Observations on MLP: Embracing Girliness

Text version:

I recently participated in a podcast discussing the relationship between MLP fans and masculinity, during which an interesting point was brought to attention about the girliness that exists in MLP. I’ve started noticing that a lot of MLP fans claim to like the show “in spite” of its girliness. It seems like girliness in the show is treated as a hurdle, or something that has to be “seen through” to reach the real meat of the show, and I think that this mode of thinking is antithetical what the show is trying to accomplish, and in some ways is cruel to the characters and what they stand for.

In the podcast, BronyDebates stated that he didn’t see the characters as being male or female, but saw them as characters on an equal level. I understand his sentiment, and it’s a noble one, but to get an idea of why it’s wrong-headed, imagine what an important woman in your life would think if you told them that you “don’t see them as a woman.” Think about what that would suggest.

The idea that we should treat one-another as equals is beautiful, but treating other people with equal amounts of respect isn’t the same as ignoring what makes them different. Rather, it’s about recognizing them as different, and respecting those differences.

The problem with ignoring the feminity of MLP’s characters is that the characters are, in fact, female, and men and women are not the same. When Lauren Faust made these characters, she purposefully wanted them to be recognizably female. She didn’t want them to be characters you could slap a masculine jawline on and call them a man, she wanted them to be strong, respectable WOMEN.

What makes so many girls shows terrible isn’t the inclusion of girliness, but the hyper-emphasis on certain social notions of what girliness is, and ignoring other aspects of being a woman. When a show depicts girls as nothing but obsessed with fashion and constantly writing in their diaries about cute boys, it ignores that there are other aspects of feminity. However, discounting those things would be equally misrepresentative of what it means to be a girl.

THIS WAS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT TO LAUREN FAUST. She did NOT want My Little Pony to be good in SPITE of its girlness, she wanted to EMBRACE girliness as something that could BE good, and that deserved respect. She wanted to show intelligent, interesting characters who still wanted to have slumber parties and wear cute dresses and maybe even feel lucky when they became a damn princess.

Faust never ignored or avoided feminity. She could have written Applejack, for instance, as one of those tomboy characters who openly rejects everything feminine, but instead she wrote her as a character who, while being a hard worker that isn’t afraid to get dirty, and can hold her own in a rodeo, still likes to dress nice for the Grand Galloping Gala (note: in Look Before you Sleep she doesn’t reject Rarity’s dress and stuff because it’s girly, but because it’s impractical), still is comfortable talking about friendship and togetherness, etc. In fact, in a scene that might be called emblematic of what Lauren brought to the series, Applejack gets mad at Spike, saying, “that’s just like a boy. Can’t handle the least bit of sentiment!” This is the least traditionally girly character in the show openly defending something girly.

Rainbow Dash has a hard time getting sentimental, but it has nothing to do with her rejecting femininity. It’s more about her difficulty with authenticity and desire to look cool. Rainbow Dash still likes to wear a dress, and is still a girl, no matter what those weird gender-reversed dubs may suggest. (Note: I don’t mean to suggest that being a girl means liking dresses. It was just an easy go-to)

The reason I’m pointing all of this out is that it’s kind of a big deal. One of the worst things about most female characters is that authors think the only way to avoid writing stereotypical females is to ignore feminity.

MLP is refreshing because it never brings all this bullshit into the picture. Feminity is neither forced nor avoided, it is simply allowed to BE. That’s what makes these characters so damn believable. They were built from the ground up as women, but without all of the social bullshit clouding their characterization.

8 thoughts on “Observations on MLP: Embracing Girliness

  1. Ohhhh, man…you’ve opened up a can of worms here. First off, so that you know—I agree. This is an astute and concise post.

    Here’s the problem. It all comes down to how much differences *should* matter in society. Yes, women are physically different (on average: boobies could be smaller, figures could be ganglier, heights could be greater). Yes, women are neurologically different, and hormonally different (on average: we can, in fact, nowadays fuck with that). Don’t know how much biology and anatomy, etc. you’ve done, but—well, women are even genetically different (SRY-5 that activates, leading to other changes that lead to the physical changes we easily recognize).

    Whatever elements in society need to factor in gender should factor them in, plain and simple. There are people who believe those elements are rapidly decreasing. The question for the times is, should we be happy or sad about this? Should we be proactively conservative or progressive? And where the hell do/should we want to go? The wisest people are rightly hesitant.

    This is why I very much appreciate Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (about a woman who leaves her husband to live with another man); critics are divided over its “feminism.” Feminism, by the way, is about determinedly showing all sides of what a woman has to go through in society and enlightening us as to how her will interacts with it; it’s not necessarily about being progressive. Tolstoy’s world focuses on a bunch of different women in a given society: their wanting things, being denied them because of society’s resistance, abandoning their gender roles, and suffering for them (as they of course logically would, given the setting). As most critics see it, Tolstoy never quite slips up. Even as he talks about how the main character has “abandoned her role,” sharp readers observe that he’s getting at about human responsibility in the context of society (which definitely exists and is, at the end of the day, the right thing), not spheres of domesticity. At some point you have to stop with the hyperactive existentialistic obsession and honestly try to deal with the shifty, scary world as it is and as it comes. Clannad was full of wacky bullshit, but it was trying to reflect this.

    And see, I don’t even call that feminism (I care about feminism, but I don’t call myself a feminist because I don’t feel comfortable with my lack of knowledge regarding the subject; I’m also vulgar and lustful, so…). I just call what Tolstoy and many others pulled off deep compassion, aesthetic morality, and a precise understanding exactly what the fuck being writing is supposed to be about. But I understand where the feminists are coming from, and wholeheartedly agree that it is a good thing to show all sides of an issue. Since, if we do that, no matter what society we end up in, we’ll have the ability to think over our actions, hesitate, and choose more wisely.

    This, of course, assumes a particular sort of relationship between art and life that I’ve already discussed with you over comment threads.

    Here’s the point, specifically talking about your topic. First, Equestria isn’t real. These protagonists are mares. So Faust is grabbing things from our world, Western values, and breathing them into a structure (really just stories, since HNNNGGG we have no goddamn databooks and artbooks, yet; fans re-experience and rebuild the “world”). Still, many things apply (some don’t; I’ll get into that).

    In fiction, men seem to have the better-developed roles, partly because men tended to do more outward and mobile stuff and partly because we still have vaguely interesting but low-resolution views of what women are capable of. There are folktales of women saving men (and frog princesses, for example), and they’re enriching to read, but that shit got suppressed. It’s hard to find. It’s not so much that people secretly hate women, but just don’t know and aren’t interested enough in figuring them out. And if you point out that certain tropes are marginalizing women, it’s understandable that people would defend themselves by pointing to the way things have been. And of course, that’s often bad.

    Is a girl’s playing in the mud and collecting bugs ungirly or unfeminine? Definitely, within our society. We may pretend we don’t care, or we may actually not (kudos, maybe), but that’s not the same as reality. People simply fought it a lot less in the 80s. In another society it might not be (because women might be the gatherers or breadwinners or something, in a different context), but something else would be. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more progressive. Breadwinning here and “breadwinning” in that other culture could have totally different connotations. It’s like, okay, what is the definition of power in a given society? And to what degree is it accessible by both sexes?

    What I’m trying to say is this: men will label anything, fucking ANYTHING as somehow masculine conquering if they can get their hands on it. Even subconsciously. When we want to denigrate something, we use “cunt, bitch, pussy” etc. To a less vulgar degree, same with the brony fandom. We’ve said, “True manliness, or true men respect MLP.” Nope, just wise people. Has little to do with being male (though maybe healthy understanding of gender involves awareness of right relationship between the two).

    Faust’s work is exploratory in that sort of way I expressed earlier—given certain limitations or definitions. Within a fantasy world, of fucking course, but the hope is that the Mane Six will serve as models for understanding of and behavior in the real world. I don’t think it *needs* men, but the presentation is a little lopsided. The only reason we don’t care is because we’ve been reared to implicitly understand that demographic implies majority sex of the cast. It isn’t true, though; Japan tends to do this in reverse, as we know (shoujo and stuff; but it’s still weird because the idea is often reduced to love interests and stuff like that). And maybe it’s okay not to care, in this context. The limitation is the fact that these women don’t seem to interact with men regularly, which brings to mind the all-girls school yuri fantasy. But, again, many of us wouldn’t care.

    So, as usual, my point is to “be aware.” I’m like Gus from the TV show Recess in that way, I guess. It comes down to intent vs. reality vs. fantasy. Feminism IS allowed to be, but within a fantasy vacuum. The experience is damn refreshing. What we, however, should as older viewers be asking is, “What about the unsaid? Does it matter?” Twilight’s onii-sama complex. Big Mac’s interactions with his siblings. Pinkie Pie’s father (the fact that her family looks Amish or Mennonite is…interesting), Rainbow’s dad. What’s going on? The next step for feminism (if one believes that Faust was really trying to do anything of the sort) is to honestly show to what degree gender roles matter or don’t matter. Thing is, Celestia and Luna rule the world. Discord was self-sufficient. The one-becomes-two-then-seeks-to-become one narrative of sexuality/gender may not work here. Besides Rarity, nobody really is sexually or mentally facing off against the male gender. That’s probably why I love Rarity the most, aesthetically. She seems to be the most realized as a woman. Not because she’s girly (though she’s attractive, sure), but because she has healthy understanding of both sides. That’s what the fuck men and women need. Then again, might only be because she’s most recognizable as a woman. Food for thought.

    • Haha, the only can of worms I opened was yours :p no but really the youtube comments have been an EPIC train of people agreeing with and/or defending me and like… crying with pride and stuff. It’s nice.

      Your comment is great, and a logical next step in what I’m talking about. You can probably guess why I didn’t address those things—I was actually able to make a concise point for once lol, and my post manages to not make any statements that contradict thinking on them further. It’s a great launching point for others to think about it more deeply.

      I want to give it all the thought in the world, but like you I don’t necessarily understand biology and stuff, and I’m also not sure what my goals are in pursuing the train of thought (beyond, “learning.”) In this case, I had the specific goal of just making sure people understood that femininity *is a thing* on some kind of level.

  2. I know I’ve sent you a bunch of response to your video already. I intend this as my final analysis (though still an addition to things I’ve already said).

    I think there’s something paradoxical about the concept of “embracing girliness”. If you accept that a trait is valuable regardless of gender, it’s not embracing girliness but embracing a human virtue, same as how I disagree with Bronydebates’ opinion that the only way to fail in manliness is to fail to be descent and provide for your family. To me that’s failing as an adult human, not as a “man”, because being good and taking care of others is valuable without relevance to gender. Or maybe I’m not understanding what you mean by “embracing.”

    Of course everything in any part of this discussion rests on what you mean by “girliness”. I think most guys do not genuinely dislike something because it is feminine, but because said thing does not jive with their tastes for reasons that might just as well bother Rainbow Dash or Applejack, and because said thing is a mass of things stereotypical of girls, saying it’s too “girly” is a convenient short-hand. Sappiness/fru-fru dresses for example. I don’t see a difference between a boy calling something girly and Applejack calling it fru-fru, other than that the boy is using a misnomer as shorthand.

    Some kneejerk responses to certain things you said.

    “and I think this mode of thinking is antithetical to what this show is trying to accomplish.”

    Than it didn’t accomplish it, did it? If guys are liking it in spite of “girliness” it failed to make that “girliness” something guys could appreciate.

    “If you told an important woman in your life you didn’t see them as a woman . . .

    I’m fine with the “don’t see you as a girl” thinking, it means you think of the person’s character being a result of them being a unique person and not because they’re a gender. I can understand how it would come out wrong, but I think that’s just it, it would just be coming out wrong.

    The word you use also has different connotations based on prejudice. “I don’t see you as a girl” sounds more complimentary than “I don’t see you as a woman.” “I don’t see you as a man” sounds more insulting than “I don’t see you as a boy.”. I think there is prejudice toward certain gender stereotypes here. “I don’t think of you as ‘a woman’ ” could be positive or negative based on connotations or meaning. “I don’t see you as an over-emotional gender stereotype who’s chromosomes make her cry more.” versus “I don’t see you as a fully fledged, nurturing fulfillment of a positive gender role.” Your argument and whether you’re right/wrong seems based on how the statement we’re talking about is phrased and what it conjures, rather than objective wrong-headedness.

    “it’s about recognizing them as different and respecting them as differences.”

    Which differences are we talking about and what is meant by “respect” If the difference is “Females wear dresses” and I’m pretty indifferent about that, am I “respecting” the difference or do I have to value it somehow to do so. What if I just don’t like a difference, let’s say I decide “Women spend too much time on their appearance, and I find that annoying and unnecessary.” Do I have to value everything different about women? What if some differences are just cultural BS?

    I’m not sure what’s meant by respect and think it’s gray which differences count or don’t count, but I don’t think every difference between every group of people should be automatically respected and celebrated. Guys are more likely to resort to violence or to hurt themselves to show off their manliness; to that I say it’s kinda stupid. They also like sports and drinking more; to that I’m indifferent or to some degree don’t get it and am like “whatever.”.

    “The problem with ignoring the femininity of the show’s characters.”

    When people, or at least I, talk about the show’s girliness, we’re talking about the show/character’s designs (the candy-colored cuteness, the frequency of musical numbers, etc.) not the characters themselves

    ” . . . Is that the characters are female and males and females are not the same.”

    So? Ignoring isn’t the same as denying. I acknowledge TS likes slumber parties and AJ has a female voice and hair style, I just don’t really care, so I focus on other aspects of their character. I see both by their character attributes and not their gender attributes. I realize the gender attributes exist, I’m just indifferent to them. I cannot bring myself to value them just because their female attributes, if that’s what you’re arguing. Some of these responses may have misunderstood your point.

    “She didn’t want them to be characters you can just slap a mascluline jaw line on and call them a man.”

    She succeeded with Rarity, Fluttershy and Pinkie but with AJ, TS and most of all RD, (She’s the main character most likely to have you needing to remind yourself she’s female, mainly due to her voice) you could switch out their voice and hair style for a male one in most scenes with them and have no discontinuity.

    “She wanted them to be strong, respectable WOMEN”

    I think when people say they simply think of the characters as characters and not girls, they mean that their gender differences doesn’t interfere with how relate-able they are to a male viewer, not that viewers accidentally think of them as boys. Except Rainbow Dash. Again, I think it’s the voice, in addition to the tomboyishness. I don’t have that problem with AJ. TS might also have that problem simply because as the main character, she’s most likely to be made into an audience surrogate and if said audience is male . . . well . . .

    By the way, what’s your opinion on Sarah Connor of Terminator 2: Judgement Day? She’s a strong female character, do you think the female bit gets lost?

    I feel like we might be understanding different things when talking about characters being women vs. men with boobs. I kinda feel like there’s some ambiguous sliding scale somewhere with the female soldiers from Battle Los Angelos at the most “Man with boobs” end of the scale but with ever non-stereotypical female character having their gender be irrelevant to varying degrees.

    “She did not want MLP to be good in SPITE of it’s girliness.”

    Once again, I feel you’re mixing together of the show’s girliness and the character’s girliness which i think are two separate topics.

    Anyway, if she wanted males to like the show BECAUSE of rather than IN SPITE of the girliness, she maybe should’ve changed the theme song and title, that being the first two big examples of girliness that I like the show in SPITE of. But maybe that’s not what you or others are thinking of when talking about girliness, highlighting again why I dislike “genderiness” words (manliness, femininity, etc.)

    “She wanted to embrace girliness as something that COULD BE good and deserves respect.”

    Once it’s good and deserves respect, people stop calling it girliness. But again, it depends what EXACTLY you’re referring to by “girliness”.

    Look Before You Sleep isn’t entertaining because a Faust proved li9king slumber parties itself deserved respect or was good, she just proved that a slumber party could be the backdrop of an entertaining plot. It could’ve been a camping trip and been equally interesting.

    Or do you mean the intended message was that slumber parties are a legitimate social activity?

    “She wanted intelligent, interesting characters who still wanted slumber parties and wear cute dresses and maybe even feel lucky when one of them becomes a goddamn princess”

    And she did. But that only proved intelligence and being interesting can co-exist with girliness, not that girliness itself was interesting or intelligent. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think femininity takes away from the main characters, I just see them the way I do their female voices. Acknowledgement and moving on to other things. But than, maybe that wasn’t your point, I feel like some of my responses are “off”.

    “They were built from the ground up as women, but without all of the social bullshit clouding their characterization.”

    I don’t think all of them were. To paraphrase Lauren Faust: “You think you know how to write women? You don’t. Write good characters. Than make them women.” Doesn’t sound like she built them from “the ground up” as women,

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