» A New Kind of Cinderella Story

What makes a fantasy universe unique enough to become an archetype? Why do so many classic fairy-tales all seem to take place in the same broadly familiar setting, without establishing unique rules of their own? What does it take for a brand-new member of the genre to stand out, rejecting its common well-worn tropes in favor of all-new ones that excite our imaginations with the thrill of novelty, and showing enough staying power that newer works might use those ideas for their own inspiration?

And how has My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic put its own ambitious potential at risk, pulling a few key punches that could have put it—artistically and culturally—head and shoulders above any of its recent competition? Read on to find out.

Something Rare and Wonderful

Equestria: a magical land of sentient equines, where flocks of pegasi schedule rain showers in due course and clear away the clouds in spring, where unicorns cast spells to turn the pages of books and to ward a castle against invading armies, and where the cycles of the sun and the moon are controlled by the actions of elemental pony princesses.

It’s a mythical universe every bit as rich and novel as what any of our traditionally well-loved works of fiction have set up for us—and while it certainly owes fragments of inspiration to any number of other creations, it’s a wholly original invention, easily comparable to the fairy-tale universe in which classic stories like Snow White and Beauty and the Beast take place, as well as to more modern creations like Narnia or Middle-earth. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has taken cues from the franchise’s prior incarnations and reimagined them into something truly remarkable in its scope, something that’s ambitious enough to stand toe-to-toe with any of the other fantasy settings that children (and adults) have come to love.

Lauren Faust and her collaborators enjoyed a remarkable amount of freedom in creating the world of Equestria and the ponies who populate it. And yet there were some cases where Hasbro’s corporate insistence won out over the creative vision of Faust and friends, where marketability took precedence over what felt right from a storytelling perspective.

Hasbro may not have known at the time what they had on their hands. Taking a cautious, practical approach, they chose to match their newly minted property to what they already knew the market demanded. But if they had been more ambitious, more idealistic, more trusting of Faust’s vision… couldn’t they have owned a whole new generation’s idea of what marketable fantasy looks like?

In one of her earliest communications with her fans via her DeviantArt page, Lauren Faust expanded on the nature of “Princess” Celestia, explaining that in her original form she was meant to be a Queen.

I was told [by Hasbro] that because of Disney movies, girls assume that Queens are evil (although I only remember 1 evil queen) and Princesses are good. I was also told that the perceived youth of a Princess is preferable to consumers.

She does not have parents that outrank her. I brought the weirdness of that situation to my bosses, but it did not seem to be a continuity concern to them, so I’m letting it alone. I always wanted her to be the highest authority, and so she remains so. And I certainly don’t want marriage to be what would escalate her. (Bad messages to girls and what not.)

I put up a bit of a fight when her title changed, but you win some, you loose some.

Capitulating to this piece of corporate push-back in the interest of getting her nascent project off the ground, Faust allowed the venerable, formidable marketing machine that is Hasbro’s toy division define the ground rules: Make the show as envelope-pushing as you like… but when it comes to knowing what the girls in the audience want, we’re following Disney’s lead.

Specifically, Hasbro was itself deferring to a decades-old set of prejudices ingrained into the youth of Western Civilization. Any kid who is taught to read using an adaptation of Cinderella or The Three Little Pigs, whose first few forays into the world of fantasy literature are the traditional fairy tales and funny-animal stories that Disney has translated into an archetypal series of high-budget feature films, would naturally use the vocabulary of those stories to define how they think of a “standard” fantasy universe. Princesses are sympathetic protagonists. Queens are old and evil. Girls dream of growing up to marry a handsome prince. Whether it’s the ermine-robed Adonis who appears at the end of the very first My Little Pony cartoon, 1985′s “Rescue at Midnight Castle”, or the devilishly tongue-in-cheek subversion of that trope embodied in the caddish Prince Blueblood in “The Best Night Ever”, we can see this influence seeping into the franchise’s best and most earnest expressions—always the result of the corporate decision-makers getting cold feet about straying too far from the “norm” established by Disney and the fairy-tale traditions upon which its empire is built.

We can’t blame Hasbro’s marketing team for being cautious. They are, after all, the recognized masters of their discipline. Few companies can be said to have shepherded and parlayed their original properties into generations of successful toy-selling franchises with as much consistent success as Hasbro has done. More to the point, Hasbro isn’t in the business of defining what fantasy traditions American kids should be steeped in; they’re just here to use the existing traditions that are so deeply ingrained into our folk culture in order to leverage themselves into a position where they can sell plastic toys that co-opt the same language their audience is already familiar with. Kids already know how to relate to princesses and queens; thus My Little Pony doesn’t have to do any additional work in order to be relatable to kids—and, indeed, the less it deviates from what kids are trained to expect, the easier a time it will have clearing the shelves at Toys ‘R Us.

But let’s be honest: that’s a level of drab realism that seems unworthy of the complexity and appeal of the FiM universe. Does it have to be this way?

Manufacturing a Tradition

What is it about the stories we’re all familiar with from Aesop’s Fables and Mother Goose and the Disney canon that makes them such untouchable beacons of Western tradition? Why do they have so much built-in credibility that even a single occurrence of an “evil queen” character, dating back to Snow White in 1939, is enough to cause Hasbro 80 years later to veto the idea of a “Queen Celestia”?

The evil Queen from Snow White looms large in our collective psyche—perhaps larger than she should, given her one brief appearance.

It surely can’t be age alone. The “high fantasy” genre was given its recognized banner-bearing archetype in the Lord of the Rings universe in the 1950s (or, perhaps, in 1937, when The Hobbit was first published). Before that, the genre could hardly have been said to exist in a recognizable form, with its most direct predecessors like Beowulf and the Norse Eddas dating back to the early Middle Ages. Tolkien’s writing is incredibly young by comparison—and yet today, every incarnation of high fantasy from Dungeons & Dragons to World of Warcraft cheerfully recognizes Tolkien as the progenitor of their fantasy vocabulary. Even more vividly, the Harry Potter franchise, which is so young that every living fan can remember when the first book debuted, owes remarkably little to other fictional universes and has established itself as a standalone canon against which modern “magical” settings can and will inevitably be compared. J.K. Rowling boldly co-opted terminology like witch and hex and cauldron and recast their traditional threatening connotations into the domain of the protagonists—and kids today, growing up with Potter as an influence every bit as real and present as 80-year-old Disney movies that are barely even marketed anymore, have no trouble integrating that playful contradiction in vocabulary into their own imaginations.

Lauren Faust knew instinctively that kids are capable of huge leaps of understanding, of being able to handle wildly disparate visions of fantasy worlds in their explosively growing little minds. We can see that confidence in kids’ imaginations in every challenging story scenario that Friendship is Magic presents to them and to us. Every time we adults marvel at some new development in a FiM episode, every time we chatter excitedly to each other on fan forums that we “can’t believe they just did XYZ on My Little Pony”, we’re reminded of how much respect the writers have for their primary audience of six-year-olds. They’re not talking down to them, and they’re not talking over their heads either. They’re simply writing good stories, the way C.S. Lewis or J.K. Rowling might, and letting kids who don’t get the jokes or understand the intricacies of social interactions “grow into” that understanding. It’s far better, the staff knows, to challenge kids and to stretch them than to coddle them with weak and unimaginative pap—and that that’s the truest form of “educational” entertainment.

Hasbro, for the most part, showed huge confidence in that vision of Faust and her team, letting them run the show at a level that has made it irresistible to legions of adult fans as well as to the young kids the show was nominally conceived to entertain. Monsters like dragons and manticores were given the green-light and even directed to be made more threatening than in Faust’s “pretty” or “goofy” original designs; and John de Lancie’s portrayal of Discord is apt for more reasons than the Star Trek injoke alone—he works on the same principles that Q worked originally, because that iconically snide de Lancie voice makes for such a believably sinister “trickster” character.

Approving these creative moves took a lot of guts on Hasbro’s part. But there were still occasions, like making Celestia into a princess and like changing Blueblood from a Duke to a Prince, not to mention (more recently) in creating Shining Armor and Princess Cadance for the purpose of marketing a “pony wedding” playset, where Hasbro meddled with the terminology and texture of the show in deference to what they believed was the limit of what kids could handle. It’s a strange contradiction, and it shows a wavering uncertainty in the company’s decision-making chain about just what kind of show they were prepared to make in support of their 25-year-old Pony property. Were they trying to create a whole new mythos for kids to grow up with? Or were they trying to piggyback onto existing age-old fairy-tale tropes in order to market a relatable Pony world of princesses and royal weddings, witches and wizards, dragons and evil queens, damsels in distress and knights in shining armor?

A Missed Opportunity

It’s not easy to come up with a brand-new fantasy universe. It only happens once in a great while, when some gifted creative talent is able to envision a whole new world full of creation myths, physical laws both familiar and alien, and races of characters with compelling and rich histories that paint a relatable yet intriguing backdrop for the stories they want to tell. It takes a lot of imagination to be able to develop a world deeply enough that it inspires a fan following that gives the universe a life beyond the canon material (a yardstick that we might as well use to establish whether a fictional universe has cultural staying power).

All too often, such conceptions never quite reach that level of critical mass, whether because they’re too derivative of existing settings or because the properties they were created for just aren’t that popular. The fiction landscape is full of also-ran universes like Terry Brooks’ Shannara series or Gene Roddenberry’s post-Star Trek aspirations like Andromeda—or, for that matter, George Lucas’ Tolkien-aping Willow, which featured its own not-quite-memorable-enough wicked Queen. One wonders whether, with a bit more self-confidence and zeal, these creations could have been parlayed into something much bigger and much more influential than they have been. Who wouldn’t want to have the level of cultural recognition of Middle-earth or Star Trek?

This isn’t just a matter of making sure that a property is truly independent from a licensing and merchandising standpoint. What it really means, to a publishing house or a film distributor, is the chance to define the very rules of the road for how kids are brought up.

A studio with vision and idealism and a compelling enough flagship brand can use it to influence the very fabric of culture itself. And in the case of My Little Pony, whose newest incarnation seems poised to finally upend a century’s worth of entrenched gender norms by giving young women a genuinely good piece of entertainment as well as spurring countless men to fall in love with a “girly” show, Hasbro had the chance to really make a difference—to let FiM be a landmark work in the long march toward true gender equality by refusing to bend its premise to our preexisting expectations.

Over the course of the past century, kids’ entertainment has undergone a huge evolution. A hundred years ago, the Oz books by L. Frank Baum were the state of the art when it came to fantasy fiction. The strong female protagonists of those stories, though tinged with porcelain-doll demureness and no small number of terribly anachronistic views of social norms, would easily look at home in a modern-day Disney movie. We can perhaps blame Disney itself for having walked back the frontier on progressive female characters with early outings like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty hewing closely to the classical fairy-tale narratives in which the role of women was to look pretty and have to be rescued from peril in poetic, chivalrous ways. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the studio started to reinvent itself for a newly confident generation of kids whose pursuit of gender equality was a much more well-established interest. Even so, The Little Mermaid, upon its release, was marketed as such a “girly” production that males wanting to watch it had to go about it with as much furtiveness as they might now use in watching Friendship is Magic.

Disney’s feature films since then have starred a litany of strong women—Pocahontas, Mulan, Belle—but almost in mockery of their own insistently progressive stance in recent years, their merchandising has focused on the characters as part of the century-spanning “Disney Princesses” collection, rolling the traditional roles of Snow White and Cinderella forward as archetypes against which the more modern characters’ headstrong independence and individuality all but disappear. The classical fairy-tale royalty story as promulgated to kids, so that they can relate to princesses as self-inserts and dress up as them for Halloween, is alive and well.

The "Disney Princesses"—among whom modern, self-confident Mulan is upstaged by throwbacks Snow White and Aurora.

It seems, then, that Hasbro has been in a rather unique position when it has sought to redefine how the My Little Pony brand should be presented to kids. With each generational redesign, it has had the opportunity to use the property to help push the envelope, to present a whole new form of fantasy for kids to enjoy. It has always been in Hasbro’s power to make the ponies into something wholly unique, bound to none of the traditional rules governing how girls—or, indeed, kids in general—should be brought up to act. The company could easily have decided that because it’s already defining the My Little Pony world as being female-dominated (so as to appeal more directly to a female audience), it might as well take the opportunity to rethink what rules govern female characters in traditional children’s fiction. By giving Lauren Faust free rein to cast ponies like Twilight Sparkle and Rainbow Dash in the same adventuresome, independent mold as the brave characters from “Rescue at Midnight Castle”, they were essentially giving their stamp of approval to a series that—as the banner-bearer for a universally known, well-loved toy brand—would give kids a set of feminine role models whose marketable strength of character Disney itself should envy.

It’s perplexing. Hasbro thus had the chance to start fresh with a new kind of fantasy setting, one in which a Queen need not be an evil stepmother, in which the groom in a royal wedding need not literally be a knight in shining armor, in which the social-climbing Rarity need not fantasize about a destiny in which she marries directly into royalty via a kid-comprehensible prince, in which the biggest and most expensive pony toy need not be molded in pink plastic. Yet they stopped short. They made sure those adjustments were made in Faust’s conception of Equestria and the ongoing narrative of the show, for the sake of toy sales as well as of a presumed lack of sophistication among the kids in the audience—as though a kid who can follow the emotional twists and turns of an episode like “Green Isn’t Your Color” would be stymied by the idea of a duke. This seems, to say the least, like a mixed message to send to the audience. More than that, it’s a rejection of the opportunity to redefine the long-standing gender-role tropes that we as a society are supposedly seeking to banish to the past. Hasbro would apparently rather kowtow to the cultural facts that “girls like pink” and that “queens are evil” rather than attempt to challenge or change them. As compelling a story as FiM itself tells in its episodes, it’s still steeped in an age-old (and in many ways damaging) tradition that Hasbro seems uninterested in actively undermining.

Until very recently, and despite the artwork on her very box, Princess Celestia was sold in a deep, saturated pink—because girls supposedly prefer her that way.

So why would Hasbro shy away at the last minute from such fiddly details as whether Celestia should be a Queen, in deference to a decades-old, woefully outdated business precedent? Why presume that the ponies’ marketability would be impacted by that minor little point, when the rest of the show’s premise and execution are just so thoroughly, relentlessly revolutionary in how much respect they place in their female characters, and by extension their audience?

Firing the Imagination

The likely conclusion is that Hasbro simply did not, and does not, see itself as being directly in the role of the accepted shapers of 21st-century society. It isn’t Hasbro’s job to redefine what a fairy tale should be. It’s Hasbro’s job to sell toys. If it changes the world in the process, that’s great—but the bottom line of the toy department’s monthly figures is the true arbiter of what gets put on the screen on the Hub.

This is really a shame. We adults know just how much power Hasbro wields, as children of the 1980s—a decade that for many of us is all but defined by our memories of the toy franchises that populated our bedroom carpet landscapes. Between Transformers, My Little Pony, G.I. Joe, and a few other big-name brands, Hasbro’s influence in our lives has always loomed large. We have always been prepared to let our fantasy lives, or that of the kids inside us all, be governed by whatever storylines and worldbuilding details Hasbro might have seen fit to deem canon.

This is surely no less true today. Kids who are at this moment falling in love with Applejack, Fluttershy, Rarity, and Princess Celestia and creating their own imaginative internal narratives surrounding their toys arrayed on top of their dressers would have no trouble integrating ideas that are incompatible with some other franchise or universe they’ve encountered. (Kids are famous for seamlessly mashing together one fictional universe with another when the toy closet opens up.) It seems like a great self-contradictory snub against kids’ presumed intelligence to give them a show with such complexity and depth as Friendship is Magic, and then saddle it with presumptions that kids can’t adjust to details as simple and as relatively inconsequential as a benevolent Queen.

Hasbro might not see itself in the role of a teller of tales and a shaper of children’s dreams the way Disney does. Certainly it must not have seen itself in that role prior to the success of FiM. But now, now that it finds itself in an unexpectedly powerful position, with a genuinely compelling and respectable portfolio piece in its My Little Pony brand, it might allow itself to start to define the social narrative a little bit more. It might be too late for Friendship is Magic itself to change to accommodate any potentially more ambitious aspects of the Pony universe. But Hasbro might now realize that it’s as much a player in kids’ imaginations as Disney is, and that if there are ways in which it might like to lead the social development of kids—as indeed the “self-help” nature of Friendship is Magic seems so suggest it does—it is in an excellent position to do so. All it has to do is allow the creative talents it hires, like Lauren Faust, to develop their creations the way they want to, so that a newly established property has the strength of internal consistency.

Faust has shown a remarkable amount of insight into how to create a show that respects its audience—young and old alike—and conveys valuable life messages to the target audience. There’s every chance that cartoon creators in the future will have been inspired by her example and develop similarly respectful shows that give kids in the audience a chance to stretch and grow in much the same way. Let’s hope that when it comes time for their corporate sponsors to decide whether they should lead the way in telling original fantasy stories, or whether they’d be better off trying to fit into existing, centuries-old frameworks, they’ll remember what it was like to be kids themselves: starving for a piece of fantasy fiction in which they could immerse themselves, even—perhaps especially—if it’s like nothing they’ve ever seen before. 

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  1. I can’t help but wonder if something like this was the cause of Ms Faust’s departure, along with Mr Renzetti and some of the writers.

    I believe this show comes very close to something great, but because it’s attached to this particular IP, it can never really get there. At the same time though, I can’t help but wonder if the show would’ve taken off if it weren’t such a recognized brand.

    In any case, I’m going to be watching what happens with Wander Over Yonder once the time comes.

  2. I did not know that Blueblood was originally a Duke. Excellent article, HH.