The recent popularity of My Little Pony has resulted in a fascinating phenomenon where many, many adults are watching the show for it's own merits and not because they have kids. But why, people ask, are these adults watching a "little girl's show"? There are only two possibilities:
- A large segment of the population has suddenly become fascinated with inane kiddie shows.
- Despite common opinion, it's not a "just a kid's show".
To determine which of the two it is, it would be natural to look at the marked ratings of a show to learn more about the target audience. TV shows and movies have ratings that tell parents that they're approved for all ages (TV-Y and G respectively). But there is a huge variety of shows in this rating range:
So the given rating doesn't help us learn who the show is really for, what do we do? In my experience, evaluating the content and execution lets you quickly sort shows into one of three categories:
Three Kinds of "Kid's Shows"
For almost a half century, Mickey Mouse cartoons were commonly shown prior to feature movies intended for people of all age ranges. But not every Mickey cartoon is like the other. In Mickey Mouse's Clubhouse, Mickey and his friends talk to the audience, wait for them to see the problem, and encourage them to "help" (Exactly like Dora and tons of other shows like it). These shows are clearly made to entertain babies possibly up to 3 or 4 years old (depending on the kid's tolerance). Common drama elements include "On no, my car is stuck" or "I lost my balloon; help me get it back!".
When children grow older than about 3, they leave baby and toddler status and become what most would consider "kids". During this exciting age range, you're unlikely to enjoy baby shows anymore, but there are plenty of great shows to replace it. For instance, my kids enjoy watching Littlest Pet Shop, Bakugan, Adventure Time, Spongebob, Barbie, Care Bears and so on.
Even as an adult, I fondly remember Saturday Morning cartoons consisting of colorful characters and magical worlds. But even though I was certain I would never outgrow my favorite shows, time proved otherwise. So what happened?
Eventually, I realized several things:
- Poor animation – Characters that look stupid and move unnaturally didn't draw me in.
- Bad voice acting – I stopped watching Thundercats the day I finally realized just how bad the delivery and dialogue was.
- Weak drama – Bad guys are evil "just because". They always want to destroy the world or rule it.
- Believability problems – Superman takes a bullet without blinking, but then dodges when the bad guy punches him? Give me a break.
- Continuity problems – That new job the main character got? Yeah, it's gone the very next episode.
- Relatability problems – "The babysitter is mean! Oh no!"
Now certainly there are a number of animations targeted towards teens and older that solve many of these issues. Some are raunchy toilet humor and violence (Aqua Teen Hunger Force), while others are brilliant satire (Robot Chicken), and others still make poignant social and political commentary (South Park). But even some kids shows solve these problems and transcend age ranges without being "adult only".
Shows for all Ages
Consider most major animated film releases. Movies like "The Lion King" and "Toy Story 3" are rated G because they were specifically designed to appeal to little kids, but they were ALSO designed to appeal to older audiences. They feature themes such as murder, betrayal, emotional trauma, the pain of growing up, responsibility, etc.
As for TV shows, example like Spongebob and Fairly Oddparents can have real issues like struggling for validation, striving for meaning in your life, the pain of working a job you hate, and facing the consequences of your bad decisions.
Where Does My Little Pony Fit?
Until recently, this was a really easy to answer question. There have been many iterations and reboots of the show, but each was the same: bad animation, bad voice acting, stupid plots, and a lot of giggling and "girl problems"; their outfit was stained, they weren't invited to the party, they argued over who gets to be "princess of the ball", etc.
It's history is one of the reasons that Lauren Faust, the recent version's creator, was hesitant to get involved with the franchise.
I was extremely skeptical at first about taking the job. … On TV, though, I couldn’t tell one girl character from another and they just had endless tea parties, giggled over nothing and defeated villains by either sharing with them or crying–which miraculously inspired the villain to turn nice. Even to my 7-year-old self, these shows made no sense and couldn’t keep my interest. No wonder the boys at school laughed at my Rainbow Unicorn Trapper Keeper.
Lauren Faust is a self-described feminist who has worked to bring better female role-models into her work over the last 16 years.
Cartoons for girls don’t have to be a puddle of smooshy, cutesy-wootsy, goody-two-shoeness. Girls like stories with real conflict; girls are smart enough to understand complex plots; girls aren’t as easily frightened as everyone seems to think. Girls are complex human beings, and they can be brave, strong, kind and independent–but they can also be uncertain, awkward, silly, arrogant or stubborn. They shouldn't have to succumb to pressure to be perfect.
In other words, what we typically think when we hear "girl's shows" is just one kind of girl; the frilly, vain, wants-to-be-a-princess image that Disney, Mattel, and even Hasbro themselves have been promoting and supporting for decades. But Hasbro gave Lauren a vast amount of creative freedom to make this show fit her ideals.
She brought together a dream team of animators, voice actors, and musical directors to break the stereotypes and make a show where:
- Girls of vastly different personalities were shown instead of the standard two (the nice and caring main character vs the selfish "evil girl").
- The characters face real problems that actually matter: Anxiety, worry, taking on too much responsibility, disappointing those who count on you, free will, etc.
- There is growth, change, and development across episodes and seasons instead of "full reset" every time.
- The humor and themes presented would appeal to adults too.
So What's the Verdict?
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (MLP:FiM) comes from a long legacy of frilly girly nonsense shows that your average adult (or male of almost any age) can barely tolerate to watch and everyone knows it. But the new version is the work a talented and experienced team led by a woman who has spent her entire career trying to sever the "girly = stupid and vapid" linkage.
Therefore, MLP:FiM IS a girl's show in the sense that it's targeted towards girls, but not in the sense that it's a completely different animal than what people usually consider a girl's cartoon.
But is it a "kid's show" as people constantly claim? Here's Lauren Faust's own words on the subject:
By design, MLP:FiM is a show for all ages; just like many other cartoons adults still enjoy (Anime, Spongebob, etc) and all the blockbuster animated films.
Adult Themes and Pop Culture References in MLP:FiM
For fun and because I find it useful having a list handy, here are some of the jokes or asides placed in the show for adults: