Recently, I was granted the opportunity to ask My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic creator Lauren Faust a couple questions. Regrettably, she was running from her signing to her next appointment, so only two questions were actually able to be answered. But during my brief appointment with her, I was able to understand her fanbase and get a glimpse at what kinds of stories Faust enjoys and wants to continue telling.
Now, I am no stranger to her work. I used to watch the Power Puff Girls when I was younger, and I may very well have the potential to become a brony myself (there are still a few more pastures I must graze before I am truly ready to rock out with my hoofs out). Nevertheless, I didn’t know what to expect. I hadn’t read much about her in the press or any potential blogs, and I’m not entirely familiar with those who solely create stories geared to tweens and younger. So, it was an awesome experience to see such a creator, surrounded by her creations and her beloved fans.
Waiting at the end of the line for her autograph signing, I saw an array of Faust fans. Although there was a spattering of young girls, for the most part they were somewhere between 15-35 year olds, many of whom are men. A fanbase Faust could never have expected “in a million years”. The best part about it, is that none of them love the show ironically. They are all fierce supporters and proud to hear the term “brony” dropped sans snark. It goes to show what I have been saying: solid storytelling with relevant characters and archetypes can and will bring in the desired and even unexpected audiences. Nevertheless, it’s awesome to see how little we think we know about institutionalizing gender roles, or the claim that they are natural in society. It is to a point that even I am surprised.
Of the two questions I had time to ask Faust, the first was how she feels about her unexpected brony fanbase. “They’re awesome,” she says. “I’m inspired by them and their ability to look past preconceived notions of what’s society says is acceptable for them and judge the show by its own merit [...]. They’re all so open-minded and cool. Their ability to endure how other people treat them is inspiring.”
If you ever take the time to watch an episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (do it. Do it NOW), you’ll see that the message of the show is one its fans–8 year old girls or 30-something year old men–really take to heart. And no, it’s not just the same morality plays that storytellers have been telling kids for years being resold under a different label–although such messages of “treat others as you want to be treated” and “think before you speak” are present in the show–there is much more to it than that, and not just because the heroines have hoofs instead of feet. The show really is about the importance of friendship and that there is a kind of magic to it. The show effectively portrays mixed personalities, real-to-life conflicts and struggles, and how to essentially enjoy the company of those who don’t think the same way you do.
Now, in case you’ve never watched the show, let me catch you up on the basic premise: a young unicorn named Twilight Sparkle, who knows everything and anything so long as it can be found in a book, is sent–much to her dismay–by her mentor Princess Celestia, supreme ruler of Equestria, to Ponyville to experience friendship first hand. There, she meets and (begrudgingly, at first) befriends a group of ponies, each of whom represent an important ‘element of friendship’.: Apple Jack (honesty), Fluttershy (kindness), Rainbow Dash (loyalty), Rarity (generosity) and Pinkie Pie (laughter).
The great thing about this show is the layers. You can tell each character apart not just by her coat and mane, but by her actions. Just like, you know, real people. And there’s more to these ponies than just being “the fighter”, “the pacifist” or “the leader”, which is the typical three-part discord you find in storytelling to distinguish your characters. Neigh! These ponies have legitimate fears, needs, and desires, and their personalities are ones you can actually use as a template to help handle real people, which I believe is what draws in the unexpected fanbase.
Twilight Sparkle, like many of us who were born in or adapted to the internet age, is a pony who would much rather be left alone. She doesn’t believe she need friends or external action to have adventure or learn about the world around her: she has her books. She is an armchair anthropologist, sociologist, psychologist and any other -ologist you can think of. She knows more than any pony around. If she needs social interaction, she has her dragon assistant Spike and weekly correspondence to Princess Celestia for that. She has bigger fish to fry than to learn about her pony brethren.
After all, learning how to interact with people can be hard. If you get a couple of math problems wrong, you can erase the answers and try again. But muck up an introduction or say the wrong thing in a conversation and you can easily be labeled an asshole for the rest of your life in that town. Who wants that? So, sometimes it seems as if you are better off alone (that’s right, Alice Deejay, I said it).
Yet, social interaction is a key part of the human experience. When Aristotle said, “Man is a political animal”, he wasn’t talking about a person’s need to vote in elections, sign petitions or picket grocery stories. He meant a human is an animal of the polis, the city. In essence, humanity has a need to work together–not alone–to build our species up. The blending of cultures and ideas is, supposedly, what postbellum America was founded upon. But, not everyone is able to socialize efficiently or effectively, and so many of us–like Twilight Sparkle–build our walls and towers to keep people out and ourselves in.
Having a studious and shut in character isn’t exactly rare in children’s cartoons, especially those which include an element of socialization in their aim, however they are scarcely the prominent characteristics of the main protagonist. They typically pertain to one of the sidekicks or someone the lead has to “fix”, and who ever wants to be associated with being the sidekick or broken? (The only other book-smart main protagonist I can think of is Dexter, of Dexter’s Laboratory, but he was hardly socialized. Aside from a few people he played the show’s equivalent of DnD with, I can’t recall him working well with others who acted or thought differently than him.)
Not once, do you think while watching the show, “What is wrong with Twilight Sparkle, who doesn’t want friends?!” You understand her dilemma and agree at once that the ponies of Ponyville might be a little backwards from the cultured thoroughbreds of Canterlot, but you also know she’s not there just to observe others friendships, but to make and experience them on her own. Which is something we should all do.
When I was younger I had a hard time making friends. Either I moved or my best-friend moved, throughout elementary school, that by middle school and high school I had given up. I went to school to learn, not to make friends. Then I moved to Texas for college and quickly learned the importance of a familiar face when adapting to new surroundings.
I do not mean to imply that every brony out there is a Twilight Sparkle, or only has her characteristics. I personally see myself as more of an Apple Jack or Rainbow Dash, but I was a Philosophy student in college and can admit that I know more about Aristotle’s theories of friendship than about the actual experience, and I’d wager the same is true for most of colleagues. MLP:FiM is an excellent exercise in philosophy of mind, especially when delving into the theories of other’s minds, because you can witness the interactions rather than just read about them.
Of course, as the pilot episode suggests, your own experiences will be infinitely superior qualitatively, but this is a great stepping stone in understanding others. Once you are able to understand that people think differently, and that in doing so they are actually a benefit rather than a deterrent in your understanding of the world, then you can realize the importance of friendship and that friendship truly is magic.
See what I mean?
When I stood in line for my interview, I could tell that all the bronies had taken the message to heart. Half a dozen fans tried to file in line behind me before being turned away because Faust was leaving the booth to her next appointment. Rather than pout and complain, they all nodded, smiled and said with a glimmer of hope, “Maybe next time” or “I knew I should have been here earlier!” None complained or tried to get special treatment. It was really a breath of fresh air. It’s cool to see fans actually receive a message and understand that the world doesn’t revolve around them.
Although Lauren Faust is no longer the show runner of MLP:FiM, she is still involved as a consultant and has laid out some excellent ground work for future seasons and episodes. Currently, she’s branching off to new shows and projects, such as Milky Way and the Galaxy Girls and Super Best Friends Forever, each geared at young girls, though with potential to bring in the male demographic.
As a DC fangirl, I am personally excited about Super Best Friends Forever, which by now many of you have probably seen. They’re 75 (or so) second shorts, starring Wonder Girl, Supergirl, and Batgirl that are intermingled in the DC Nation block on Cartoon Network. The controlling idea behind these shorts are to show superheroes in teenage situations rather than the other way around. Instead of saving the planet before bedtime, “they’re trying to hijack Wonder Woman’s invisible jet and take it for a joyride,” Faust explains, “or get out of being grounded.” Real to life situations that extraordinary people are put in rather than the other way around. After all, they’re teenagers first, superheroes second.