This is another weird year for the Hugo nominations. As was true last year, the Rabid Puppies campaign managed to take over the ballot through bloc voting. According to an analysis by Mike Glyer over at File 770, the Rabid Puppies secured 64 of its 81 nominees on the ballot.
The campaign this year picked nominations that would be hard to dispute (e.g. Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman: Overture), alongside works by writers who share the political bent of Rabid Puppies leader Vox Day, as well as a number of picks that some critics suspect are joke entries designed to embarrass the prestigious Hugo Awards.
One that many are grouping in that last category is the two-part “Cutie Map” story arc from children’s cartoon My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. This is the show’s very first Hugo nomination, despite its large and passionate adult audience, and many science fiction and fantasy readers might be quick to dismiss it out of hand. This would be a mistake.
While the nomination comes from a contentious source, and the program is aimed at a younger audience, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic speaks to some of the core issues currently plaguing science fiction fandom, and this two-episode arc in particular offers a dystopian social critique in the tradition of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World…
The basic premise of My Little Pony
My Little Pony‘s “Cutie Map” episode comes from the fifth season of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, and it helps to have some familiarity with the show to this point to contextualize the story.
The show centers around six friends (called the “Mane Six” by the MLP fandom). Twilight Sparkle, originally an outsider to the town of Ponyville, learned early on in this show’s run that friendship, which she had previously dismissed as frivolous, is crucial to accessing the world’s most powerful magic.
Twilight Sparkle now serves as the Princess of Friendship. In crucial, world-saving events, her friends represent core aspects of friendship: Apple Jack, responsible for her family farm and is a rodeo competitor, represents honesty. Pinkie Pie, a party planner whose random silliness lends over-the-top cartoonish aspects to the show, is laughter. Rarity, a unicorn fashion diva and entrepreneur who has a thriving boutique, embodies generosity. Fluttershy, a soft-spoken pegasus who tends to local the woodland creatures, represents kindness. Daredevil pegasus Rainbow Dash has a need for speed, but would “never leave a friend hanging,” and shows the aspect of loyalty.
As part of the show’s conceit, each pony’s special talent — a core part of their identity that makes them unique — is externally represented by a “cutie mark,” a colorful symbol on their flanks. Up to this point, the friends have solved many issues by talking it out or creating friends out of enemies. They’ve redeemed a cursed princess who once tried to take over Equestria and taught her the value of having friends. They’ve shown a spirit of chaos, voiced by Star Trek alum John de Lancie, that sheer chaos isn’t as much fun if your friends don’t enjoy the revelry. And they’ve taught a show-off magician that ruling through fear, especially when your power comes through an item you could lose, isn’t as valuable as earning admiration from others.
The Mane Six also know how to buckle down when it comes to real evil: By using magic relics known as the Elements of Harmony, they’ve soundly defeated a changeling queen, a disembodied unicorn tyrant, and a magic-eating demon. While the majority of the episodes cover somewhat mundane (though not uninteresting) friendship issues spun large and magical by the setting and the characters, the Mane Six regularly save the world.
The Cutie Map: Part 1
The story arc opens with the Mane Six discovering a new type of magic connected by their cutie marks: together, the six ponies can summon a map of the world that reveals a place where they’re needed. Like the Bat Signal, their cutie mark symbols appear in a location on the map. Intrigued, the six set out to find out why they are needed.
When they arrive, there are no dread monsters and no obvious threats. Instead, they see a perfectly normal, if bland, town. All the buildings look exactly the same, laid out in two parallel rows with only one central street. There’s nothing particularly bright and colorful about the town, but nothing immediately troubling either — until they realize that all the exceedingly cheerful residents have the same cutie mark.
It’s a scene reminiscent of Madeline L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time, when Meg appears in a world ruled by something known as It, in which all the houses are identical, all the families are identical, and all the children’s balls bounce at exactly the same moment. The “Cutie Map” village is a little less sinister, and the residents are quick to explain why they all have the same cutie marks: they’ve given up their special talents to avoid ever causing conflict with each other. They sum it up in a chilling song not about equality, but about complacency and mediocrity:
We dare not compete. Winning only breeds the worst, ego-filled conceit. You can’t have a nightmare, if you never dream. Other ponies argue. Do you ever wonder why? When you think your talent’s special. You don’t see eye-to-eye.
It’s like an overly earnest version of the tongue-in-cheek (and ridiculously catchy) theme “Everything Is Awesome” from The Lego Movie, and while gentle Fluttershy is convinced that these ponies are truly happy, the other members of the Mane Six, with their more competitive natures, aren’t so sure.
Although the residents are all made “equal” by giving up their talents, they answer to a leader: Starlight Glimmer. Like them, she has a neutralized cutie mark, but she has the know-how to operate the relic that removes cutie marks. And in the tradition of creepy dystopian leaders before her, Starlight Glimmer also has a very loyal secret police — something the ponies discover when the town baker (who only bakes really awful muffins, something she laments) brings them to a secret room in the bakery basement. (Pinkie Pie eats a lot of muffins as their cover story.)
There, three of the residents start asking questions about the Mane Six’s cutie marks. “Doesn’t being different make it impossible to stay friends?” they question. No, the Mane Six assure them- — they have arguments all the time, but they value each other’s differences and use those diverse opinions and ideas to solve problems.
But no matter how much the Mane Six celebrate their unique qualities, the residents aren’t convinced that the risk is worth it. (And, besides, they’re allowed to visit their cutie marks whenever they want.) As it turns out, Starlight Glimmer has stored all of the cutie marks in a vault in a mountain cavern. So, of course, the Mane Six hurry to go there and see for themselves. This is just the opportunity that Starlight Glimmer needs to “equalize” the Mane Six and prevent them from spreading rumors about their happy little town to the rest of the world…
The Cutie Map: Part 2
In Part 2 of “The Cutie Map,” the Mane Six spend the beginning of the episode trapped in a brainwashing cabin where they’re exposed to constant repetition of propaganda, and forced to come to terms with their own newly enforced mediocrity.
While it might not seem like it to the children watching the show, because the really creepy aspects are underplayed, the Mane Six are essentially being tortured. Other than keep their chins up and refuse to conform, there’s little they can do to help themselves. Luckily, Fluttershy has appeared malleable to the town residents, so she’s able to pull off a fake conversion, acting as a spy in the town to figure out how to get the stolen cutie marks back. What she discovers instead is far more sinister: Starlight Glimmer still has her cutie mark and is covering it up with makeup.
From there, things move predictably: the Mane Six manage to expose Starlight Glimmer, who takes off with their cutie marks. Some of the residents have their own cutie marks restored and end up being the heroes of the piece, stopping Starlight Glimmer before the cutie marks of the Mane Six are gone forever.
Twilight Sparkle, restored, in turn rescues them from Starlight Glimmer’s magical attack. The villain is able to escape, waiting until a later episode to return…
The writers don’t hide their meaning here, but it’s interesting to see how others have interpreted it online. Brandon Morse of The Federalist wrote an article called “My Little Pony to Children: Marxism Isn’t Magic,” which praised the show for its anti-mediocrity message and its celebration of individualism. Rather than seeing the message as keeping with ideals that find diversity valuable, the writer claimed that this message is at odds with Hollywood liberalism.
Taken in context of the larger show, however, this arc is more a critique of Stalinism, or at least a government like the one in Orwell’s Animal Farm. Here, one pony (rather than pig) is more equal than all the others, and she keeps order through an undercurrent of fear: Don’t deviate from the norm or you’ll be reconditioned. Don’t question authority or you’ll be reconditioned.
“Let’s see those big happy smiles!” Starlight Glimmer orders during their musical number, and the Stepford-smiles get broader. There is nothing about this version of enforced mediocrity that holds appeal to anyone aside from the tyrant who rules over it, confident in her superiority.
Instead, the Mane Six answer — as it is so often — is to celebrate uniqueness, to honor differences in opinion, and to try to help everyone live up to their own potential. When Rainbow Dash complains that the Main Six can’t save themselves, Twilight Sparkle is quick to assure her that they have to trust that the others will be able to do what needs to be done.
That faith in others being able to carry the torch — whether it’s in creativity or friendship — and that open-hoofed inclusion offered by the ponies really is a message that’s relevant to the SFF community right now.
Everyone has a special talent, and everyone has different, sometimes dissenting opinions. The nomination of this arc for the Hugo may be problematic, but if enough people carried away the message (outlined by a cartoon marketed to children) that by lifting up others, you can save yourself, what a difference it could make.