My Little Pony: the serious side to singing pastel ponies

As the My Little Pony movie plays in cinemas, why there's lots going on behind the bright colours...

A spoiler for The Never Ending Story lies ahead.

My Little Pony fans have a tough ride. There’s a sweet spot for pre-teen girls where it’s just about socially acceptable to love the brightly coloured dream-horses, but after that, you start to get sideways looks when you walk slightly too slowly down the toy aisle in Tesco. Trust me, I know.

Male fans have it even worse, with any interest assumed to be sexual – either an indication of homosexuality or a cartoon bestiality fetish with disturbingly paedophilic overtones. Such a gendered reaction to a show featuring six female protagonists that preaches acceptance and love is an unfortunate reflection of toxic masculinity seeping into all stages of life. It’s sad that, to some, these conclusions are more understandable than a boy being genuinely interested in a toy line that has successfully expanded into a spin-off series of movies and TV shows. Whoever heard of that making for a popular franchise? 

But ignore the neigh-sayers, as, 36 years after the first plastic pastel pony hit the shelves, a new movie has taken a respectable $30m global box office in the three weeks since release. This is not the first time the ponies have made it into cinemas – in 1986, the original generation burst onto the big screen, battling the evil witch Hydia, her incompetent daughters and an all-consuming, unstoppable purple sludge monster called the Smooze.

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While the gargantuan slime-beast was only a secondary antagonist with a catchy song, its ability to destroy anything in its path, living or not, was genuinely terrifying. Aside from turning beautiful fields into barren wastelands, it could also throw chunks of itself which, when attached to living beings, turned them into grumpy, mean creatures unable to care about each other, causing apathy and despair in themselves and others.

This slimey depression analogy reflected the villainous zeitgeist of the period – Milo’s dull life and lazy procrastination in the Phantom Tollbooth’s doldrums, the colour and fun-sapping Murky and Lurky from Rainbow Brite, not to mention fellow equine Artax, who met his sticky end in The Neverending Story’s Swamp of Sadness.

In these pre-Prozac times (the popular antidepressant was approved in the US in 1988), children’s cartoons addressed the taboo of mental illness by giving it a monstrous face that needed to be battled into submission. Quite a different portrayal to that in Disney’s recent Inside Out, which showed how all anthropomorphic emotional states are good and necessary in the correct balance.

In this vein, the latest incarnation of My Little Pony preaches that Friendship is Magic via its ‘mane six’, whose diverse personality types (and disorders) work together to create balance.

The central princess alicorn Twilight’s bookish reserve hints at Avoidant Personality Disorder, and, less subtly, OCD. Fluttershy also tends to avoid other ponies out of fear, a classic symptom of Social Anxiety Disorder. The loudest and most self-possessed pony, Rainbow Dash, displays characteristics of Hypomania, while Apple Jack’s tireless work ethic subtly nods to Masochistic Personality Disorder. Vain Rarity demonstrates Narcissistic Personality Disorder, while Pinkie Pie’s manic highs and occasional crashing lows have always spoken to me very personally as a Bipolar sufferer.

All the ponies keep their respective disorders mostly in check with the love and care of their diverse friends, representing a balanced mental system, as well as the need for a good support network. In a similar way, many of the series’ villains, instead of being vanquished with brute force are transformed through kindness and understanding from the pony protagonists.

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The series is refreshingly focussed on self-discovery and acceptance, with characters recognising their own personality strengths and flaws, allowing them to develop power and purpose in themselves and their friends.

The new movie (which, thanks to its geeky fandom in-jokes and references, as well as hallucinogenically fast-moving neon graphics, has mostly bewildered and alienated critics) focuses on Twilight’s struggle with her new royal responsibilities and the resulting pedestal that they put her on within her friendship group. She becomes overwhelmed with an anxiety that sees her lack trust and belief in her friends, resulting in her going against rationality and attempting to steal. The fillies fall out and separate – and then everything really goes to manure.

In the baddie camp, we have powerful unicorn Tempest Shadow (voiced by Emily Blunt) whose loneliness and alienation by peers due to a physical deformity led to her heel turn. When treated with kindness and acceptance, she realises the error of her ways and joins forces with the good guys, with a hint at future friendships.

The moral of the story – anxiety sucks, trust those who care about you because they want what’s best and obviously, Friendship is Magic ™.

Aside from addressing darkness head on, My Little Pony offers a safe space to those often on the periphery of modern media who may need a mental comfort blanket. Ponyville is a default female community, where the action very rarely focuses on relationships or romantic reactions, jumping clear over the hurdle of the Bechdel test. Generosity, laughter, loyalty, honesty and kindness always prevail and when you’re feeling a bit glum, it’s chicken soup (or maybe warm oats) for the soul.

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While I can understand how the ponies might not be everyone’s cup of carrot juice, don’t sniff at people for liking what they like. A pleasure shouldn’t have to feel guilty – especially one with its magical heart so firmly in the right place.