This is the story of a fandom…
Bronies were born in the depths of 4chan, like a rose growing in a swamp, or a party pony raised on a rock farm. They began with the intent of hating the show, of watching it ironically, with all the bitter cynicism that passes for appreciation in the Internet Hate Machine.
They fell in love. Ponyvangelists spread rapidly across the Internet, posting about their love of ponies wherever they could: All over 4chan itself, on Facebook and Tumblr, big fora like Something Awful and TVTropes, small fora like the Front Row Crew Forum and Slacktivist–bronies quickly became inescapable, at least in the geekier corners of the Internet.
4chan tried to kick them out, and more or less succeeded for a time; eventually it caved, and bronies returned. You can’t go to an anime convention without seeing humanized pony cosplayers. Pony fanart is all over DeviantArt, and pony videos and music are all over YouTube.
It hasn’t always been a happy fandom. Derpygate divided us, bitter factions arguing over what did or did not constitute ableism or censorship. Twilicorn Sparkopalypse divided us again. I know fans who still refuse to watch the Season 3 finale because Twilight becoming an alicorn disturbs them so much, and other fans who are still complaining about it. Many fans complained about it right up until the episode, and changed their minds because they liked the episode after all; other fans didn’t like the episode and found it rushed. Still others never had a problem in the first place.
Throughout, the fandom has dealt with outsiders and “neighsayers” who don’t understand, who look askance at teen and adult men and women watching a cartoon for young children. But we live in a cynical age, and we need light and joy and love.
I remember the 1980s, barely; people who remember them better than I do frequently comment on how no one really expected to survive the decade. That was supposed to be the end of the world, in a fiery nuclear conflagration–and yet the 1990s happened. We’ve been holding our breaths for the apocalypse for more than 20 years, and instead all we’ve gotten is a long slow decline into economic and environmental ruin.
Bronies see a better world. We look at Equestria and we see a world where obsessing over everything that could go wrong is a neurotic flaw, not a universal trait. Where the profit motive marks you as a Flim-Flam Brother whether you make a quality product or not, because we all know you’ll cut the quality and screw the local farmers if you have to in order to win. Where you can be who you are without being afraid of being judged against some artificial standard of what your gender is “supposed” (by whom?) to be like. Where love and peace and friendship have the power to change the world for the better.
Wanting a world like that marks you as childish, in our world. It didn’t always; Judaism calls it “tikkun olam.” Christianity calls it “the Kingdom of Heaven.” Ethicists call it optimal utility. It’s what civilization was invented for in the first place.
All over the world, a generation is waking up and realizing that the we aren’t bound by an inevitable destiny; we can shape our own. The world isn’t ending; we’re going to inherit it, and we need to decide what we want it to be. Equestria has flaws, and reasons it would never work in the real world–but it’s not a bad picture to keep in our minds, either.
This is the story of an animator…
Born 1974, Lauren Faust grew up loving the My Little Pony toys and playing with and having adventures with them, but absolutely despising the show. This is the sort of detail biographers love to put in, because it helps turn the chaos of living a life in the real world into a nicely organized, neat little narrative full of foreshadowing and recurring themes. “See?” this detail seems to say. “She was always destined to revolutionize the show. Of course if she never touched the toys, you could accomplish the same foreshadowing by pointing out how everyone around her liked My Little Pony and she didn’t, while the foreshadowing if she loved both toy and show would be obvious.
She became an animator, and worked on several high-profile shows for Cartoon Network in the late 1990s with her eventual husband Craig McCracken. The first was Powerpuff Girls, created by McCracken. Faust started as an animator, and worked her way up to directing and writing episodes, including writing the theatrical prequel movie. Despite its bright colors and adorable female main characters, PPG broke the mold for girls’ shows. It had a lot of action, the girls had not only distinctive hobbies and quirks, but their own strengths, weaknesses, dreams–in short, distinct personalities–and were able to be little girls while also being completely badass superheroes. It proved to be so popular that it’s now coming back to Cartoon Network after nearly 15 years off the air. She had a larger role from the start in Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, also created by McCracken. Faust was the character designer, head writer, and a storyboarder.
A feminist, Faust repeatedly tried to pitch a show with an all-female cast to Cartoon Network, and was repeatedly told such a show couldn’t succeed. (Note that this is after Powerpuff Girls was a smash hit.) Then, after Hasbro bought half of Discovery Kids and started looking for content to fill their new network, she tried approaching them; they turned down her initial idea, but countered with an offer to helm a new My Little Pony series, with the intent of creating a new toyline based on the show. Faust set out to combine what little good there was in the old cartoons with her own sensibilities; she has said at different times her goals were to create a show for little girls and their parents that both could enjoy, and to create a show that explored many different ways to be a girl.
This is the story of an evolving show…
|Here we have Rarity demonstrating how to
reject something as not being your destiny.
Thank you, Rarity, you’re a lesson to us all.
It’s April 15, 2011. The top song this week is still Katy Perry’s “E.T.” The top movie is Rio, which while not as bad as the last couple of movies we’ve seen in the top spot, is still pretty bad. The news is mostly more of the same, with military killing protestors in Egypt and Syria, among other places, and Japan getting hit by more aftershocks and evacuating more people from the area around the Fukushima nuclear plant. One bright spot: On the day this episode airs, Australian and Japanese researchers successfully teleport information-carrying “packets” of light.
This week’s episode is a stunning tour de force by M.A. Larson, “The Cutie Mark Chronicles.” The most ambitious episode yet, it uses a complex structure of interconnected flashbacks to address questions of destiny. This is a brilliant approach, since we are used to thinking of destiny as a linear thing, a (rather depressing, and entirely at odds with our sense that we do, at least sometimes, make meaningful choices) notion that our lives are a straight line determined by our trajectory at birth. This episode, however, is anything but a straight line. Applejack’s flashback, for example, begins well before anyone else’s, and depending on the travel time between Manehatten and Ponyville, either it or Pinkie Pie’s flashback ends last. Rainbow Dash’s and probably Twilight Sparkle’s flashbacks take place entirely within Fluttershy’s, Rarity’s ends later that night, and Pinkie Pie’s the next day–if Pinkie Pie’s even happened.
It’s an interesting conceit, to have a single central event tie together the lives of the Mane Six before they ever knew each other. This episode was clearly set up far in advance, both overtly (Rainbow Dash’s previous comment that, prior to “Sonic Rainboom,” she’d succeeded in creating one exactly once) and subtly (Rainbow Dash’s dismissive attitude towards Fluttershy in “Dragonshy” makes more sense–and becomes a clumsy attempt to protect her, rather than evidence of dislike–if Rainbow Dash has been protecting Fluttershy since they were foals).
However farfetched it may seem, it makes more sense as a result of the Texas sharpshooter fallacy: If you fire a bunch of bullets at a wall, and then draw the target where the bullet holes are clustered, you may well come out looking superhumanly accurate. Likewise, if you look hard enough for something that coincidentally ties together a randomly selected group of people, you will find something. Though it is interesting that the sonic rainboom coincides with their discoveries of their callings in all of the stories, it’s still perfectly believable as a meaningless coincidence.
But then, what is the difference between meaningless coincidence and destiny, except that destiny is meaningful and coincidences are not? If we insist that meaning must come “from” somewhere other than ourselves, then there is no destiny, only meaningless coincidence. But in these parts we take as given that meaning is constructed, that we create it ourselves and in concert with the surrounding culture, which means that no coincidence is meaningless unless we choose it ourselves. We can choose what counts as destiny and what counts as coincidence.
This is the story of a fan…
A couple of years ago, Viga saw a thread about ponies someone created on the Front Row Crew forum. Initially, she thought it was a troll, but with time enough people on the site gave the show a shot to make it a brony-friendly place. Viga loved the show herself, and as official Pusher Robot of our circle of friends, nagged me to watch it.
Eventually I did. I had little in the way of preconceptions regarding the show–vague memories of seeing the G1 movie with Tirek, nothing more. The first episode seemed to me to be the best attempt by Westerners to imitate what I like about magical girls since Joss Whedon did it, but then the next few episodes after that failed on that promise.
And then “Dragonshy” happened, and I realized that I am Fluttershy and she is me. I have never identified with a character as strongly as I do her, never felt that their experience portrays my own, but Fluttershy is not just me. She is me at my best, a better version of me. Even as I watch her grow in the show, I realize that I have in me the capacity to be much of what is good about her, and to borrow the things she learns about herself.
I love My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. I’m passionate about it. I devote massive amounts of energy to my love for it, and I receive a great deal in return. It’s not really something that can be described to someone who’s never been a geek about something, but I feel like it’s a part of who I am now. I was always destined to be a brony–and yet if Viga had not happened upon that thread on FRC, or if I had continued to refuse to watch the show, I would never have been one.
Case in point: Two of my closest and oldest friends are gigantic bronies. They started watching before I did, and discussed with each other whether to recommend the show to me. They decided I probably wouldn’t like it and it was better not to bring it up. I came this close to never seeing the show.
But I did watch it, and now I write thousands of words a week about My Little Pony, and I’ve seen every episode at least four times (except “One Bad Apple,” because it sucks). What a fragile thing destiny can be.
This is the story of a franchise…
In 1982, designer and illustrator Bonnie Zacherle, together with sculptor Charles Muenchinger, created a design for a girl’s toy: a brightly colored plastic horse with combable mane and tail. Hasbro marketed the toy, which proved extremely popular, and in 1986 launched a tie-in cartoon. This was the wasteland of 1980s children’s television, when half-hour toy commercials ruled the world, and My Little Pony was very much Transformers for girls. It mapped neatly onto the gender stereotypes: nifty mechanically complex toy involving robots and cars, and an adventure cartoon with lots of different personalities engaging in exciting action, versus brightly colored inarticulate toys with pretty hair that were horses and had cloyingly sweet, mundane quote-unquote adventures with only one personality shared among the bunch. Because according to toy manufacturers and childrens programming directors, little boys are people and like active things and excitement, little girls are identical ciphers and like passivity and sweetness. There was some exception in the first incarnation of the cartoon, with villains of the week and adventures, but still indistinguishable characters, not to mention the terrible animation typical of 1980s TV cartoons.
But things changed for cartoons in starting around 1987. The rise of syndication meant a degree of creative freedom relative to network television, and Disney’s Ducktales proved it was possible to create a syndicated cartoon that was popular, profitable, and actually good! The Warner Bros.-Amblin team followed closely on their heels with Tiny Toon Adventures, and the next few years were a golden age for syndicated cartoons. The 1990s, on the other hand, saw the rise of cable TV, where restrictions were looser still and a new generation of artists like John K, Mike Judge, Genndy Tartovsky, and Craig McCracken had the creative freedom and budgets they needed to shine. The merchandise-driven era of animation gave way to the creator-driven era, and the animation and writing of the best cartoons of the 1990s and 2000s were leaps and bounds above the efforts of the 1970s and 1980s, able to stand proudly among the greats of the 40s and 50s.
But while the rest of TV animation improved, MLP stayed the same or got worse. Second and third generations of the toy lines followed, and new versions of the cartoon. 1992’s My Little Pony Tales was the second cartoon associatd with the G1 toys. Because the demographic was growing a little older, it was aimed more at preteens: the ponies went to school, and were interested in makeup and boys, and while you started to have differences between the characters in terms of attitude and hobbies, every problem for every character could pretty much be solved by a makeover. Generation 3 had its own direct to video shorts and features from 2003-9. These were aimed at toddlers, but pandered so much even babies might have a hard time enjoying them. All the ponies were indistinguishable pallette swaps, the the animation was terrible, the writing was terrible, the cartoons were, simply, terrible.
As 2010 dawned, My Little Pony was shorthand for the worst of pandering, low-quality entertainment, the go-to example for people who argued that shows marketed to girls sucked.
This is the story of us all…
Every life is a chain of coincidences; very few events are the result of some agency or purpose. But it is up to us to decide which of those coincidences are meaningful and which are not, which to embrace, which to bemoan, and which to discard as unimportant. If I choose to interpret my life that way, then yes, I was always destined to be who I am now. Or, if I prefer, I can choose to read my life differently and claim another destiny as my own.
The random intersections of people’s lives and stories, those coincidences and connections, are what make everything in our culture–in any culture–possible. Is it a meaningless coincidence or destiny that Faust played with ponies as a child, or that I can remember the G1 movie? Meaningless coincidence or destiny that 4chan got wind of the coming show?
It doesn’t matter. What matters is that we all live in the same world, and everything that exists affects everything else that exists. We are all connected, and we pick and choose from these connections to grow our lives, art, politics, philosophy, everything shaped all along by these meaningless coincidences, this multitude of interacting destinies. Everything we do and are, everything we create and love, is shaped by these encounters and intersections, these coincidences and destined encounters, these connections and interactions.
And that’s how Equestria was made.
Next week: Of the final five episodes of the first season, four are simply excellent, outstanding examples of what My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic can do at its best. Next week’s… isn’t.