» The Power of Horse Compels You

In case you weren’t aware, My Little Pony is a show about ponies. Shocking, I know. You are watching a show that features an alternate universe where ponies rule, the predominant species of the land. Ponies of all colors in sizes, living in a land of horse puns, doing pony things, with pretty pony princesses. Pony should pony pony.

Some say that we watch the show in spite of the equine nature, but I don’t believe so. In fact, we’d be far less interested in the show if it wasn’t about horses. Read beyond the cut to find out.

There’s this interesting quote from Headless Horse’s recent piece on how each member of the Mane 6 is unique in their design:

Describe the following My Little Pony character WITHOUT saying what they look like, what kind of mane or tail or cutie mark they have, or what their profession or role in the show is.

Describe this character to your friends like they ain’t never seen Ponies.

Fortunately for pony fans, this is easy…. Pony fans can describe the Mane 6 in great detail without once mentioning their color schemes or their cutie marks…. In fact, they don’t even need to be ponies for the characterizations to ring true and to stand out from one another.

How do we reconcile these two differences? The fact that these characters are ponies is an intrinsic fact. Yet we can easily describe them without mentioning the pony thing at all. Why is this so? And could the pony thing have contributed to this fandom’s explosion?

I know this sounds weird, but sometimes when I watch an episode, I forget that I’m watching a show based around ponies. It’s come to the point that when a character would do something horse-like, such as Applejack pulling a cart full of apples, that I remember these things are horses, not weirdly shaped people. I would be surprised if I was the only person who experienced this.

It’s not like the land is bereft of horsey reminders. A horse pun is everywhere you turn. The land is named Equestria, with towns named Canterlot, Baltimare, Manehattan, and Ponyville. Ponyville, for crying out loud! They’re not even trying for a pun there. It’s really just a town with ponies in it. Characters mention their hooves and refer to each other as “everypony.” Yet for the avid fan, this all falls by the wayside.

When you get entrenched in a show, following a character’s development and hanging on the edge of your seat, a lot of things become background information. Watching is reduced to the story taking the viewer by the hand and guiding them through the plot as conflicts are presented, resolved, and then summarized at the end with a letter to Princess Celestia. Fans’ attentions are on the story. They already know the characters, their goals, and their weaknesses. They know how most of the world works. It’s with all this in mind that the viewer can simply focus on the episode at hand, taken by the immersive nature of it all. MetalSonic wrote a great editorial on the concept of immersion in Friendship is Magic, but let’s go a little deeper.

Game designer Ernest Adams published an interesting post in 2004 about immersion in gaming. He postulated that immersion into a video game is not a singular concept, but a mixture of three different kinds of immersion that lead to a strong interactive piece of media. While the first two kinds of immersion, tactical and strategic immersion, revolve around gameplay, the third type of immersion, narrative immersion, speaks volumes for all kinds of media.

A player gets immersed in a narrative when he or she starts to care about the characters and wants to know how the story is going to end…. What creates narrative immersion is good storytelling, and what destroys it is bad storytelling: clumsy dialog, stupid characters, unrealistic plots. The skills needed to create narrative immersion are quite different from those needed to create strategic and tactical immersion, which is why smart studios hire professional writers to create their storylines rather than leaving them to the designers.

From its inception, FiM was about six characters, all with differing personalities that mix together in this odd cohesive way, which allowed for further character growth. When something like this is pulled off successfully, without all the pitfalls Adams mentions, you get something that can connect to the viewer on the emotional level. But this isn’t everything. We have to go deeper.

Literary scholar Marie-Laure Ryan further broke down Adams’s idea of emotional immersion into three smaller subcategories, going down into the nitty-gritty of why people feel attached to characters and stories.

Narrative immersion can take at least three forms: spatial (a sense of place and pleasure taken in exploring the storyworld), temporal (a burning desire to know what will happen next) and emotional (affective reactions to the story and to the characters).

The spatial means of narrative immersion focus more on the world-building aspect of media, which pops up every now and then, but it’s not as much of a crucial component as the latter two. Emotional and temporal immersion are the bread and butter of a good show. You have to care about the characters, and you have to care about what the characters are doing. Lack of either can be a deal breaker, and consistent mediocrity leads to things never taking off in the first place.

Part of the appeal of Sisterhooves Social is the "how will it wrap up?" game it plays with the viewer. Part of the appeal of Sisterhooves Social is the “how will it wrap up?” game it plays with the viewer.

Thankfully, FiM has those types of immersion in spades. The show revolves around the personalities of the Mane 6, not the fact that they are little ponies. And when you have such a strong base for defining the characters, as Headless mentioned in his most recent article, emotional immersion is a snap. Combine that with a crop of brilliant writers, and then you have plots that keep the audience guessing. This further ties into Ryan’s concept of the “epistemic plot,” one that casts the audience in the role of a detective, trying to find out how an episode will end. This interactivity is what further draws the viewer in, making the episode a chess game between writer and viewer. What are the red herrings? What are the twists? How can this problem be resolved in less than 22 minutes? It’s lots to think about. And with the viewer ensnared in layers upon layers of immersion, the concept of “Ponyville” and “a show about ponies” is forgotten. The show is reduced to its base state: you have six characters going on adventures and learning about one another.

Furthering the suspension of pony belief, the FiM world doesn’t have any human element to speak of. There is no human in the debut episode saying, “Holy crap, you’re a bunch of talking ponies. What kind of weird pony world is this?” There isn’t any pony leading humans around, showing them how ponies do things, explaining the hoof hands phenomenon, and handing the human a guide to apple bucking. A human element can often create an “us and them” structure of the show, where you may only see things from the human perspective. You would only relate to the human since that is the most common thing there. It’s still possible to relate to the more bizarre pony characters, as fans of previous generations have shown, but the human element would definitely bring the pony element to light more.

Instead, the fans have Twilight Sparkle getting introduced to the various facets of Ponyville. It’s never about how the town is run by ponies. It’s instead an introduction of the world to viewers without giving away too much detail. For this series, the land of Equestria is more of a blank slate that we learn about as we go along, instead of a cut-and-dry world. Many kids’ shows employ a narrator to drive points home, in case the viewer doesn’t get it the first time. But with FiM, it’s just, “This is a My Little Pony show. Moving along.”

Another contributing factor is the fact that the pony anatomy is rather malleable. The walk cycles are pretty spot-on with how horses walk around, but overall, these ponies don’t move like ponies. In order to convey strong body language that the audience can relate to, the show has to go with very human expressions. In reality, animals are…not very expressive. Imagine a standard horse, one you’d see on Earth at the Kentucky Derby. It’s at the gates, waiting for the starting gun. How does it feel? Anxious? Excited? Like it needs to poop? You can’t tell. That’s why ponies shrug standing on their feet, arms bent at an unnatural angle. An overjoyed pony has to have its features warped in ways that’d make a veterinarian cringe.

Is this phenomenon exclusive to My Little Pony? Hardly. The Cartoon Network show Adventure Time features many characters that are far from human, yet are characters that we can easily relate to. I’m sure there are more than a few people who find Jake to be the most relatable character even though he’s a dog with magical powers. The kind of life portrayed in Adventure Time is nowhere close to reality or the slice of life episodes in FiM, but the show still has a devoted and undoubtedly immersed audience. It’s what they say and how they react to situations that make them so relatable, not their physical attributes.

But what does this mean to the Friendship is Magic fandom? Many things.

For one, people may notice the staggering amount of pony crossovers there are. Some of the more famous examples, such as this Game of Thrones crossover, show characters taking on eerily similar roles in a show that’s as far from FiM as you can possibly get. Perhaps the most frequent comment is some permutation of “this works SO WELL.” And often, it does. When we reduce the Mane 6 to their character profiles, the pony aspect is thrown out. Heck, even the fact that they’re all female is thrown out. As Headless said, we can easily describe these girls without mention of their cutie marks or of their mane and tail designs. Then we can then apply them to other series. It’s inevitable, given how people love finding patterns across their fandoms. X in this show is totally Y in that show, and many will agree. The accessibility and adaptability of our beloved pony characters are partly responsible for the insane amount of pony adaptations made by fans.

The Flim Flam Brothers prove that even the show itself can make anything pony. The Flim Flam Brothers prove that even the show itself can make anything pony.

So here’s the million-dollar question: What if this show wasn’t about ponies? What if it starred humans who did the same things and acted the same way as our beloved pony counterparts? There are tons upon tons of fan-made humanizations of the ponies. What if that were the show? Would the show be as successful? Is there any way this show catches fire like it did?

The short answer? Probably not.

The long answer? Probably not, but with lots more words.

There is a certain mystique to this show, no matter how silly that may sound. The public’s reaction to the brony phenomenon has been mixed, to put it lightly. Some hear about it and laugh, dismissing it as another weird thing on the Internet, a fad, or something akin to creepy pedophiles getting together online to talk about little girls. But there’s also the curious ones who ask. Boiling it down to the eternal question, “How could a show about X really be that good?” a show about colored horses sure sounds a hell of a lot more interesting than a show about humans. With this whole “pony” thing, non-fans look at the pony aspect first, then they hear that they’re all girls, that the characters are well-developed, etc. And that’s how you sucker someone into watching a show like this.

Also, the My Little Pony franchise has a lot of connotations. Some good, some bad, but it’s there. When people hear My Little Pony, it means something. Then they hear that there’s a large contingent of a non-target audience who are insisting that it’s really that good, that these ponies are worth watching no matter what you may have thought before. Why ponies? Why this show? I wanna know. Let’s open up Youtube and see what all the fuss is about. Boom. You’ve got another fan.

Now imagine if this was outside of the My Little Pony franchise. Imagine if this was a show a part of a new franchise that had humans. Specifically, the show would be about teenaged girls going through friendship problems. You can imagine how the media’s reaction would be. If you thought the news treated bronies badly now, imagine how many people would be freaked out over that.

Not only would a show about teenaged girls sound more unsettling than a show about multicolored ponies, there’s also all the other problems associated with the human world. What ethnicity would these characters be? What body type? What would these associations mean when people are picking apart the show? If they were all Caucasian, would people be upset that the show is too white-centric? If the cast was a vast array of races, would people complain about “token” characters and their stereotypes? It could get ugly real fast.

The fact that these characters are ponies completely skirts a lot of the possible controversy. These ponies are all girls. That’s one of the few aspects of these characters that have a direct real-world analogue. These ponies are all different colors, but it’s because everypony is a different color. There is no “predominant” color group. There is no “predominant” race of ponies. You are watching a show about multicolored ponies. That’s it.

It’s weird. It’s all very weird. But the show’s good, and sometimes, that’s all that matters. 

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  1. I think you’re right on the mark here. There have been other shows that match MLP for cleverness and humor (Kim Possible comes to mind), but didn’t catch fire the way Ponies did. I think a lot of the initial appeal for MLP comes from the cognitive dissonance of watching a show clearly not intended for the viewing audience, and still enjoying it. It has the air of something forbidden, something you’re not supposed to be doing. And unlike smoking, for example, it doesn’t require you to get through a period of trying to inhale something vile into you lungs first, it’s pleasurable from the smart.

  2. And yet the characters do emote in non-human ways as well. They dig at the ground nervously or aggressively, they lay their ears back(and do other things I have probably overlooked), and the pegasi have threat-displays with their wings (as well as using them like arms in some cases). There is probably something with the head and neck positions.

    In this they emote more than if they only had human-like facial, fore-arm, and body-posture expressions.