our insecure, testosterone-crazed little lizard brains could want--and we show up at the little girls' section at Target, asking the staff when the Twilight Sparkle Twinkling Balloon Playset will be back in stock. Not for our little sisters' birthdays, mind you. Not for our frat brothers as a gag gift. For ourselves.

Why? Because ponies.

Somewhere out there, I imagine at least one feminist / transgender issues activist, who has been fighting for years for the degenderization of children's toys, is lifting a hand to hir mouth in speechless discombobulation. Better late than never, right?

And they're not the only ones feeling discombobulated! Even the bronies themselves are surprised. There's so much hand-wringing and soul-searching in the YouTube comments to the first season pilot that it reads like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, or (perhaps more accurately) like a bizarre pastiche of coming out of the closet. Paraphrased from comments to MenloMarseilles's upload of S1E1, before it was taken down: "I am a 19-year-old US Marine, and I like ponies." "I am a 21-year-old male electrical engineering student, and I like ponies." "I am a 27-year-old straight male auto mechanic, and I like ponies." "I am 14 years old and I never knew--I'll never make fun of gay kids for liking rainbows anymore. Rainbows are AWESOME."

My friend dwh, who owned the plastic toys as a kid and has been watching since the first MLP cartoon, introduced me to Friendship is Magic. I discovered the Kanye West parody featured at the top of this article, and I snarked--like every proto-brony does. The Internet is so weird, right? Furries, boyband shippers, grimdark Pokemon fanficcers, and now men who like the girliest, most effete thing ever made--there's no end to how creepy and sad fandom nostalgia gets. And then I saw the pilot episode. And then omgomgomgomg

Now the question on everypony's--er, everybody's lips, from The Oregonian to NPR to CNN to Wired to Jezebel to the video game zine ScrewAttack to British auto-racing show Top Gear, is why? Why would so many seemingly normal, straight, masculine males endure ridicule and challenge decades of painstakingly built gender identity to declare their love for a show made for little girls? (Fox News, of course, already has its own theory. Fox doesn't ask questions, it only makes up answers.) What on earth do all these manly dudes see in this show they could not possibly relate to?

The most common answer--one posited by KnowYourMeme and generally accepted on faith by much of the rest of the mainstream press--is Faust.

Lauren Faust, that is, creator of Powerpuff Girls and Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, two other popular children's shows that have developed a cult following among adults. Faust has developed a well-earned professional reputation for creating smart, well-written shows that appeal to parents as well as kids, with strong, likeable characters and good role models.

She's also an outspoken advocate of quality animation for young girls. All the discussions that come up in third-wave feminist fandom communities about cartoons being seen as a boys' pastime, despite their cross-gender appeal--all the issues with "guy" cartoons being for both genders but "girl" cartoons being ghettoized, with the absence of intelligent female leads with believable personalities and character flaws, with all the emphasis on teaching honor and loyalty and other grown-up values to boys but nothing of the sort to girls--she's familiar with and privy to. MLP:FIM, she has stated in virtually every interview she's done, is an experiment--an attempt to take a step away from the obvious endless-tea-party-and-frilly-things toy commercial approach, and try to show the world that the kind of show third-wave feminist mothers have clamored for for decades is something little girls would actually watch.

She was allowed to do this because Hasbro would have been happy with virtually anything she delivered them--given the franchise's mediocre track record in animated cartoons, it had been well established that even the laziest, shoddiest garbage would sell toys. Faust's name recognition was enough. I shit you not, they hired her because they were pleased with the publicity Michael Bay had garnered from rebooting Transformers. (Which is incredibly ironic, given that Bay's reboot of that franchise could not possibly have pandered more to the young adult male demographic. And it wasn't the franchise that ended up setting that demographic on fire.)

Remember this Onion AV Club article from 2007? No one ever expected that one to join the list of Onion articles that turned out to be prophetic.

I mean, six-year-olds, right? The show might be their first experience with animated cartoons. They don't have any context. They haven't watched enough to recognize (or be tired of) trope and cliche, or be disappointed by bad writing, or be upset by lazy production values. If all they take away from the show is "ooh, cute princess ponies, I want one," it's a net win for Hasbro. Kids are in no position to complain.

So Faust used her creative control to go absolutely nuts with the quality of this show--the bar being set so low for her that she could move it as high as she wanted. Her pony self-portrait for the postmortem interview she did for fansite Equestria Daily is revealing--she depicts herself as a stressed out, overstretched pony space deity, furiously scribbling dozens of scripts and drawing dozens of art samples at once against the pressure of a colossal, rapidly emptying hourglass. She and a handpicked, highly capable team of artists, musicians, and animators toiled over tens of episodes at once, braving a tiny budget and nightmarish time constraints to make the best cartoon they could.

Perhaps it was because there was so little on the line that they cared so much. The show was virtually guaranteed to be off the radar to anyone outside the industry, due to associations with the franchise (does anyone even remember the 2007 miniseries?), so this was going to be the showroom piece for the cartoon Faust and her team really wanted to do. It was the canary in the mine--the first test of the model for a new generation of television programming for girls. It was designed to weather inevitable criticism and resistance from a male-dominated industry already predisposed to write off the new show as a frivolous, girly, overlong toy commercial. Nobody--least of all Faust--expected the canary to come back singing, an army of fanboys in tow.

That's a nice story--and one that gets told a lot--but it's not even half of it. Dudes do like Powerpuff Girls and a lot of Faust's other prior work, and she's very well respected in the animation industry--but none of those shows ever became a cultural phenomenon on the scale of MLP. From comments I see in the fandom, most of us had never even heard of her before MLP took the Internet by storm. She's a great showrunner and she has an excellent writing team, but this isn't the first show she and Studio B have done together. Why this show? Why this one in particular, one even less accessible to men than Powerpuff or Foster's? Why, of all the cartoons this particular group of very talented people have worked on together, is the one about cupcakes and best friends and magic prancing unicorns the milkshake to bring all the boys to the yard?

Given the flabbergasted responses they've given in interviews, it's unlikely even the MLP:FIM creative team knows the answer to that question. But it's something every brony, with every thump of his eight-pound stallion heart, deeply understands.

Around the time the first MLP cartoon aired, there was a raging public debate, spurred by Neil Postman's withering criticism of television culture "Amusing Ourselves to Death," on the role of television in the upbringing of American children. Anti-consumerists shrilly predicted that vapid toy commercial cartoons like MLP, Transformers, and GI Joe (and also MTV and CNN and whatever other scapegoat was convenient at the time), would shorten attention spans, bankrupt moral values, and demolish literacy rates. Pundits on A Current Affair and a nascent Fox News warned that kids left in front of the TV while parents went to work would end up being raised by the boob tube, steeped in a culture of endless pop culture garbage, their young minds powerless to its consumerist agenda--a generation doomed to be overweight, unthinking, easily distracted, brainwashed credit-slaves, endlessly fixated on instant gratification. Lauren Faust was a member of that generation, and she--as all of us did--grew up determined to prove the alarmists of our parents' generation wrong. We'd reconcile the terrible quality and shameless advertising of the cartoons of our youth with an overdeveloped sense of irony, both celebrate and demolish the '80s explosion in consumerism by inventing remix culture, and eventually abandon television entirely in favor of the much more participatory, brand-agnostic internet. We would grow up knowing we were raised on shit, and create a renaissance of transformative postmodern culture not despite it, but because of it. The ability to love what was terrible, to embrace our inner hipster, saved our souls.

But it came at a terrible price. We abandoned the awful Hanna-Barbara cartoons we grew up with only to get hooked on deliberately awful Adult Swim recuts of them. We ironically transformed terrible pop songs like Britney Spears's "Hit Me Baby One More Time" into indie cover standards. We deliberately swamped college campuses and coffeeshops with neon hose and tourniquet-tight jeans and striped dresses, because ugly is the new beautiful. We accused earnest new artists of "selling out" the moment they achieved success, filmed entire movies about other movies, raised local prices for the cheapest, most watered down beer on the market to six dollars a can. We criticized Hollywood films and went home and watched reruns of Mystery Science Theater. We made Austin Powers as the James Bond franchise crashed, we made cartoons that snarked at the character flaws of politicians and legendary '70s folk singers, we created a market for seven Friedman and Seltzer films. We created an entire subculture around not liking things. All things. Most of all itself.

We are a generation to whom raising an eyebrow and saying "You're a dork" is a legitimate way to say you like someone. We are a generation who loves Alanis Morissette's "Ironic" precisely because, ironically, it isn't ironic. We are a generation who built M16 bras and dresses made of light bulbs and grew up to be Lady Gaga.

We, as a generation, have forgotten what it means to sincerely love something.

Lauren Faust belongs to our generation. And she didn't forget.

MLP set out to fill a space in television--conspicuous in its persistent absence--where great cartoons for girls should go. It set out to be the ideation of the cartoon a young Lauren Faust always wanted from the little pony toys she cherished, the show that existed in her little girl's imagination, rather than the squealy, psychedelic Cronenbergian nightmare the first MLP cartoon turned out to be. Full of heart, with believable, lovable characters, earnest and complex in its exploration of the complex web of friendship drama and social intrigue little girls are just starting to navigate, it would be less a puppet show to distract children with short attention spans than an introductory primer for little girls in how to be adult women.

This day and age, any other show with the subtitle "Friendship is Magic" would offer it with a smirk and a raised eyebrow. But MLP means it. It shows young girls, just beginning to discover what will be their first friendships--some of which will last a lifetime--what they can expect from the rest of their lives. It explores the politics of sleepovers, competition, jealousy, professional achievement, personal development, self-discovery--even a vaguely unsettling allegory for female puberty--and what it means to be friends with someone very different from yourself. What it doesn't do is offer friendship as the answer to all your problems,* nor handwave it away as a mystical force that shoots magic monster-destroying beams* or the solution to some extraordinarily contrived fantasy problem that can be easily vanquished with a platitude*.

These characters, despite being ponies, are more human than any other characters I've seen on children's television. They banter, they clique, they gossip, they confide in one another, they betray each others' confidence, they grow and change and run into seemingly irreconcilable differences--and in their end, it's their friendship, enduring tests many real-world adults would fail, that lets them carry on. It's like a sillier, much less depressing junior version of Cheers, with sprinkles and donuts instead of alcohol.

In the space of a twenty-two minute episode you don't always see jealous rivals become an unstoppable team or conflicting personalities discover something they share in common. You have genuine conflicts that resolve poorly, or come unresolved; you have fights (sometimes acrimonious ones) between close friends; you have jealously guarded secrets; you have flaws in one character that bring everypony down which cannot be banished through simple acceptance.

What none of these change--as is untrue of many friendships in real life--is that the ponies all share an incredible faith in their friendship and work tirelessly to reconcile their differences. They are best friends, and they are always there for each other, and for all their petty disputes, they will ultimately always love and accept each other, no matter how they change and grow apart. They are not "friends." They are friends.

These ponies are BFFs for life--and they mean it.

*At least not after the pilot episode, which does all of that. But it does it in style.

This is the sincerest show on television today. There is nothing like it on kids' TV or on grown-up TV. For real. There is not a speck of cynicism, not an iota of wryness or non-reflexive irony, not a bit of fearful, preemptive deconstruction of its own message. There are pop culture references, but they are sparse and usually subtle. There are dark moments, and they are really dark, and there are light moments, and they are really light, and there's many different flavors of grey. And it doesn't fall flat on its face with its own earnestness, or blind itself with its own naivete, as so many cartoons from the '70s and '80s do. This show believes in itself. It truly, bravely believes in the value of friendship, even against the very real threat of hurt and betrayal. And it believes you will too--with all its candy-coated, adorable little heart.

Friendship. It's is an important part of adult female life MLP's writers want little girls to learn. It's also something that cartoons made for boys--so heavily focused on Second World War values of honor, sacrifice, martial brotherhood, and loyalty--never bothered to teach men.

Here's my theory: Conventional wisdom (which may or may not be correct?) says bullies are cowards--that it's not their belligerence that isolates them as much as their isolation makes them belligerent. Why do you think the typical /b/tard is always trying to get a rise out of people, making fun of suicides, accusing the emotionally open of being "faggots" or having Aspergers, going on Internet Tough Guy tirades? Why do you think so many tough, lonely basement dwellers cling to '90s comic book antihero archetypes? For a guy who's used to being ostracized, shunned, left out, unloved, the aloof badass who choses to live apart from normal people because he has unresolved issues that can only be dealt with through tactlessness, a disdain for society, and a wellspring of stoic impassivity is a compelling role model. These are people who pretend they're not well liked because they're rough around the edges, but a lot of them are really rough around the edges because they're not well liked.

Let a guy like that watch a show like this, full of earnest hope and compassion and likable best friends--and he gets a taste of what he's never had. To a little girl the show is a look forward--a sneak peek for those who, as the theme song goes, used to wonder what friendship could be. But for a grown adult--male or female--the show is a look back at what your friendships could have been. At the dude from middle school who you called a fag because he tried to give you a hug. At the girl you stopped hanging out with because she started dating the guy you had a crush on. At all the people you never got to know because they were rich and full of it, or poor and abrasive, or had bad manners, or made fun of your limp when you broke your leg, or had an annoying laugh, or ruined your prom.

I used to wonder, everypony thinks, what friendship could be. But who was it who shared their friendship with me?

Everypony is flawed, but no pony is broken.

Male gender roles in American society are notoriously hostile to homosocial intimacy--in part because widespread homophobic attitudes conflate it with homosexual intimacy. Most dudes don't know how to say, "I love you, man," or "You are really important to me," without making it sound like they're coming on to each other. Nor do they know how to say, "I feel bad for what you're going through," "I'm going to support you through this," or even "You're a great friend and I appreciate you." My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic teaches exactly that. As a bonus, since it's written from a female perspective, it also gives straight and bisexual men invaluable lessons on what behavior is appropriate in female company. (No TV show, I imagine, has simultaneously destroyed and saved so many dating prospects.) They are magical ponies showing little girls how to be women--but they're more than that. They're magical ponies teaching people how to be human--all the little lessons that are too easy to miss over the course of a lifetime, except in hindsight.

Scanning through comments on Equestria Daily, I see this sentiment a lot. I think this, above else, is why the show is not just enormously popular with dudes on the Internet, but why it has inspired such profound changes in behavior among some of them.

Perhaps this is why, true to its name, bronydom has such a strikingly high number of frat boys among the more typical cartoon-watching otaku. Is not deep and abiding friendship what the concept of fraternity is all about? There's an odd social acceptability in that it takes a group of women, the society-proclaimed experts on feelings, to show stereotypical men what it means to be a true friend. Even if those women happen to be ponies. BROS! BROS! BROS!

There's lots of other things that contribute to the show's wide appeal, of course. The animation, for example, manages to be of superb quality despite the show's low production budget and tight deadlines. It is well understood among cartoonists that horses are hard to draw (there's a blog devoted entirely to horses with hands riding bikes because of the inherent challenge of drawing those things), so a lot of them take shortcuts--the ponies in earlier MLP cartoons recycle a lot of poses, many of which resemble pigs or cats. Lots of other cartoons, noting that animal poses lack a certain human expressiveness, will go as far as to give their characters human bodies. Daffy Duck has arms instead of wings. Garfield is bipedal. Thundercats have abs, fingers, and underpants.

But Studio B never forgets that its characters, for all their human qualities, are ponies. They eat hay. They fold all four legs underneath them when they sit down. They make clopping noises when they walk, and break into a flawless Muybridge gallop when they run. They bend their front legs in rodeo poses when they're feeling vain, stamp the ground and snort when they're feeling aggressive, and rear up their legs in a rampant pose when they're spooked. This is, to put it bluntly, gorram adorable.

But they're anthropomorphic ponies--role models in Faust's vision of a feminist utopia. They have short, nose-like snouts, and big wide smiles, and laugh and cry like humans, which dispels a lot of what made the '80s cartoons so unintentionally creepy. And there's a certain reverse irony to the way they subvert grown-up expectations of power relationships in ways that are certain to go over the heads of the show's target audience. The first episode, for instance, has protagonist unicorn Twilight Sparkle delivering plot exposition inside a chariot. Pulled by horses. A horse riding in a chariot pulled by horses. (Wait, what?) It's not until the camera zooms out a bit that it is revealed that the horses have wings and the chariot is flying through the air, and all becomes clear when the chariot lands and she tips the kind gentlehorses with a coin from her purse. Oh! Unicorns can't fly. It's not a chariot, it's a pegasus rickshaw! Of course!

There's also a Wild West sequence later on featuring a horse-drawn carriage, in which the carriage suddenly stops, the pony pulling the carriage shouts, "Gee whiz, I'm exhausted. Your turn!" and he passes his bit to his passenger (also a pony), who obligingly trades places with him. (Because, you know, letting that one pony pull the carriage for the other pony for the entire journey would be unfair.) It's funny--but only if you've already internalized the master-slave relationship between driver and horse. The show is full of subversive little moments like this, and it's amazing.

The show's unabashedly feminist perspective is also immensely fascinating to anyone who's grown up with cartoons produced in a male-dominated animation industry; Faust and her writing team break so many tropes we so take for granted that it's easy to forget they're there.

It's interesting how the population of Ponyville is overwhelmingly female, with all positions of power filled by mares, and stallions only present as token spouses, family members, or sidekicks.

Or how the only time stallions appear, it's to make an awkward pass at a mare, say something bullheadedly foolish, tell a mare she can't do something, or help pull a cart.

Or how marriage, dating, and sexuality play virtually no part whatsoever in most of the characters' lives, given how a) this is a show for pre-pubescent girls, to whom romance is a foreign concept and b) the role of woman as lover is largely dictated by the male gaze, which barely exists in a world that is like 80% female. (Take that, Cinderella.)

Or how the series protagonist is, as far as I can tell, the only positively portrayed bureaucrat on television right now. Who is calm, rational, levelheaded, reasonable, and female. And occasionally wrong, nevertheless.

Or how it second-guesses which characters you are going to identify as the prissy stuck-up one, the butch lesbian, the ditz, the nerd, the jock, and the outcast, and then crushes those archetypes under its hoof, screaming, "Ponies are more complicated than that!"

And then there's the music--name one other show on TV right now besides Glee that openly embraces song-and-dance numbers! Complete with Sondheim references! And the D&D monster manual's worth of guest characters from the same depths of Greek and Roman mythology from which unicorns and pegasi were plumbed, including such relatively lesser-known creatures as manticores, diamond dogs, gryphons, and hydrae. And, of course, a season one finale that both pastiches and shits upon every Disney movie ever to feature a princess. Coupled with Daniel Ingram's excellent soundtrack and some exceptionally talented voice actresses, you have a show that sounds considerably higher-budget than it is.

But, of course, what really makes the show is the characters. It's telling that the question "What's your favorite pony" is an injoke in the fandom, as any answer is implied to end in violence. Unlike most children's shows, which are about the adventures of Cool Protagonist and his Slightly Less Cool Friends, this show features an ensemble cast. That's pretty ballsy in itself--there's this long-standing perception that young children appreciate neither complex characters nor ambiguity as to who the "main good guy" is supposed to be. Yet Twilight Sparkle, the ostensible protagonist, gets so little screen time in the middle of the first season that she might as well be a supporting character herself.

All the characters struggle against personal conflicts, all of them have both charismatic qualities and serious character flaws--some of the former of which are identical to the latter--and each of them gets her own chance to shine. Even the minor characters are well-loved by the brony community, notably a nameless extra fans call "Derpy Hooves," who appeared cross-eyed in one shot due to an animation error and instantly became a fan favorite.

This is very much a character-driven show. There are episodes that feature high adventure, and there are occasional villains to spice things up a bit (the actor for Q in Star Trek: The Next Generation plays, in the Season 2 premiere, a character who is essentially Q), but every conflict is driven by the relationships between the characters. Class differences, racial differences, personality differences--every conceivable social factor at work on the group dynamics of the fourth grade playground is addressed. There are grown-up problems, like overwork, dashed expectations, and excessive self-reliance--and little kid problems, like dealing with bullies and figuring out what kind of adult you're going to be.

To Hasbro, the economic purpose of this cartoon is to convince kids to buy toys that will let them pick up their adventures with Twilight, Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, Rarity, and Fluttershy where TV left them off--and in this aspect it succeeds tremendously. The show is a sandbox, a creative playspace for practicing complex roles and social conventions in a safe, imaginary world--a proto-fandom, if you will. Its similarity to the real world--or an idealized version of the world its creators want to see--lets it serve as both a model for the experience of adulthood, and a context for disappointment from where the model is designed to fail. (As in: What do you mean, girls don't have the nerve to be fighter pilots? Rainbow Dash is a girl, and she can clear the entire sky in ten seconds flat. Screw "realistic," I want to be Rainbow Dash.)

That kind of exploration and experimentation is, among other things, the very reason children play. And what more could a children's cartoon produced by a toy company ever hope to offer?

As for the bronies, fandom is our playpen. Bronies, at the brink of professional careers and eager to prove their talent to the world, count among their ranks professional musicians, DJs, videographers, game developers, writers, artists, and animators. They've impressed even the production crew (who sometimes show up to conventions in T-shirts designed by fans). There's nearly enough talent in this fandom to make Season 1 again once over.

For us, the show also acts as a lens for looking back upon our childhoods. All those familiar experiences, all these characters who remind me ever so subtly of people we've met, friends we've known--people we should have treated better, decisions we should have reconsidered. It's a wonderful opportunity for mothers to reflect, over 20 years of My Little Pony, on the kind of world they want to make for their daughters. It's an equally wonderful opportunity for young dudes like me to think about what our own place in that world would be--certainly not anything close to the adulthood the cartoons of our own youth prepared us for, rife with scowling, power games, heroic sacrifice, and man tears.

Thank you, Lauren Faust, producer Jayson Thiessen, Studio B, and all the rest of the MLP:FIM staff who worked way harder (like, at least 20% harder) than you absolutely needed to, for making this show so fantastic. And brohoofs and pony hugs for reminding me, and a whole generation of men raised to be X-Men and Power Rangers, that there is nothing more precious in life than spending time with all your very best friends.

Every episode is on YouTube. Go watch some before they get taken down.
Tags: internet, internet people, television

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