4 Positive Countercultural Messages In ‘My Little Pony’

4 Positive Countercultural Messages In ‘My Little Pony’

‘My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic’ is a show miles better than it has any right to be.
David Breitenbeck
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“La la l’laa-la, la la l’laa-la…” Time for more adventures with the magical talking ponies of Equestria now that season seven started on April 15. “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” is a show miles better than it has any right to be.

I suppose I could say something about the fact that I’m a grown man who watches a show aimed at grade-school girls about pastel-colored ponies, but I don’t think I have to. Quality in just about any form deserves praise. As the Bible says, “examine all things and hold to what is good.”

Not only is FiM smartly written and hilarious, and features excellent characterization, but it sometimes even dares to offer up actual moral wisdom in place of tired Marxist shibboleths. The show mostly is about how people with starkly different personalities get along: a message it often presents with more maturity than many a more “adult” show.

Today, I’m going to look at what I think are four especially interesting examples. (Why four? Because there’s a word count limit.)

1. Preconceptions, Even When Negative, Can Have Worth

One of the best characters on the show is Luna, the Princess of the Night. She starts off as the villainous Nightmare Moon in the pilot episode, but after her defeat and redemption becomes a recurring heroic figure.

Her first appearance after the pilot has her trying to adjust to a world that is not only much different from the one she remembers (she was trapped in the moon for a thousand years; long story), but one in which she is basically the boogey man. Nightmare Night, the Equestrian equivalent of Halloween, is even based around placating her so she won’t gobble up young ponies.

Luna is understandably put off by this. She wants to be loved and admired, but the other ponies, especially goofball Pinkie Pie, constantly act afraid of her, and her odd, intimidating manners don’t help. She gets so offended that she threatens to eliminate the holiday.

But then, when Twilight (the show’s protagonist) finally catches Pinkie and tells her she doesn’t have to be afraid of Luna anymore, Pinkie cheerfully responds that she isn’t, really. It’s just being scared is part of the fun of Nightmare Night. Having the real-life Princess Luna there is like having Count Dracula show up to your Halloween party.

Then Twilight convinces Luna that, instead of trying to escape her spooky reputation, she should embrace it. As the reformed Princess of the Night, no one really knows how to take her. But as Nightmare Moon, the terrible mistress of darkness, she’s just an extra-special spooky attraction who makes the celebration that much cooler. Her willingness to play along makes her much more approachable.

We complain a lot about stereotypes, but I think most stereotypes are only harmful when applied indiscriminately to real-life people. But just in fun, or as part of a story, there’s nothing harmful about them. They’re part of our shared heritage and can serve as a link with different kinds of people. The incorrectly familiar is still familiar, but the unknown is simply unknown.

Embracing the horror-show version of herself instead of demanding to be accepted on her own terms gave Luna a connection with the other ponies, who then felt at least some familiarity with her and thus could relax in her presence, which allowed her to alter their preconceptions in a more organic and mutually respectful way.

That’s because whether someone’s ideas about you are accurate or even offensive is less important than whether they can actually talk to you, and you can’t talk to someone whose main topic of conversation is “Your ideas about me are wrong.”

2. Settlers and Natives Can Both Have Legitimate Claims

In a season one episode, the girls visit the western-style border town of Appleloosa, which they find in a tense standoff with the native buffalo population, who are angered the ponies have planted apple trees on their traditional stampeding grounds.

The buffalo point out that they were there first, and in most shows that would be enough to put them in the right. But the ponies answer back that, one, they need the apples to live, and that’s the only suitable ground for miles, two, they’ve already put a lot of work into the town and can’t be expected just to pack up and leave, and three, that the buffalo might have had the land, but they weren’t doing anything with it except running across it, while the ponies have brought civilization to the area. The buffalo answer that it was still their land, and the ponies never even asked if they could use it.

In other words, both sides have a legitimate claim. The situation is not a simple matter of “evil settlers, good natives” or “evil natives, good settlers”; it’s a complicated situation where both sides will have compromise (an attempt to settle it with a song about sharing backfires hilariously).

Most interestingly and daringly, the episode ends with the buffalo actually benefiting from the settlers’ presence, because they’ve brought advanced agricultural practices that were unknown to buffalo culture (pie-making).

3. Other People Don’t Have To Cater To Your Insecurities

One of the major overarching goals of the series is Rainbow Dash’s desire to join the Wonderbolts: a group of elite Pegasus ponies who function as a cross between the Blue Angels and the Civil Air Patrol. After six seasons of making steady progress, she finally achieves her goal in “Newbie Dash,” only to make a mistake the first day and find herself saddled with the same humiliating nickname that plagued her as a filly.

It’s not their responsibility to make sure Rainbow is always feeling comfortable. It’s her responsibility not to let her emotional baggage get in the way of doing her job.

Preoccupied with her humiliation, Rainbow tries increasingly desperate gambits to shed the name, culminating in a massive crash during a show. After apologizing and accepting the consequences of her behavior, Rainbow learns the others weren’t trying to insult her; in fact, they have enormous respect for her. The hazing is something they all go through; every one of them has an insulting nickname bestowed for screwing up something early in his or her career. It’s a mark of comradery, not cruelty, and helps keep them humble.

Moreover, it’s not their responsibility to make sure Rainbow is always feeling comfortable. It’s her responsibility not to let her emotional baggage get in the way of doing her job. She’s basically a top-of-the-line fighter pilot, so if she can’t handle a little hazing, she’s not going to last long.

Rainbow then recognizes she had been so focused on a minor, accidental reminder of her past that she’d missed she was living her dream and flying with her heroes. More than that, they wanted her to be there. What does putting up with a “triggering phrase” matter compared to that?

The people who talk about “micro-aggressions” could stand to learn something from this: that sometimes what is needed isn’t someone else to change behavior, but for you to change perspective. Rainbow’s victory comes, not in getting the other flyers to stop calling her names, but in learning to see it as the compliment it’s meant to be and to let go of her own baggage.

Had she thrown a fit and insisted they stop, it would have damaged her relationship with the team and probably caused her to lose her spot (who would want to fly with someone like that?). She would have sacrificed her lifelong dream for the sake of a little temporary emotional comfort. Fortunately, Rainbow’s a mature enough character to know that it wouldn’t be worth it.

4. The Best Way to Respect Other Cultures Is to Embrace Your Own

In one episode, Twilight decides to extend a diplomatic overture to the Yaks of Yakyakistan, who have not had any relations with the ponies of Equestria for hundreds of years. To make them feel at home, she tries to serve traditional Yak delicacies and showcase Yak culture.

But the Yaks are so sensitive they throw a fit whenever something is even slightly off. Their standards are also so impossibly high that Twilight has zero chance of pleasing them (“This not Yak snow!” “You’ve gotta be kidding me…”). So Pinkie, who is in charge of the Yakyakistan-style party planned for the climax of the visit, goes on a trip to their home country to find out how to make it authentic.

Celebrating your own culture sends the message that you understand how important such things are and that you share deeper values like respect for tradition.

In the end, she realizes the ponies have been going about it the wrong way: rather than trying to recreate Yak culture, she ends up throwing a celebration of pony culture, showcasing the best they have to offer and inviting the Yaks to experience it. Since the Yaks aren’t constantly comparing it to what they’re familiar with, they’re able to relax and have a good time, even rescinding their earlier declaration of war (cue look of shocked disapproval from Princess Celestia and a sheepish grin from Twilight).

Multiculturalism tends to be a very shallow practice, taking a little here and there from other cultures without either understanding them or, more importantly, giving thought to one’s own. Twilight’s much more careful about her multicultural experiment than most, yet she still gets it wrong because it simply isn’t her culture, and she’s never going to be able to fake it.

Instead, Pinkie points out the ponies don’t have to fake anything. They just have to be themselves and celebrate their own traditions for the Yaks. After all, why would they travel so far just to get the same thing they could get at home? And how would they build bridges if the ponies don’t show the Yaks what they are like?

Moreover, a phony or shallow imitation of a culture sends the message that culture is basically just a bunch of funny costumes and exotic dishes that anyone can pick or put down at will. But celebrating your own culture sends the message that you understand how important such things are and that you share deeper values like respect for tradition.

In all this, we see a rebuke to the typical leftist perspective. Rather than condemnation and “safe spaces,” “My Little Pony” argues for self-reflection, goodwill, and compromise. Its implied question is “What are you hoping to achieve here?” Will angrily insisting that people stop calling you names you find “triggering,” or give up their preconceived notions just because you say so, actually get you what you want? Do you really think that will make them respect or like you?

Instead of criticizing what other people are doing, it’s better to focus on what you have to offer them. No one wants to be friends with someone who is constantly taking offense at perceived injuries, but someone willing to compromise, who’s comfortable with who he is, and who’s focused on what’s really important? That’s someone you can be friends with.

The show about magical talking ponies has a more mature take on these issues than your average pundit or university professor.

David Breitenbeck is a professional freelance writer living and working in southeast Michigan. He’s the author of "The Wisdom of Walt Disney," currently available on Amazon, and blogs at Serpent’s Den (serpentsden.wordpress.com).

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