A children’s television cartoon that appeals to boys and girls, men and women, is a rarity.
The 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.
Near 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?
At 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?
- Both feature a range of female characters who are individuals in their own rights.
- Both feature lead characters who are active, smart, and have agency–arguably making them good role models for children.
- 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.”)
- 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.
- 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:
There 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.
* 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!