The history of My Little Pony and thoughts about growing up with cartoons.
by Patch O'Furr
Coming soon at Dogpatch Press – a Q&A with the author of Ponyville Confidential: a History of My Little Pony.
Sherilyn Connelly is a journalist local to the Bay Area Furries. She gives them supportive notice in publications like SF Weekly. Now her first book is coming from McFarland publishing. Ponyville Confidential will dig deep into culture while being a fun read for everypony. (I’m told there are some parts specifically about furries.) If you like the show and can give support back to Sherilyn, please visit the book’s Facebook page and give a ‘like’ right now!
I have only seen 6 or 7 episodes of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, and they were great. Even with low experience, it makes me want to share some thoughts before the Q&A. This is more personal than about the show or the book.
Growing up with cartoons.
When I talked with Sherilyn, she described a double standard about audience gender. It’s a thesis in the book that when My Little Pony first aired in 1986, it was disrespected as a prime example of crass commercialism. They said it was all about selling toys. By comparison, similar toy-related “boy” shows, like Transformers, got a pass. “Girly” shows had extra stigma.
It gives me curiosity about my own puppyhood in the 1980’s, but parts that were a bit outside of my consciousness. I didn’t watch My Little Pony, and similar sparkly friendly shows like Rainbow Brite and Strawberry Shortcake. I experienced them being judged as sissy girly stuff, and they would make me do barfing noises. Instead I loved He-Man, G.I. Joe, and most of all the Transformers.
There was another kind of stigma with “boy” shows. Even if “girl” shows could be disrespected as trivial, they could still be considered inherently nice. But my favorites were judged as morally questionable. Parents were suspicious of indulging a masculine sense of adventure and danger, even with stories about justice. Action and “violence” would corrupt impressionable minds. It had to be policed to keep kids pure and innocent.
I was sad to hear that He-Man was against god, because the show was called “The Masters of the Universe,” but there could only be one. When I was about five, I had a concept that bigness = godliness. So I admired Mr. T and the absurdly swole He-Man – until I compared his legs to my mom’s as a compliment, with disastrous results. I didn’t see toys denied to girls for being too girly, but some toys I wanted were called too violent. It didn’t stop me from using Legos for battles full of little yellow severed heads, though. Many lego-men gave their lives for the cause. That kind of play was going to happen no matter what.
In short, “Boy” shows were forbidden fruit. That made them more thrilling, even when I got in trouble and had to sneak around, like secretly watching the forbidden R-rated Terminator. Yay for killer robots.
Metal skin and morals.
Whether it was Arnie or Optimus Prime, it didn’t matter if the characters were good or evil. Their toughness felt positive, because their stories were cathartic for real life situations like getting beaten up by bullies. There was coping value with role models made of metal who could walk through fire.
Speaking of robots: “unnatural body-image” is criticized with girl shows, but at least those characters are human. (To be honest, I don’t like how people project eggshell-fragility that way to empower morals police). The robot on the left is male even with no flesh, right? A downside of steely toughness is how it isn’t realistically likely to help you with real life fights. And I don’t know if those shows helped to develop other character, even if some of them awkwardly shoe-horned a moral in the end.
Cheesy morals were for more than pandering. They were mandated. American culture was under the sway of Pat Robertson and the Moral Majority in the Reagan years. D&D was considered satanic, and Tipper Gore led a crusade to neuter dangerous music. Cartoon guns were replaced with soft laserbeams, and if a plane was shot down, there had to be a parachute popping out to save the pilot.
Years later I encountered TV content standards while working on a Disney show. Executives wanted my art edited because it wasn’t OK to depict children in proximity with bees (even happy friendly bees). Perhaps some kid would go play with bees, get stung and there would be a lawsuit. Isn’t that absurd? (I think healthy curiosity about nature could inspire care for the planet, but that’s beyond their scope.) Rules like that feel so fake and shallow, I can’t stand it.
If awkward moralizing is a result of stigma, shallow focus on cartoon violence (and ignoring it’s cathartic value) is a way to suppress healthy masculinity.
Furries – the third kind.
In between watching kids TV shows in the 1980’s and working on them, I got interested in seeking out and enjoying underground culture. Anything from banned books, indie zines and music, avante-garde art, to disrepected low/trash culture. Low culture can include furries, who can take pride in the independent spirit of how they exist.
Although I mentioned rejecting girly shows, that was more like fitting in and far from anything I took to heart. That’s how it was OK to love funny animal cartoons. They could be exciting like action shows, but also lovable for secretly “girly” qualities, covering both genders and more. Furry characters were too soft and fuzzy for rigid roles. They could be cute and fun but also bad-ass. Bugs Bunny dressed like a girl to boldly mock authority, and Robin Hood fox was cuddly and full of manly confidence (with no pants). That led to my secret crushes on Robin Hood and most of the cast of the Disney Afternoon shows. It’s totally weird and silly, and how do you talk about it as a very young and inexperienced person? You don’t.
It’s important that furry fans include a huge majority of guys as well as LGBT identities. It seems like nobody has a good explanation for that, or more like they hold back from making connections. (There are so many overreactions about being “just” a fan and not an identity.) Loving furry stuff has to do with expressing things repressed by normativity. There are even ways that’s countercultural. There are lots of guy furries because guys can be held back in unique ways and furry fandom makes new ways to express things.
You can dress on the outside like you really feel like inside, and be more than your everyday self. That’s what furries do.
Bronies have similar reasons, although Sherilyn’s book is about much more than them. After all, the majority of fans of My Little Pony are little girls as originally intended, and now their moms. But if it’s unfair to have stigma on girls or boys, then the show is for everypony.
PART TWO – the Q&A posts soon.