If the holidays can be counted on for one thing – regardless of region or cultural moment – it’s turning back the clock for a month or so, and offering up brightly-wrapped nostalgia. Nostalgia literally means the “pain from an old wound,” but today its connotations include both sentimentality and irreverence for the past. The holiday season often brings back memories of childhood, as children are uniquely centered throughout the pervasive traditions of Christmas. From gingerbread worlds to flying reindeer, the activities and mythologies of Christmas are playful and childlike. And, of course, there are those festive reliquaries of personal meaning, significant to children and adults alike: toys.
Toys themselves spark nostalgia in all their meanings, and can serve as useful markers of the zeitgeist. In thinking about this year’s holiday season, and thinking back to my past few decades of Christmases, it’s striking to see how the iconographic toys that still permeate our pop culture have aged. Toys have so much to do with identity, and evolving discourses on gender, appearance, and social position also mean we have fresh eyes with which to regard some of those Christmas classics.
For girls in this country – and in this century – there are a few inescapable case studies for comparing “then” to “now.” All these toys were originally designed by women, though they still exist in a world that is fundamentally not designed by women. There’s the hyper-femme and highly-debated world of My Little Pony, there’s the newly-re-politicized propagandist realm of American Girl Dolls, and there’s the boss bimbo herself: Barbie.
So, let’s look at My Little Pony.
Like Barbie and American Girl Dolls, My Little Pony was a female-designed toy with a female intended audience. Unlike their kindred Barbie dolls and American Girl Dolls, however, MLP (the first design or “generation” of which launched in 1981) has seen drastic shifts in design, and an incredulous shift in audience.
The phenomenon of the ponies and their 40-year journey from little girl bedrooms to national fan conferences populated by mostly adult men do not have a definitive explanation. The simplest answer to how MLP has changed so much and touched so many fans might be hiding in plain sight.
While My Little Pony design leadership changed hands over the years, there has almost always been a female mastermind at the helm.
While My Little Pony design leadership changed hands over the years, there has almost always been a female mastermind at the helm. MLP’s reach, success, and loyal fanbase suggest that the women behind the scenes are not “girl designers” but rather, designers well-equipped to make accessible, lasting work for a non-limited audience.
From their start in 1981, the design and craftsmanship of MLP made them visually and physically pleasing. Bonnie Zacherle was a former greeting card writer and designer who came to Hasbro as a freelance illustrator. She pitched the idea of “My Pretty Pony” drawing from her own childhood longing to be around horses. Not initially successful, the patented toy was renamed “My Little Pony” the following year with Bonnie still credited as the designer.
The first generation of ponies included 6 characters: Blossom, Blue Belle, Butterscotch, Cotton Candy, Minty, and Snuzzle. They were made of hard plastic but with a supple finish, similar to a rubber duck, and stood about 5 inches tall. They had fantastically long nylon hair that could rival an adult woman’s peak-70s blowout. The ponies had demure, languid expressions on their faces: half smiles, half-closed eyes with white dots of shine. They appeared right at the start of a decade that gave us many gentle-spirited, sleepy franchises like Care Bears (which debuted the same year), Pound Puppies, and Rainbow Brite (both of which entered the scene in 1984).
Generation 1 My Little Ponies fit comfortably into this aesthetic they helped to build: like the Care Bears, the ponies exist in a dreamlike, high fantasy world, all painted pastel and packed with rainbows, clouds, and lots of friends. But, this was not the original plan that Bonnie had in mind. To this day, she reports starting from a place of practicality and realism in the designs.
As a girl, Bonnie had seriously wanted a real-life pony. She took her young female audience just as seriously and wanted to give them an immersive farm experience. She insisted that the colors of the ponies be those found in nature: brown, gray, white, dappled, and so forth. A simple conversation with her director quashed the idea. “Little girls like pink and purple.” And so, Bonnie gave in to pink and purple. Her touch still gave the ponies the character that would make them an instant hit: she hand-painted illustrations like clusters of flowers, apples, and stars on each of their flanks. These signatures are known as “cutie marks” and give each pony an individual personality.
The 1990s saw a brief unsuccessful new design: the short-lived “Generation 2” ponies which had longer necks, longer legs, and would often topple over due to their precarious new proportions. In 2003, Generation 3 was born. These ponies were largely a return to Bonnie’s design, but with a sleeker, thinner pony body, longer legs, bigger eyes, and an overall more cartoonish face.
Most agree, however, that the true renaissance began in the early 2010s, when not only was there a 4th Generation, but a new television show called My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic created by Lauren Faust.
Most agree, however, that the true renaissance began in the early 2010s, when not only was there a 4th Generation, but a new television show called My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic created by Lauren Faust. Lauren was formerly an animator and writer on shows like The Powerpuff Girls, an aesthetic and storytelling legacy that translated well for MLP fans.
The cartoon styles and story structures in both shows are similar: the simple, graphic figures resemble paper cutouts or comic book characters and all stories take place in simple worlds of bright color. In Lauren’s writing, the only stories are female-led stories, sometimes about complex ideas like confidence, identity, and one’s own system of values.
Lauren’s vision conjures up a world dominated by girls, rich with smart stories about girls being tough, celebrating their uniqueness and their connections to others through a simple, abstract drawing style. Lauren has acknowledged that she is interested in creating shows that would be entertaining for both kids and their parents, so rather than condescending to an audience of young girls (as so much media intended for girls does to this day), the writing was smart and the stories were complex. And, with that came “Bronies.”
The term “Bronie” is a portmanteau of “bro” and “pony” referring to the large community of adult men who are huge fans of My Little Pony. Bronies were not here since 1981, but arrived on the scene in 2010, and are entirely taken with Lauren’s Generation 4 design and her television show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.
Many have tried to unpack the phenomenon of how a thriving community of adult male fans rose to cultural prominence.
Many have tried to unpack the phenomenon of how a thriving community of adult male fans rose to cultural prominence. Originally, Bronies arose great suspicion. Was their interest in the ponies nefarious in nature? Were they making fun of it? What exactly drew them in?
Unlike Generation 1, Generation 4 MLP came about during the internet age, and therefore would-be fans had greater access to one another. Bronies were possibly liberated into self-acceptance by encountering others with the same enthusiasm. The community formed in the chats of the infamous internet forum 4chan, and eventually snowballed into BronyCon, a superfan expo like ComicCon (for comic book and popular media fans) or LeakyCon (for Harry Potter fans).
Bronies typically cite that finding company in a community is the reason for their obsession. Beyond that, they simply marvel at the strong writing and design of Lauren’s work. While it has ruffled a lot of feathers in normative society to watch grown men get excited about something intended for little girls, Lauren and most MLP fans agree that Bronies are to be embraced. Why criticize a group of men that have found joy outside the constraints of toxic masculinity?
All 4 generations of My Little Pony have formed aesthetic lineage, furthering Lauren’s phenomenon wherein a traditionally “feminine look” (pink, sparkly, squeaky) can welcome an audience that doesn’t identify as feminine itself. Rebecca Sugar’s unprecedented late 2010s cartoon Steven Universe is a great example of this occurrence as it also boasts a devoted cult following.
In the world of Steven Universe, skies are a perpetual sunset of pink, purple, and blue, and the town is loosely designed as a kind of “Malibu dream house” (a subtle nod to the world Barbie built) with funky lettering and atomic age twinkling stars. The core of the show revolves around the magical power of gemstones harnessed by an intergalactic all-female society. Rebecca’s soft fantasy world of crystals and magical matriarchs is a clear next chapter for the cartoons that came before it, like Bonnie Zacherle’s 1980s drawings and Lauren Faust’s Powerpuff Girls and Friendship is Magic.
In all these worlds, there is simply no patriarchy, let alone hardly a single male-coded character.
In all these worlds, there is simply no patriarchy, let alone hardly a single male-coded character. They may pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test in the opening credits, but that doesn’t mean they solely represent women. Thanks to a departure from realism, we see a lot of strange-looking characters. They don’t represent the real pressures of how we’re supposed to look, and therefore become easier to see ourselves in. The inclusivity of these all-female worlds employ abstraction, androgyny, and ignite modes of queer expression.
Similarly, the ponies of Friendship is Magic allows for an inclusive exploration of the self because they barely look like ponies. They appear in bright rainbow colors. Their bodies are more deer-like than equine, almost inverting the proportions of actual ponies. They have round, human-like heads. Their hairstyles depart from the Farrah Fawcett blowouts and become rougher styles like mohawks and mullets, recognizable from punk and grunge styles (surely an accessible in-road for Bronies to find themselves).
The Powerpuff Girls‘ ragdoll nature also leaves the pressures of human representation behind. And, as Rebecca Sugar picks up what Lauren Faust laid out, the gems of Steven Universe display an extraordinary range of humanoid body types, allegorizing many physical, mental, and social discourses such as body positivity, gender euphoria, and different modes of self-expression.
In these worlds where everyone is part of a female-run fantasy, it makes sense that anyone, regardless of age, gender, or personal aesthetic, could find escape or deep meaning within them.
In these worlds where everyone is part of a female-run fantasy, it makes sense that anyone, regardless of age, gender, or personal aesthetic, could find escape or deep meaning within them. A feminist approach frees us all; Bronies belong here too.
The clean, recognizable look of MLP (especially Generation 1) creates a perfect 80s time capsule. This makes them another great candidate for becoming subjects of pop art. Lovers of kitsch and craft have been making sweaters and plush toys in the image of the official G1 designs for decades, with patterns distributed by major brands like Butterick.
In the mid-2010s, fashion house Moschino collaborated with Hasbro to create a line of avant-garde looks featuring original pony illustrations. But, surprisingly, MLP has not made its way into art and politics to the same extent that Barbie, American Girl Dolls, and other classic American toys have become symbols of the country. Perhaps they are called to a higher purpose.
It’s tempting to criticize My Little Pony with the rest of American capitalism, but that is simply not how they are seen by fans or the general public. Despite decades of toys and decades of television, it is the supportive community of fans and the mind-opening narratives of friendship and self-acceptance that have won out in our collective memory.
© Allison Green (1/10/23) – Special for FF2 Media ®
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Read the origin story from Bonnie Zacherle herself.
Learn more about Atomic Age Design aesthetic, a style that influenced the animation styles of this era.
Learn more about MLP’s cultural heritage today in feminist works like Steven Universe.
Get familiar with the Bonnie Zeigler’s original illustrations through the 2017 Moschino collaboration.
Read a more in-depth account on Bronies.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: “DSCF2154” by chinnian is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
Middle photo: Allison Green’s own MLP puzzle. Photo courtesy of Allison.