Friendship Is Complicated

Art, commerce, and the battle for the soul of My Little Pony.

Maria Bustillos | Longreads | January 2015 | 15 minutes (3,706 words)

 

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Lauren Faust, the creative genius behind the hit cartoon series My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, decided she was going to be an animator when she was a child, during a family tour of the animation studios at Walt Disney World in Florida. Faust—who’d been a solitary, nerdy kid, a self-described “weirdo”—followed the tour guide past a glass wall, beyond which she could see the artists at work: “One of the animators had this long lineup of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toys and I just went, ‘Oh!—these are my people! Like, these are the people I need to work with; this is where I need to go.’”

Eventually, Faust wound up working on Powerpuff Girls, an Emmy-winning cartoon about a trio of cute little girls who are also monster-whoopin’ superheroes. This was my introduction to her work, because my youngest daughter was utterly devoted to Powerpuff Girls as a little kid in the ‘90s. And, mirabile dictu, it was a show that I enjoyed watching with her, with its gorgeous Japanese-inspired animation, elegant design and witty dialogue. The Powerpuff Girls inspired play that was very different from the Disney Princess kind: there would be monsters to fight, and weapons to beat bad guys with, and secret adventures to have. Little boys liked playing Powerpuff Girls, too.

Faust quickly developed a reputation for creating compelling, fun and smart girl characters. That made her a natural choice for a planned 21st-century reboot of Hasbro’s then-moribund My Little Pony, a cartoon series based on the plastic equine toys first introduced in the early 1980s.

A self-avowed feminist, Faust grew up in Maryland with three brothers and no sisters; as a kid she’d preferred comics and adventure stories and toys to fashion dolls. So when she began reimagining the story of My Little Pony for Hasbro, she harked back to her own childhood My Little Pony figurines and to the adventures she’d created for them as a child. Faust’s My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic stars six pony characters, each embodying a distinctive characteristic: Applejack, a country pony with a twang, represents honesty; Fluttershy, a friend to animals, signifies kindness; goofy, bouncy Pinkie Pie represents laughter. The story centers on the evolution of Twilight Sparkle, a diligent unicorn pony student of magic sent out into the world by her mentor to learn to socialize and make friends. The episodes are generally about discovering how we can befriend and help those different from ourselves, despite the frustrations those differences may cause us at first.

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic debuted in October 2010, and quickly became one of the fledgling Hub Network’s most popular shows. The audience currently stands at around half a million viewers per week—not huge by the standards of the biggest cable networks, but a whopping success for a new one. A fifth season was ordered last May. From the start, the show was infectious, beautifully produced, with fine original music and inventive, striking animation; it had transcended its toy origins, and it became a work of art on its own.

Like Powerpuff Girls, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic could be fun for adults to watch. In addition to its popularity with its target audience of 2- to 11-year-olds, the show inspired a now well-documented faction of “bronies”—young adults, mostly male, who created a rich and appealingly weird international culture around the show and its message of tolerance and friendship.

As with some earlier classic children’s series like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, ThunderCats, and Sailor Moon (as well as the aforementioned Powerpuff Girls), fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic tend to identify with one of the team of characters and choose him or her as a kind of mascot: That’s a common trope in television for boys, as well. And the Mane 6, as Faust’s ponies are known among fans, combine to form a larger, more powerful entity, in a manner similar to the “boys’ shows” Voltron and Power Rangers. Nearly all the stories in the show are adventure stories, unconcerned with romance or dating. The more you watch, the less surprising it seems that so many boys and young men responded to Faust’s vision.

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic provides an imaginatively empowered and empowering conception of girlhood (or personhood, really), focused as it is on action, learning, exploring and fun, plus kooky, gentle humor. All of this is in stark opposition to conventional girls’ entertainments and playthings, which Faust once rather dismissively characterized as “combing hair and changing clothes.” She is an unabashed believer in adventure, excitement, and magic: as she wrote in an introduction to the My Little Pony guidebook, Elements of Harmony: “To [a little girl], magic is not frivolous and silly; it is huge, and it is glorious. It is real.”

The song “Morning in Ponyville,” from 2013’s Season Three finale, gives a clear example of the show’s characteristic charm:

Despite the runaway success of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Faust left the show before its third season, for reasons neither the studio nor the artist herself have cared to elaborate on in public. The likely causes of a split are aren’t difficult to surmise—particularly in view of the 2013 spin-off, Equestria Girls, which turned the adventurers of My Little Pony into ultra-skinny, status-obsessed high-school girls who are one thousand percent about combing hair and changing clothes. In order to effect this transformation, the ponies leap through a mirror into an alternate universe. (As, perhaps, does the viewer.)

The contrast between these two children’s shows provides a literal illustration of certain eternal tensions, not only in children’s entertainment but in literature and in American culture in general: Innocence vs. Experience, Nerds vs. Normies, Individualism vs. Conformity, Gender-Neutral Egalitarianism vs. Explicitly Heteronormative Sexuality—and maybe most strikingly, Art vs. Commerce.

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The narrative shift between My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and Equestria Girls is all but incomprehensible, until you reckon with the teen monster Mean Girls of Monster High, the wildly successful animated series and toy franchise of Hasbro’s arch-rival, Mattel. Monster High is a testament to the old advertising saw, “Sex Sells”—even to 6- to 11-year-old girls. It is a show about impossibly thin, heavily made-up teen monster girls in all kinds of sassy clothes and platform shoes, complete with long, wildly colored hair to comb and style. Annual sales of toys and dolls based on Monster High rocketed to over half a billion dollars for Mattel in just three years from its debut in 2010. It’s safe to assume that Hasbro took one look at those figures and decided that they had better start “competing in the space,” as the marketing professionals like to say.

An industry insider explained some of the complexities of how this might play out: “Not to diss on anyone who’s the head of marketing. But the person who analyzes the toy universe and says okay, we’re Hasbro, and we don’t have aspirational teen girl action figures [like the ones from Monster High]. That person can’t necessarily create a sticky, interesting, intriguing story arc with compelling characters: you need content creators and artists to do that. You know? You need writers, experienced toy designers.” Which is to say: a company may determine that there is a business need to produce certain toys, but that imperative may or may not jibe with getting artists and writers to create an effective, entertaining story around them.

There’s no question at all, though, about who’s boss in this scenario. I was a little shocked to learn that at the big studios, producers of cartoons have typically been assigned a “toy partner” before a single show has been completed. And if the toy partner should drop out of a project in development for whatever reason, the associated producers and artists can basically kiss their show goodbye. The business plans of companies like Mattel and Hasbro (and Disney, Nickelodeon, Lego, etc.) are mapped out in a detailed and explicit collaboration between artists, marketers and toy companies.

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Branded toys routinely make more money than the films and cartoons on which they are based—sometimes a lot more—so it’s logical in a way that yes, children’s television shows and movies are basically long, elaborate toy commercials. If they are to provide something, anything, more interesting or positive for children than a siren call to the toy store, any other potential motives—humor, pleasure, an observation on human nature or a philosophical or moral lesson—are incidental to the prime directive of selling toys, lunchboxes, T-shirts, and all the other branded merchandise known in the trade as “CP,” or consumer products.

Though he eventually embraced merchandising, Jim Henson grappled with commercialization and “selling out” in the early years of Sesame Street and the Muppets. The trend heated up in  the late 1970s and early ‘80s, after George Lucas famously retained the merchandising rights to Star Wars, and became very, very rich as a result. Transformers, He-Man and She-Ra, Rainbow Brite and the first My Little Pony animated series were all “content” designed specifically to “move products.” Thirty years later, toy companies such as Mattel and Hasbro have taken the natural next step: Becoming the direct producers of those films and television programs, in addition to the associated toys and other branded goods. The result is an end-to-end chain reaching from screen to toybox (and closet, and music player, and game console). The cartoon is nothing more than one link in the chain, though a valuable one—one that gives a big marketing bang for the buck. As a cartoon producer who declined to be named explained, the best way to sell a toy is to put it in a cartoon. “You can buy a thirty-second commercial, or you can make a twenty-two minute piece of craptent.” The profit motive is the unbreakable harness that controls the fate of every cartoon character a child sees on television or in the movies, Hasbro’s little ponies included.

Equestria Girls debuted in 2013; in that year, Hasbro’s Girls category grew by 26 percent, reaching $1 billion in revenues, of which My Little Pony represented about $650 million in retail “across the brand blueprint,” according to the company’s annual report—representing a substantial chunk of Hasbro’s net 2013 revenue of $4.08 billion. To put this in a broader perspective, licensed retail merchandise represents a quarter-trillion dollars in global sales each year, with Disney in the top spot, Mattel at No. 5 and Hasbro at No. 11.

Exactly what does the merch-first strategy mean for the quality of storytelling for children? Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz lamented to the Los Angeles Times in 2010, “They make three times as much on toys as they do on films. It’s natural to make decisions that protect the toy business, but that’s not the best thing for making quality films.” In effect, it’s no longer possible to produce mass-market children’s entertainment outside the parameters of “selling out.”

But every mass-market animation artist is intimately familiar with the business constraints on her work going in. Shortly after her show’s debut in the fall of 2010, Lauren Faust crisply defended her artistic choices, and the compromises she would be required to make, in a post on the blog of Ms. Magazine:

Yes, My Little Pony is riddled with pink, the leader is a Princess instead of a Queen and there probably aren’t enough boys around to portray a realistic society. These decisions were not entirely up to me.  It has been a challenge to balance my personal ideals with my bosses’ needs for toy sales and good ratings. I do my best to incorporate their needs in an acceptable way, so when we are asked to portray a certain toy or playset, my team and I work to put it in a place that makes sense within the story. There is also a need to incorporate fashion play into the show, but only one character is interested in it and she is not a trend follower but a designer who sells her own creations from her own store. We portray her not as a shopaholic but as an artist.

I never expected to work on a show based on a toy line, but I accepted the project based on my sincere childhood love of the toy and Hasbro’s desire to create an entertaining show that is not just a long toy commercial.

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The Monster High cartoon follows the high school career of (I regret to say) Frankie Stein, the teenage daughter of Frankenstein and the Bride of Frankenstein, in her efforts to be a cool and successful goth girl monster in a high school for teen monsters. Frankie and her friends Draculaura, Clawdine and Cleo De Nile are a monster In Crowd: the story’s a little like a crazy, childlike animated version of Twilight. The girls resemble Cara Delevingne quite a bit more than they do the werewolves, vampires and mummies they’re meant to portray (except the Monster High girls are considerably skinnier.)

The show is fast-paced and stylish, with teen monster bands playing lots of bland, child-friendly rock songs about Being Yourself, and very little in the way of plot or message. Monster High is also unequivocally sexy. The girl characters compete for the boys’ attention and try to look as cool as they can, showing off their dance moves, cell phones, clothes and boots and so on. All the clothes are super revealing—skin-tight nightclub gear really, with a lolicon vibe.

Equestria Girls hews very closely to this formula. Here, a mini-skirted, platform-shod Twilight Sparkle acquires a crush almost immediately: blue-haired Flash Sentry, who manages to recall both Robert Pattinson and Sonic the Hedgehog. (But, horrors! He is the ex-boyfriend of the wicked Sunset Shimmer!)

When my own daughters were tweens, Britney Spears occupied a somewhat similar role as the presiding Teen Temptress. The more forward and fashion-conscious among their friends would wear midriff-baring shirts like Britney’s, to the breathless amazement of all. As awkward as a lot of it was, there was also something tender and sweet about little girls dressing up a bit older, and looking at themselves in the mirror, seemingly considering: “Well… like it or not, I really am going to have boobs someday… and wear makeup. Also boots.” The distance between playing dress-up and really dressing up begins to blur at around age 6 or 8, and is entirely blurred by 14 or so.

Toy manufacturers refer to this slavish admiration of tweens for teens as “aspirational” or “emulative”—call it what you like, it’s a powerful emotional and imaginative force that can be and is exploited to the tune of billions.

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I met Lauren Faust just as I was beginning to learn about her work, having noticed that she’d be making a rare public appearance at a benefit for a local wildlife center. So I drove up to the north end of the Valley on a lovely clear fall afternoon and entered a pleasant park full of trees and zoo environments, little realizing that this would be my only chance to speak with the press-shy auteur. After making my way past kids and their families visiting enclosures containing sloths, snakes, a lynx, and an armadillo, I found her at a signing table: she is strikingly pretty, with dark red hair and large, expressive, gentle eyes somewhat recalling those of her characters. There were a few fans hovering around, most carrying books, posters and figures for her to sign. I introduced myself and began by asking her, what was it about My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic that has attracted such a passionate following? There are lots of cartoons. What is it about this one?

“Ask them!” she laughed, gesturing toward the assembled group of bronies.

That was when I met Nathan, a big, very muscular young man of 25, kind and talkative, who unabashedly loves My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (“the ponies”), the military, and working out. He joined the army right out of high school, has been in the National Guard for nearly six years, and sports a My Little Pony-themed tattoo on one imposing bicep. I also spoke with Adam, a shy, dark-haired young man with an encyclopedic knowledge of the show and all the ins and outs of the fandom. What is it about the show you love most? I asked. “That lady right there,” said Nathan, indicating Lauren Faust. “I grew up in the ‘90s. The show’s just really good, it’s kind of reminiscent of all those good old cartoons .” He likes the quality of the animation —”technically it’s very impressive—”

Here Adam chimed in: “The writing, the music, the characters, the voice acting.” After a while Nathan grew more thoughtful, and added that My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic had helped him kick a drug habit.

“At first I thought, man, I’m just weird for liking this, there must be something wrong with me. I don’t know anyone else who’s into this—and then I realized, wow, there’s a lot of people who are into this.” (That’s something about bronies that I hadn’t known before I met them: they’re very much aware of exactly how weird it sounds.) “And it made me kind of step outside of my head for a second and realize that what I was doing wasn’t who I wanted to be. So, I’ve been clean for three years now… it came into my life at the right time.” This self-awareness coexists with an almost childlike candor. Nathan’s clear blue eyes are entirely innocent of guile, snark or self-consciousness. He is the embodiment of what in the context of literary criticism would be called The New Sincerity.

“I don’t have to prove my guy card to anybody,” he said. “I’ve been in the military for five years, I’m a personal trainer, I go to the gym every single day, I love motorcycles and Sons of Anarchy, and I also like this. Because it’s good.”

All the bronies I have met share this effortless camaraderie; some are shyer than others, but basically they are twenty-somethings with the simple, unaffected friendliness of 5-year-olds.

Some weeks later I inveigled my friend Evan, a young English professor of very game disposition, into coming along with me to the Grand Galloping Gala at the Knott’s Berry Farm Hotel in Anaheim. It was a costume dance, so we furnished ourselves with a pair of Venetian masks and motored down. The event was held in a single featureless, glaringly-lit hotel meeting room haphazardly decorated with streamers, a mirror ball, a few merchandise tables and a dance floor in the center, the whole producing an atmosphere reminiscent of a middle-school dance. There was no booze at all, just punch in plastic cups. Slowly, a crowd of one or two hundred gathered, many of them cosplayers: Soarin’, a handsome boy of 22 in a pale blue polyester suit with white wings sewn into the jacket, pony ears, aviator sunglasses and a roguish expression, who posed happily for photos; a girl in a sequined flapper dress, a sweet young man in steampunk gear, including a felt top hat and silver-topped cane; and many pony-themed ensembles featuring tails and manes. I was happy to see Adam, whom I’d met at the Lauren Faust event, here too. Though dressed in a sharp black suit himself, Adam seemed quite taken with Soarin’s ensemble. Would you ever cosplay? I asked. “If I could learn how,” he replied shyly.

It was about as far away from the world of Equestria Girls as could be. Improvisational, random, low-budget, the opposite of glossy or corporatized. The imagination of Lauren Faust and her brave and gentle characters may have inspired these kids to come together so improbably in this Knott’s Berry Farm Resort Hotel meeting room, but really, they were here for each other.

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Business and marketing analyses of children’s toys and games commonly mention the acronym KGOY (“Kids Getting Older Younger”) or the phrase “age compression,” meaning that younger and younger kids are being sold clothes, toys and stories hinting at adolescent themes. Which doesn’t mean they are “getting older younger,” it only means they are being sold things that connect with these specific developmental states. Little kids have always idolized teenagers. But catering to these “aspirational” interests of tweens courts a certain societal uneasiness with respect to their (real, not imagined) budding sexuality.

Weirdly, on this score I find My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic quite a bit more grownup than either Monster High or Equestria Girls, because the latter, with their very narrow-minded, totally heteronormative, totally body-dysmorphic, materialistic and shallow understanding of sexuality really are so retrograde. And maybe even somewhat harmful?? Because only the impossibly skinniest, most fashionable girls are presented as admirable or even acceptable in these shows. No character without these very specific, fantastical physical attributes is considered worthy of the remotest interest. It may be de rigueur to be a zombie or a vampire or a mummy, but one shudders to think what would happen to a gay or trans kid, or a chubby kid, or a kid with a disability, at Monster High.

On the opposite end of the political spectrum there is a cohort of incensed moms objecting to Monster High in familiar puritanical tones (sic throughout). “I was very upset to find a monster high doll tonight at Walmart,” one wrote. “The doll had its boobs hanging out in a little top and a very short skirt with a tattoo on its stomach and high heels. […] I will tell you this [my daughter] will NOT be getting any of these slutty inappropriate dolls. Put some cloths on them maybe our generation of young ladies would learn it inst necessary to expose their bodies so much.”

Equestria Girls, though just a little less “knowing,” is hitting all the same marks as Monster High with respect to swooning high-school crushes, scheming Mean Girls, provocative clothes and stick-thin body imaging… and not by mistake. Even if these shows aren’t very good, so long as they produce merchandise sales—even just as a viable alternative for girls who may tire of their Monster High toys—the project will be counted a success where it matters most: in earnings per share.

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There’s a temptation to reckon the attempts of artists like Lauren Faust to create entertaining and meaningful shows within the straitjacket of corporate commerce as entirely futile, hopeless. A mug’s game. But then I remember the Grand Galloping Gala in full swing. In time the techno music was blasting and a throng of kids massed together in the center of the dancefloor, dressed in cosplay pony ears and swishing tails and all sorts of homemade cartoon finery, pogoing, and suddenly it became clear that they were all chanting together.

Evan, I said. Are you hearing what they’re chanting. He’s all, What is it? It was this:

Friendship! Friendship! Friendship!

Let’s say you run a big public company; your rivals come up with a product you must compete with, you make a business plan and share some of the details about it in a conference call with analysts, and they publish reports anticipating earnings and make recommendations based on those. And then if all your plans succeed, there will be a solid uptick in the share price, thereby fulfilling the fiduciary responsibilities of the corporate management and board of directors. That is Commerce. But if two hundred kids in Anaheim are pogoing in a hotel conference room and shouting “Friendship!” over and over? Nobody at all knew that that was going to happen, or could possibly have anticipated it. That is Art.

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Maria Bustillos is a journalist and critic living in Los Angeles.

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Editor: Mark Armstrong; Fact-checker: Brendan O’Connor

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