New All Things Geek Contributor Emma Henderson questions harmful male stereotypes in ‘My Little Pony’.
You have probably heard of the term ‘brony’ used for fans of the popular animated show, ‘My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.’ The world was confused as to why so many of these fans seemed to be adolescent or adult males despite the original target audience being 6 year old girls. There are some really good documentaries on the topic—or example—‘Bronies: the Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony.’ The appeal is partly down to pop culture references, to ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Big Lebowski’ for example, that draw in geeky viewers of all ages.
However, despite such a loyal following of male audience members, the show often had poor portrayals of masculinity.
‘Friendship is Magic’ has been celebrated in terms of its rich array of personalities and avoidance of flimsy female stereotypes. For example, series creator Lauren Faust wanted one character to be interested in fashion but they didn’t all have to be. Two of the ‘mane’ six characters are tomboys. The lead characters have been given more unique and varied characters to reflect the fact that there is not one type of girl in answer to criticism aimed at some girl-toy based brands where all the characters have similar shallow fashion-obsessed personalities. However, despite furthering the representation of varied female identity, in FIM males are often marginalised or given shallow stereotypical roles. This is in contrast to brands primarily aimed at the boy-market (such as ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ or ‘Power Rangers’) where an effort is made in the toys and cartoon to ensure their female characters, even if few and token, are clever, strong and sassy.
There are narrow groupings of the male characters in FIM on top of the fact male ponies occupy much less screen time and seem to make up less than 50% of the population of Ponyville (the central location in the show). For a show called ‘Friendship is Magic,’ no-one really seems to be friends with male characters and, at least initially, they are often solitary or lonely — for example Cranky and Troublehooves.
In addition to being marginalised in terms of screen time, there are relatively few male speaking parts. One of the longest standing male characters, Big Mac, famously barely speaks, uttering little more than ‘yup’ or ‘nope.’ Big Mac is the strong silent type: he does all the heavy lifting and running of the farm while his sister is off on her adventures.
While we do meet some brothers and fathers, these relationships play minor roles compared to the importance of sisters in the series. Girls seem to hold all roles of power – until we get to Shining Armour whose name is a reference to the phrase ‘knight in shining armour’: the hero figure in a fairy tale who must save the day and marry the princess. Even as head of the Royal Guard however, Shining Armour’s importance is dwarfed by his Princess-demi-goddess wife (and later Princess-demi-goddess sister and Princess-demi-goddess daughter too). Despite his power ostensibly being based on quite a traditional male role as protector, he is tricked by Queen Chrysalis and must be rescued by his sister and fiancée, undermining even this status.
When Shining Armour speaks to his sister at her princess coronation he insists his watering eyes aren’t tears but “liquid pride.” Again, at a wedding we see him getting overemotional – once again the source of the humour here is that he is a cry-baby and that it is unexpected for males to show emotion – a very unhealthy belief.
Shining Armour’s introduction came at the end of the second season and felt like an obvious after thought. Why had the central character never mentioned her ‘big brother best friend’ in two seasons? (Because he was only just invented by Hasbro to sell a royal wedding playset of course!) But internally within the narrative of the show it jarred with audiences. In the mainstream brushable pony toy line, he is the ONLY male pony available (and only ever in sets with his bride). There is no Big Mac or Dr Whooves available despite their popularity and screen time – although these are now available as Funko vinyl figures presumably aimed at older collectors. To be fair, there are more male characters produced in the blindbag mini figure range. Despite this particular incarnation of ‘My Little Pony’ being known for its male audience, even the original 1980-90s toy line had more male toys. Do look up the original ‘generation one’ male ponies: there’s a cute range of baby brother ponies and a number of adult males whose ‘cutie marks’ were mostly weather or job related (including a Native American chief, cowboy and sailor – they look like they are ready to perform the YMCA). There were also three ‘loving family daddy ponies’ which were positive role models. Shining Armour had a predecessor in the form of a groom pony named Tux / Coats and Tails.
Which brings us onto male ponies being objects of female desire or mere armcandy — much like Ken’s annoyance in ‘Toy Story 3’ that he is seen as nothing more than another accessory in Barbie’s wardrobe rather than a person in his own right. A character named Rarity is particularly prone to crushes — first fancying Prince Blueblood who turns out to be a vain snob. Rarity often flirts to get her own way, sweet talking a neighbour into pulling her cart for example. There was a whole song objectifying males called ‘Perfect Stallion – comprising of a list of their shortcomings (including being ‘too young,’ ‘old,’ ‘tall,’ ‘ short’ and ‘smelly’).
So, here’s a quick rundown of some of the other notable male ponies and their potentially damaging characteristics:
• Snips and Snails: dim sidekicks made to drag around the Great and Powerful Trixie’s wheel-less carriage. They are an example of the menial manual labour often given to male ponies. Other examples include the royal guards, train conductors, henchponies and the plough pullers.
• Pip and Featherweight: weaklings and runts – their names even refer to this. Contrast this with Bulk Biceps and Big Mac – size and body shape are apparently important in naming male ponies.
• Bulk Biceps: a joke with his tiny stunted wings and dialogue like “I’m all muscles! YEAH!” and “‘P’ is for ‘Rainbow Dash’!”
• Soarin – barely talks and seems pie obsessed. He is a token male member of the flying team but they are quick to drop him when he becomes injured.
So far we’ve focused on male ponies but there are other male characters in ‘Friendship is Magic’ and unfortunately they don’t fare much better. Spike the dragon is repressed: he is criticised for following his natural hoarding instincts and is infantilised – the ponies are horrified at the idea of him growing up. He is frequently found posing in mirrors, showing off his ‘muscles’ and enjoys a moustache.
Cranky the donkey is, er, cranky, and needs Pinkie and Matilda to fix things for him.
A minotaur named Iron Will has to learn that bossiness and aggression won’t solve everything.
Males do have one area in which they are evenly represented in number and success as females however: they do make successful baddies, for example Discord (voiced by John DeLancie of ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Breaking Bad’ fame). But as this is a negative portrayal, I wouldn’t settle for that.
So, male FIM characters are expected to be physically strong protectors although not actually efficient as it is always females who must save the day or fix their problems. They may be servants, enemies or love interests but are not permitted to be emotional. Masculinity is marginalised and not particularly positive looking. Adding to their underrepresentation, in the episode ‘Hearth’s Warming Eve’ we see a problem similar to ‘whitewashing’ in Hollywood (where black, Asian or other ‘ethnic’ characters or historical figures are played by white actors) as an all-female cast even plays the male roles in the history play.
Improvements have been made though, starting with an increasing number of background male ponies. Dr. Whooves was given more lines in the 100th episode. The addition of more complex characters being given screen time and character development in the latest two series in particular have certainly helped including Cheesesandwich (voice by Weird Al Yancovich).
Toy makers Hasbro have also recently announced a line of more action orientated toys called ‘Guardians of Harmony’ which featured boys playing with the models in pre-release promotional pictures.
About the author:
Emma Henderson teaches Creative Writing and English in a college in England. Since studying ‘Fight Club’, she has been interested in the idea of a loss of masculine identity in 20th and 21st century. She is mother to both a girl and boy.
art credit: Cover-Hasbro /Interior-Author