While recent events have been a major downer on the state of the planet, I’d like to think there have been some good things to come out of it. Like many people cooped up in their homes, I began to reflect back on my younger years, to a time before we had to be serious about our personal space. There’s a lot of things we tend to leave behind when we grow up; fandoms are such a thing.
Even with the changing perceptions on gender conventions, the usual status quo is that boys should like boy things and girls should like girl things. As a boy myself, I can confirm that I did NOT follow this rule in its entirety. Most of my favorite things at the time were indeed male-oriented, but one could claim that most of my tastes were “soft.” I was more of a Mario or Kirby guy instead of a Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto enthusiast. I preferred to listen to upbeat techno instead of hardcore rap or rock. And while people my age were trying to establish their maturity by keeping up with “cool and edgy” entertainment, I was scouring Netflix and YouTube for a decidedly less male-centric kind of fix. Lo and behold, I stumbled upon My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic while browsing Netflix’s catalog.
My Little Pony was, for it’s time, a fandom oddity. While it was targeted towards young girls, early positive reception caused the demographic to be encompassed by a sizable amount of grown adult males. What’s more, the show sparked an impressive creative scene amongst the fandom’s talent, which would continue to thrive throughout the fandom’s prime. So, while we’re in the month of love, I’d like to give some love back to the fourth generation of My Little Pony and the wild fandom it created.
Which begins with the obvious question: how did it all get started?
Welcome To Ponyville
Roughly 30 years before the ponies as we know them today would take the world by storm, My Little Pony started out as the toy line My Pretty Pony, the brainchild of one Bonnie Zacherle, who was inspired by her love of ponies as a child. While her original pitches for horse toys were shot down by Hasbro, the suggestion of a “pony” toy was eventually greenlit. Unlike their eventual first-generation counterparts, the My Pretty Pony toys were roughly double the height, made of hard plastic, and had a bit more functionality to them than just being a combable toy. During the timeframe between My Pretty Pony and the first generation of My Little Pony, Zacherle intended for the toys to be realistically colored, gender-neutral, and pertaining to preschoolers. An intervention, courtesy of Zacherle’s marketing director, would lead to the technicolored girl-appealing ponies the franchise would be remembered for.
The first generation of My Little Pony toys were released officially in 1983 (some toys were produced in 1982, before the legal proceedings were finalized). The ponies stood at 5 to 6 inches, with combable hair and a much softer body composition of vinyl. During the first generation’s run from 1983 to 1992, My Little Pony would also enter the big and small screens. It’s first television special, later rebranded as Rescue at Midnight Castle, released in April 1984, with the second special Escape from Catrina following in March 1985. The feature film, animated with the help of Marvel Productions (yes, THAT Marvel), with voice talent such as Cloris Leachman, Rhea Perlman, and Danny DeVito (no, seriously), was released in June 1986. It was panned by critics, but it did manage to make a profit. The My Little Pony n’ Friends show premiered in September 1986, and ran for 60 episodes across two seasons. A second series, My Little Pony Tales, debuted in 1992, and took a more slice of life angle by greatly reducing the more fantastical elements.
The second generation was not as well known, or well-received. Running from 1997 to 2003, the ponies were skinnier than their predecessors and not as popular among collectors. The second generation is also the only generation to not have its characters appear in television or film, though they could be found in one computer game. The third generation wisely chose to return to a style reminiscent of the first generation. As for a television presence, this generation relied primarily on direct-to-DVD specials and shorts. Following a series of soft reboots in the intermediary years, the fourth generation of My Little Pony would premiere in 2010.
Taking inspiration from her time playing with the earlier generations of the ponies as a kid, Lauren Faust initially led the charge to create a new show for the next generation of My Little Pony, after apparently being asked to do so spontaneously during meetings in 2008. Faust, as a child, was fond of the toys, but never the various series, and used this in her bid to create a show with three-dimensional characters and a more well-rounded plot space compared to other shows made for girls. Although she went from executive producer to consulting producer with the show’s second season, and would leave the show entirely by the third season, I’d say that Faust greatly succeeded.
My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic follows the adventures of Twilight Sparkle, a prodigious unicorn, along with the disciple of Princess Celestia, and her group of friends: the hard-working earth pony Applejack, the quiet but caring pegasus Fluttershy, the spontaneous party-loving earth pony Pinkie Pie, the fashionista unicorn Rarity, and the daredevil pegasus Rainbow Dash, as well as Twilight’s young dragon assistant, Spike. After being sent to Ponyville and vanquishing the evil Nightmare Moon, Twilight takes up permanent residence in order to study the magic of friendship alongside her friends, and report her findings back to Princess Celestia. Throughout the series, the main group would encounter various challenges in their daily lives, from low stakes slice-of-life escapades, to larger than life magical threats.
The series was a major success, more so than anyone would reasonably predict at the time, and it’s arguably the most influential entry of the franchise to date. It spanned a total of nine seasons from 2010 to 2019, including a holiday special, a television special, and it’s own 2017-released feature film. The fourth generation would go on to make way for a human-centric spinoff, Equestria Girls, which reimagined the pony characters as human teenagers within a high school setting, albeit one where Equestrian magic occasionally crosses over. The spin-off would include four direct-to-DVD films, six specials, and a web series of shorts. In between the fourth and inevitable fifth generation, the absurdist comedy spin-off Pony Life debuted in 2020, running for two seasons. The fifth generation of My Little Pony, which debuted with the 2021 film My Little Pony: A New Generation, takes place in the distant future of generation four. The latest generation is expected to be followed by a spring Netflix special in 2022, with a proper series following in fall of the same year.
Though we could talk about the series all day, it’s important to note one of the series’ more notable aspects: it’s fandom.
Our (Not So) Little Bronies
If you’ve had any exposure to the recent My Little Pony fandom, you’ve likely heard the term brony thrown around (or pegasister if you’re referring to the opposite sex). Oddly enough, the first wave of bronies came from the birthplace of several spontaneous acts of kindness, morally questionable and terrifying actions, rickrolling, the hacker group Anonymous, and even the SCP Foundation: 4chan. I swear I’m just as confused as you are.
In response to an alarmist article decrying My Little Pony’s status as a toy-driven show, which was written by “Cartoon Brew,” several members of 4chan’s comic and cartoon message board, /co/, were quick to taunt the piece, and others still decided to view the series’ first episode, either out of curiosity or to taunt it as well (4chan users aren’t often regarded for their hospitality). Instead, to the surprise of many, they found themselves actually liking the show. While on 4chan the war between the pony supporters and an onslaught of trolls eventually led to a temporary ban of any use of “pony” on the site, it wasn’t long before the brony phenomenon spread far beyond 4chan’s reach.
Of course, like any fandom, the brony community is far from perfect. Most of the problems originate from outside perception, as a large group of mostly 20-something males enjoying a cartoon meant for young girls is considered “weird,” at least according to Fox News, along with others. There are some internal issues with the community, however, they include gatekeepers trying to prevent the intended audience from enjoying the show, and the less said about “clopping” the better. Now having said that…
One of the major positive aspects of the fandom is actually it’s sense of inclusivity. The fandom regularly welcomes and encourages connections that bronies normally wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else, especially regarding their interest in the show. The creative side of the fandom is also impressive, with a plethora of fan-made art, animations, and songs inspired by the series. What’s more, the cast members of the show support the brony community at large. Lauren Faust had no expectation that so many men, let alone men without children, would enjoy the show so much, but seeing the brony community’s response towards it has made her “kinda proud”. Tara Strong, the voice actress for Twilight Sparkle, is one of the many cast members that has visited fan conventions, such as BronyCon. John de Lancie, a notorious actor and the voice of Discord, went so far as to create a documentary regarding the brony phenomenon.
The community has also impacted the show itself. Eagle-eyed viewers will notice various cameo ponies modeled after various icons of pop culture, from the old to the present day. Bronies have taken to assigning notable background characters names and even headcanon personality traits, including the pegasus Derpy Hooves/Muffins, the earth pony Doctor Hooves, the unicorn DJ Pon-3/Vinyl Scratch, and several others. These fandom quirks were highlighted best with the series’ 100th episode “Slice of Life,” which took the focus off the main characters and focused on several plot threads starring beloved background characters as they all ran around trying to prepare for the wedding of Matilda and Cranky Donkey.
Looking Into The Mirror Pool
So nostalgia trip aside, why bother remembering this series, or reflect on the fandom?
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic was a defining moment in pop culture, the amalgam of several decades’ worth of entertainment with plenty of heart thrown into the mix. Lauren Faust wanted the show to have a genuine depth to it, and the fact that people well outside of the show’s established demographic responded to that in a positive manner is an indicator of success. The show’s focus on not only being educational to an extent, but to also have it be engaging, complex, and in an odd sense, real, rewarded it with a genuine, dedicated fanbase in kind.
When John de Lancie took the role of Discord for the second season premiere, he put in the work and proceeded to forget about it for the next three months. Then, when the bronies got in contact with him, he realized that “little girls [weren’t the ones] writing [to him],” which intrigued him. He would go on to create the 2012 Kickstarter-funded documentary Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony, which discusses the brony phenomenon from several perspectives. De Lancie had previously worked on Star Trek in the role of Q, and he’d noted that Star Trek had the inverse yet similar scenario as My Little Pony: people beyond its intended demographic were enjoying it. In the case of Star Trek, the audience had a significant female presence in a show intended for men.
As the supposed Chinese curse goes, we are “[living] in interesting times.” Times like these require us to keep hope in the face of doubt, to continue living in spite of the hardship, and in spite of how hard it is especially regarding recent events and opinions, to trust one another. Friendship Is Magic is one such medium that shows us how we can bond and trust one another, and the fandom it created is an unironic mirror of that message, even with the caveats that come with any fandom.
It’s also a prime example of the quickly fading prominence of gender conventions. In a time where the LGBTQ+ community is growing in notoriety and people are slowly but surely learning to be unashamed about their passions (provided that they’re legal and morally sound), I don’t think any fandom has better encapsulated that genuineness compared to the brony community. Just… like what you want to like. If you enjoy it (and again, it’s not a moral issue), then go for it; don’t be ashamed about liking something just because it wasn’t “meant for you.”
Shows like My Little Pony were meant to be an escape. Why should the real world have a say on where you want to escape to?