My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic seems to confirm adults’ worst fears about kids’ cartoons. The show, about female ponies with names like Twilight Sparkle and Pinkie Pie, is produced by Hasbro to convince kids to buy the line of toys it’s based on, just like the company’s Strawberry Shortcake and Rainbow Brite cartoons. But some adults don’t have time to object to Friendship is Magic: they’re too busy watching it and writing pony fan fiction. On the Hub in the U.S. and Treehouse in Canada, My Little Pony has become one of the most popular cartoons among grown-ups, for viewing and online discussion. A mostly older audience (male fans call themselves “Bronies”) has given
10 million over 35 million views to a fan website, Equestria Daily. The founder of the site, who goes by the name “Sethisto,” told Maclean’s that the show “accidentally targeted the Internet culture.”
On Know Your Meme, a site that keeps track of pop culture phrases that have become popular online, there are more entries for My Little Pony than for almost any other show. The wide-eyed character designs, from series creator Lauren Faust, are used as the basis for fan art and games, often involving pony-based catchphrases like “anypony” and “nopony.” 4Chan, a website known for flooding the Internet with nasty jokes, erupted in a “civil war” when a moderator tried to ban pony discussion; eventually the site gave up and had to allow its members to talk about Princess Celestia and the pretty pony tea parties. “4chan once took on the FBI and won,” a Brony told the New York Observer, “so you might say that My Little Pony is more powerful than the FBI.” Fans have even taken to creating pony memes based on other cartoons, like an instantly famous cartoon of an old Looney Tunes character screaming, “Confound those ponies! They drive me to drink!”
Yet unlike other cartoons with grown-up fans, My Little Pony makes almost no concessions to them. Shows like Rocky and Bullwinkle had pop culture jokes that kids weren’t supposed to understand, while Avatar: The Last Airbender was an adult phenomenon for its complex plotting. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has fewer topical jokes than Hasbro’s first My Little Pony cartoon from the ’80s (which once had moonwalking ponies). Stories, Sethisto says, are “simple and easy to follow.” Every episode ends with a moral, like: “If you try to please everypony, you oftentimes end up pleasing nopony.” Even Sesame Street, which parodies shows like Mad Men, tries harder to please adults.
So why are grown-ups fascinated with the southern accent of the cowboy-hat-wearing pony Applejack, or lines like, “Are you sure about this, Scootaloo?” It may help that the show has a basic visual appeal that lends itself to fan art. Sethisto says Hasbro gave Faust and the animation studio (Studio B in Canada) “the green light to do whatever they wish with the facial and body expressions.” The animation may be as limited in movement as the ’80s cartoons, but the characters are constantly given different cute, wide-eyed expressions; unlike most TV cartoons, where the acting is all in the voices, the ponies do a lot of visual acting. Simple gags, like the pony Fluttershy’s inept attempts to nurse a bird back to health, may also give the show a timeless feel; Sethisto praises Faust for “using some of the classic cartoon jokes while still remaining modern and up to date in every other department.” Grown-ups may like My Little Pony for the same reason they like old Disney cartoons—unlike self-consciously hip cartoons, they don’t try to be cool.
This success is giving new credibility to the strategy of building cartoons around toys, and that worries some cartoon fans. Amid Amidi of the website Cartoon Brew told Maclean’s that companies have “co-opted respected animation industry artists who lend these toy-driven series an air of creative legitimacy,” but that ultimately the real goal of a show like this is “to get viewers to hand over their money.” But Sethisto thinks that for him and his fellow bronies, the show has “evolved way past being just another 22-minute commercial. They gave the team enough freedom to really make it awesome.”
(Update: For a follow-up post addressing points made in comments, click here.)