My Little Ponies: Teaching My Kids How to be Good Little White American Girls (Ugh.)

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.

An array of “cutie marks.” The one on the far right is Rainbow Dash, by far the coolest, least gendered pony.

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.

Gratuitous Lana pic. Because Lana is awesome.

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.

My Little Stereotype

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:

Ms. Blog points out that Rainbow Dash can be interpreted as a cranky lesbian, and also notes that zebras are also Princess Celestia’s servants (ugh).

TavalyaRa makes many of the same points several years before I got around to it.

Lady Geek Girl also rants about the racist crap.

17 responses to “My Little Ponies: Teaching My Kids How to be Good Little White American Girls (Ugh.)

  1. Atlantic~mama

    Oh my god. My cynical soul will not be able to handle all this girl crap once my daughter hits that age. We ditched tv too and are Netflix/Hulu only. Also, I approve of ‘fuckton’. Nice.

  2. Have you read the chapter in NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman where they talk about television – particularly social violence in children’s television? It completely changed the way I thought of what I let my kids watch.

  3. Yeeah, so this is why we stick with PBS nature documentaries. At least they are straight up about how mean old Shamus hunt in packs and drown and eat southern right whale calves. No morality tales there, just the Herzogian reality that (read this with that awesome Teutonic accent) “the common character of the universe is not harmony, but hostility, chaos and murder.” Or, I totally mess with my kids’ idea of what constitutes “video entertainment” by giving in when they ask for a video of how a virus works. Yes, they are so deprived in this realm that they watched 20 min. worth of clunky animations about viral replication, positive and negative sense codons, reverse transcriptase, and making capsid and envelope proteins and wanted more when I said we were done. E.V.I.L. mother. They will find out once they start public school…

  4. Hahaha. Unfortunately, I actually don’t think this is any less offensive than all the other kids’ shows on TV. (We also just recently watched it on Netflix.) I have yet to find a kids’ show that doesn’t drive me crazy on one or all three of these levels (sexist, racist, classist). It’s hard being somehow who has deconstructed such things for a living: it’s such a tricky balance to help kids become media savvy without exposing them to any media, almost all of which is really offensive to me (NO TV EVER AT ALL! is always my gut instinct, but my brain tells me it’s wrong so I grit my teeth and let them watch minimal amounts instead).

    Luckily Wren doesn’t seem any the worse for wear and seems more “clueless” about “girliness” than any of her friends. (As in, it doesn’t even really seem to register although everyone called her Princess or bought her princess coloring books etc in Phoenix so that is now part of her lexicon, ugh. But she still doesn’t seem to “get” gender in any kind of real way though she knows basic anatomical differences). All of her friends are much more aware of that stuff already.

    • Oh, or HETEROSEXIST. That is actually one of my least favorite things about kids movies’ in particular: the obligation they seem to need to feel to have there be some kind of heterosexual romantic arc. It drives me fucking insane. In this case, I don’t understand why Spike has to have a crush on Rarity.

      • Agreed x 1000. Also don’t understand why they have to live in an all-girl enclave to experience the magic of friendship. Why does gender segregation for kids have to be reinforced with these messages?

    • Yes, when all is said and done, MLP:FIM isn’t groundbreaking children’s television. I agree that being critical-minded makes it really hard to let stuff like this go.

      • I do think MLP:FIM does have some things going for it though even with its limitations (which again I see in most kids’ programing) and I think that Ms. magazine article what with the grouchy lesbian implications was a bit over the top even for me (saying A LOT). Also I resent any critique of anything that doesn’t actually do research on it (again, the Ms. magazine writer clearly didn’t even watch the episode or its sequel, which resolves some of the shit she brings up).

        I actually am not bothered by the all-girl enclave. I find it refreshing that it’s a show where the assumed subject position is female (as opposed to the rest of TV which STILL is skewed towards males holding the dominant roles).

        FWIW Wren loves Zecora, but it might be because her mama is a brown witch. 😛 I do kind of like that shows up later as a sort of “wise woman.” I do think unfortunately sometimes you have to cut some of this shit a break and look at intent because we’re basically never going to see the kind of kids’ programming I WANT to see. Not to be defeatist or anything, and I totally grok the underlying feeling in this post.

      • All good points. I also think Zecora is really cool. She’s styled so fantastically. I want a punk ‘do like that.

  5. My daughter loves the show and I think it has a lot of good messages for young girls. It teaches her things that I can’t do as well as a man, like about about feelings and shit.

    • My kids enjoy the show, too, but I still have problems with the lessons they might take away from it. I don’t think it does emotional work for our family, and hey, Dads can be great teachers when it comes to emotion.

  6. Re: Cutie Marks. This may be coming through incorrectly through the haze of memory, but I seem to recall a Big To-Do over the MLPs (Generation 1) having “tattoos,” and how that was a bad influence etc etc, but at least a tattoo carries with it some element of choice. I know all the pony names but not the mythology from the show (we don’t get Hub or have Netflix), and this “revealing” business is a little weird/creepy/powerless, particularly since they aren’t abstract patterns and seem to affect destiny.

    Now I will snoop around online and see if what I remember about tattoos is correct, but I will post this first and probably not edit out any mistakes. Such is life. 😦

    • I’d be interested to hear about that. Tattoos = cool. I’m not totally opposed to a mark that signifies a pony coming into her identity, but I object to the language used to describe it because I think it’s unnecessarily limiting.

  7. This was a great read.. I don’t have any kidlets so I’ve missed out on this my little pony phenomenon thusfar..

    It does make me wonder, who writes this crap??

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