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, music, insight-porn
2018-10-242020-11-30 finished certainty: highly likely importance: 3


I watch the 2010 West­ern an­i­mated se­ries My Lit­tle Pony: Friend­ship is Magic (sea­sons 1–9), delv­ing deep into it and the MLP fan­dom, and re­flect on it. What makes it good and pow­ers its fan­dom sub­cul­ture, pro­duc­ing a wide ar­ray of fan­fic­tions, mu­sic, and art? Fo­cus­ing on fan­dom, plot, de­vel­op­ment, and mean­ing of brony­dom, I con­clude that, among other things, it has sur­pris­ingly high­-qual­ity pro­duc­tion & aes­thet­ics which are eas­ily adapted to fan­dom and which power a West­ern­ized shonen ani­me—which de­picts an un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated plau­si­bly-con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ist utopian per­spec­tive on self­-ac­tu­al­iza­tion, rem­i­nis­cent of other more ex­plic­itly self­-help-ori­ented pop cul­ture move­ments such as the re­cent Jor­dan B. Pe­ter­son move­ment. In­cluded are my per­sonal rank­ings of char­ac­ters, sea­sons, episodes, and offi­cial & fan mu­sic.

Many years back, in my cor­ner of the In­ter­net, in one of those un­pre­dictable pop cul­ture mu­ta­tions, small pas­tel horses be­gan show­ing up. I was­n’t too into Amer­i­can an­i­ma­tion like (TVTropes), how­ever pop­u­lar in part be­cause I find that Amer­i­can shows tend to be too stu­pid and too ugly to watch1 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 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 , 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 -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 sea­son2.) 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 3/, the se­ries makes a virtue of ne­ces­sity and takes a ‘less is more’ 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 . (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- that .) Like / be­fore it, MLP ben­e­fits from a re­mark­able range of catchy Broad­way-mu­si­cal-in­flected songs from which fused plot & mu­si­cal videos (“PMVs”?) to el­e­vate the merely good to un­for­get­table. In­gram does song after mem­o­rable song in the first five sea­sons4, even deftly man­ag­ing sev­eral 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?56

Fandom

“First we can’t be­lieve this show is so good, then we can’t be­lieve we’ve be­come fans for life, then we can’t be­lieve we’re walk­ing down the pink aisle at Toys R Us or ask­ing for the girl’s toy in our Happy Meal. Then we can’t be­lieve our friends haven’t seen it yet, then we can’t be­lieve they’re be­com­ing bronies too.”

Luke Allen, 2011

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” crossover7), 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 or 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!8910

There’s an­other in­ter­est­ing com­par­i­son with Touhou: Touhou has an enor­mous mu­sic fan­dom, which draws on the offi­cial sound­tracks for their core melodies. What I find in­ter­est­ing about the Touhou mu­sic fan­dom, as well as mu­sic and clas­si­cal court and (Mil­stein 2007) and Dun­geons & Drag­ons, is the jaz­z-like self­-ref­er­en­tial­ity of their : in the ab­sence of copy­right cre­at­ing a , each com­mu­nity builds up a ‘canon’ of works which can be end­lessly al­luded to, ex­tend­ed, and remixed, with the goal be­ing less nov­elty than ex­press­ing the essence in a new way or slightly bet­ter than be­fore; with oc­ca­sional novel cre­ations ex­pand­ing the canon and pro­vid­ing new el­e­ments to riff off of. Like fan­fic­tion, this lets peo­ple spe­cial­ize in their strengths (such as pi­ano per­for­mance but not com­po­si­tion) and pro­vides in­creas­ing depth as one un­der­stands all the al­lu­sions and can ap­pre­ci­ate an im­prove­ment or twist, all with­out the dead­weight losses of copy­right. The canon does not nec­es­sar­ily need to be it­self great (eg many of the po­ems in the are crude or had be­come nigh-un­read­able even by the Heian er­a), but just needs to pro­vide a good start­ing point. The vi­tal­ity of those scenes is strik­ing par­tic­u­larly when com­pared to other fan­doms which are far larg­er; in an­i­ma­tion-re­lated fan­doms, or musume/ and fran­chises like , , , or , num­ber vastly more fans and pro­duce cor­re­spond­ing floods of in­di­vid­ual pieces of fa­nart, but while some ini­tially seem to be cre­at­ing Touhou-like move­ments (Kan­tai Col­lec­tion even drew away long­time Touhou mu­sic cir­cles), they never en­dure, and the fan pro­duc­tions amount to less than their sum, with no feed­back from fan to offi­cial work.

In the case of Touhou mu­sic, 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.11 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 an­tholo­gies12, Eques­tria Daily mu­sic se­lec­tions, & /r/MLPTunes, the to­tal pales in com­par­i­son to Touhou, which rou­tinely gets thou­sands of new pieces of mu­sic each or Re­itai­sai con­ven­tion of which there are 3 a year in ad­di­tion to more mi­nor con­ven­tions, has per­haps mil­lions of to­tal tracks on , 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 en­cour­ag­ing a fan to copy & mod­ify it. Leav­ing things in­com­plete, as John Hop­field ob­served of his early neural net­work re­search on , “In hind­sight, the omis­sion of the al­most ob­vi­ous prob­a­bly in­creased the im­pact of the pa­per. The un­stated be­came an in­vi­ta­tion for oth­ers to add to the sub­ject, and thus en­cour­aged a com­mu­nity of con­trib­u­tors”. 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.13 (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 hard-line, 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 long-s­tand­ing 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 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.14 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 , typ­i­cally in­clud­ing the tale of 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 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 ar­got15 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)

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

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

“Is it so small a thing
To have en­joy’d the sun,
To have lived light in the spring,
To have loved, to have thought, to have done;
To have ad­vanced true friends, and beat down baffling foes…”

, “Empe­do­cles on Etna”

“‘The sit­u­a­tion is ex­ceed­ingly diffi­cult’, said at a briefing dis­cussing the re­sults on Mon­day. ‘Our uni­corns have fallen into this sud­den coro­n­avirus ravine. But some of them will use this cri­sis to grow wings.’”

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 & than .16

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. To quote the leaked 2009 “show bible” (pro­pos­al?) for “My Lit­tle Pony Ad­ven­tures”:

…all too often the worlds cre­ated for girl prop­er­ties are left vague, am­bigu­ous, and gener­ic. But I do not think this has to be so. A girl world can be set up in the same man­ner, it is the in­ten­tions that must be differ­ent.

Rather than set the stage for epic, dra­matic ad­ven­ture sto­ries like the ex­am­ples above [“Trans­form­ers and G.I. Joe”], a girl world should set the stage for friend­ship, heart and laugh­ter as well as ad­ven­ture—ad­ven­ture that is more fun and ex­cit­ing than dra­matic and epic, but ad­ven­ture nonethe­less. With only that al­ter­nate in­ten­tion, the same strong his­to­ry, mythol­o­gy, back story and even the al­ter­nate logic and physics of an al­ter­nate world will serve the same pur­pose to en­dear you to the char­ac­ters and make the sto­ries mem­o­rable.

…Our ponies, though in­de­pen­dent, have the emo­tional range of any­where be­tween 10 and 15, with most seem­ing about 12…Sec­ondary Au­di­encesBoys (be­lieve it or not). They won’t ad­mit it, but they’ll watch. When their sis­ter’s watch­ing it, they’ll balk and act like it’s dumb, then they’ll sit down and watch it. For the same rea­son Moms will find My Lit­tle Pony in­ter­est­ing enough to hap­pily share with their daugh­ters, the com­pelling con­flicts, the strong char­ac­ter­i­za­tions, the silly hu­mor and (most im­por­tantly for boys) the ADVENTURE, the boys will watch, too. Re­al­ly. Moms. We’ve got a few good points go­ing for us when it comes to Moms. First, the orig­i­nal buy­ers of My Lit­tle Ponies are in their late twen­ties to mid-thir­ties and are likely to have daugh­ters within the tar­get age range, 3–11. Bring­ing back el­e­ments of the orig­i­nal ponies from the 80’s (o­rig­i­nal char­ac­ters like Ap­ple­jack17 and Spike, strong sense of clas­si­cal magic like Dream Cas­tle and the Wa­ter­fall, and a pinch of le­git­i­mate pony play) will nur­ture a sense of nos­tal­gia, some­thing that is not diffi­cult to do with Gen-X-ers. Sec­ond, com­pelling sto­ry­lines (ie. truly en­gag­ing con­flicts, both ex­ter­nal ad­ven­ture- and in­ter­nal re­la­tion­ship­s), char­ac­ters with depth and com­plex­i­ty, clever and silly hu­mor that does­n’t talk down to kids (pony puns like Fil­ly­del­phia, a reg­u­lar sup­ply of slap­stick and char­ac­ter-based jokes and gags) and even a few jokes that might go over the kids’ heads will all en­gage Mom enough that watch­ing My Lit­tle Pony will be­come a fun thing for Mom to do with her daugh­ter. Not only will Mom be shar­ing her fa­vorite child­hood toy with her lit­tle girl, but she may ac­tu­ally en­joy watch­ing too!

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.”— and then it moves on to “plague and famine, more famine, slav­ery, mind con­trol, plague again, more mind con­trol, recre­ational in­fan­ti­cide, and slav­ery again.” (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—“”—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 starts18; this is ex­cel­lent, a re­minder that school is only a tran­si­tion to real life, , 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 es­teem”

Samuel John­son again, “The Ad­ven­turer” #111

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.19 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 & back20; 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 ? 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 show 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 -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 an­i­ma­tion21! 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.22 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?)23 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). The down­side to the later sea­sons is that while over­all plot­ting gen­er­ally im­proves, in­di­vid­ual episodes re­main locked into a plot par­a­digm which man­dates a con­flict which can be re­solved by the end of an episode, often forc­ing char­ac­ters to regress into mis­takes they’d pre­vi­ously over­come (to such an ex­tent it is lamp­shaded in “Fame and Mis­for­tune”); even shonen anime will take breaks from such a pre­dictable set of beats and en­gage in some world­build­ing or iyashikei.24

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”

Transcen­dence.

This is all well and good, but where do the bronies come in? The bronies, I think, are an ex­pres­sion of a . 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 males25, 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 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 , 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 . re­marks () of the fan-film’s end­ing26:

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. , 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 end­lessly27 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 after­life28. My Na­tion­al­ist Pony (“My Na­tion­al­ist Pony: An In­ter­view with But­ter­cup Dew”) makes some good points in his analy­ses of MLP analy­ses (eg “Friend­ship is Tran­scen­dence”/“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.29 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 egal­i­tar­i­an­ism, 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 ap­peals to a sim­i­lar de­mo­graphic as MLP, or that he con­veys a sim­i­lar mes­sage in his books like 12 Rules for Life (see also Pe­ter­son 2008)? 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: “I’m sorry”. “I was wrong.” “I can’t do this any longer.” Say­ing that it’s “too late” or that “a leop­ard can’t change its spots” is an ab­di­ca­tion of free­dom and per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­i­ty; when there is a choice to which one has al­ways said “no” be­fore, the next time, one can say “yes”. 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, will not, choose to stop be­ing Volde­mort and be­come only Tom Rid­dle again; that is when he is truly damned and the end of his sto­ry. was asked once what he thought lit­er­a­ture should do. He said30:

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 ], for ex­am­ple. The differ­ence be­tween Silk as an au­gur and Silk as calde [in ]. 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. 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’.”31 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 se­cretly 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 & songs & 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 sin­cer­ity is a frag­ile flow­er, which with­ers un­der the gaze of the cyn­i­cal, snob­bish, and weary, and can only pen­e­trate our ar­mor by adopt­ing a new guise for every gen­er­a­tion. 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.32

Thank you, In­gram; good bye, Faust. 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 Will33
  4. Dis­cord34
  5. Trixie

Seasons

Episodes:

Sea­sons:

Music


  1. Like (though I pre­sum­ably have a high enough IQ to ap­pre­ci­ate its hu­mor); I don’t de­mand KyoAni or lev­els of an­i­ma­tion for every­thing I watch, but Amer­i­can shows seem to pos­i­tively as­pire to ug­li­ness.↩︎

  2. 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. 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, al­though fur­ther leaks have made me con­cerned about the pos­si­ble MLP:FiM se­quel as they sug­gest the cur­rent staff re­ally does­n’t “get it” and char­ac­ter­s/­traits like . Ul­ti­mate­ly, sea­son 9 dis­ap­pointed my hopes in this re­spect: while over­all OK, the other coun­tries/species played only to­ken roles, and the fi­nal sea­son was un­am­bi­tious.↩︎

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

  4. For a quick overview, see Ex­i­ark’s “The Essence of Be­ing A Pony” remix (and the later “Sec­ond Hoof Med­ley”).↩︎

  5. A les­son I draw from MLP and other ex­am­ples: 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 (in Alzheimer’s pa­tients, after in­tel­li­gence, skills, one’s loved ones, and all mem­ory is gone, songs yet re­main).

    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.↩︎

  6. Du­plex­Fields an­swers no:

    I was there in the MLP thread on 4chan/co the evening Daniel In­gram ac­ci­den­tally left a song for an up­com­ing episode un­locked on his YouTube chan­nel: “Win­ter Wrap-up.” The qual­ity of the song and an­i­ma­tion, the co­or­di­na­tion be­tween an­i­ma­tion and char­ac­ter work, all in just four min­utes, was the per­fect teaser we could show our friends so they would­n’t have to sac­ri­fice time to watch an en­tire episode.

    It also sparked end­less dis­cus­sion: Why could­n’t Twi­light Sparkle, mage ex­tra­or­di­naire and doc­tor­ate stu­dent in the thau­mat­a­log­i­cal arts, use her mag­ic? Had she lost the abil­i­ty? Was it re­stricted by law? Why did­n’t the sea­sons work on their own? Was their world a post-apoc­a­lyp­tic par­adise where the ma­chin­ery of the cos­mos was stuck on “man­ual” by some pre­vi­ous er­a’s war?

    It was the first leak from the stu­dio, and it was­n’t the last; Flash char­ac­ter pup­pets and en­tire episodes would end up leaked through the run of the se­ries, and even a gi­ga­bytes-large copy­right-bust­ing work prod­uct leak dur­ing the fi­nal sea­son.

    It helped us re­al­ize that the show was as much a work of love as it was a toy com­mer­cial, from the voice ac­tresses tak­ing mul­ti­ple parts like an old-timey ra­dio show, to the an­i­ma­tors and in­be­tween­ers push­ing Adobe Flash to the very lim­its, to the writ­ers putting horse puns in every cor­ner of the script while mak­ing a co­he­sive high­-fan­tasy / low-fan­tasy uni­verse, to the team at Has­bro that re­al­ized they were on a buck­ing bronco of a cul­tural phe­nom­e­non and gave un­prece­dented free rein to the cre­ative team.

    I’ve never been a part of some­thing so much larger than my­self be­fore. 2010–2013 was an amaz­ing time, and “Win­ter Wrap-Up” was a huge part of mak­ing it hap­pen.

    ↩︎
  7. 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.↩︎

  8. Even if the in­vi­ta­tion could be best de­scribed as a kind of ; from the talk “Rid­ing on Fans’ En­er­gy: Touhou, Fan Cul­ture, and Grass­root En­ter­tain­ment”

    Touhou also mo­ti­vates fans to cre­ate be­cause it has se­ri­ous flaws: knows how to cre­ate won­der­ful char­ac­ters, yet his draw­ings leaves much to be de­sired. If Touhou were a com­mer­cial en­deav­or, none of his draw­ing would ap­pear in it, but ZUN has kept the Touhou games as am­a­teur works from the start. Fans are frus­trated with the draw­ing style, so they take upon them­selves to beau­tify ZUN’s draw­ing. A large amount of fa­narts that are ‘bet­ter than the real thing’ fol­lows. Iron­i­cal­ly, many fans (my­self in­clud­ed) are at­tracted to Touhou be­cause of these sec­ondary art­works.

    I sur­mise that the same rea­sons ex­plain why Touhou ap­peals to mu­sic lis­ten­ers. ZUN’s mu­sic are im­per­fect: while they con­tain many catchy mo­tifs, they don’t sound har­mo­nious and can be arranged bet­ter. Again, be­cause they can be im­proved and have many good parts, Touhou mu­sics be­came pop­u­lar among remix­ers. Some groups such as dBu mu­sic re­pub­lish ZUN’s com­po­si­tions song by song, chang­ing only the MIDI in­stru­ments. Other groups would arrange the mu­sics into differ­ent styles (such as Jaz­z), re­com­bine mo­tifs them to make new mu­sics, or add lyrics. These mu­si­cal arrange­ments seem to be the most effec­tive ad­ver­tise­ment for the Touhou se­ries nowa­days. Many over­sea fans dis­cov­ered Touhou through a flash video clip used to pro­mote ‘Marisa ga Tai­hen na Mono wo Nusun­deiki­mashita’, an arrange­ment of Al­ice Mar­ga­troid’s theme by IOSYS. Touhou mu­sics are also widely used to make MAD movies in . Pop­u­lar songs such as ‘U.N. Owen ha Kanojo nanoka?’ and ‘Na­tive Faith’ would have hun­dreds of MAD videos un­der their belts.

    ↩︎
  9. Con­tin­ued:

    …It is in­ter­est­ing to note that, in the case of or , the cre­ators cre­ated deep and con­sis­tent worlds so that view­ers can be ab­sorbed in un­cov­er­ing the de­tails. [16] Gen­souky­ou, how­ev­er, is a shal­low and in­con­sis­tent com­po­si­tion. It sit­u­ates in a moun­tain in Japan, yet there are Eu­ro­pean vam­pires liv­ing in it. ‘I like to put west­ern things in there be­cause it’s “East­ern”, hehe,’ said ZUN. [17] Al­so, the cul­ture of Gen­soukyou is that of 19th cen­tu­ry’s Japan, but all Touhou games take place in the years they are re­leased. For this, ZUN com­mented that ‘Well, I live in mod­ern times, so it makes it much eas­i­er. And I get to in­clude things like rock­ets. If I had a set­ting in the past, I’d have to study a lot of his­to­ry.’ [18] More­over, the Hakurei Bor­der that sep­a­rates Gen­soukyou from the out­side world is porous, al­low­ing peo­ple and ob­jects from mod­ern Japan to go in. In fact, the de­mon con­trol­ling the bound­ary even knows how to use iPod! It’s clear that ZUN chooses to make a mal­leable world rather than a con­sis­tent world so that he can keep mak­ing new Touhou games eas­i­ly. While this choice de­ters fans form de­ci­pher­ing the world, it en­cour­ages fans to cre­ate their own sto­ries be­cause noth­ing in Gen­soukyou is sa­cred and a lot can still be added to it. The large amount of dou­jin­shi ac­count­ing daily lives of Touhou char­ac­ters is a proof of this ten­den­cy.

    ↩︎
  10. John Car­mack notes the ben­e­fits of crum­mi­ness in early com­puter games:

    The value of a medium with­out a vast gulf be­tween the early work and the fi­nal work is ex­em­pli­fied in . The orig­i­nal game was a golden age for mods, be­cause every­thing was very flex­i­ble, but so crude due to tech­ni­cal lim­i­ta­tions, that quick hacks to try out a game­play idea weren’t all that far from the offi­cial game. Many ca­reers were born from that, but as the com­mer­cial game qual­ity im­proved over the years, it be­came al­most a full time job to make a suc­cess­ful mod that would be ap­pre­ci­ated by the com­mu­ni­ty. This was dra­mat­i­cally re­versed with and later , where the en­tire es­thetic of the ex­pe­ri­ence was so ex­plic­itly crude that in­no­v­a­tive game­play con­cepts be­came the over­rid­ing val­ue. These “crude” game mods by sin­gle au­thors are now often big­ger deals than mas­sive pro­fes­sional teams’ work.

    This spirit was pre­served in Flash games.↩︎

  11. 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.↩︎

  12. 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, and more re­cent­ly, the A State of Sugar an­tholo­gies.↩︎

  13. Such an effect would be coun­ter­in­tu­itive. Usu­al­ly, one would think that im­per­fec­tions and flaws merely in­spire con­tempt. Ni­et­zsche, for ex­am­ple, in Hu­man, All Too Hu­man:

    It is clear that men only speak of ge­nius where the work­ings of a great in­tel­lect are most agree­able to them and they have no de­sire to feel en­vi­ous. To call any one “di­vine” is as much as say­ing “here we have no oc­ca­sion for ri­val­ry.” Thus it is that every­thing com­pleted and per­fect is stared at, and every­thing in­com­plete is un­der­val­ued. Now no­body can see how the work of an artist has de­vel­oped; that is its ad­van­tage, for every­thing of which the de­vel­op­ment is seen is looked on coldly The per­fected art of rep­re­sen­ta­tion pre­cludes all thought of its de­vel­op­ment, it tyr­an­nizes as present per­fec­tion. For this rea­son artists of rep­re­sen­ta­tion are es­pe­cially held to be pos­sess of ge­nius, but not sci­en­tific men. In re­al­i­ty, how­ev­er, the for­mer val­u­a­tion and the lat­ter un­der­-val­u­a­tion are only pueril­i­ties of rea­son.

    To fail to see the ap­peal of the evolved & im­per­fect is to be blind en­tirely to .↩︎

  14. 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.

    ↩︎
  15. “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.”↩︎

  16. Al­though an even more apt com­par­i­son might be with the orig­i­nal inas­much as both MLP:FiM & MSG were in­tended to be ex­tended toy com­mer­cials for young chil­dren but thanks to a strong vi­sion (from & 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 lately at the time that script got writ­ten. She de­cided to play him just like , be­cause why the hell not? She’d orig­i­nally planned to have Dis­cord voiced by a 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.

    ↩︎
  17. In­ci­den­tal­ly, is­n’t “Ap­ple­jack” a cu­ri­ous name, given that (un­like “cider” in Amer­i­can Eng­lish) is in­her­ently al­co­holic? (The “jack­ing” refers to freeze dis­til­la­tion, so there can be no such thing as a non-al­co­holic ap­ple­jack.) I was cu­ri­ous what ap­ple­jack might taste like and be­gan look­ing, and found noth­ing eas­ily avail­able; my cousin who dab­bles in all things fer­mented spec­u­lated that the freeze dis­till­ing process leaves in un­de­sir­able al­co­hols com­pared to nor­mal dis­til­la­tion or fer­ment­ing, and this dis­cour­aged com­mer­cial avail­abil­i­ty, but an ac­quain­tance was able to ob­tain some real ap­ple­jack and it seems the real rea­son is merely ob­scu­ri­ty. He de­scribed the ap­ple­jack as tast­ing much like a whiskey, and that is not ap­peal­ing to me. In­stead, I hap­pened across “”, which is much more to my lik­ing—I’d de­scribe it as much like an ap­ple brandy.↩︎

  18. 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 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.↩︎

  19. 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.↩︎

  20. 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 . 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.↩︎

  21. As did, in­ci­den­tal­ly, one of the most mem­o­rable early Poke­mon episodes, “Bye Bye But­ter­free”.↩︎

  22. 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.↩︎

  23. 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.↩︎

  24. The ab­sence of any­thing you could call iyashikei is par­tic­u­larly strik­ing in MLP: what could be more fit­ting?↩︎

  25. 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.↩︎

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

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

  28. “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…”↩︎

  29. As Gene Wolfe puts it about sym­bols and ide­olo­gies in : “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.”↩︎

  30. 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.↩︎

  31. I was un­able to trace this quote back be­yond the 1980s, and it may be apoc­ryphal.↩︎

  32. , from “Through­out Our Lands”.↩︎

  33. I en­joyed the first Iron Will episode in part be­cause it turns out to be a twist on the clas­sic Greek . 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?↩︎

  34. 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” (say it with a Chi­nese ac­cent) can de­grade into com­pla­cen­cy, co­er­cion, cor­rup­tion, and fi­nal­ly, ces­sa­tion. “Dis­cord”, pace Jor­dan 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—­con­flict, cul­ti­va­tion, cul­ture, and cre­ation. 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 in the way of growth.↩︎

  35. In­cluded mostly for my mem­o­ries of the cherry fac­tory scene. I had idly spec­u­lated that if MLP:FiM func­tioned as so­cial skills train­ing for in­tro­verted geeks and claims about work­ing through cre­at­ing neural plas­tic­ity (), then surely it would be even more effec­tive to watch MLP while on LSD? I was ad­vised this was not a great idea be­cause MLP is too in­tense, so I had to try. I found that—at least “The Last Roundup”, with its un­usual mys­tery & de­gree of neg­a­tive emo­tion­s—was en­tirely too bright­ly-col­ored, in­tense, and anx­ious to be pleas­ant, but also too slow-mov­ing to be com­pat­i­ble with the psy­che­delic ex­pe­ri­ence. Episodes would need to be con­densed to <10 min­utes to make a trip rea­son­ably ed­u­ca­tion­al.↩︎

  36. Note if you can’t quite put your fin­ger on why this sounds fa­mil­iar: it’s a homage to . “Hearts Strong as Horses”, in­ci­den­tal­ly, is loosely in­spired by “” (and “Sweet” is a remix of that).↩︎