MLP: Immanetizing The Equestrian

A meditation on subcultures & review of the cartoon series 'My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic', focusing on fandom, plot, development, and meaning of bronydom. (anime, criticism, philosophy, reviews, sociology, Gene Wolfe, NGE)
created: 24 Oct 2018; modified: 13 Dec 2018; status: finished; confidence: highly likely; importance: 3

Note: like all my reviews, I discuss spoilers where relevant.

Years back, in my corner of the Internet, suddenly small pastel horses began showing up in one of those unpredictable pop culture mutations. I wasn’t too into American animation like My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (TVTropes), however popular (I find shows like Rick & Morty too ugly to watch, even though I presumably have a high enough IQ to appreciate its humor), and didn’t pay much attention. A family friend sat me down and insisted I watch the 2 pilot episodes, so I knew the basics, but I wasn’t super-impressed: colorful, yes, attractive design, and, unexpectedly, not bad, but not a priority.

And then the MLP fanfiction started showing up… Perhaps the most unexpected one was the Friendship is Optimal fanfiction (followed by Friendship Is Optimal: Caelum Est Conterrens) which crossed MLP with science fiction and rather impressively evenly split readers between regarding MLP:FiO as a utopia and a particularly horrifying dystopia (typical reaction: I think MLP:FiO would be hell, but it’s better than our world today) That was followed by the 2000-page-long Fallout: Equestria which mixed MLP with Fallout 3 in an action-packed intricately-conspiratorial tale of the exploration & redemption of a post-apocalyptic MLP following a multilateral thermomagical war, and has become its own thing now; also worth noting are the Doctor Whooves Adventures radio plays. (I dabbled in a few others, like the collaborative writing exercise MLP Loops (TVTropes), even a omake in HP:MoR & a Charles Stross parody, Equoid.) Much of this was powered by the bronies, which was also interesting. I resolved to get around to watching it. (I rode horses in high school so I still have a soft spot for anything equestrian.)

5 years later, I got around to it. I felt I needed a break and something more light-hearted - rereading Yotsuba&!, as enjoyable as it is, wasn’t doing the trick since it’s a static manga and I wanted something moving, but a silly Westernized slice-of-life moe series aimed at girls fit the bill nicely, and I could finally see what it was about MLP - I’ve joked in the past that MLP must be Social Stories-style skill training for autistic people and perhaps one should experiment with viewing MLP under the influence of psychedelics to see if it could teach basic social skills faster - perhaps the real magic of friendship was the serotonin receptors we made along the way (I was told MLP was too intense visually for that to be a good idea, surprisingly), but it’s unfair to make fun of it before watching it. (I try to avoid watching unfinished works, and was surprised to see that MLP was still running but I excepted MLP because I expected it to be episodic and there were rumors that it would be wrapping up the next season1.) Getting copies: as the animation is so nice, it’s worth tracking down high-quality copies instead of settling for streaming or low-res mirrors. I used the season 1-5/6 torrents on The Pirate Bay, then switched over to Yay Ponies for seasons 7-8. I’ve been told that watching MLP now isn’t the same without the community aspect, so I avoided spoilers & while watching, I occasionally checked out the /r/mylittlepony episode discussions. The result ultimately exceeded my expectations and I began thinking about why.

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic

Art & Music

The animation is limited, but like Samurai Jack2/The Powerpuff Girls, the series makes a virtue of necessity and takes a less is more clear line approach: even full-screened on my large monitor, the show looks great. The clean line style is employed expressively so characters don’t come off as blandly drained of detail, and the vivid oversaturated pastel palette eventually becomes natural. The animation improves considerably over time, and it’s striking to compare season 8 with season 1 to see how far it’s come. (The kirin designs are a particular highlight.) Nor is MLP ruined by the contemporary Hollywood style of editing so fast that the director is clearly a ferret high on methamphetamine with a loud blaring soundtrack telling you how exactly to feel at every second (because, cutting every few seconds, how could you possibly remember what is going on).

The voice-acting is excellent, with many distinct and memorable voices; the actresses clearly are having a lot of fun doing the various characters. The music should not be neglected in any evaluation; one of the greatest advantages of film over books is that, like the opera before it, it can meld music, voice, acting, special effects, and text into something which is greater than the sum of its parts. (It is easier to write a great novel or manga than to make a great film, and the average novel is better than the average film, but the best films surpass the best novel - a great film is so overwhelming that it can even overwrite memories of the original and how people read it subsequently, eg Harry Potter, or the difficulty I have explaining to people post-Arrival that Story Of Your Life Is Not A Time-Travel Story.) Like Cowboy Bebop/Yoko Kanno before it, MLP benefits from a remarkable range of catchy Broadway-musical-inflected songs from Daniel Ingram which fused with plot and musical videos (PMVs?) elevate otherwise merely good episodes to unforgettable. Ingram does song after memorable song in the first five seasons3, even deftly managing several Weird Al Yankovic homages for his guest appearance. That’s just downright unfairly talented. If Ingram had not been involved, I wonder if MLP would been a fraction as popular as it is?4

Fandom

In some ways, MLP is accidentally optimized for fandom. The art style is so clean and elegant that it is easy for fans to create drawings or Flash animations on par with the original (or make it 20% cooler, eg The Moon Rises or the Cowboy Bebop Green Bird crossover5), encouraging a profusion of artwork. Any MLP fan with some artistic bent must look at it and think, I could do that! In some ways, it’s the diametric opposite of the Homestuck or Touhou doujinshi fandoms, where the official artwork by Hussie or ZUN is so bad that fans almost have to make their own art - after all, they can’t possibly do any worse!

There’s another interesting comparison with Touhou: Touhou has an enormous music fandom, which draws on the official soundtracks for their core melodies. ZUN is much better at composing music than drawing, but his official music is still somewhat barebones; what he is a genius at, however, is coming up with melodies or arranges which can then be remixed or rewritten into other genres - any popular new arrange from the latest Touhou game immediately spurs a rash of people rewriting it for jazz or death metal or orchestral or instrumental rock performances or performing it on their favorite instrument or mashing it up with previous Touhou tracks etc. Thus, for any particular arrange, there are generally hundreds or thousands of rewritten versions performed by various groups.6 It’s easy to get ideas what to do with a new arrange. MLP does have fan music but… nowhere near as much as Touhou, and it seems like there is vastly more artwork than music for MLP. For comparison, while MLP music has a healthy flow, as represented by the 15 Ponies At Dawn anthologies7, Equestria Daily music selections, & /r/MLPTunes, the total pales in comparison to Touhou, which routinely gets thousands of new pieces of music each Comiket or Reitaisai convention of which there are 3 a year in addition to more minor conventions, has perhaps millions of total tracks on Nico Nico, and has around 50-60,000 tracks hosted in the famous Touhou Lossless Music Collection (TLMC) torrent & at least as many submissions on /r/TOUHOUmusic despite both being in the wrong language. (My impression is also that a lot of MLP musicians appear to have burned out or otherwise moved on or died, while Touhou continues on trucking, though Touhou is over twice as old, having begun in the 1990s.)

Why? It may be simply that Hasbro is a good deal more aggressive about copyright enforcement than ZUN, who has a laissez-faire hands-off approach derived from doujinshi traditions (despite much Touhou fandom works technically violating ZUN’s Touhou license & expressed wishes), but I’ll speculate that MLP music suffers from the reverse problem of the artwork: Ingram’s music is too good and it’s simply not clear to anyone how one would adapt or remix or mash up a fan-favorite like Art of the Dress, so one needs an original piece of MLP-themed music, which is harder. There might be a U-shaped curve of quality, akin to that for novelty - something can be too perfect, complete, and entire, reflecting a singular vision; such a thing is intimidating and can only be admired from a distance, it provides no flaws or incompleteness which serve as an affordance encouraging a fan to copy & modify it. The MLP music fails to stimulate fandom activities as much as it could because it is too perfect; the art & animation succeeds in stimulating fans because, while highly accomplished, it is done under such constraints that it is easy to imitate by low-resource fans. If the art were instead extremely lush and photorealistic and complex, it might be equally attractive, but fans could not think they could match or improve on it. (Is this a problem for fiction? It’s hard to tell. Fanfiction communities do not seem to have any particular connection with the original fiction work or writing quality, unless longer works predict even more fanfiction. Perhaps fiction simply provides too much of a scaffold and is too easily copied to a satisfactory level to intimidate away fans - fanpoetry, it’s worth noting, is a good deal rarer.)

MLP more or less blundered into its fandom, although Hasbro has tolerated and encouraged to a degree that is probably fairly alien to American companies, which typically take more of a Disney-like hardline, and the fandom has fed back into the show in both characters/ideas/emphases but also staff (more than one MLP staffer was a fan first). Touhou was more intentional, as ZUN was and remains part of the doujin scene, and has even issued a Touhou copyright license in addition to longstanding doujin norms (a license honored almost entirely in the breach, it must be admitted, but a license nevertheless), but I wonder if ZUN could explain Touhou’s success any more convincingly than him making good computer shmup games with catchy melodies and a curious mashup universe over several decades & being lucky?

Could fandom be more deliberately designed for? Series which have good fandoms seem to share a number of traits: large ensemble casts, an equally large world with many locations, multimedia excellence (not just good animation or acting or special effects, but a whole package) of which music may be particularly important, and clear archetypal themes which are not necessarily contemporary.8 Worldbuilding particular invites fandom and database behavior - while a true auteur like Tolkien might well have developed an entire legendarium around the occasional references and allusions in their work, most artists simply intend them as throwaways to create an illusion of depth. This could be done more deliberately. Consider the Welsh collection known as the Mabinogion, typically including the tale of Culhwch and Olwen in which the hero hunts a terrible boar to win his bride; it strikingly demonstrates the technique of the list or peg by providing not one but three different lists of places/events, warriors/retainers, and challenges/feats, with hundreds of allusions or names. Aside from being an exhaustion to annotate and an endless vexation to scholars of Welsh myth/folklore/literature as most of the references are unknown or known only in the sketchiest detail (despite what were probably well-known stories or perhaps entire cycles about each of them, and their mention in Culhwch and Olwen may’ve provided a wandering bard telling the tale an opportunity to branch to another popular story at the request of listeners), it provides an invitation to the reader to come up with their own story to explain what the demons of Annwfn were or how Henbedestyr could outrun every man. And in the case of onomastics, throughout religious scriptures like the Bible or folklore, we know that the mere existence of a name is enough to inspire elaborate detailed fictions explaining what happened to cause a place to be named what it is now, or give lengthy biographies of people who never existed in the first place, or names for entirely anonymous characters (Metzger 1980) - fanfiction, in other words. That could be done more deliberately, by providing brief summaries and letting fans go wild; the best side characters can become ascended extras, stories/worldbuilding become ascended fanon (or eventually taking over), all of which would be easier to implement given a more explicit understanding of copyright/commercialization between the owner & fans.

Another possibility is to recognize that a fandom is as much about self-expression as it is about entertainment. Fandoms develop their own argot9 around memes/images/reaction-faces/emoticons/slang. MLP caters to this with ponified English (which, in a nod to the fandom, I use here) and the many exaggerated facial expressions, but other series, like Touhou, are weak on this, and could do better.

The Magic Element(s)

Of course, music and animation need something worthwhile to adorn; you can have individual elements of music, animation, kindness, honesty etc, but what is the final element, the element of magic? What is it about MLP - what seeds were latent in season 1-2 which could make MLP such a phenomenon? I would identify two major factors: the first is the pervasively optimistic growth & progress of the series, and the second is the utopian construction of a more fulfilling modern society.

Shonen Pony

After watching two seasons, it hit me: I was wrong. MLP isn’t a slice-of-life moe anime. It’s a shonen anime! It’s more Nanoha & Haruhi than K-On.10

No, seriously. The hallmark of a shonen anime is that it is a bildungsroman in which a protagonist grows in tandem with friends and allies (frequently made by befriending them with giant laser beams) as they experience life and overcome challenges, building up skills & powers as they explore & affect the wider world. The shonen nature is hidden in Season 1, whose episodes often suffer from slowly-developing, single-threaded plots; lacking a B plot, they feel like they drag on & little happens. (This apparently was partially due to trying for a E TV rating, which guidelines turn out to be much more restrictive than I realized. When they settled for PG ratings, much more natural and active episodes became doable.) But this becomes increasingly clear in season 2 and on. There is quite a bit of action, leading to whiplash, as Chris Sims puts it: …the downside is that this is a show that opens with a massive thousand year-old conflict for the fate of the world and then moves into bake sales and apple harvests, but hey, that’s life. (I discovered that it is indeed not a great idea to watch it on psychedelics. The social lessons are also too slow and spread out over 25 minutes, so one would have to use boiled-down edited episodes to get a few in during a trip.) I would be hard-pressed to defend season 1 as the best or second-best season, though it benefits from the novelty of worldbuilding and some of the best MLP songs; it is closer to the price of admission, which comes with a promissory note of growth.

MLP is often described as being enjoyable because it’s optimistic; optimism could be defined as the attitude that things will turn out well (if bad now) or will get even better (if already good now), but I would disagree that this is what is meant by saying MLP is optimistic. A show can cop a mere optimistic attitude and say all the right things, but that is unsatisfying & rings hollow - jam tomorrow - unless one also then shows that optimism in action. This is precisely what unfolds over the 8 seasons of MLP. What is most striking is the extent to which the characters and world grow & develop. Many start off as responsible young adults, some running their own businesses, before the series starts11; this is excellent, a reminder that school is only a transition to real life, it gets better, and should not subsume the totality of your identity and self-worth, but they go on from there.

Life affords no higher pleasure than that of surmounting difficulties, passing from one step of success to another, forming new wishes and seeing them gratified…He that labours in any great or laudable undertaking, has his fatigues first supported by hope, and afterwards rewarded by joy; he is always moving to a certain end, and when he has attained it, an end more distant invites him to a new pursuit…That kind of life is most happy which affords us most opportunities of gaining our own esteem12

Rarity opens multiple shops; Fluttershy copes with her social anxiety, befriending the dangerous Discord for the good of Equestria, and eventually founds an animal refuge; Rainbow Dash progresses from a bored surly anti-intellectual overly-competitive weather control Pegasus to devoted adventure reader & the most talented member of the elite Wonderbolts military force; Twilight grows from an completely isolated grad student to respected magician to the alicorn-ized Princess, suddenly adrift in the meritocracy having aced all the exams only to realize being a mere princess was unfulfilling & empty, eventually discovering her purpose as Princess of Friendship & the widely respected founder of the friendship university formally teaching friendship. The song True True Friend Winter Wrap-up (Ultimate Mash-Up) may seem bizarre, as the two songs are so musically different, but I think it works because it embodies Twilight’s character arc, season 1-3. (The Cutie Mark Crusaders, who often mirror the Mane Six, undergo their own growth and after they find their cutie marks, discover a new mission of teaching other ponies to find their cutie marks.) Along the way, Twilight goes from suffering from neuroticism (barely managed with OCD checklists) to a confident competent leader.13 Indeed, her growth appears even in small things like the teleportation spell she practices in season 1/2 or learning to fly after being an alicorn: at first she can only teleport with great difficulty a few meters, such as across the room, but by season 8, she can casually teleport to Canterlot & back14; her flying is disastrously clumsy initially but after several seasons she is an adept flyer.

The world expands with them as they take on new responsibilities: the once cozy-feeling Equestria, a few pony cities like Manehattan or Las Pegasus, overseen by Canterlot, has discovered multiple large countries on its borders, from the yaks of Yakyakistan to the distant Changeling hive to the Griffons to the Hippogriffs to the Crystal Ponies of the Crystal Empire (note: they look like crystals and there are a lot of crystals there), and the mane characters have become unofficial ambassadors to them, challenged to maintain good foreign relations among their other responsibilities and pleasures. Indeed, the primary role of the friendship university is simply taking in children of allied elites and teaching them about friendship and pony culture.

A case in point would be Twilight’s side-kick/assistant, the baby dragon Spike. Everypony’s annoying bratty little brother, Spike starts off as irritating, lazy, dangerously incompetent, and insecurely self-aggrandizing, antagonizing many viewers. But as time passed, he, well, grew up, and developed a sense of self-worth by helping save the Crystal Empire and then open up relations with the dragons, serving as a calming counterbalance and advisor to Twilight, and even going through dragon-puberty to get wings & learn to fly. Another striking case was the introduction of Starlight Glimmer in season 5 to serve as a foil and inversion of Twilight Sparkle: an equally smart magically-talented who inverts friendship and whose scheme ultimately defeats Twilight Sparkle; after her redemption, instead of being relegated to a rarely-appearing side character, she became an increasingly central protagonist, to the consternation of many fans.

Even the writing becomes gradually more willing to throw in a mess of allusions or parodies with a wink to the viewer, and more sophisticated in form & content.

D&D allusions and even playing D&D? Check. Are those pony versions of Ranma ½/Evangelion/Sailor Moon/Utena in Scare Master? Check. A Speed Racer homage song in Derby Racers? Check. Gilmore Girls’s Sire’s Hollow/Star Hollow reference? Certainly. Was that really Pinkie Pie dressed up as Josephine Baker? Yes. In the Daring Do episode with the Daring Do fan convention, were those dakimakura pillows with Daring Do tied up on them being sold by the vendors, and the episode is a critique of fans/head-canons? Yes & yes they were. Discord’s Glass Of Water song-skit would not be out of place in the slightest in a Disney comedy like Aladdin, and the Wonderbolt Rap is a pitch-perfect parody of cool ’90s kid show hip-hop raps, complete with lovingly-rendered CRT/VHS blur - yes, really. Rick & Morty or an escape room episode? Sure, why not! And was that - the XKCD roller-coaster memeYES, IT WAS.

One episode is an extensive demonstration of the problems with a barter economy caused by the need for double coincidence of wants, the difficulty of arranging transactions organ-donation-ring-style to get everypony what they want, and the role of money as an numéraire, which would not be out of place in an economics course; the episode Tanks For the Memories is perhaps the best treatment of the death of one’s pet I’ve seen in a children’s cartoon yet, while A Rockhoof and a Hard Place is unmistakably about suicide (while another almost dealt with TBIs), and the death of Applejack’s parents shadows her from season 1, leading to the hard-hitting Perfect Pear 156 episodes later; the character Maud Pie is one of the most sympathetic depictions of Asperger’s in American TV (and infinitely better than the loathsome Big Bang Theory); The Mysterious Mare Do Well successfully tricked me; the inevitable Rashomon-style episode P.P.O.V. (Pony Point of View) provides fun opportunity for satire of each character, while The Saddlerow Review plays with flashbacks from multiple perspectives and Games Ponies Play/Just for Sidekicks run simultaneously; The Cutie Map Part 1/2 is an extended critique of egalitarianism & communism run rampant, complete with cheerful but sinister song lyrics like you can’t have nightmares / if you never dream (earning it a Rabid Puppies Hugo nomination of all things); the episode Crusaders of the Lost Mark aired on MLP’s 5th anniversary and closed out the 5-season-long Cutie Mark Crusader subplot which had built up the CMCs as a parallel to the Mane Six, with a similar ascension, featured no less than 3 musical numbers, while redeeming their long-running antagonist in a single episode (said antagonist who caused the Cutie Mark Crusaders to form & whose redemption also earns them their cutie marks), and the episode end segues into the end of the opening animation15! Just on the formal level it’s a feat. And if you’d told me that a season of MLP would focus on secondary characters - with Starlight Glimmer teaming up with Trixie, Discord, and the Changeling defector - and that this would in fact be the sole focus of the season finale with hardly any appearance by the mane characters, finishing Starlight Glimmer’s own redemption arc & acceptance of her responsibility as a leader in order to save Equestria (To Where and Back Again - Part 1/2), I’d’ve said you were high from huffing fan-speculation fumes - but they did it anyway. And there is loss along the way: Applejack’s parents, we slowly realize, aren’t coming back; the handicapped Scootaloo finally admits she’ll never be able to fly; and Twilight Sparkle lives in a treehouse-library (living out the dream of many geeky kids) but after 4 seasons it is destroyed, permanently, with only the roots left for memory.16 Overall it’s amazing that they were willing to keep changing things the way they did when it would have been so easy to settle down in a Simpsons-style rut; and at times it cost them (witness the swivet over the end of Season 3, where many fans quit - foalish, as it meant they missed many of the best episodes).

It’s not all perfect. Some episodes are indeed sickly sweet. A few wind up flubbing their Aesops (case in point, The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000 - as most people watching it wind up asking themselves, didn’t the Flim-Flam Brothers actually win the argument by demonstrating their cider-making machine was superior to the Apples’ inefficient traditional manual-labor methods?)17 Season 1 has deathly slow pacing and single-threaded plots; but the later seasons tend to suffer from pacing that jams in the resolution or can’t be done in one episode (Discord’s redemption simply can’t be done in a single episode convincingly). This can lead to endings where all the aftermath is disposed in a quick montage or song, or where the episode simply - ends, abruptly cutting to credits (eg Sounds of Silence). Longer episodes like the Best Gift Ever special show how MLP stories can benefit from more space to breath instead of rushing to a conclusion. The episodic approach sometimes suffer from a lack of foreshadowing/world-building - season 2’s finale, A Canterlot Wedding - Part 1/2 was great, but would’ve been better if we had had any idea before the finale that Changelings, Princess Cadence, or Twilight’s brother existed, much less that the latter two were getting married, and as good as Crusaders of the Lost Mark is, it also would’ve benefited from more hints anytime in the previous 5 seasons that Diamond Tiara was so unhappy or struggling to discover positive ways to be a leader. Some apparently important themes are simply dropped without further elaboration: Twilight’s niece, Flurry Heart, is built-up as the first-ever alicorn child, unique & specially powerful, targeted by Equestria’s greatest enemies, but then is relegated to a tertiary character for the rest of the series; Twilight’s pet owl from season 1 disappears for entire seasons thereafter; and the Elements of Harmony or Rainbow Power likewise wind up being dropped, damaging the logic of later stories (since one has to ask why they aren’t resorting to their best weapons). These are annoying since the viewer becomes doubtful about what will be relevant in the future and unwilling to suspend disbelief or emotionally invest in characters/events: why care when something may not go anywhere or be resolved by authorial fiat? Later seasons do seem to get better in planning things out to create satisfying foreshadowing and establishing possibilities rather than pulling them out of nowhere (while I didn’t find season 7’s finale particularly interesting, it was at least extensively foreshadowed and logical, and season 8’s finale was both good and also cleverly built up with misdirection keeping one speculating).

So, that’s the basic package: clean attractive animation, catchy music which works perfectly in sync with the episode, a cast of characters who grow & develop in an also expanding world & lore (for which I wrote an analysis of pony genetics), and entertaining plots.

Bronies: Immanetizing The Equestrian

This is all well and good, but where do the bronies come in? The bronies, I think, are an expression of a New Sincerity. They are the positive flip side of the exhausting nihilism & cynicism so often on display on 4chan or among alt-right Frog Nazis - often white males18, discomfited by an economy and a society which has no jobs, no place or value for them, rendering them hors(e) de combat, and no advice other than to become more like their sisters. (Like the respect that lying pays to the truth, cynicism depends on an ability for optimism.) But instead of giving up, they continue hoping that someday things can be better, that there’s some way to a brighter future, one with friends. The old social contract with men has been unilaterally ripped up by society, and nothing has replaced it, but subcultures like MLP offers a glimpse at what a new one might be. I don’t think it’s an accident that comparisons to Plato’s Republic keep popping up in disparate MLP discussions over the years, although on the other hoof, so do Marxist perspectives as well as the aforementioned fascist ones. (/…We will dance through the country / And the night and the day will be one; / Holding hooves, we will unite / As one mind, as one soul, the name of Equestria… /)

At the end of Neon Genesis Evangelion, Shinji Ikari is surrounded by his friends & relatives. Congratulations each one says, as spring cherry petals fall, and the series ends: And to all the children… Congratulations!

If we asked what many nerds wanted most of all, deep down, perhaps it would be no more complex than a wish to be able to hang out with friends like in Genshiken. Takashi Murakami remarks (Earth In My Window) of the DAICON IV fan-film’s ending19:

In this film, the animators discovered an affirmation behind total annihilation that had nothing to do with the politics or ideology of the atomic bomb. This is why they were able to portray the end of the world, without hesitation, as a kind of revolution, and follow it with a blizzard of cherry-blossom petals. Hideaki Anno, who later directed Neon Genesis Evangelion, created the explosion scene, and it is almost painful to watch his pathological obsession with it, as an atomic whirlwind destroys the city.

At first glance, this scenario for Japan’s recovery from an atomic bomb seems offhand, but the creators’ compelling message is deeply felt in the urgency of the production values. In a way, otaku sensibilities have much in common with those of American hippies in the 1970s. A lifestyle that seems to turn its back on the world is founded on a nearly groundless obsession with peace and happiness, tremendous curiosity for the internal world of the self, extreme sentimentality, and keen sensitivity, all of which contribute to futuristic creation. The fact that Japan’s IT industry is built on otaku is also significant, as it suggests a parallel between the hippie movement and otaku culture. One indication of the filmmakers’ obsession with quality and concept was their use of a then-rare personal computer, which enabled them to calculate planetary orbits and thus design the solar system that appears in the last scene. The complexity of this design process offers further evidence of the filmmakers’ obsession with realism.

Surprisingly, it turns out that the ultimate dream of otaku aesthetics, scrupulous yet fanatically obsessed with reality, is a happy party, a peaceful festival.

Similarly in Touhou, the scenes that the games and fandom return to endlessly20 is that of drinking parties at the shrine, all the characters reconciled after the fights and gathered together. MLP is compelling because it offers a simple vision of a good life (which you Kant critique from a transcendental perspective as it is so grounded in immanence): guided by tradition & family, working together, if you try hard and never lose hope, you can make friends, enjoy the finer things in life together (like cakes), and grow - not relegated to some distant tomorrow or afterlife21. My Nationalist Pony (My Nationalist Pony: An Interview with Buttercup Dew) makes some good points in his analyses of MLP analyses (eg A Very European Hearth’s Warming’s Eve/Applejack Expects Her Own Greatness/I didn’t learn anything! I was right all along - On The Crystal Empire; see also Why Bronies Are Superior To The Neo-reaction), but I would disagree that there is any particularly fascists or nationalist meaning to MLP, even subconsciously (I would be surprised if any of the show writers were conservative in the least, and I don’t take My Nationalist Pony as suggesting they secretly are but that it’s more in the nature of a Freudian slip). Noticing what people have always wanted and claiming credit for them is a lie told by all ideologies, but it does not mean the good things are themselves vindication of that ideology.22 To the extent that MLP appears fascist, it is simply that fascism also draws its appeal from promising things deeply desired by many people, like community and belonging and having healthy ambition and a society which is unified & yet not gray.

One of the ways in which MLP is unusual is, in addition to episodes criticizing communism or egalitarianisms, its implicit capitalist economy (in contrast to most media where markets or capitalism are portrayed negatively when any attention is paid to them); Equestria is not post-scarcity by magical fiat but is capitalist to the core, and its prosperity is due the capitalism and competition. And this capitalism contributes to the self-actualization of ponies: to gain a sense of self-worth which is genuine and grounded in reality, one must discover something one does well (finding one’s cutie-mark), which is of value to one’s peers and society, and said value is only honestly expressed when freely expressed against a background of genuinely competitive options. The Cutie Mark Crusaders know they are good at what they do because so many ponies seek them out. The Apples can compare their apples to the rival Pears. Twilight Sparkle has her grades. Pinkie Pie earns a living with her cakes & pies. And Rainbow Dash, of course, has her flying records. When, in The Cutie Map, everypony must buy Sugar Belle’s gross standardized muffins & no other food, the fact that they do buy them with their false smiles can only demoralize Sugar Belle further (pace Graeber’s bullshit work); when the town is liberated from Starlight Glimmer, she is freed to make apple dessert pastries competing with the Apple farm and other confectioners, and, her baking talents proven by popular demand, can self-actualize. Or, in Canterlot Boutique, when a marketing stunt works too well and Rarity is inundated with orders for a Princess Dress, the success nearly burns out Rarity - because the customers no longer have high standards or knowledge, and cannot appreciate nor critique Rarity’s work, and the demand undermines Rarity’s standards; Rarity has no competition in providing the Princess Dress, and that’s the problem. (Who wants to play a video game which consists of a screen flashing You Win endlessly?) This is how MLP demonstrates how to make a life in a capitalist economy and integrates competition into its utopia: if you can find no niche that suits you and provides validation and self-worth from providing genuine value to others, then set out to make a niche by discovering your (metaphorical) cutie-mark. For happiness, one must have something to strive for which comes from within but is tested against without.

Is it an accident that Jordan B. Peterson appeals to a similar demographic as MLP, or that he conveys a similar message in his books like 12 Rules for Life? He retells the cliches with conviction inside a societal vacuum. There is still hope, you can always change, if you start now, you can clean your room, and tame the chaos (Discord?) in your life to find a talent or niche and develop into a valued social role that can provide a sense of self-worth… There are some people who need to hear that specific message, just as there are people who need to read Atlas Shrugged (while there are other people for whom that’s the worst book possible - the right book for the right person). Both Peterson and MLP provide specific recommendations (if not necessarily flowcharts). But the key step is to simply start. Sometimes it takes just a word, an admission to oneself that one has made a mistake up until now, to reach out. The tragedy of Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is he succumbs, like Walter in Breaking Bad, to the deadly sin of pride: not that he was a neglected child or that his soul is mutilated by murder, but that at the end, when he’s already lost, Harry gives him a final chance, and in front of everypony, he is unable to swallow his pride and surrender, and cannot choose to stop being Voldemort and become Tom Riddle again; that is when he is truly damned. Gene Wolfe was asked once what he thought literature should do. He said23:

I would like [my readers] to better understand human beings and human life as a result of having read [my] stories. I’d like them to feel that this was an experience that made things better for them and an experience that gave them hope. I think that the kind of things that we talk about at this conference - fantasy very much so, science fiction, and even horror - the message that we’re sending is the reverse of the message sent by what is called realistic fiction. (I happen to think that realistic fiction is not, in fact, realistic, but that’s a side issue.) And what we are saying is that it doesn’t have to be like this: things can be different. Our society can be changed. Maybe it’s worse, maybe it’s better. Maybe it’s a higher civilization, maybe it’s a barbaric civilization. But it doesn’t have to be the way it is now. Things can change. And we’re also saying things can change for you in your life. Look at the difference between Severian the apprentice and Severian the Autarch [in The Book of the New Sun], for example. The difference between Silk as an augur and Silk as calde [in The Book of the Long Sun]. You see?

We don’t always have to be this. There can be something else. We can stop doing the thing that we’re doing. Moms Mabley had a great line in some movie or other - she said, You keep on doing what you been doing and you’re gonna keep on gettin’ what you been gettin’. And we don’t have to keep on doing what we’ve been doing. We can do something else if we don’t like what we’re gettin’. I think a lot of the purpose of fiction ought to be to tell people that.

Indeed, in a sense, there are bronies inside MLP - the creatures from allied countries, like the Griffons, who hate each other, or the dragons, always on guard against betrayal and striving to be hard and able to live on one’s own. As much as they might deny it, the lure of pony life is strong and friendship gradually seeps into their own cultures, accelerated by the friendship university. Pony culture, in other words, is a universal culture: it presents a soft decadent set of norms which, as much as traditionalists might deny it, is deeply appealing. To not fight Equestria is to admit defeat; but to fight Equestria only leads to faster defeat as they befriend you.

So this is what happened: take a bunch of drifting young men; tell them that things don’t have to be like this; show them the better life they dream of; show them growth and development of flawed characters, advancing through challenges upwards, with lessons; wrap this all in a deceptively simple & attractively produced package with something for everypony, and release it at a fertile time, sparking a fandom which produces memes and songs and art drawing more curious viewers in… The brony phenomenon looks less inexplicable viewed from this angle.

I’m not really in the brony demographic anymore, but perhaps I was in 2013. I would be lying if I said I didn’t understand the appeal. If you need something to watch, you could do worse than watching the adventures of some small pastel horses. (Although you probably shouldn’t go as far as creating pony tulpas.) After all… What’s the alternative?

All This Has Happened Before

This may ring hollow. Reduced to some barebone summaries, friendship lessons are certainly unimpressive. One could reduce each episode to a line: you don’t need shared interests to be friends; children grow up and at some point you need to start treating them like adults; you shouldn’t be afraid of other people because they aren’t judging you like you think; maintain a balance between working for others and for yourself; everything in moderation except moderation - virtues are vices when pushed too far. Is that all it is? Surely we’ve seen that a hundred times before, it’s hardly new.

Perhaps we have. But as Samuel Johnson says:

Those writers who lay on the watch for novelty, could have little hope of greatness; for great things cannot have escaped former observation.

The great matters of life and death can never be new, but they can be presented anew again for a new generation. If it could have been said adequately in words, all this could be said once and would not need to be said ever again; but it cannot, and whereof one cannot speak, one must be silent - so we must whistle or sing it or… draw cartoons. (In making an axe handle by cutting wood with an axe, the model is indeed near at hand.) What is written here is only what can be said in words.

Coda

VII. …The spray rainbows over the sloping lawns.
With short jerks a robin runs up, stands motionless.
The eucalyptus tree trunks glow in the light.
The oaks perfect the shadow of May leaves.
Only this. Only this is worth of praise: the day.

VIII. And what if Pascal had not been saved
and if those narrow hands in which we laid a cross
are just he, entire, like a lifeless swallow
in the dust, under the buzz of the poisonous-blue flies?

And if they all, kneeling with poised palms,
millions, billions of them, ended together with their illusion?
I shall never agree. I will give them the crown.
The human mind is splendid; lips, powerful,
and the summons, so great, it must open Paradise.

IX. They are so persistent, that give them a few stones
and edible roots, and they will build the world.24

And to all my little ponies… Congratulations.

Appendix

Lists

Some lists because lists are fun.

Characters

Mane Six:

  1. Applejack
  2. Twilight Sparkle
  3. Pinkie Pie
  4. Starlight Glimmer
  5. Rarity
  6. Fluttershy
  7. Spike
  8. Rainbow Dash

Secondary characters:

  1. Princess Luna
  2. Maud Pie
  3. Iron Will25
  4. Discord26
  5. Trixie

Seasons

Episodes:

Seasons:

Music


  1. MLP has long-standing problems with information & whole episodes getting leaked early online, but in my case, suspecting that season 9 will be the final season has added spice to the watching. The continual expansion of the Equestria world & integration of foreign countries may have been a long buildup setting the stage for an epic global conflict in season 9, perhaps integrating all that has gone before into a single synthesis, thereby completing the German system of ideal - er, friendship. Gene Wolfe describes the essence of a successful multi-volume work as leaving the reader with the conviction that he has gone through the defining circumstances of Main Character’s life. The leading character in a series can wander off into another book and a new adventure better even than this one. Main Character cannot, at the end of your multivolume work. (Or at least, it should seem so.) His life may continue, and in most cases it will. He may or may not live happily ever after. But the problems he will face in the future will not be as important to him or to us, nor the summers as golden. I look forward to finding out how well MLP can meet this criterion.

  2. I still think about Samurai Jack’s monochrome episode, Jack and the Three Blind Archers, & The Four Seasons of Death.

  3. For a quick overview, see Exiark’s The Essence of Being A Pony remix.

  4. A lesson I draw from MLP and other examples: Wagner was right. There is no surer path to immortality than an excellent song paired with visual depiction of drama & emotion & action. Plots are forgotten, characters are forgotten, witty lines are forgotten, but music is the last thing to go and can even survive Alzheimer’s.

    Long after the idiotic & exhausting plot twists & special-effects of The Force Awakens are forgotten by everypony who watched it, John Williams’s theme & A New Hope’s opening will be remembered; what fan of Cowboy Bebop could forget either the Green Bird sequence or the Space Lion ending? Broadway musicals have never forgotten this, and Hollywood forgets this at its own peril.

  5. A PMV which emphasizes my point about the synergy of video & music: Green Bird is a pretty song, and the CB sequence is a fun John Woo knockoff, but together they are one of the most memorable episode endings in Cowboy Bebop and thus all of anime.

  6. For an accessible demonstration of what this means in practice, see the compilations of tracks categorized by arrange provided by the long-running /r/touhou Favorite Arrange compilations where, over 163 discussions, each themed around 1 arrange (occasionally 2 or 3), users post their favorite versions of it in any genre.

  7. The Ponies At Dawn albums are probably one of the better ways to survey MLP music fandom; they’re easy to download & more useful than bouncing around YouTube recommendations, which tend to go in loops around popular uploads. Another interesting collaborative album is The Pink Side of the Moon.

  8. While contemporary themes offer relevance, avoiding them can tap into nostalgia & fantasies. Touhou is a case in point: a running theme is that the fantasy land of Gensokyo is defined as fantasy opposed to reality; only that which is not or has passed out of reality (contemporary Japan) can be found in fantasy (Gensokyo) and vice-versa (eg characters generally playing only long-obsolete video game consoles), with some immigrant characters (like the Moriyas) effectively refugees from modernity.

    The 2013 doujin To the Country of Trains by Personal Color is a nice example about a retired Japanese train, and the definition of fantasy can be unexpectedly poignant - the lyrics translator of RD-Sound’s Lost Dream Generation (itself an arrange of Voyage 1969 from Imperishable Night, which has many notable arranges like the Knights of Round’s post-rock) quotes ZUN on why the Apollo program can appear in Gensokyo:

    The 20th century’s Noah’s Ark flew into space with both expectations and anxiety, though I wonder if it didn’t leave its expectations on the moon. For this 21st century that was to be the future, all that was left was anxiety, and the smallest bit of fantasy.

  9. The thinker who should turn away from argot would be like a surgeon who should turn away from an ulcer or a wart. He would be a philologist hesitating to examine a fact of language, a philosopher hesitating to scrutinise a fact of humanity. For, it must indeed be said to those who know it not, argot is both a literary phenomenon and a social result. What is argot properly speaking? Argot is the language of misery.

  10. Although an even more apt comparison might be with the original Mobile Suit Gundam inasmuch as both MLP:FiM & MSG were intended to be extended toy commercials for young children but thanks to a strong vision (from Lauren Faust & Yoshiyuki Tomino respectively) punched above their weight, becoming sheep in wolves’ clothing, and overall being better than they needed to be, done by the staff out of love - Jayson Thiessen is paraphrased in 2011 as explaining why is MLP so good?:

    Whose idea was it to make a show this uncompromising in quality, when expectations for anything with the MLP label were basically nil? The answer, it seems, is the production staff and Studio B. His team is just that good. Hasbro wasn’t really trying to create an amazing show with quality several orders of magnitude higher than anything the property had seen in the past; they (i.e. Lisa Licht) wanted to make something, but they didn’t know what exactly until Lauren showed up with her Galaxy Girls pitch. At that point things just sort of gelled. And that’s down to the specific personalities involved; Lauren and Jayson are both perfectionists, and they instantly clicked on the project, to the point where they would finish each other’s sentences. And Jayson simply refuses to let anything go out the door with his name on it that doesn’t meet his standards, which are to make everything - even ponies - the best thing they can possibly be. I get the feeling that the project could easily have gone to some other studio/showrunner, and it could have turned out no better than, say, G3.5…My theory that Hasbro was throwing huge amounts of money at this show was unfounded, Jayson was quick to correct me. Apparently they really are doing it on a shoestring.

    …All the great little bits that they keep throwing in - from high-quality animation that they sweat and sweat until it’s perfect, to Sondheim-homage musical numbers, to outright references to things only adults will get - are basically the Studio B staff just entertaining themselves rather than anyone in the audience. Jayson said that what makes this show so great is the result of a million little wonderful surprises, occasions where someone assigned to some task just comes back with something that goes way above and beyond the expectation and throws everything into a whole new and awesome light; and all those things sequenced together inevitably ended up making the whole show just that awesome. Hasbro giving them a very loose rein and generally a policy of why the hell not? was what brought it all together. Case in point: Discord. Discord was a character straight off Lauren’s pen, because apparently she’d been binging on Trek:TNG lately at the time that script got written. She decided to play him just like Q, because why the hell not? She’d originally planned to have Discord voiced by a de Lancie soundalike; but then during one of the meetings, someone (Jayson said it might well have been him) just said, Why don’t we just try to get the real guy? Sure it cost money, but Hasbro said why the hell not? And John was free, and he was game, so there’s our Discord. Why the hell not?

    So as to who they’re performing for, it’s not us, it’s not 6-year-old kids, it’s themselves. They’re just doing what they think makes the show as great as they can, to entertain each other as best they know how. In other words, the creative team on this show really is just having that much fun making it. Best thing I could ever have heard.

  11. Which is a tremendous relief - thank Celestia it’s not yet another series set in high school! I regard being set in high school as adequate reason to ignore the other MLP series entirely. It’s telling that anything set in school then does its best to omit all the school parts, instead focusing on after-school clubs or graduations ie. the only parts of school where one temporarily or permanently escapes from it. (In-series, the Cutie Mark Crusaders appear to be full-time elementary school students; so naturally, we hardly ever seen them in school.)

    Friendship is Complicated’s exploration of the relationship between Friendship is Magic and Equestria Girls vindicates my prejudices here. If I had daughters, I would encourage them to watch FiM and strictly ban narcissistic negative-sum poison like Equestria Girls or Frozen.

  12. Samuel Johnson again, The Adventurer #111

  13. Something I realized only while writing this review: the MLP OP barely changes for like 6 seasons, and then is completely revamped to feature the friendship university & all the new characters & changes in old characters. One of the only things it keeps from the original opening is the first shot, of (unicorn) Twilight & (non-flying) Spike descending to Ponyville in their balloon, by themselves, presumably at the start of the series. This has to be a deliberate choice to emphasize before/after.

  14. This sort of subtle growth the viewer is left to realize for themselves has been deployed in other shonen series to good effect, for example, Hiromu Arakawa very gradually draws Edward taller over the course of Fullmetal Alchemist. I believe the Cutie Mark Crusaders also are gradually drawn larger, and I am suspicious that something similar is done in MLP with Twilight Sparkle getting physically bigger over time, and not just a single increase in size when she becomes an alicorn, but I’m not sure and would have to compare samples.

  15. As did, incidentally, one of the most memorable early Pokemon episodes, Bye Bye Butterfree.

  16. R.I.P. Golden Oak Library - gone but never forgotten. I have always imagined Paradise as a kind of treehouse-library, Borges should’ve said.

  17. One interesting thing about MLP is that the staff is quite active on Twitter and often answer questions; apparently some of these more head-scratching episodes were not deliberate but are simply mistakes in the writing process where the episode was being edited in development and there wasn’t any time to fix the internal contradictions & make it make sense.

  18. But, interestingly, they may be little more mentally ill than, say, anime fans in general: A Brief Report on the Prevalence of Self-Reported Mood Disorders, Anxiety Disorders, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorder in Anime, Brony, and Furry Fandoms, Reysen et al 2018.

  19. For more background on the DAICON films, see Takeda’s 2002 The Notenki Memoirs.

  20. See also Musou Kakyou: A Summer Day’s Dream (video).

  21. Imagine there’s no heaven / It’s easy if you try / No hell below us / Above us only sky / Imagine all the people living for today…

  22. As Gene Wolfe puts it about symbols and ideologies in The Citadel of the Autarch: When a client is driven to the utmost extremity, it is warmth and food and ease from pain he wants. Peace and justice come afterward. Rain symbolizes mercy and sunlight charity, but rain and sunlight are better than mercy and charity. Otherwise they would degrade the things they symbolize.

  23. 2002 interview with Gene Wolfe on Neil Gaiman, at the 28th World Fantasy Convention in Minneapolis, by Joseph McCabe; from pg274-281 of Hanging Out With The Dream King: Conversations With Neil Gaiman And His Collaborators, 2004, ISBN: 1-56097-617-9.

  24. Czesław Miłosz, from Throughout Our Lands.

  25. I enjoyed the first Iron Will episode in part because it turns out to be a twist on the classic Greek Paradox of the Court. So Iron Will trains you to be more assertive, and if afterwards you decide not to, you don’t have to pay his fee. But of course, an unassertive person would simply pay his fee, and only an assertive person would be able to assert their right to a full refund; so if you decide to not pay his fee and argue with Iron Will, don’t you thereby prove you owe him his fee?

    Of course, it’s not strictly paradoxical, since he worded it as 100% satisfaction guaranteed, not actually conditional on being assertive. The only person that can decide if they are fully satisfied is the person, and Fluttershy can legally refuse to pay. So it’s more a case of perverse incentives: Iron Will says nopony has ever refused to pay, which implies that (despite Fluttershy’s success in becoming assertive) Iron Will’s self-help techniques are useless (or else the newly-assertive ponies would all refuse to pay and he would go bankrupt). So the paradoxical aspect becomes that the game-theoretical observation that this particular guarantee is the one guarantee Iron Will should never make!

    Iron Will, incidentally, returns after ~5 seasons; when his cruise airship scheme is uncovered, he says, Iron Will learned his lesson from last time - satisfaction not guaranteed! and jumps over the side. The escape parachute has an illustration of Iron Will sitting on a pile of gold coins. Best friendship lesson ever?

  26. One might expect me to rank Discord higher. But the problem with Discord is that, as enjoyable as the visual humor & animation & voice-acting is, and as key a role as he plays, he is often poorly served by the writers. Harmony (speak it with a Chinese accent) can degrade into complacency, coercion, and finally corruption. Discord, pace Peterson, is a force of Chaos which then causes growth & novelty, shaking up the stasis of the status quo and creating or adapting to a new reality. Written well, Discord stirs up trouble and new challenges, which may appear bad to the characters but are actually tough love & eventually work out for the best. Written poorly, he is an overpowered super-toddler. An example of that is his introduction in the season 2 opening: by far the worst and laziest season opening, it blows its opportunity to show Discord’s positive aspect by separating & exploiting the Mane Six’s weak points and forcing them to overcome them in order to defeat him, and instead simply hand-waves Discord as brainwashing them. A total deus ex machina, which is then negated by a second deus ex machina! Another lowlight of Discord episodes is the lame A Matter of Principals where Discord’s motivation is ludicrous, he spends the episode being a petulant nuisance endangering students’ lives, and his setup accomplishes nothing.

  27. Note if you can’t quite put your finger on why this sounds familiar: it’s a homage to Bad Boys. Hearts Strong as Horses, incidentally, is loosely inspired by Eye of the Tiger (and Sweet is a remix of that).