The new My Little Pony show, subtitled ‘Friendship is Magic’, follows in the footsteps of recent reimagined franchises, from superhero comics, to digital game heroines, to science fiction and action television. While understandably rejecting the ‘dark’ reboot route, a distinct change in the tone of this new generation of ponies is reflected in the series’ opening sequence. As Twilight Sparkle arrives in Ponyville on a hot air balloon, lyrical harps and angelic voices accompany her picturesque descent through the clouds. This is abruptly displaced by a more rock-style version of the familiar theme tune, as the main (or mane) six are introduced one after another in an energetic, colourful, fast paced sequence. This is clearly a funkier version of the 1980s franchise.
I first became aware of MLPFIM as an online fan phenomena. Unprecedented for an animated television series aimed at young girls, the show has amassed a huge adult male following, popularly known as ‘bronies’. Given the thirty-year old franchise’s unambiguous location in the pink aisle, this has raised eyebrows amongst conservative commentators. Fox News features have associated the fandom with terrorism and drug abuse , man babies and welfare recipients.
Vocal fans of the series vigorously defend their viewing preferences. The show’s animation style, the quality of voice acting and writing, and the depth of its world building are praised. Fans produce an array of imaginative and technically skilful animation culture of their own, evident in monthly compilations, ranging from the sweet, to the sinister. Significantly, most bronies appear to appreciate the series, not ironically or subversively, but on its own terms, as a bright, lively show about friendship, magic, and talking ponies.
Maybe the most interesting aspect of Bronie fandom is that it represents men engaging with women’s culture as an enriching and inspiring experience. MLPFIM values of kindness, and caring for others, clearly provide something not present within traditional masculine culture. Bronies constitute a radical symbolic challenge to a culture industry which frequently divides and conquers, manufacturing divisions between men’s and women’s interests and pleasures for its own economic ends.
And yet focus on Bronies distracts from the equally challenging ways the series invigorates and reinvents animation aimed at young girls. Lauren Faust, the series creator, whose previous work includes The Powerpuff Girls, has spoken of her mission to produce diverse quality animation for young female viewers, free from limiting stereotypes. The site for her new project, Milky Way and the Galaxy Girls, addresses consumers as young women not just interested in boys, clothes, talking and texting, but passionate about music, art, sports and learning. On stage at the convention filmed for a recent documentary about Bronies, Faust clearly asserts that the cheering crowds show the world that ‘little girls and the things that they love are worthwhile.’
It is for all these reasons that in June of this year, we are holding an academic conference, the first of its kind, on the My Little Pony franchise in all its manifestations. It will address issues of gender and children’s culture, on and off-line fandom, animation style and history, authorship and intentionality, merchandise and children’s television. A franchise now in its third decade, still impacted on most Western women, as children, mothers, sisters or aunts, with an established fandom in the UK predating the MLPFIM boom, is surely a worthwhile focus of serious analysis.
Ewan Kirkland teaches Film & Screen Studies at the University of Brighton. Research interests include children’s culture, horror videogames, and popular film and television, and Ewan has published on The Powerpuff Girls, Silent Hill, Battlestar Galactica, Dexter and the Twilight series. In June 2014 Ewan will be chairing the first ever academic conference on Hasbro’s My Little Pony series.