Dr. Rebecca Hains

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.

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* 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!

Challenging our assumptions: Is there anything good about Bratz?

Bratz dolls came back on the market this fall. They’d been out of production for a few years while their maker, MGA, fought a legal battle with Mattel. MGA emerged victorious—and critics everywhere shook their heads. What good can come of girls playing with sexy toys—toys that the American Psychological Association has singled out in a report [pdf] as contributing to the sexualization of girls?

I am no fan of Bratz. A few years ago, at the height of their popularity, I witnessed little girls’  delight in Bratz “fashionable” clothing—their revealing, age-inappropriate styles.  One girl asked her eight-year-old friend, “Do you wish you could dress like the Bratz dolls?”

Her friend replied longingly: “Oh, I do!”

Ugh.

But.

Children are full of surprises—and while I was conducting research for my book, Growing Up With Girl Power, I spent a lot of time with girls. Enough to experience the unexpected.

One afternoon, a group of girls shared their Bratz dolls with me. And much to my surprise, as their play got underway, they decided to ignore the dolls’ clothing completely. The reason?

They were using the dolls to “play slaves.”

As their collaborative play unfolded, these girls–who were African-American–acted out a chapter of U.S. history, focusing not on the dolls’ sexy clothing, but on their skin tones.

I was blown away.

Their white dolls were slave owners and underground railroad conductors; the black dolls were runaway slaves, empowered by Harriet Tubman.  And as they played, the girls imagined that they had “raggedy clothes.”

This kind of play was possible for one important reason: Bratz dolls featured more racial diversity than the other dolls the girls owned.  Even though the dolls directed children to focus on fashion, the girls in my study had enough agency to use these dolls in a way that MGA never imagined. In this instance, at least, diversity trumped too-sexy fashion play.

To me, this experience presents an important reminder to parents, educators, and critics: In addition to critiquing children’s popular culture, we need to spend time with children, exploring how they play and watch media. It’s important to get as full a picture as possible. Children have agency–and witnessing this process in action won’t necessarily mitigate our concerns, but it might challenge some of our assumptions.


P.S. Don’t think for a minute that the Bratz dolls’ racial diversity vindicates the brand. I’m not happy that Bratz are back in the market, even if their marketing team has promised they’ll be more “wholesome” this time around. Sorry, but girls wearing bustiers in the new Bratz ads? Please. I’d rather see an affordable line of dolls that are racially diverse and non-sexualizing gain success.

Parents: Any suggestions on good, affordable, diverse alternatives to Bratz?

Gift-buying guide for children

Looking for a special holiday gift for the children in your life? Here are some helpful tips for buying gifts for children–at the holidays and all year long.

1. Choose toys that encourage open-ended play.

Toys that encourage imaginative or creative play healthy choices that can provide children with the most fun in the long-term. Lower-tech, open-ended toys such as blocks, play food, and dress-up toys are great choices.

2. Avoid toys that tell children how to play.

Toys that direct children’s play should be given as gifts minimally. Avoid toys that have only one intended use and discourage creativity.

3. Choose toys that encourage interactions with others.

Toys that can be played with friends or by the whole family, such as sporting goods or board games, should be strongly considered.

4. Feel free to shop in the “wrong” toy aisle.

Although many stores arrange products by gender — with aisles of “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys”–consider these categories as mere suggestions. For example, little boys often enjoy play kitchens as much as girls do, but play food is in the girls’ aisle; girls often enjoy toys that involve constructing things, but these are usually placed in the boys’ aisle. Be creative in your search.

5. Try to minimize kids’ screen time.

It’s healthiest for kids to spend time in active, creative ways–not in front of a screen. Think carefully before buying any gift that directs kids observe or interact with on-screen content, no matter how “educational” their manufacturers claim them to be.

6. Look for experiences in addition to products.

Consider giving tickets to theatrical productions, memberships to zoos or museums, or vouchers for other outings. Things experienced, rather than consumed, are wonderful ways to create happy memories together after the holiday season is past.

7. Avoid on-screen products for children under two.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children younger than two watch no television. This applies to other screen-oriented products, as well (such as movies, computer games, and apps). Although it’s impractical for many families to follow the AAP guideline to the letter, it’s a good consideration while shopping: less is better, especially for the youngest of children.

8. Books, books, books!

For children of all ages, books make wonderful gifts. Every child should be given at least a few books at the holidays.

As published in the Globe North, Dec. 12, 2011