Pony Thought of the Day: Are we appropriating MLP?

Two things before the actual PTOD: First, I finally broke down and got a bloody Twitter account. If you’d like to follow me, I’m @Froborr.

Second, please note, I’m linking here to an article by Amanda Marcotte, a writer and activist I greatly admire. The article in question is not her best work and makes some assumptions about bronies that I think most of us would regard as incorrect. Please don’t prove her right with your response; if you comment on the article or message her, do so with the love and tolerance that are the motto of our community.

As I discussed in my Pony Thoughts of the Day on implied viewers, I think the show does offer a space for adult geek viewers of either gender, though the original intent was most likely to make a space for the show’s creators. At the same time, there are a plethora of shows for adult geeks, but as far as I know this is the only currently airing show for small kids that depicts women as full, equal human beings, each of who is an individual. The kids need this show, so much as I love it, if it ever came to a conflict between being good for the kids and good for the geeks, I have to say that the kids should win.

Which makes Amanda Marcotte’s Slate article on Equestria Girls deeply unsettling for me, because she has an explanation for perhaps the biggest question about Equestria Girls: Why?

Turning the ponies into human girls does seem like a baffling choice on its surface. There are plenty of teenage girl dolls for little girls to buy, from the aforementioned Bratz to the ever-popular Barbie, but the Ponies were really holding down the market by appealing to the apparently genetic affinity little girls have for all things equestrian that dates back at least to National Velvet. But what if the change wasn’t about little girls at all? What if there was another audience—an older, male, and kind of off-putting audience—that also loves the Ponies and wants nothing more than imagery of them as humans to appeal to their less-than-innocent fantasies about really getting personal with their favorite toys? If there was such an audience, they have a little bit more disposable income than little girls, and selling to them, even if you alienate parents of little girls, might end up being quite profitable indeed.

If true, and it seems plausible enough, then bronies are crossing a line from enjoying Friendship Is Magic to appropriating it. If we are exerting influence on major creative decisions, then something is deeply wrong and we need to find a way to stop it.

That said, I’m not convinced this is actually true. Marcotte makes the erroneous assumption that bronies are watching the show out of a prurient interest. While it’s true that Friendship Is Magic porn exists, it’s unsurprising that a search with the word “porn” in it turned up porn. A better test would be googling a character name with SafeSearch off (I do not recommend actually attempting this); entering a female character from Avatar the Last Airbender or Pokemon produces porn much higher in the results than a Friendship Is Magic character. There’s more than there was a year ago, admittedly, but clop is still controversial—is there any other fandom where porn is debated, rather than an accepted fact?

It’s also a stretch to refer to the Equestria Girls designs as “sexy.” Yes, they all wear skirts (a decision I’ve criticized before), but otherwise there isn’t anything particularly sexualized in their presentations. They are neither realistic depictions of young women nor overtly sexualized; they look, as the mother quoted in the article says, like Bratz dolls. I find it hard to believe, and hard to believe that Hasbro believes, that “people who want to have sex with Bratz dolls” are a lucrative potential market, let alone the subset of that group that are also bronies.

No, I suspect a much more likely culprit is that, after three years, the original members of the target demographic are starting to age out of the show, and Hasbro is trying to find a way to squeeze a few more dollars out of them. They did something similar before, with My Little Pony Tales in 1992, long before bronies. Admittedly those characters were still ponies, but more anthropomorphized than the first incarnation.

So, this probably isn’t an attempt to appeal to bronies. But if it is, or if at some future point Hasbro and DHX start making major creative decisions in an attempt to appeal to bronies instead of little girls, then as I said we’ll know we’ve crossed the line from appreciation to appropriation. At that point, I believe we in the brony community would have a collective responsibility to try to find a way to encourage the show to return to being the best thing on television for little girls.

0 thoughts on “Pony Thought of the Day: Are we appropriating MLP?

  1. She just gets it so fundamentally wrong…it's…I couldn't bring myself to comment. The rest of the community is taking care of it. It's nice to know I'm not missing anything by not making Slate a part of my daily reading.

    But seriously, is she just trolling us?

  2. I don't believe she is, no. Her column for Raw Story is consistently excellent, so I'm not sure what happened with this article; if you read the NY Post article she links to, it looks like most of the error originates there. Which is a Murdoch paper, isn't it? It would explain much.

    And some of the response from bronies has been pretty awful, which is why I put that italicized note at the beginning of my reply.

  3. I had a response, but it was said better by one of the commentators on the article:

    “For me, the show fits into a larger tradition of children's entertainment that has cross-generational appeal because they manage to be clever, funny, and charming for adults as well as children. Pixar's Up, Cartoon Network's Adventure Time, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas are all good examples of children's entertainment that I and millions of other adults of both sexes enjoy. Lots of adult men like Adventure Time too, and no one assumes they must be sexual deviants. The only reason people assume that this must be true of male fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is, well, sexism. In our culture, everyone is supposed to identify with male protagonists in fiction. But only women are expected to identify with female protagonists in fiction. This is problematic because it marginalizes works that focus on female protagonists and perpetuates the idea that the male perspective is the default perspective. Bullying of males who enjoy works that focus on female protagonists with accusations of sexual deviance is part of what keeps this system in place.”

    That said, the amount of research and effort put into this article is, to be polite, not quite up to the standards of a professional publication. There comes a time when “outspoken” and “off-the-cuff” tend to do the opposite of what you're intending because there's more than a little that needed further comprehension and examination first. It is a problem I have had with her reporting for years now, most famously when she forgot that the country and journalism operate on an “innocent until proven guilty” basis, even though I agree with her philosophically and ethically the vast majority of the time.

    Because, I mean, seriously. I've never met a brony who thought EG was even remotely a good idea: to judge from an unscientific glance at Google, most of them plan on either ignoring it or leaving the fandom over it.

    That said, I'm actually looking forward to discussing My Little Pony Tales in *checks watch* howeverlong it takes for my reviews to get there. If childhood memory serves, it was such a weird departure from the original fantasy adventure program that it captures quite nicely the divide between the “adventure” and “about town” in FiM. I think I've mentioned it before in comments, but Mare in the Moon can be read a remake of Rescue at Midnight Castle (full argumentation of which is coming in, well, just wait…), and the very next episode (Ticket Master) is a remake of the MLPT episode “And The Winner Is…”. The show isn't just one or the other, and hasn't been for a long long time.

  4. I feel the need for some reason to emphasize that I really don't dislike Marcotte at all, and usually find her an engaging read. But when she flies off the rails, usually in short columns for Slate, oy vey…

  5. I've never met a brony who thought EG was even remotely a good idea

    I have, and he's also the only brony I've ever met who openly likes clop. Take that as you will.

  6. I think when someone paints your group with a broad brush calling you peadophilic horse fuckers (implying you are?) the blood getting boiling is understandable.

    Also a lot of the comments I read seemed very reasonable. Now I didn't read them all but it seemed on the balance a restrained “Sorry but you have no idea what you're talking about. Please stop being an ignorant hypocrite.”

  7. Many of them were, yes, but I saw a few that had an MRA-hole vibe to them, a few outright abusive, and I suspect she got a lot more abuse on Twitter.

    Also: Blood getting boiled, no problem. What you do in response, however, is entirely your own choice and therefore you and you alone have responsibility for it.

  8. I think it's a good idea because I think the tween girl set needs more positive role models just like the little-girl demographic of the main show. I don't understand why people are complaining about it “trying to compete with Bratz;” someone needs to compete with Bratz, FFS.

  9. If we are exerting influence on major creative decisions, then something is deeply wrong and we need to find a way to stop it. […]

    At that point, I believe we in the brony community would have a collective responsibility to try to find a way to encourage the show to return to being the best thing on television for little girls.

    I don't understand why you think this is a bad thing. Why should Hasbro and the studio be discouraged from making something that the secondary audience enjoys? Hasbro is never going to hurt their bottom line. If they determine that it's more profitable to ignore what bronies want and target kids more, they will, just as they have done with EQG. If they determine that it's more profitable to cater entirely to bronies in a way that turns off kids, they will. But the difference is that the second thing is literally never going to happen – the revenue just wouldn't compare, at all – so worrying about it like Marcotte does is more than a little silly.

    That said, I have a problem with this argument regardless, because it posits that MLP has to be above and beyond the vagaries of the market, and exist as a public social good. It is, currently, but maintaining the existence of “the best thing on television for little girls” is neither Hasbro's responsibility nor ours. Suggesting that fans should reject the things they want to see because other fans might not enjoy them is also problematic; everyone's entitled to their preferences, and shouldn't be shamed or berated for them.

    I'd like to see more development of Big Macintosh, for instance, like that “day in the life” episode concept Faust mentioned that never happened. If it had, should I have a responsibility to reject it on the basis that it caters too much to what I want, and briefly focuses on a male character at the cost of female characters?

  10. I'd like to see more development of Big Macintosh, for instance, like that “day in the life” episode concept Faust mentioned that never happened. If it had, should I have a responsibility to reject it on the basis that it caters too much to what I want, and briefly focuses on a male character at the cost of female characters?

    We already get some of this in the Spike-centric episodes, so I doubt it'd be much of a stretch or deviation to have a Big Mac episode, even though he's a much more minor character than Spike. Might contain the least dialogue of any episode ever filmed, but I could picture quite a few scenarios that would be entertaining…

  11. Written Waiver: I see you've bought the capitalist line that companies are allowed to be entirely amoral as long as they're profitable. Of course we and Hasbro alike both have a moral and social responsibility to accomplish positive social goods!

    The problem I have with bronies exerting influence on the show is that, as the brony survey shows, most of us are white males aged 18-35. Almost every show on television already caters to us. Little girls have almost nothing by comparison, and still less that's any good. I don't want to be party to stealing something good from little kids.

  12. In the abstract, yes, absolutely. In the particular, no. Hasbro has no specific responsibility to continue this show and continue targeting it at young girls. I have no specific responsibility to discourage Hasbro from doing things that cater to my tastes more than theirs.

    I appreciate that it's actually a smart, progressive show with characters that are good role models for children, but if it were to be reconceived as something Adult Swim would run, of course I'd still watch. You might not, but that's your decision, based on your preferences in entertainment – which apparently place more value on the general social good than personal enjoyment. I mean, kudos, and there's nothing wrong with that, but I think you'd be pretty lonely in the fandom with your position if that were to happen.

    Second, you're using a model of cultural appropriation, and I disagree with that view. I don't think it's accurate to treat MLP as if it were an organic culture originating with the target audience, which the secondary audience can wrongly appropriate. It's just not comparable; there's no cultural ownership resting with the one group capable of being usurped by the other, as with most art, music, etc. appropriated by wealthy white men from the poor, women and people of colour.

    This reminds me of the Trek fandom's agonizing over the Abramsverse movies and their emphasis on dumbed-down action over thoughtful sci-fi. The money is in general audiences, so that's what the new movies have been. Yes, it's unfortunate for those of us who miss the TNG-DS9 peak years, but it wasn't “ours” in a way that can be wrongly appropriated. One group of fans doesn't really have a more morally justified claim on cultural ownership than another, even if they're the original audience.

    Similarly, young girls didn't make MLP; they're the target of advertising, just as we all are. It's a product, and post-Faust, two things seem to have influenced most creative decisions: Hasbro market research and fan input. I'd rather fan input have the upper hand over soulless Bratz-style product line diversification.

  13. Similarly, young girls didn't make MLP; they're the target of advertising, just as we all are. It's a product, and post-Faust, two things seem to have influenced most creative decisions: Hasbro market research and fan input.

    Interesting bit here: usually when the “inmates take over the asylum” it results in the media becoming awful. Hasbro is experiencing this right now with the latest incarnation of Dungeons and Dragons, where the designers seem to have a vague understanding of how things used to be, but not why they worked or why they were set up in the fashion that they were. It's jokingly referred to as “Cargo Cult” design. Doctor Who had a similar problem in the 1980s, when the people who grew up watching it were finally old enough to write for the show and promptly fell into the trap of making every episode reference an old one, or trying to update the program with a lot of violence and darkness so it's be “Like it was when they were kids, only cooler.” Modern superhero comic books have been having this problem since about the mid-90s.

    And yet somehow, putting pony-megafan Lauren Faust in charge didn't wreck the show, because she seemed to understand that she had to make quality programming first, and worry about reverence for the old show second. And the current writers seem to have taken this mandate as well, because the little nods and winks haven't yet become the focus of the show. We've had bad episodes, sure, but we haven't had any that hinge on knowing that, for example, Spike used to be the assistant to an evil winged monkey monster named Scorpan, or that Rainbow Dash's mother is Firefly. The closest we've seen is Doctor Whooves and Derpy sitting together at the movies and standing together on a bridge, tucked away in the background where you'd never notice if you weren't looking for them. The extent to which this is the exact opposite of almost every other time someone got to remake their favorite childhood show/comic/movie is astounding and worth remarking on in big bold letters in the hopes that others take notice.

    Compare to some of the pretty well made fan creations like Double Rainboom or Doctor Whooves and Assistant and the gap is even clearer. Both have excellent animation and effects (the latter, well, for a production with no money and only volunteers with non-professional equipment working on it), but both require a fairly intimate understanding of multiple programs (Powerpuff Girls and Doctor Who, respectively) and are steeped even deeper in pony lore (Doctor Whooves especially, as the first few episodes take place “in the wings” of FiM episodes). I enjoyed both, to be sure, but that's because I'm exactly their target audience. But despite any beliefs to the contrary, they wouldn't work for mass consumption.

    Can we imagine what My Little Pony: the Next Generation will look like in 20 years when some of the current audience have grown up to become successful show runners and animation directors?

    (I've got a lot more to say on the “toy commercial” vs. “quality program” issue, but that'll have to wait until my next guest essay)

  14. I think there's simply a fundamental disconnect here on morality and responsibility. I believe that if someone has a need they cannot fill on their own, and I can fill that need without great cost to myself, then I have a moral and social responsibility to do so. Thus, it doesn't matter whether little girls “own” Friendship Is Magic, I believe they need it or something like it, and therefore everyone involved in FIM–Hasbro as the owners and ourselves as fans who potentially exert influence on it through our spending and our feedback–has a responsibility to make sure that need is fulfilled.

    I'd say the fundamental difference between this and Trek fandom is that Trek fandom (to which I belong) is a bunch of privileged, entitled people for whom a great deal of media already exists and for whom more is being made all the time, so the switch over to making the Abrams movies does not leave a need unfulfilled.

    I'd rather fan input have the upper hand over soulless Bratz-style product line diversification.

    And I'm not saying fan input shouldn't have influence, I'm saying that if it does, it should use it responsibly rather than selfishly.

    Also, you're erasing the single largest influence on the show, the creative team at DHX. Even with Faust gone, they're still the front line.

  15. I think a big reason “pony mega-fan” Lauren Faust didn't ruin the show is because she was never a fan of the show, only the toys. Historically, “I see what they did wrong, and I can do it better,” is a better way to approach running a franchise than “I want to do it exactly the way I remember it!”

    Can we imagine what My Little Pony: the Next Generation will look like in 20 years when some of the current audience have grown up to become successful show runners and animation directors?

    No need to imagine it. It'll look like “Double Rainboom” and be canceled after half a season.

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