Q&A with Sherilyn Connelly, author of Ponyville Confidential: the History and Culture of My Little Pony, 1981-2016.
by Patch O'Furr
Recently, I posted “The history of My Little Pony and thoughts about growing up with cartoons” to prepare for chat with Sherilyn Connelly. Sherilyn is a journalist local to the San Francisco Bay Area Furries. (She has given them notice in publications like SF Weekly.) Her first book is out this April: Ponyville Confidential, a pop culture history of the My Little Pony media empire. (Please like the book’s Facebook page!)
Hi Sherilyn, thanks for talking about Ponyville Confidential! Let me start by asking – who needs to read it? Will it be manely for fans? Will there be parts to tempt furry readers?
“Manely!” I see what you did there. Obviously everypony needs to read it, and it’s by no means intended just for My Little Pony fans; I hope that people who are interested in pop-culture history in general will give it a look as well. And there are many references to the Furry fandom, including shout-outs to Frolic, Further Confusion, and Anthrocon.
I know you as a committed, active fan who comes to Furry events and writes journalism about them (and movies, and more.) Can you give a brief intro about your background and writing?
I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since I was old enough to want to be anything at all. I started writing professionally for SF Weekly in 2011 — within a few months when I started grad school and began watching My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, so it was a momentous year in retrospect — and wrote quite a lot about the the local Furry scene at the time. I began contributing film reviews to the Village Voice in 2012, and became the Weekly‘s permanent film critic in January 2013.
I hear this is your first book, congrats – how excited are you? Would anything surprise you about how it might be received?
Very excited, and yet strangely numb; I don’t think it’s really hit me yet, mostly because as I write this I haven’t yet held the published book in my hands. I’m sure it’ll seem very real when that fateful package arrives. Indeed, it’s all so abstract right now that the only thing that would truly surprise me at this point would be for Joan Didion to come out of retirement and write about it for the New York Review of Books. And since that ain’t gonna happen…
Will it get fandom promotion, have a place in the regular publishing world, or will you do hoofwork to promote it yourself like with readings?
It’s being published by McFarland & Company, a well-established purveyor of scholarly nonfiction books — though, for the record, Ponyville Confidential‘s specific genre is scholarly sparkliness — and McFarland’s titles are found in both public and academic libraries around the world. (For sure, I’ll be checking WorldCat on a regular basis in the coming months to see what far-flung shelves it’s landed on, which is possibly the nerdiest version of ego-surfing this side of Google-Scholaring yourself.) That said, I will indeed be doing a lot of hoofwork to promote it on my own, including readings at local libraries and bookstores. As for whether any segment of the fanbase chooses to promote it, I can’t begin to predict — though I do hope the fans of My Little Pony Generations 1-3 enjoy the book, since it’s for them in a lot of ways.
You do library events with a screening and discussion of MLP:FiM. That’s a good way to connect with people for real. What part did it play for your book?
Truth be told, none at all. My monthly TV Club is for fillies and colts 4-8 years old (who are too young to read Ponyville Confidential) and is part of my other day job as a librarian. Between that and writing for the Voice and the Weekly, I’m fortunate that my paying gigs also allow me to engage on a professional level with the pop culture I already enjoy. Can’t ask for more than that, really.
You called Ponyville Confidential well-researched with a bit of a political view (but fun silly parts too.) What might be provocative about it?
The research was one of the most fun parts of writing the book; the last 40-50 pages are entirely taken up by the double-column Bibilography, and are preceded by about two dozen pages of double-column chapter notes, so I make a point of showing my work whenever I’m stating facts and figures. If you think the 1986 Transformers: The Movie is awesome and are offended that I would describe it as “a financial failure,” please direct your flames to the August 30, 1987 Los Angeles Times.
Some readers will no doubt be irritated that just like on Friendship Is Magic, indefinite personal pronouns in Ponyville Confidential take the form of “anypony,” “somepony,” and so forth — scholarly sparkliness, yo! — but what I suspect may prove most provocative is that the book is very much from my point of view and nopony else’s. Which seems like it should go without saying, and it’s of course the case with pretty much every single-author book ever written, particularly history books; that’s why even though there are already dozens of biographies of LBJ, the four books Robert Caro has written so far in his The Years of Lyndon Johnson series total over 3,000 pages, and yet he’s only now getting to Johnson’s actual presidency. But many more people have much stronger feelings about My Little Pony than LBJ at the moment, and my superhellaleftyqueerfeminist politics often shine through (in Ponyville Confidential, not The Years of Lyndon Johnson). The people who share my general worldview will like that aspect, and those who don’t will not — and I am not unaware of the irony that the publisher of this queer-positive, smash-the-gender-binary book is based in North Carolina.
Also, I don’t wave the flag of any organized fandom. The only My Little Pony fans I interact with on a regular basis are the kids at the library, so I didn’t realize until researching Ponyville Confidential just how different my feelings about the franchise are compared to many of the Bronies — particularly regarding the Equestria Girls films, the backlash against which by Bronies and civilians alike I examine in great detail. But I realized early on than I could either write the book I wanted to write, or I could choose to not fully express myself for fear of getting Tweeted at by strangers who are angry that my opinions about My Little Pony are contrary to their own, so I decided to take a cue from Lin-Manuel Miranda and not throw away my shot. (Again, that’s why I decided to use ponyfied pronouns for Ponyville Confidential, since they wouldn’t be appropriate for the new, non-Pony film history book I’m currently writing.) Other people will no doubt write their own books about the history of My Little Pony working from the same set of facts, and come to different conclusions — and I look forward to reading those books! — but Ponyville Confidential is my take on the subject.
Do you have any feeling about coming as a non-household name to a property that is one?
Heh. Let’s put it this way: outside of my friends and family, I’m under no illusion that the anypony who buys the book is doing so because it’s written by the film critic for a disreputable alt-weekly. I’m also well aware that being the only critic whose reviews of all four Equestria Girls films are listed on Rotten Tomatoes also doesn’t count for a hill of beans, but I’m a little proud of it, which is clear based on the fact that I just went out of my way to mention it.
You told me about being inspired by David Gerrold’s writing about Star Trek. How does that relate to ponies?
Star Trek comes up a few times in Ponyville Confidential, and David Gerrold’s books The Trouble With Tribbles (about that making of that episode, which he wrote) and The World of Star Trek (about the original series overall) were my introduction to nonfiction about pop culture. I read The Trouble with Tribbles dozens of times growing up, and quote from it in my book regarding the Friendship Is Magic episode “Swarm of the Century.” Nothing would make me happier than for somepony growing up with My Little Pony to read Ponyville Confidential and be inspired to write their own book someday about a beloved pop-culture franchise — though, to be clear, I am not suggesting any kind of equivalency between me and Mr. Gerrold. In addition to him being a faaaaaaaaaaaar more accomplished writer, he has been intimately involved with Star Trek since the original series and is an authority on the subject, whereas I am merely a My Little Pony fan with no official connection to the franchise.
Think about how MLP is regarded among kid-type media… in the past and now. I have a feeling there have been a few surprising changes. What’s changed, and what hasn’t?
What has changed is that there isn’t nearly as much of a cultural distinction between media intended for children and that intended for adults, hence seven of the ten highest-grossing films of 2016 being franchise pictures based on properties originally intended for children — even the single R-rated film is based on a comic book character, albeit a quote-edgy-unquote one — and the three of them not based on an existing intellectual properties are PG-rated cartoons. What hasn’t changed is that the majority of them are geared toward boys (read: lots of shit blowing up and punches being thrown, albeit at a PG-13 level) and/or have primarily male casts. Though My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is popular across demographic boundaries to an extent that lead to widespread head-scratching in the media, it should be interesting to see how the My Little Pony feature film slated to come out this October will fare. I have a hunch that it won’t do very well, but I’m also a terrible futurist.
I know you used Transformers to compare and contrast – are there other shows or types of media that make good comparison too?
The Transformers toy range is the salient point of comparison with My Little Pony because they’re Hasbro stablemates that appeared both appeared in the early 1980s, and their fortunes have always been rather intertwined. Transformers: The Movie premiered a few months after My Little Pony: The Movie in 1986, though it’s worth noting that while the Transformers movie came after the third season of the original Transformers cartoon, there had only been two half-hour Pony television specials before the Pony movie was released to theaters, and the single-season My Little Pony ‘n Friends series had not yet debuted. That said, I also make references in Ponyville Confidential to Star Wars, the aforementioned Star Trek, and the current run of Marvel films, mostly in terms of controversies over commercialism. (Spoiler: there’s a huge double standard between My Little Pony and the others.)
Did you learn anything notable about the history of MLP, like that dormant period between 1992-2003?
Lots, and in some ways it’s the most important section of the book. (By the way, I’d like to officially apologize to the non-English-speaking countries in which the toys continued to be produced throughout that 1990s; it was necessary for clarity’s sake to treat the franchise as moribund.) What struck me the most about the period I call the Long Dark Saturday Morning of the Soul is how even though My Little Pony was no longer being produced in North America or the UK, it was evoked whenever somepony needed an example of what they considered to be the worst aspects of children’s entertainment, or by a producer who wanted to provide an example of what their awesome new cartoons would not be like. It was also frequently referred to as a Saturday morning cartoon, when My Little Pony ‘n Friends was a syndicated show broadcast on weekdays, and it’s lesser-known 1992 followup My Little Pony Tales was an afternoon show on the Disney Channel. It’s a minor but telling detail, because it demonstrates that criticizing My Little Pony for its misdeeds never requires knowing what its deeds actually are. One of my favorites was in 1999 when Billboard described My Little Pony as having “made the leap from retail to Saturday morning cartoons and then video” in the early 1980s, and that it “paved the way for numerous others,” none of which is accurate.
Did you learn anything about the fandom for it, like how how older generation fans compare to new ones?
Short answer: Oh my yes. Slightly longer answer, at least in terms of letters: Read the book.
Let’s look beyond the show. MLP is upbeat and positive and not so focused on competitive values… something we could use in difficult times. The book blurb mentions “cultural significance” of the show. What bigger trends do you see?
I think the cultural significance of My Little Pony can best be summed by the fact that we’re still talking about it after thirty-some years. The bigger, more unfortunate trend that I found — and which has been played out on the national stage in a truly horrifying manner after I finished writing Ponyville Confidential last May — is that sexism, misogyny, and the fear of feminism are still alive and well in our culture. But I also find a glimmer of hope in the young boys who are growing up with Friendship Is Magic — such as the ones who attend TV Club, and participate just as enthusiastically as the girls — and I believe that some of them may become adults who make the world a slightly more compassionate place. And every bit will help.
Can you share a few words for writers who may be reading, especially from the semi-pro-fan level, like from the Furry Writers Guild?
Write! If you’re a writer, do it. Make many words about the things that interest you. Most of those words will be terrible at first, and nopony may want to put them on paper, but keep at it.