My Little Pony: Even better than The Powerpuff Girls

A children’s television cartoon that appeals to boys and girls, men and women, is a rarity.

The Powerpuff GirlsThe Powerpuff Girls exemplified this. In 1998, it stunned the television industry by crossing demographic barriers. The combination of extreme cuteness and extreme strength in well-written characters proved a point: Boys (and men) will indeed watch a show about girls, IF the characters have … well … character.

(Writers, take note: To be successful, girl characters need to be defined by more than their sex. “Girl” is not a character.)

Because of The Powerpuff Girls‘ success, the networks greenlighted a bunch of other girl hero cartoons. After years of being depicted in passive secondary roles or insipid leading roles, girls were everywhere.

Milky Way by Lauren FaustNear the end of the decade, cool cartoon girls were no longer on-trend. But while working on Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, Powerpuff animator and writer Lauren Faust was developing a new concept: Milky Way and the Galaxy Girls. Despite her best efforts (chronicled on her blog), these great characters never got a television show (though they did enter production as some really nice plush dolls).

Enter the Ponies

When Faust pitched the Milky Way show to Hasbro execs, her approach resonated with them. They didn’t have a place for Milky Way, but they wondered: would she re-imagine the My Little Pony brand with them?

Applejack & Rainbow DashAt first, Faust felt “skeptical”; as she explained in Ms. Magazine, “Shows based on girls’ toys always left a bad taste in my mouth, even when I was a child. They did not reflect the way I played with my toys.” But she realized that if she took the lead on the new My Little Pony, she could rebut “the perception that ‘girly’ equals ‘lame’ or ‘for girls’ equals ‘crappy'”. So, she developed the characters and the show, and she led the production of season one of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.*

MLP: Friendship is Magic vs. The Powerpuff Girls

I love putting current media texts in the context of their predecessors. So, let’s consider: how does MLP stack up against those pioneers, the PPGs?

  1. Both feature a range of female characters who are individuals in their own rights.
  2. Both feature lead characters who are active, smart, and have agency–arguably making them good role models for children.
  3. They appeal to boys and girls alike, thanks in large part to their non-stereotypical characters. (I recall one mom telling me that her five-year-old son “insisted Buttercup is a boy”; similarly, my three-year-old son seems to believe that the pony Rainbow Dash is a boy, calling her a “he.”)
  4. They appeal to adults as well as children; MLP has a devoted following of male teenagers and adults called “bronies,” who are such dedicated fans they even have their own MLP convention.

Furthermore:

  • MLP is produced specifically as a children’s show (rather than for Cartoon Network), so the producers had to adhere to Educational and Informational standards. This means there’s less chance of the characters modeling bad behaviors.
  • The PPGs featured a lot of fighting, and many parents objected to the frenetic violence. In contrast, the ponies exist in a more peaceful realm. For example, when the ponies attempt to drive a dangerous dragon away, only gentle Fluttershy succeeds: after giving the dragon a stern talking-to about bullying, he agrees to leave.

Finally, while the PPGs offered three character “types” — Blossom, a smart girl; Bubbles, a cute girl; and Buttercup, a tough girl — MLP’s six leads have more range, individually and collectively. Perhaps my favorite quote from Faust’s piece in Ms. is this, on what she really wants viewers to take away from the show:

the six leads from MLP: Friendship is MagicThere are lots of different ways to be a girl. You can be sweet and shy, or bold and physical. You can be silly and friendly, or reserved and studious. You can be strong and hard working, or artistic and beautiful. This show is wonderfully free of “token girl” syndrome, so there is no pressure to shove all the ideals of what we want our daughters to be into one package. There is a diversity of personalities, ambitions, talents, strengths and even flaws in our characters–it’s not an army of cookie-cutter nice-girls or cookie-cutter beauty queens like you see in most shows for girls.

::nodding:: Yes. That’s really important.

Parents: Have you seen My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic yet? What do you and your children like best about it? Are there any elements that give you pause?

Interested in reading more about girl heroes and girls’ television cartoons? Check out my new book, Growing Up With Girl Power.

Do you enjoy this blog? Please follow me on facebook or twitter. Thank you!


* I was sorry to learn that Faust left her position as MLP’s producer after its first season was complete. I wonder what the second season has in store, with Faust in only a consulting role. But I’m definitely looking forward seeing whatever she moves on to!

63 Comments on “My Little Pony: Even better than The Powerpuff Girls

  1. Great job on this one, honestly. I agree completely to everything that was said. 🙂

  2. I gotta agree with you on this. The show is very good and does target all demographics. I’m a 25 yr old male and I watch this show and highly enjoy it. I am what you call a, “Brony”.

    • Thanks, Kol! You know, I think it’s the same principle as with really good YA literature. If it’s written well enough, people outside the demographic will read it, regardless of who the target audience is SUPPOSED to be.

  3. My only worry about the show lies with Rainbow Dash. It seems like the characters have been trying to strip her of her personality in a way, especially in Season 2 where she has two consecutive episodes that fall into the “realizing her flaws” sort of formula; one in particular features her fancying herself as a superhero of sorts, only to be dissuaded from doing good deeds in a cockamamie scheme to cull the pride she was feeling when she saved the lives of her fellow ponies.

    • That *is* worrisome. Rainbow Dash is amazing. Let tomboys be tomboys! Tomboy-reform storylines are just about getting girls to conform. Not cool at all.

      • I have to disagree with you: I don’t believe that the show is ‘stripping’ Rainbow Dash of her personality with these two episodes. Rainbow Dash has always been the sort of pony who wants to be first, whether that is coming first in a race or courageously stepping into the dark cave. She is very competitive in that way, and I feel like these two episodes attempted to show how purely being competitive could end up with entirely different results. An example being, when Rainbow Dash holds the contest to find the best pet for her, she completely neglects the responsibilities of a real pet and instead tries to find the pet which is most like her. Therefore she ignores “Tank” the turtle because he seems the exact opposite: slow, bland, boring, and not much of a challenge. The episode ends with the moral of the story being that a good friend doesn’t have to be a mirror copy of yourself.
        Rather than curbing Rainbow Dash’s “tomboyishness”, I feel as if the writers in “Mare-do-Well” tried to show how too much pride could be a bad thing (and it certainly is). Jon, I’m afraid you didn’t post all of the details of that episode: Yes, RD began to picture herself as a superhero of sorts, and yes, her friends did construct a cockamamie scheme to try and humble her friend, but this was mainly due to the fact that RD’s pride had started to get in the way of her saving people. For example, despite realizing the impending danger of a certain pony who was hurtling towards the ground in a popped air balloon, RD took time to finish signing her autographs before jumping in to help. As a result, her heroic act became a failure and, if it wasn’t for her friends, the pony wouldn’t have been saved. If anything, this episode was less of a character strip for RD, and more of curbing the growth of pride. RD was becoming *more* prideful, to the point where it impeded on other’s safety, and that’s when her friends stepped in. I don’t believe her overall personality will change because of this.
        I agree with you, Rebecca, when you say to “let tomboys be tomboys”, but one can be a tomboy without being arrogant or overly prideful, correct?

        • I agree with u rainbow dash is loyalty there just jelly cause rainbow dash is the best

      • The issue that episode wasn’t with her being a tomboy, but that she let fame get to her head. She got to a point for awhile where saving ponies took a backseat to autographs and attention, and that was when her friends came in. While back-to-back wasn’t the best timing, the takeaway was definitely about not being self-centered (and not judging on appearances in “May the Best Pet Win”) than about being a tomboy.

        Also, since I’m shoehorning all my thoughts into one reply, Rainbow Dash is definitely amazing; It was a clip of the sonic rainboom that introduced me to the G4 ponies (actually, I was hardly aware they existed before then), and it sold me pretty quick.

        And your son isn’t the only one to make that mistake with Rainbow Dash… I didn’t get to see much PPG, so it took me awhile to comprehend the fact that a “girls cartoon” could be written and produced that well, and oddly, took my sister even longer (She laughed at me for 5 months before I insisted she at least know what she was laughing at me for and showed her a few. Later that week she was asking where to find more episodes). Both of us referred to Dash as “he” a few times on accident (as well as a bit of denial and such) before getting to know the series.

        Anyways… tl:dr: Great article, totally agree that good writing oversteps intended lines, and apologies for my trademark wall of rambling text. (I try to keep to a minimum if the page isn’t directed specifically at bronies, and this time I just couldn’t.) Looking at your other articles and such, I’ll be pointing my sister your way. She was pretty fed up with some companies half-efforts to appeal to girls for awhile.

      • Oh horsefeathers (to use a phrase from the show). May the Best Pet Win had nothing to do with Rainbow Dash’s shortcomings. It was a lesson anyone could have learned.
        As for Mysterious Mare-Do-Well, they only dissuaded Rainbow Dash from being an arrogant, self centered, cocky, overconfident, blusterer. She doesn’t usually behave like that, the moral was that she was letting her awesomeness go to her head. The problem wasn’t being a superhero, it was her doing stuff along the lines of being too busy signing autographs to catch someone who was falling.

        Also, isn’t every episode a “realizing your flaws” formula to some extent?

        • Absolutely, and they’re pretty much all extensions or flip sides of the girls personalites and virtues.

          Twilight’s fastidious nature borders on neurotic control freak (Lesson Zero), Rarity can be a prissy, vain drama queen at times (Sisterhooves Social, and many, MANY gags), Applejack is stubborn and proud (Applebuck Season), Fluttershy borders on being an outright doormat (Stare Master), RD is loudmouthed, cocky and insanely competitive, to the point of having a serious fear of failure (Mysterious Mare Do Well, May The Best Pet Win, Sonic Rainboom). And Pinkie Pie, well she’s just nuts.

    • There’s a few reasons that “Mysterious Mare Do Well” is a divisive episode and that’s a big one. The idea, as far as I can see, was that Rainbow Dash had gone way past pride and was just plain arrogant, but the whole scheme just game across as the rest of the Mane 6 being just as jerky as RD was being.

    • Yes, except you don’t mention how absurdly arrogant Rainbow Dash was being. Yes, she should be proud of her accomplishments, but she went so far as to gloat WHILE saving people, bother people for their problems, etc. She stopped saving ponies for the sake of it, but rather to create a better image and more fame. And I rather like the “realizing their own flaws” formula, although I can understand why someone would dislike it.

      • Wow, these comments are really helpful, everyone! My son and I are only on the sixth episode of Season Two, but believe me, I’ll be watching those Rainbow Dash episodes with your points in mind. (My son can’t wait; he keeps asking, “Where is Rainbow Dash, mama???”)

  4. this is quite a good article, Faust has done some amazing work before and it’s nice to see a good comparison. I am one of the bronies mentioned and the characters are one of the main attractions for me, seeing them get defined across the episodes and how they interact with each other and the world around them is entertaining to watch! The pony Pinkie-Pie is especially unique in the way she moves and acts, each part defining who she is. I appreciate the fact that Hasbro knows and encourages the fandom that has grown, there has been a bit of tension but overall the support has been great from them!

    • Thank you, Tom. Like you, I’ve been watching Faust’s work evolve over the years, and I appreciate the awareness she brings to her work. When it comes to these issues of gender and representation, she just gets better and better. I so wish she were in charge of Season 2!

  5. I am a 21 year old female. I grew with the Powerpuff Girls, so I had to watch MLP:FIM when I heard about Faust being involved. When I am a mom in the future, I want my kids to watch it too!

    • Thank you, Carol! I started watching MLP:FIM for the same reason: specifically because Faust was involved. I think the PPGs were a great show–but from a parents’ perspective, MLP is even better. 🙂

  6. Excellent article. I especially like how it’s not biased negatively as about 80% of them seem to be. I am a 15 year old male that enjoys the show a lot. Why? Because I find the characters engaging and the way that their personalities play off each other hilarious. Another reason is that Faust was behind it. I’ve always enjoyed her work.

    Again, good article. T’was an enjoyable read, for once.

    • I appreciate that, Thomas! I’m as critical as anyone of the media, but from my perspective–being especially concerned about how girls are represented on television–I think MLP is a good choice.

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  8. Get ready for a wave of bronies. By this time tomorrow night “the herd” will be in full force in this great article.

    • Tom, you’re so right: I’ve had 1,200 views so far, most from the FB brony page. Wow! I am really glad so many folks are enjoying the article.

      Thanks, bronies! 🙂

  9. 25 year old brony here. Just wanted to say thank you for providing a quality article that really makes some great points. I’ve been watching the shows Faust has worked on since before I knew she worked on them, heh. When I found out she’d worked on them, though, it certainly didn’t surprise me. And as others have said, it’s also great to see Hasbro and The Hub acknowledging us bronies and doing the occasional shout-out to us, like confirming Derpy Hooves as a canon character. Everyone loves that googly-eyed pony.

    • Thanks, Nick! I’ve been thinking about girls’ media culture for a long time. MLP:FIM is not in my book, but a lot of what I discuss re: the PPGs and girl power certainly prefigures the new ponies. So I’m happy to be able to share my thoughts with you all here.

  10. Fantastic article!
    I have fond memories of the Powerpuff Girls. As the years went by, and I got more interested into animation, I started becoming familiar with names such as Genndy Tartokovski, Craig McCracken, and Lauren Fuast. As a result, I started looking towards their work, and enjoying them immensely!

    When I learned about the whole pony craze, I was skeptical at first. I gave the first two episodes a shot, and became a fan, a brony. When I learned that Lauren Fuast was leading the project, I was overjoyed. No wonder why the show was so good.

    I’m an eighteen year old male that thoroughly enjoys My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, due to its quality of animation and writing. These candy colored ponies have also helped expand my capabilities as an artist, for which I am incredibly grateful to the show for.

    Good work on the article, Rebecca! You did a fantastic job of comparing and contrasting MLP with PPG!

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Ace. I just checked out your DeviantArt page, and your work looks great! It’s the best when someone else’s work is creative enough to inspire our own creativity in return. 🙂 Anyhow, so glad you enjoyed the article!

  11. omg i just HAD to read this cuz of the title! ^^ im now 18 guy but wen i was a kid i watched powerpuff girls and then later fosters, and coincidentally MLP now 🙂
    this show is really funny and your article is nicely informative. glad girls and boys are watching shows from the chick that entertained ME as a kid. 🙂

    this was a good read thx rebecca 🙂

    • Alex, that’s great! How cool that you got to grow up on shows with such interesting characters. I’m glad you found that this article was informative. I think it’s so useful to chart the genealogy, so to speak, of TV shows. It’s fun to follow different threads back!

  12. The only problem I have with the show is the lack of strong male characters. Sure, there’s a great fandom that creates stories and personalities for the background males, but from what I’ve seen- there aren’t many good male characters. We’re supposed to be equals, us girls and boys, right? We’ve so far got some snobby rich male ponies, and one-liner Big Macintosh. It may be a girls show, but most of the male ponies are only seen doing menial labor tasks without speaking parts. Pulling trains, carting around Princess Celestia, plowing fields, carrying heavy loads.. I’m all for girl power, but you gotta give the boys a spotlight once in a while! Even the Power Puff Girls had the Rowdy Rough Boys, Mojo Jojo, the Mayor, the Professor, and others who escape my mind at the moment.

    Otherwise, this is a beautiful article for a beautiful show. Bronies for life :3 /)

    • Thanks for the compliment, Amanda!

      That’s definitely a good point about how male characters are portrayed. I know there are some male pegasi that Rainbow Dash looks up to, and they’re portrayed in an appealing way, as being cool–but besides them and Big MacIntosh and the Prince that Rarity fawns over, I’m drawing a blank.

      It’s interesting to think about how the absence of boy characters fits in the overall trajectory of girl power. In my book I have a whole chapter criticizing the “girls rule / boys drool” mentality of girl power, such as the PPGs, which were predecessors to MLP:FIM. So many male characters portrayed in those shows only served to demonstrate the girls’ superiority. (I’m thinking of the Amoeba Boys and the Gangrene Gang on PPG.)

      So it’s interesting that in MLP:FIM, the male ponies are mainly invisible. “Not central to the plot” is an improvement over “made to look dumb.” The focus of MLP:FIM is by necessity on the friendship of the six main characters, but I’d love to see an episode in which we get to know some of the interesting boy ponies a little better!

      Which boy ponies would you most like to see focused on?

      • I would LOVE to see Big Macintosh with more of a speaking part! He’s just so cool. I’m also a total fan of “Doctor Whooves”…although It’d be too far-fetched to ask for him to have a british accent and fly around in a big blue box! Maybe one of the cute little colts? Like Pipsqueak!

        • Amanda! A tardis somehow appearing on MLP:FiM would be AMAZING. Throw one in for the parents, writers!

          I agree it’d be nice for Big Mac to speak a bit more. But he’s really the strong, silent type, isn’t he?

      • I’m always amazed when people talk about the lack of male characters, that they totally overlook Spike, who in spite of being a “baby” dragon, often takes the role of the male lead. You just have to look to his (hopelessly one-sided) crush on Rarity to see that he’s clearly being portrayed as masculine.

      • I agree with Amanda in wanting there to be more of a male presence but I am reminded of it’s target demographic. I mean it’s highly unlikely that the creators would change such a fundamental aspect of the show for minority demographics that have popped up because of how good the show is. Being slightly disappointed doesn’t seem to be enough, but just like in the past I could just as well be surprised again by the fantastic writers and producers.

        Also, it seems you have forgotten about Spike who is by far the most developed male character in the show. Although he is a slightly immature “baby” dragon he often is the element of reason when it seems all the other ponies are thinking irrationally.

        • Blackbear and Dan, good points re: Spike. As a viewer, I guess I always read him as filling the “younger brother” role so common in earlier girl power shows, like Kim Possible. I suppose that’s part of why his crush on Rarity reads as so utterly hopeless; girls don’t date their best friends’ (real or metaphoric) little brothers! 🙂

  13. Another thing that makes this show fascinating and unique is how much interaction there is between the fans and the staff. Case in point, I (and I suspect many others) heard about this article from Michelle Creber, the voice of Applebloom in the show.

    • That’s really cool, Tylendal! Where did she share it? A big, cheerful “hello” to her and any other production members who might drop by! 🙂

  14. Just curious if you saw the results of the 2012 Herd Census, demographic data from over 9,000 bronies who filled out a 10 question survey:

    http://www.herdcensus.com/

    There’s a great chart in the PDF tracking how bronies shift from Fluttershy to Twilight Sparkle as favorite pony as they age.

    Coder

    • Coder, I heard of it but had not seen the data. I will be sure to sift through it! I am actually hoping to do a more qualitative study of bronies, using a gender communication lens. When that project is ready to go, what would you recommend as the best venue(s) to publicize my recruiting efforts?

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  16. Nice write-up.

    Actually, it should be noted that they got rid of the e/i thing on season 2. Newer episodes are definitely more crazier and slapstick-heavy than season 1 (I consider that a good thing. I love those things!)

    • Charles, thanks so much for reading. You make a good point: We are just now working our way through Season 2, and I’m surprised by how different it feels! Don’t get me wrong, we still enjoy it–but my comments above about the E/I standards are definitely more relevant to Season 1 than 2.

      (For that reason, parents who are concerned when characters model bad behavior so that it can be “corrected” in the narrative might not like Season 2 as much as Season 1.)

      Anyhow, you are totally right. Thank you for bringing this up! I wonder what prompted the change? Does anyone have any behind-the-scenes insight?

      • I’m guessing it’s a response to the fandom thing. Season 2 scripts were completed before the show’s popularity took off, but the animation began production early 2011, when the whole thing exploded. I guess the animators noticed that the fans like it when the animation is over-the-top, so they decided to increase it in the newer episodes.

        (Below are spoilers for today’s episode)
        The latest episode not only featured a speaking appearance of fan-favorite Derpy Hooves, but she was referred to by name (I don’t know how it was written in the script, but I’m guessing it was originally Fluttershy or some other pegasus).

        The episode ended with Rainbow Dash and others abandoning Rarity and Pinkie Pie in the middle of the desert. The two were forced to return home by using a railcar. This was, of course, played for laughs. I have doubts it would’ve flied under the e/i radar.

  17. Although this article may have been written a while ago I enjoyed reading it and felt it all rang very true. I hope to enjoy this show with my own three year old son and my one year old daughter when she get’s a little bigger =D I’m wondering is it on TV or DVDs? It may have said in the article but I thought I would ask =)

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  19. long ago year 12,becuase she my mom is maria my baby me year 3 age of the a party she a for a party told me not joke.

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