As you know, Jen and I are always on the search for good shows for our daughters to watch. In an effort to justify what we agree is a borderline problematic element of our parenting, we do our best to pick shows that edify, or at least have kick ass narratives and messages that we can embrace as feminist mothers.
My girls recently got hooked on the new My Little Pony: Friendship is Magical series, and I was hoping for a winner. Note: My family only watches TV through Netflix. That’s why I’m always two years behind any trendy outrage.
I love the animation style, and I’ve revised my stance on their strangely slender and un-ponylike bodies (in that, it doesn’t seem egregious so I’ll drop it). MLP:FIM focuses on the majority girl town Ponyville (because only girls are friends?), where the fairly smart and sassy Twilight Sparkle has adventures with a colorful cast of ponies and writes letters to Princess Celestia in a sort of “Jerry’s Corner” wrap-up at the end of the show. The show’s emphasis is friendship, which is magical, and magic, which is also magical.
Tragically, despite its potential, MLP:FIM has several problems that I’m simply not okay with. Namely, sexist, racist, colonialist problems.
1. Cutie Marks and Femininity
These marks appear on the ponies’ hides when they come of age and discover what makes them special. Not only is “cutie mark” a play on the term “beauty mark,” it’s sort of a weird spin on the act of branding livestock, which I find morally confusing, plus it’s basically on their ass.
Why, though — WHY?? Does this special symbol of identity and, in the case of several ponies, awesome strength and power, have to be turned into the diminutive “cutie”? Why do their talents have to be boiled down into a term that focuses on looks? Boo to you, cutie mark. My daughters are not “cuties” because they are brave, fast, smart, or enjoy eating apples. What makes a girl — or any person — special is not what makes them cute.
2. Undermining critical thinking and skepticism
In episode 15, we learn that Pinkie Pie is a psychic who can tell the future through embodied premonitions (e.g. her leg shakes, or her nose twitches, or whatever). Nevermind that this is the only episode in which Pinkie Pie demonstrates these talents, or the fact that in every other context, magic is a culturally accepted phenomenon. What makes this episode crappy is the fact that the show insists that Twilight, who shows a healthy skepticism and questioning of this phenomenon, has to be proven wrong. Twilight is the voice of reason in the show. She reminds me of Lana from Archer: smart and skeptical, her voice always has an edge of “… are you serious?!” to it.
In this episode, Twilight observes, gathers evidence, and questions the veracity of PP’s psychic abilities, but everyone around her insists that she just relax and believe in something that is not at all credible. At the show’s climax, Twilight is encouraged to “take a leap of faith” over a gorge that she simply cannot cross. She plunges headlong into the abyss and thanks to a conveniently bursting bubble is her life spared. Faith doesn’t save her, dumb luck does (certainly not her MANY WINGED FRIENDS). This is used to prove that Pinkie Pie was right and Twilight needs to abandon her silly rationality in favor of, I don’t know, belief in magical ponies I guess.
Although I’m an agnostic/secular humanist and have general concerns about our culture’s weird insistence on the trueness of invisible things and powers, I am not totally opposed to magical thinking. I engage in it every day. But I am extremely in favor of critical thinking, deep questioning, and curiosity. This show teaches my girls that it’s not cool to question things when everyone around you insists that they are true. It’s groupthink and it’s bullshit.
(ETA: I’ve since discovered that this is a trope on many children’s television shows, including — sigh — our beloved Spongebob. In a season 3 episode, “Club Spongebob,” Squidward, Patrick, and Spongebob become stranded in a kelp forest. SB & P believe a “magic conch” will save them, while Squidward believes he needs to work to survive. Through a series of unlikely events, Squidward is proven wrong and begins to worship the magic conch, too.)
3. The ponies are White, Colonialist ‘mericans
You’d think a stable full of ponies in all colors of the rainbow, in a made-up, mystical universe would have opened the door for some creative thinking on part of the writers. But no, it becomes clear right away that despite looking like a flock of paint chips, these ponies are White girls. White American girls.
In episode 9, Twilight and her pony friends learn an Important Lesson about Not Judging Freaky Weirdos who dress in African garb, speak with a vaguely African accent, and do voodoo shit like cure people with plants when they meet Zecora, the new zebra on the block.
The ponies are convinced that Zecora is a witch who has cursed them. I love Zecora: she’s a storyteller, she’s a healer, and she has a kickass ‘do. But nothing about this BS morality tale sits comfortably with me. This episode sets up the underlying racial dynamics of the show, and reinforces the notion that good girls are not powerful in any meaningful way. Sure, Rainbow Dash is fast, but can she heal the wounded? The witch hunt is pure Puritanical crapola. There’s even a paranoid fear that Pinkie Pie, the only pony to approach Zecora with an ounce of tolerance, is going native and turning into a witch herself. The horror, the horror.
Ponies: cute, sweet, active but not powerful, normal, White
Zebras: strange, accented, different, powerful, Other, Black
Later, the ponies get their manifest destiny on when the ponies travel to Appleoosa to visit her cousin and deliver an apple tree. Sidenote: We could even get into the hierarchy of whiteness in the show: Applejack is the redneck pony with a southern drawl and the rustic honesty of country folk; contrast her with the alabaster Pegasus pony, Rarity, who is the prettiest and most glamorous pony, with her “cutie mark” of sparkling diamonds. But the Appleoosans are on the brink of war with the Buffalo, who are rightfully cheesed because the Appleoosans planted a fuckton of apple trees in their plains without asking.
Feather head-dresses, war dances, and face paint: this episode is an American Studies lecturer’s dream in terms of its ignorant stereotypes about Native Americans. But hey, it all works out fine in the end. The Appleoosans agree to share some of the apples with the Buffalo! Everyone wins! Except for OH NO WAIT, THAT IS WRONG ON EVERY LEVEL. The Buffalo are won over by delicious apple pie: how easily they are bribed into being fine with the fact that stealing is not just acceptable but justifiable as long as you throw the exploited a some Mrs. Smith’s. The show ends with — you guessed it — a thanksgiving feast.
The more I write about this, the angrier I get! I am using these shows to talk to my kids about respect and stuff, but mostly, I just want to go back to Spongebob. But for now, since my kids miraculously went to bed by 7:30, I’m going to eat Flamin’ Hots and watch this Fleetwood Mac documentary with my husband.
Read more about our little racist ponies: