Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Revisiting "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic"

"I just read Total Media Bridge's "MLP:FIM" post and wanted to get your opinion on the matter as you probably know a lot more about it than I do.
"Specifically, while TMB made many a good point (E.g. I too thought the S3 finale was oddly structured), he seemed overly critical & negative (E.g. The things he said about Luna & Discord were misleading or wrong).  On the one hand, I'm OK w/MLP:FIM getting girlier because, as far as I can tell, the only especially girly aspects of the show are the songs & friendship lessons.  If a girlier show just means more of/greater emphasis on said aspects, then there shouldn't be a problem so long as it's still a good show with clever humor, interesting stories and fun characters (even if it's not as great overall as it was in the first two seasons).  On the other hand, I'm just speculating because I really have no idea where the show's going in future seasons.
"Many thanks in advance for your help."

-JD-man
Comment on Links of Interest: Snowed In Edition (some editing for clarity)

Welp.

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You may have noticed that it has been a while, a long, long while, since I have said anything about  "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic".  It's been a while since I mentioned "My Little Pony" in general as a matter of fact.  First, for some context, let's catch up with "Friendship is Magic".   In the excellent first season:

* - We got six well-defined female characters with both strengths and flaws who vehemently refuse to to conform to what you'd expect to be their stereotypes (the nerdy girl is the take-charge leader, the shy girl wrestles bears for fun) and who, in their own quiet way, teach the young audience that there are many types of girls and it's okay to be any one of them -or three of them for that matter.  

By the way, SIX female characters with personalities more interesting than "isn't a boy"!  If you want to make yourself depressed, list the cartoons that even have more than just one female character.

* - We got a few stories about bullies ("Griffon the Brush-Off", "Boast Busters", "Call of the Cutie") that -halleluiah!- kept subverting the old trope of how mean people are just misunderstood and we can all be friends if we just try hard enough.  Look, nasty, antagonistic people who evidently get pleasure out of ruining your whole day exist, and they don't just go away or stop picking on you if you stop paying attention to them and trying to get them to stop usually just makes things worse.  The best you can hope for is to find friends and find a way to cope with mean people together.

* - We got a terrific episode ("Suited for Success") about a character whose career is in the creative field, and she needs to help her friends prepare for a special event.  It dealt head-on with the fact that, if you're going to make your living through the arts when you grow up, you can't it to be just having fun all the time.  Sometimes you are going to have to make compromises and deal with people who might have a hard time trusting your instincts and knowledge or maybe don't even know what they want until they see it.  That, and there's a nice little nod to the fact that sometimes success depends on who you know. (Not to mention a possible disguised venting of frustration with executive meddling perhaps?)

* - We got the aforementioned "Call of the Cutie", which was essentially, "Are You There, Celestia?  It's Me, Apple Bloom..."  And this is an episode where a character who is the Pony equivalent of a pre-adolescent ends up not getting her much longed-for indicator of growing up in the end.  And the thing is, it isn't because she learned that you only get rewarded if you don't want whatever it is you wish for too much (which is the usual direction such stories take and I've always felt that it takes Gold-medal qualifying mental gymnastics for it to make any sense.)  Instead, she gained friends who have the same goal and the same issues.  And ever since that episode, they've been working together to reach that same goal, supporting each-other along the way.  The fact that we can get such a frank, mature discussion of an issue most girl cartoons won't even touch even though every girl is going to have to deal with it is staggeringly cool.

* - And above all else, we got -and this cannot be emphasized enough- a terrific, well-thought-out, animated series directed primarily at little girls that was made out of love and concern and accepted responsibility, instead of the more usual cynicism and sexism. 

Yep, it's time to have the Gender Issues in Children's Media talk again after not having tackled it in years either, come to mention it.  Hey, in for a penny, in for a pound.  I will try not to turn this into a huge derail because there's still a ton to unpack here (I haven't even got to Season two, let alone three), and already essays have been written about these issues, long ones, by people more knowledgeable than me.

But it does need to be discussed here because, you see, to have a good or even passable show directed at little girls is surprisingly and distressingly rare.  Remember "Barbie and the Fairy Secret"?  Because one thing I did not mention during that crazy tangent is the very worst thing about those terrible DTV Barbie movies: the vast majority of media for girls does not get any better than that.  It doesn't.

Girl cartoons (children's media in general, really, but girl cartoons especially) are caught in this vicious loop where the producers make lazy stereotype-driven crappy shows for girls, notice that girls are watching those lazy crappy stereotype-driven shows, assume that they must love that lazy crap without noticing that the only reason the girls are watching their crap is because there is nothing else out there for them, and then simply create more lazy stereotype-driven crap, because why bother if the little brats are going to watch it anyway?  So damn near all media directed at girls is openly cynical and insulting, since it's just meant to sell toys, dresses, makeup, and other awful "girlie" things based off clueless decades-old stereotyping (and notice how easily "girlie" becomes a pejorative!  People assume all media for girls is crap by default only because so much of it is shameless and cynical!  In the above-quoted comment, even the positive things associated mostly with media aimed at girls like musical numbers and social messages are "girlie"!)  Just because these stereotypes are coming from laziness or obliviousness or pure corporate greed, it doesn't make them any less sexist.

(Quick tangent: Come to mention it, perhaps the most messed-up thing about the Barbie movies -or the eye-bleedingly terrible "My Little Pony" cartoon that immediately preceded "Friendship is Magic" for that matter- is that, as awful as they are, they're still doing a better job than most of what's out there because they have more than one female lead character at all. Once again, if you want to make yourself depressed, list works of animation that even have more than one female protagonist.  I'll be over here waiting, and nursing a strong drink.

Though while I am on this note, I should have mentioned last week that I was most surprised and delighted to see two well-characterized female leads in "Wreck-It Ralph".  Surprised, because the ads downplayed the role of one and then made the other out to be nothing more than an annoying little nuisance.  To be fair, Vanillope does start out like that, but she quickly becomes more sympathetic and ends up as the most awesome character in the film.)  

Look, the seven-year-old girl who sits down to watch a show/movie/etc. directed at her demographic tragically lives in a world where she will never be allowed to forget that she is a girl.  Throughout her life, she is going to be flooded with loaded messages about her gender and what it means and -intentionally or not- what society expects her to be.  Male characters tend not to have to face these things, and it is -if I haven't mentioned it enough- damn depressing how the male gender is so often "normal" where female is "different".  (You only have to have been paying attention to "Jurassic Park" to know how insane this is.)  And all this is to say, thank goodness for Lauren Faust, because she actually cares about these kinds of issues. (Yeesh, this DID turn into a huge derail.  Sorry about that.)

With "Friendship is Magic", we got a series that was put in the capable hands of a woman who had grown up with the franchise and resolved right away to keep all the good things about it and toss the stupid stereotypical crap.  (Her original pitch was more "Return of Tambelon", less "Ice Cream Wars".  Obviously, compromises happened, but the show avoided overt cutesy crap for a good long time.)  On top of that, in each of her series, Lauren Faust cares a lot about animation (yo, somebody greenlight Galaxy Girls already!)  The result is something that is genuinely fun to watch, with great songs, interesting side-characters, and a well-developed setting.  It's funny without being self-referential or sarcastic, and sweet without being self-conscious.

The second season kept up the good work for the most part.  However, there were a few moments where it was obvious Lauren Faust had been relegated to a less prominent role, and it looks like she had a harder time nurturing the series.  For example:

* - "Luna Eclipsed".  Oh ye Gods, "Luna Eclipsed".  I'll admit this one sticks in my craw even more than "Feelin' Pinkie Keen".  Okay, so put yourself in Princess Luna's place there: You were overtaken by an evil entity that fed on your envy and wound up banished by your own sister to live alone on the moon for a thousand years.  You managed to free yourself, and were brought back to your normal, good self through magical intervention.  And then you come down to check on everyone, hopefully reconnect with your subjects, and you learn that in those intervening thousand years, an entire holiday has developed based upon the fact that you went crazy and tried to take over the world that one time and how everyone still fears and hates you.  Find anyone who would be as chill about all of this as Luna was.  But then there's an even bigger WTF moment where she plays along with it and invokes her old evil self because, according to Twilight, "we like you but we want to have fun being scared"!?!  No.

* - The "Mare Do Well" episode doesn't bug me quite as much but it's a very good example of how the characters started acting really odd during this season.  Rainbow Dash starts doing the small name, big ego thing so this other pony shows up to humble her.  Which would be strange in itself but then it turns out it was all of Dash's friends messing with her?  And once again, she's totally chill about this?  O... kay?

* - Generally speaking, you'd think more would have been done with the Cutie Mark Crusaders in the second season; perhaps a bit more character development or -my gosh- even an episode where one of the Crusaders gets her mark and they have to deal with the repercussions from then on.  I know Status Quo is God, but couldn't an exception be made when -uh- the whole reason these characters got together is because they're hoping to be transformed forever?  Hell, "Pokemon" let Caterpie turn into Metapod and then Butterfree over the course of the first half of the first season!  Meanwhile, the CMCs are basically the same as they were before and, worse, have more or less been relegated to background noise.

* - Derpy-gate.  That is all.  (Don't ask me to explain if you don't know because everything about it gives me the acid reflux.) 

* - And finally, I guess we all knew this was coming, but the season started to get increasingly toyetic as it went along.  Then again, they did manage to make the two-part finale meant to tie-in with the wedding playset one of the most awesome episodes of the season.

That brings us, finally, to season three, and here is where we come to the awkward, possibly controversial part of this post. Why haven't I been talking about My Little Ponies more often since the series really got underway?  Well, I said that the reason is because the My Little Pony fandom has changed.  A lot.  Man, how can I explain this without actually invoking it?

It's like, let's imagine there's this bird feeder, right?  And this feeder has been up for a couple of decades and, while the person filling the feeder has screwed up a couple of times, the birds still love it and many of the mother birds have brought their little fledgelings to the feeder.  And everything is just great.

There's a brand new version of the old bird feeder up that is very close to the same style as the oldest feeder, and the person who fills the feeder decides to add a few nuts into the seed mix.

So now, there are squirrels visiting the bird feeder.  To be fair, a lot of the squirrels are pretty cool; they remember the feeder is for birds and they don't mind sharing since they know the person who set up the feeder did so for the little fledgeling birds.

But then there are a few squirrels who are all like, "This feeder has NUTS in it!  It's for US!!!  How could it not REALLY be for US if it has NUTS in it?!?"  And there honestly aren't a lot of these squirrels.  But they are, unfortunately, the most vocal and obnoxious visitors to the feeder, and it almost feels like they will not be truly happy until they have driven away everyone who isn't a squirrel due to their awful behavior.

Well, for the third year that this new feeder is up, the person who fills it has gotten a bit uncomfortable with the crazier squirrels and swaps out the nuts for safflower seeds.

The squirrels are vocally upset.  "WHY!  WHY did they replace all the cool nuts we love with stupid seeds that only baby BIRDS love?!?"  Distressingly, some of the mother birds who point out, "Guys, it is a BIRD FEEDER" are viciously attacked.  Some even start to become too uncomfortable to even discuss this feeding station that they've been visiting since they themselves were fledgelings.

Finally, for the last week that the feeder will be up for the season (I am following this metaphor right into the center of the sun), the person in charge of filling it has decided that they should focus only on the target audience of fledgeling birds and dumps a whole load of Cayenne Pepper into the seed mix.

The youngest birds are ecstatic, the older birds are a little put off, and the squirrels have completely lost their sh*t.

Now It has yet to be seen if, in the aftermath, the squirrels will bother visiting the feeder and just complain or circle-jerk over how much better the feeder was two years ago.  Or if they will just, you know, let the fledgeling birds have their own reasonably good cartoon for six-year-old girls feeder for fledgeling birds and leave them alone.

So... did everybody get that?  If not, too bad, because this is as close as I am willing to go to that particular issue.

Okay, back to the main question.  You want my honest opinion regarding the third season of "Friendship is Magic"?  Well, I will say that this is my response to many of the fans' reactions to the third season:  Look at all these men being upset over a reasonably good cartoon for seven-year-old girls stumbling into the same stupid stereotypical toyetic trap that WAAAAY too many shows directed at seven-year-old girls have done since I myself was a seven-year-old girl.

Alright, I know that's going to be incendiary as hell even though I think I am allowed to have strong opinions about a franchise I've been on board with since it's inception, so let me explain (and remember, I moderate comments and unreasonable people get deleted).  There's a lot of nostalgia for the franchises of the 1980's, yet the thing so many people forget about that era is the fact that a lot of cartoons were really gender-segregated.

For the most part, even the worst cartoons directed at boys had excitement, explosions, monsters, and action, so they were at least interesting to look at.  (They also had their own collection of awful, unfair super-manly stereotypes, but that's it's own massive rabbit hole and I'd feel more comfortable letting a male writer tackle them.  Also, holy S**T this is getting to be a lot of words about Ponies!)  Meanwhile, the girl crap was a pink, gooey limbo of school drama (there's more Gold-medal qualifying mental gymnastics at work here. To paraphrase "Animaniacs", "Golly, there's nothing a kid would love to do after school than to watch a bunch of shows ABOUT going to school!"), shopping, slumber parties, tea parties, school dances, friendship-ending misunderstandings that would be wrapped up in half a second if anyone was allowed to have common sense, gag.

I've had to cope with that kind of stereotypical "this is what you are SUPPOSED to like" girlie-girl B.S. since I was very little.  And remember, this is coming from the adult woman who used to be the little girl who was more interested in dinosaurs and computers and nature than dolls and makeup and frilly dresses. It was rough, let me tell you.  So forgive me if I'm a little tiny bit resentful of guys having to deal with it for probably the first time ever. This is on top of my more general resentment over the fact that these creepy weirdos could have fixated on anything else in the world, but for whatever reason they chose a really awesome revival of a franchise I have a lot of nostalgia for and just want to be able to share with my little cousins without their shitty behavior haunting my mind or without worrying about my cousins ever running into it themselves.  (Yes, there was a weird underbelly to the My Little Pony fandom back in the early days of the Internet, but you really had to dig for the most brain-breaking stuff.  Most of the weirdness involving Ponies was a more fun/harmless kind of weird.  As I recall, Quacker County and Beyond Dream Castle were pretty insane, but reading them wouldn't do you any permanent damage.)

So now that that's established, what did I think of this latest season of "Friendship is Magic"?  Well, this is a little complicated.  In a strange way, it makes me think of the current kerfuffle over post-Dan Harmon "Community".  Both series had a showrunner with a very distinct voice and now that they are either in a less-involved position or gone outright, the show is... different.  It's not bad, mind you; it's still far superior to anything else currently airing in the same genre in fact.  But it's... different, and you can tell.

With MLP, we have the added complication of a toy company ready to swoop in and insist on things brought about by (ominous music) Marketing Decisions.  Things like, "Hey is there a way we can include the Pony toys made out of that weird transparent plastic in the show?  Maybe they could have their own kingdom and Princess!"  Or, "The fans loved Discord so let's give them a whole episode full of him where they make him a good guy!  You know, because changing the alignment of a villain who is largely defined by how few f***s he gives never backfires ever!"

And then, there's Princess Twilight.

Hey, remember when we were so excited that winged unicorns were going to be an actual thing in My Little Pony?  Yeah...

Man, what can you say about Princess Twilight?  She very nicely encapsulates everything disappointing about this latest season, doesn't she?  It's a hell of an odd choice, and the whole episode, which could have standed to be twice as long, felt for all the world like a series -not season but series- finale to me.  This isn't Sweetie-Bell getting her Cutie Mark, this is a total upending of the series' main characters' status quo.  I can't see how the series is going to recover from this, though I have an awful suspicion that maybe everyone in the main cast will switch species by the time this is over.  What's next?  Are they going to bring back humans to the show?

(There is a long and awkward pause...)

Oh, Hasbro.  What have you done?  WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?!?

In some ways, it will be fascinating to see where the series and the fandom go from here.  I'm not sure what else to add so I'll open the floor to (heavily moderated.  Repeat: I "love" living in a world where the comments of a woman who has been collecting these damn things since she was about five might be considered incendiary) discussion in the comments.

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In the meantime, some major news which still strikes me as a huge bummer: Art Evolved will no longer be holding periodic themed galleries.  The good news is that they will still have one last gallery, with art due on June first, and they're planning on going out with a bang.  The theme is Tyrannosaurs.  Aw yeah.

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Art of the Day!  Oh, for the days of having to learn how to set the VCR to catch the conclusions of multi-part episodes and playground-grief-causing animation mistakes...

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9 comments:

raptor_044 said...

1stly, many many thanks for not only answering my question, but doing so in this manner. You obviously put a lot of time & effort into this post, so I wanna make sure you know how much I appreciate you. Anything I can do in return?

2ndly, some of my thoughts while reading this post.

"(You only have to have been paying attention to "Jurassic Park" to know how insane this is.)"

Are you referring to when Hammond says he should go instead of Sattler "because I'm a....a-and you're a.....uhh..."?

"Once again, if you want to make yourself depressed, list works of animation that even have more than one female protagonist. I'll be over here waiting, nursing a strong drink."

While I can name a bunch, they're mostly PBS shows, so I'm guessing they're the exception to the rule.

"Find anyone who would be as chill about all of this as Luna was."

I wouldn't say that Luna was "chill", especially given that she almost cancelled the whole holiday b-4 resolving her issues w/the other ponies.

"The fans loved Discord so let's give them a whole episode full of him where they make him a good guy! You know, because changing the alignment of a villain who is largely defined by how few f***s he gives never backfires ever!"

MLP-Silver-Quill summed up my opinion of S3E10 ( http://mlp-silver-quill.deviantart.com/art/Tough-Love-346788955 ).

"The good news is that they will still have one last gallery, with art due on June first, and they're planning on going out with a bang."

Don't forget about the other good news ( http://blogevolved.blogspot.com/2013/03/introducing-hadiazmy-1st-listmania-list.html ). ;)

3rdly, for what it's worth, I recently read about a Tara Strong interview that made me feel a little better about MLP ( http://www.wired.com/underwire/2013/02/my-little-pony-season-3-finale/ ).

-JD-man

Trish said...

The "Jurassic Park" reference is the explanation for why all the dinosaurs are female. >:)

raptor_044 said...

Ah, that makes more sense to me now.

BTW, I forgot to mention that your bird feeder analogy is the best explanation for MLP:FIM I've ever read. It's both very illuminating & very entertaining (I especially like the part about crazy squirrels).

-JD-man

Albertonykus said...

Seconded on the brilliance of the bird feeder analogy.

As for the show itself, I'm finding it difficult to remain optimistic about it as well, but to paraphrase the "wait for the paper" advice that is often said on the DML, we'll just have to wait for the next season I suppose.

Trish said...

(Heaves a huge sigh of relief that the "Squirrels in the bird feeder" analogy actually went over well.)

Grant said...

Fantastic article!

The characters "vehemently refuse to to conform to what you'd expect to be their stereotypes" -- that's a great observation.

kjohnson1585 said...

Pretty much agree with everything you said here, and you said it better than I could. I'm a 28 year old black dude with a full time job and other commitments. I couldn't care LESS what people thought about me and the shows I watched. And I enjoyed MLP, in the same way I enjoyed PowerPuff Girls and Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends (which wasn't a female-demo show per se, but I do think it blurred the line quite well).

I'll admit that I might have went overboard with my write-up. What bothered me, I think, was more that the writing was just bad and the characters were really mean and inconsistent in the third season. Becoming "more-girly" was problematic not because it was more girly, but it fell into that gender trap you so eloquently describe. Was the writing worse BECAUSE it became more girly? It's hard to say, but the bottom line is I was disappointed in both.

I'd actually watch the 4th season if the writers came out and said "Yeah, we screwed up." For the most part, though, I've been through this with Heroes, and I can't go through that again.

Rachel Ghoul said...

Thank you for saying 90% of what I've been feeling-- especially the bird feeder analogy.

I say only 90% 'cause I am optimistic that Twilight's ascension can work. In fact I'd been quite sure since early in season 1 that Princess Celestia was grooming/testing Twilight as a potential heir. Is it something I expected to not be resolved until the series finale? Unquestionably. Will there be a lot of transition necessary? Definitely. But I think that they can do it in a way that will remain entertaining, especially because the writer who handled the finale has said that it represents the first part of a three-episode story that will handle the ramifications of that transition.

John Smith said...

"* - We got a few stories about bullies ("Griffon the Brush-Off", "Boast Busters", "Call of the Cutie") that -halleluiah!- kept subverting the old trope of how mean people are just misunderstood and we can all be friends if we just try hard enough. "

It'll pain you to note, then, that all three bully characters have now fallen into that very trap. I know it annoys me the more I think about it. What a waste!

"And the thing is, it isn't because she learned that you only get rewarded if you don't want whatever it is you wish for too much"

Guess what happens in this most recent episode? :(