Like you, I suppose, I never gave My Little Pony very much thought, except to note it as a species of annoying plastic object that flows into our apartment with an invisible tide and then gets stuck there and never flows out. Assorted Little Ponies have found their way into the storage bins in our daughter’s room, and threads of mane hair have wound up in the bathtub drain, but it never occurred to me to wonder why the brushing of a bright-blue tail would be so compelling to a 2-year-old or why the marketing geniuses at Hasbro, which manufactures the toy, would have deployed that first-person possessive pronoun so deftly, giving the toy’s youngest users a built-in allegiance at the very developmental moment at which what’s “mine” is of the utmost importance. Perhaps I noted the irony that most of the My Little Pony toys that drifted into our house were in fact hand-me-downs from older girls. Our daughter thought of them as hers, but they were actually someone else’s first.
And so it barely registered when this same daughter, now nearly 11, mentioned that she was devoted to the My Little Pony TV show, a cartoon on Discovery Family, a channel formerly known as the Hub and partly owned by Hasbro. The truth is she more than mentioned it. She watched it all the time, this 22-minute toy ad, racing through her homework to catch an episode before bed. And she proselytized, begging me to watch, insisting that it would exceed my expectations, but I shrugged her off. I didn’t even think to ask why my sophisticated tween was glued to a show based on a toy aimed at girls “ages 3 and up.”
Very religious people say there’s no such thing as coincidence, so perhaps it was providence that led me to tune in to the Tony Awards show in June and to watch Lena Hall accept her prize for Best Actress in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. She mounted the stage and with trembling fingers read names off a scrap of paper, thanking a battalion of friends, colleagues, relations. And then, gathering herself, she looked straight at the camera. “Friendship is magic,” she said, in a tone so neutral that an innocent viewer might be excused for imagining that this was some flaky-actress thing, a veiled shout-out to a Pilates instructor or comrades in a 12-step group. But fate intervened again and guided my fingers to the internet, and within seconds I had fallen through the looking glass, cruised past the toll booth, pushed beyond the wardrobe into the world of Pony, where I discovered that “Friendship Is Magic” is not only the subtitle of the Discovery Family cartoon, but also the reigning ethos of Equestria, the cartoon world where the ponies live — a Golden Rule as defining and incontrovertible as gravity. With three little words, Hall publicly pledged her allegiance to the Pony way and outed herself as a “Pegasister,” an adult female devotee of Ponies; after the ceremony, she explained further and with the flavor of testimony that she had come across My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic by accident on Netflix and had been watching it for a year. Through My Little Pony she had started to love her friends more, and to be happier, and more grateful, in general; she credited her professional success to the inspiration of the ponies. In return, the Pony world — 92,000 followers on Twitter, 815,000 on Facebook, and many more on Instagram, Tumblr, Yahoo chat boards, and a graphic-arts showcase called DeviantArt — recognized her as a kindred spirit, the way Christians do when the winning pitcher thanks Jesus at the end of a tough game.
Several weeks later, I was talking with a friend. Her 18-year-old son had just finished an agonizing senior year and, having finally decided on Wesleyan as his college of choice, was going to celebrate that night with an old chum. Their plan was to watch the ponies.
If you’ve heard of My Little Pony, you’ve probably also heard about “Bronies,” the zealous (and somewhat suspect) brotherhood of adult male fans. But to focus too closely on the Brony phenomenon is to wade in shallow water and pretend to know the ocean. My Little Pony is a worldview, and a way of life, for millions of non-creepy people who find the show entertaining and amusing, yes, but who also say it provides them with the personal guidance, moral lessons, and comforting perspective that previous generations used to find in places like church. Fans refer to the show itself — 91 episodes in four seasons, with a fifth to come in 2015 — as “the canon,” and over at Equestria Daily, the largest fan site, they participate in something like midrash, avidly hashing over references, meanings, and inconsistencies. But there’s also a whole world of apocrypha — art, video games, music, T-shirts, and fiction — created by fans and based loosely on the canon but jumping off in unorthodox directions. It’s not unusual to find online Pony versions of other cults: Super Mario Pony, Minecraft Pony, Dr. Who Pony, and, my favorite, My Little Game of Thronies.
My daughter suggested that we start from the beginning, and so we did. Once upon a time, in a mythical, magical, distant past, Equestria was ruled by two sister pony princesses, one black and one white, hybrids of a supernatural kind — “alicorns,” my daughter whispered authoritatively. Celestia, the white princess, was in charge of the sun, and Luna, the black one, controlled the moon. The sisters reigned harmoniously until Luna began to notice that the ponies of Equestria frolicked and played under her big sister’s watch, but under her own, they did nothing but sleep. Jealousy turned Luna into the monster Nightmare Moon, a villainess who threatened to plunge all of Equestria into perpetual darkness. To save Equestria, Celestia was forced to take a stand against her sister. Calling upon her most potent magic, she invoked the mysterious “Elements of Harmony” and cast a spell that banished Nightmare Moon to the moon.
Fast-forward a thousand years to modern-day Canterlot, where Twilight Sparkle, a violet unicorn with magenta highlights, has her nose in some books. She is a nerd of indeterminate age who lives in a towering library with no one for company but a baby dragon named Spike. (The ponies are meant to be somewhere between 12 and 16, or very immature adults, so they might live independently but still be relatable to children.) Canterlot, with its spires and fluttering flags and pastel shrubberies, is as teeming as a Hieronymous Bosch painting and as socially striated as a middle-school campus, but Twilight is oblivious. She is an apprentice in magic to Princess Celestia, and she has studying to do. As the show opens, Twilight has stumbled in one of her volumes across a prophecy that worries her: Nightmare Moon is scheduled to return — soon — to Equestria, and reactivate her curse. Twilight doesn’t know it yet, but she will need the help of a whole team of new friends to stop her.
There have been four generations of My Little Pony toys, dating back to 1983, and roughly synchronistic generations of advertorial movies and TV. But the contemporary cult is based almost entirely on the latest version of the show, which launched in 2010, the vision of its creator-goddess, Lauren Faust — an animator who played with the first generation of Ponies and imagined this Equestria when she was a little girl. My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic consciously, almost cheesily, invites comparisons to every fantasy and fairy tale in the childhood canon, and because it’s a reboot of a cartoon from the ’80s featuring a beloved toy, it invites comparison to itself as well. Thus, the 35-year-old mother of a preschooler will get a Proustian jolt when she hears the tune that accompanies the opening credits: It’s exactly the same as the jingle that went with the My Little Pony commercials in the ’80s. That jolt may be one reason why a show for little girls appeals to their parents. But in its plot arcs and characterizations, My Little Pony is more than repackaging. Twilight Sparkle is like Bilbo Baggins, a reluctant traveler dispatched by a powerful mastermind to parts unknown. She is also like Hermione Granger, an overachiever with a condescending side, and like Dorothy, she is caught in a quarrel betwixt magical rivals. But for all these comparisons — and all the other knowing winks to Blazing Saddles, The Music Man, King Kong, Citizen Kane, The Big Lebowski, The Commitments, and the final scene from Star Wars: A New Hope — the show that My Little Pony really resembles is Friends. It is about a friendship among six very different characters, and the safe universe they create through their loyalty to one another, a kind of intimate paradise that transcends family ties, job responsibilities, and affiliation with other tribes. This is a vision of friendship that articulates a preteen’s deepest yearning and at the same time evokes a memory, perhaps rose-colored, among adults — preoccupied as they are with their relentlessly present-tense lives — of an age when minutes, hours, whole days, and weekends could be lost to imaginary play, joint projects, and the total abandonment of self to the clan that claimed you as its own.
In the final moments of the premiere, Twilight’s glittering anime eyes widen as she realizes that the Elements of Harmony are right by her side, the five flesh-and-blood friends she has made with her mentor Celestia’s help. Applejack represents honesty; Rarity, generosity; Flutteryshy, kindness; Rainbow Dash, loyalty; and Pinkie Pie, laughter. Twilight herself possesses the magic that binds them together. In Equestria, this friendship is a superpower; it safeguards the world. And it is a superpower wielded entirely by females.
My daughter noticed when she was approximately 3 that adventure stories were for boys. Magical powers are bestowed upon certain special, deserving boys — Peter Pan, Peter Parker, Harry Potter — while other boys (Luke Skywalker, King Arthur, the boy-esque Bagginses) inherit potent tools that aid them in their fight for right. Some boy-heroes work alone (Superman, Spider-Man), others in teams (X-Men, Avengers); the girls, if they’re there at all, feel obligatory, ancillary, like sidekicks. But Lauren Faust’s career tracks closely with a sea change in entertainment for girls, starting with the makeover of the movie princess, who no longer cools her heels, locked up or asleep, as she attends to her prince, but outfights and outshoots her brothers (Brave), defies convention (Maleficent), heals the sick (Tangled), and copes with the existential consequences of supernatural gifts (Frozen). At this very moment, dissertations are being written (“Hermione Granger and the Heritage of Gender”) about the magical Muggle-born who bravely claims a place for girls in worlds — of wizards, of English boarding schools — that were formerly hostile to them, and Pixar is putting the finishing touches on Inside Out, to be released this summer, which unfolds inside a girl’s brain. The YA shelves are filled with girl vampires, girl warriors, girls who can fly, and orphaned sisters destined for greatness. There’s Wicked, of course. And for my money, the most exquisite indicator of the ascendancy of the underage superheroine is Broadway’s Matilda, a musical adaptation of a Roald Dahl tale, featuring a cranky, sensitive, brainy girl with a finely tuned sense of justice, who, when pushed past her limit, resembles the Hulk more than any little girl in the history of myth.
Faust was a lonely child who spent a lot of time in her room in suburban Maryland playing with her beloved My Little Pony dolls. Her first pony, which she bought with her own money when she was 7, was called “Peachy.” “I wasn’t so much a Barbie girl. I wasn’t into combing hair and changing clothes,” Faust told me. She loved her brother’s X-Men comics, too, and didn’t see why stories for boys and for girls had to be so different. But Hasbro earned her devotion forever when Faust learned it also produced ponies with unicorn horns and wings. “That was the real clincher for me. I was already reading The Chronicles of Narnia, and I realized: My Little Pony isn’t just horses. It’s fantasy.”
Faust found her tribe and her vocation at CalArts, but she remained infuriated — “as a feminist and on a practical level” — that girls’ entertainment was so belittled by her peers, deemed “automatically stupid and automatically lame and automatically unworthy.” She saw the problem differently: Girls didn’t dislike cartoons because of their gender; they disliked them because they understood they were being condescended to. “I didn’t like growing up being told things for girls were stupid and therefore I was stupid,” she told me. She caught an episode of a Strawberry Shortcake reboot one afternoon in the mid-aughts. “Not one single person who worked on this show cared about it. They thought, This is a dumb show for little girls, and I need a paycheck so I’m just going to crap something out and go home.”
The Powerpuff Girls proved Faust’s point. Created by her husband, Craig McCracken (and originally named The Whoopass Girls), Powerpuff was a superhero cartoon featuring three bubble-shaped female avengers of preschool age — “sweet little kindergarten girls beating people up,” says Faust, who worked on the show, first as a storyboard artist, then as a writer and a director. During its six-year run, Powerpuff developed a cult following among kids and their parents as well, at the very moment that it became cool among some grown-ups to demonstrate interest in Japanese anime at dinner parties and to smoke a little weed and tune in to the Cartoon Network after the kids were in bed. Powerpuff was nominated for five Emmys and won two.
When, in 2008, a Hasbro executive invited Faust to pitch a My Little Pony reboot, the first thing she did was to pull Peachy off the shelf. Within six weeks, she had made a “Bible,” 40-plus pages of sketches rendering the universe that had existed in her 8-year-old mind. And the thing that Faust insisted on most of all was that her main characters, her core six, be dimensional — differentiated from one another and flawed. Most shows for girls have “one archetype,” Faust told me. “She’s nice and she’s sweet and she cares about her friends and she likes to share. And the only difference between any of them is this one likes pink and this one likes blue. That’s the range of personalities girls get to have. But that’s incorrect. There are lots of different ways to be a girl.”
The executives at Hasbro said they wanted their show to be about friendship, and Faust wasn’t sure what they meant by that. But she knew that, as a teenager, when she had finally experienced real friendship, it had been like magic. “When I made those friends, they were so precious to me,” she told me. “Sometimes I wonder if that’s the appeal of the show. When you take a look at the Bronies, they’re probably the odder kids in their school. They’re not typical. They must have caught on to that message under the surface of My Little Pony: that friendship means we’re all being ourselves and we’re all accepting of one another.” When season one first aired, My Little Pony was an instant sensation, drawing young girls, yes, but also teenagers and grown-ups. My Little Pony is now broadcast in 170 countries; in the first three months of this year, it drew over 12 million American viewers.
Bronies, especially, get a pervy rap. But according to the tiny group of self-appointed MLP cultural analysts, the show’s appeal is actually the opposite of fetishistic. People like it because it’s earnest. Jed Blue, a technical writer who has self-published a book of critical essays called My Little Po-Mo, places the Pony phenomenon within the New Sincerity movement (which made David Foster Wallace’s heartfelt Kenyon speech on the importance of empathy win the internet in 2013). “There’s not a lot of hate in the show,” says Ezra Scott-Henning, the Wesleyan freshman who started watching My Little Pony with friends two years ago and now owns 26 Pony dolls, including his favorite, a Pinkie Pie plushy with curly pink hair. “There’s a lot of sweetness and love, and people are attracted to that sweetness because it’s hard to find in other places.” For all the praise heaped on difficult TV in the new age of the anti-hero, the truth is that most people — even the most jaded viewers — watch TV to relax. Which is what Pony does: invites viewers to relax. It’s reassuring, some would say, to the point of coma-inducing. The cost of that is some narrative corniness, absolutely, but if corniness is disqualifying, then Parks and Recreation and Parenthood would already be off the air. Marsha Redden, an L.A. psychologist, has surveyed hundreds of Bronies. “People tell us that after they’ve played a lot of video games, there’s nothing like going to My Little Pony, or, after a miserable day or a bad exam, to turn on My Little Pony.”
And then there’s that phrase, the one meant for a two-kittens-in-a-teacup poster. Like all catchy aphorisms, “Friendship is magic” works on a couple levels. For one thing, it is actually kind of true. As Scott-Henning puts it: “When you have people around you who protect you and relate to you and are your close friends, that does appeal greatly.” Also, it’s aspirational. Nobody ever feels quite full of friendship, and everybody wants more of it, even if it’s embarrassing to admit. But talk to the Bronies and the Pegasisters and they’ll point to something else, too, an ideal so dangerously earnest that it risks universal derision, but visionaries throughout history — Jesus and Lenin, Mohammed and Joseph Smith — have staked their lives on it, the idea that a small, committed band of friends can change the world, can give hope to the hopeless and justice to the suffering. What if “friendship” as envisioned in My Little Pony really functioned as a geopolitical force and could ease global problems, such as inequality, terrorism, mistrust? The Bronies and Pegasisters believe it could. “The notion of friendship resonates in a way that it wouldn’t before,” says Blue. “The Occupy movement is friends of friends organizing themselves. The Arab Spring organized the same way. There is an extent to which having friends of friends of friends has become a kind of power.” When, last month, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, and Sarah Silverman set about making a video explaining income inequality for Paul Allen’s “We the Economy” series, they made a My Little Pony parable called “The Unbelievably Sweet Alpacas.”
Having built Equestria and inspired megafandom overnight, Faust left the show just one season in after clashing with her bosses over production schedules and creative control. But four years after her departure, fans still refer to Faust with the reverence of a people remembering a distant god. The parting was an unhappy one for Faust — “It’s very painful for me. I poured my heart and soul into My Little Pony. I left the show, but I kind of feel like it was taken away from me” — and she licked her wounds for a long time. But recently she’s found a new gig, one that promises to allow her to immerse herself once again in her favorite idea: the healing powers of friendship. Together with Sony Pictures, she is working on a treatment for an animated feature based on the mythic Greek monster Medusa. In her version, Medusa — the most iconic female villain in the encyclopedia of myth, she with the snakes for hair and the power to turn mortals into stone — is misunderstood, an exceptional figure who just hasn’t yet found her place or her people. Faust’s Medusa starts to brighten when she meets others like her: deformed, outcast, with an appetite for murder. “They glom on to each other.” Faust says. “It’s like, ‘Hey, we found each other, and we’re all going to be who we are and like each other anyway.’”