» Halberds and Hair Dryers: The Bizarre Tech of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic

Once upon a time in the magical land of Equestria, there were phonographs and quill pens and radiation-proof hazmat suits. Why is Equestrian technology such a weird hodgepodge? And despite that fact, why does it feel so natural? Read on to find out.

The first episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic opens with the turn of a storybook cover, establishing that Equestria exists in a self-contained fairy tale universe — fitting, considering that the first characters we meet are a dragon and a unicorn. But keep watching the show and you’ll notice that things start to get…strange. A steam engine here, a light switch there. A photo booth. A Technics turntable. At some point we abandoned the Middle Ages and we didn’t even notice.

So what’s up with this historical mishmash? And, more importantly, why does it still feel like Equestria is a believable world instead of an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink disaster?

The secret is an invisible design aesthetic, one that borrows from time-scrambled centuries while still feeling cohesive. If you sit down to catalog all the show’s elements you’ll lose sight of this unifying force, but take a step back and — like a Magic Eye picture — it will snap into focus. In fact, you can sum up Equestria’s worldbuilding in two words: “Old Timey.”

So what is Old Timey? Here’s the recipe:

HOW TO MAKE EQUESTRIA

1) One cup of fairy-tale fantasy
2) One cup of Gilded Age arrangement
3) One cup of 20th century nostalgia
4) Combine, mix well
5) Add funny anachronisms, season to taste

That’s it, and the 65 pony episodes making up Seasons 1-3 prove that it works. But even a tasty dish can turn out badly when the cooks aren’t careful.

Let’s take a look at each of the main categories of design, and how they contribute to the Old Timey fusion.

A Cup Of Fairy-Tale Fantasy

This is the foundation of the worldbuilding in Friendship is Magic. “It’s not really a technological world,” explained supervising director Jayson Thiessen during a panel discussion at 2012′s New York Comic-Con. “It’s a magical fantasy world.”

That’s apparent from the show’s very first scenes, set in a glittering city of Medieval parapets and waving banners ruled by a magic-packing princess. Series creator Lauren Faust admitted that she drew inspiration from familiar fantasy environments like The Chronicles of Narnia, and that the cliffside real estate occupied by Equestria’s capital city is a nod to Minas Tirith in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The city’s name, Canterlot, is both an acknowledgement of Arthurian legend and the first of many, many horsie puns.

But Canterlot isn’t a literal telling of life in the Middle Ages. It might be called “loosely ancient,” as if you were taking in the sights at a really casual Renaissance Festival. This becomes even more apparent when the show travels to other locales like the sky-city of Cloudsdale, where the Ionic-column architecture gives the proud pegasus community an aura of Classical Greece. Nor is the Greek influence a one-time thing. According to the episode “Hearth’s Warming Eve,” Equestria’s ancient pegasi warriors wear crested Spartan helmets (which, incidentally, were historically made from horsehair). And take a close look at Rainbow Dash’s Gala dress, and you’ll see an abundance of Grecian fashion cues including a grape-cluster necklace, a laurel crown, and high-strap sandals.

Fairy-Tale Fantasy Design Influence in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic Swords and Sorcery by Way of the History Books

Or maybe you’d like a little Roman Empire? Chariots are a common mode of transport for the aristocracy, and one of them carries Twilight Sparkle to Ponyville in the first episode. If you’d prefer the era of the Spanish Conquistadors, Fluttershy wears a 16th Century morion helmet while portraying the historical figure Private Pansy, and Pinkie Pie (playing Chancellor Puddinghead) sports a collar ruffle that wouldn’t look out of place around the neck of Sir Walter Raleigh.

When Twilight Sparkle calculates a sum in “Hurricane Fluttershy” she relies on a suanpan abacus most commonly associated with second-century China. And, jumping ahead to the French aristocracy of Louis XVI, we see Rarity torturing Rainbow Dash by forcing her to model elaborate powdered wigs, while Canterlot’s intricate hedge maze would fit right in at the court of Verseilles.

A Cup Of Gilded Age Arrangement

We’ve established that Equestria is a historical hodgepodge, but until now the design influences have all been various flavors of antiquity. Now we move into an era that would definitely feel out of place at Ye Olde Ren Faire: the late 1800s, in which the show borrows liberally from both sides of the pond.

Victorian England Design Influences in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic Merry Olde England Victorianisms

England during this age was in full Victoriana. This is the domain of Charles Dickens and Jack the Ripper, and Friendship is Magic freely skims its popular cultural tropes. Look at the silk hats and cravats worn by the high-society elite, or the traveling-show entertainments staged by Trixie in the Ponyville town square and by Pinkie inside her fortunetelling tent. Steam locomotives, the most common method of Equestrian mass transit, debuted in the Gilded Age. And when Twilight gets into the mystery-solving mood (“Mmmystery on the Friendship Express”), she whips out the deerstalker cap and calabash pipe made famous by Sherlock Holmes.

Old West Design Influence in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic The Old West

Across the Atlantic the Gilded Age represented frontier expansion. Friendship is Magic time-warps into this era whenever the characters visit outlying settlements, where they’re guaranteed to spot swinging-door saloons and tin-star sheriffs. The Equestrian town of Dodge Junction (“The Last Roundup”) borrows its name from the gunslinger hotspot of Dodge City Nevada, while the episode “Over a Barrel” features a tribute to the Western cinema classic High Noon.

A Cup Of 20th Century Nostalgia

As we move into the third category the design elements begin to seem almost modern. Yet they still fall under a “two generations removed” rule of thumb.

“We’ve been trying to keep the technology really limited,” explained Thiessen at Comic-Con. “When there’s machinery and vehicles and things, we try to keep them working in a kind of old-world sense.” If you translate a two-generations rule into actual numbers you get a figure of about 50 years as your nostalgia buffer, and indeed almost everything in the show fits this criteria.

Early 20th Century Design Influences in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic The “Two Generations Removed” Rule

Bonnet-style hair dryers, Groucho glasses, and canister vacuum cleaners? They were all common in the 1940s. Bowling alleys and roller-derby rinks? Already familiar sights in 1950s pop culture. You’ll find additional mid-century nods when Spike unspools black-and-white footage that apes 1950s educational films (“Hurricane Fluttershy”), or when the Cutie Mark Crusaders view a movie theater promo (“One Bad Apple”) that’s modeled after 1957′s “Let’s All Go To The Lobby.” When Rarity chooses a headscarf-and-sunglasses combo for her outdoor ensemble (“Sleepless in Ponyville”), it’s pure mid-’60s Grace Kelly.

Season To Taste With Anachronisms

Sure, sometimes the show breaks its own design bylaws. But when it does, it does so under the Roger Rabbit Rule: You can get away with anything as long as it’s funny.

There are dollops of modernity in the show if you know where to look, but in many cases they’re dressed up with antiquey greeblies (like Pinkie Pie’s night-vision goggles in “The Crystal Empire”) for a better Old Timey fit. And even when they aren’t, these anachronisms can usually be justified because they’re the focus of the funny and disappear as soon as the joke is over.

Anachronistic Design Influences in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic “Rule of Funny” Rule-Breaking

Music is one such example, with Pinkie channeling an ’80s Flashdance vibe (“A Friend in Deed”) or the Cutie Mark Crusaders managing to simultaneously swipe from Kiss, Queen, and Poison’s Bret Michaels in a single song (“The Show Stoppers”). The computer cursor that erases Pinkie’s mouth in “Magic Duel” might be the most current gag the show has ever done, but it gets a metaphysical pass for acknowledging the out-of-universe Adobe Flash assets that are the building blocks of in-universe Equestria.

But Don’t Add Too Much Spice!

“It makes the show really timeless,” said head writer Meghan McCarthy at New York Comic-Con, explaining the show’s design aesthetic. “Twenty years from now you’ll be able to watch this show and get the same level of enjoyment out of it. It won’t be like, why is Twilight tweeting?”

Friendship is Magic is too carefully constructed for the writers to include cheap gags about flavor-of-the-month social media platforms, but admittedly over the course of three seasons the show hasn’t gotten everything right.

Sometimes these elements break the two-generation technology rule, or maybe they imply a level of industrialization (construction cranes, hydroelectric dams) that seem awkwardly shoehorned into a setting that should never feel pinned down. More damningly, these elements often don’t get a free pass from the Rule of Funny because they’re not really jokes, they’re just…things that happen.

Bad Design Influences in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic Ill-Fitting Design Examples

At other times its clear that a writer is in fact going for a gag, but the payoff sometimes isn’t worth the stretch. A James Bond parody seems a stale way to justify laser security systems and LEDs (“Mmmystery on the Friendship Express”). And Iron Will might be a decent guy, but his shtick (motivational speaker meets WWE wrestler meets the ShamWow infomercial guy) feels too ’90s for pony.

Looking Ahead

The easiest way to sum up the Old Timey aesthetic is this: It’s not about the technology, it’s about the design. Sure, we can invoke unicorn magic to explain how video games function, and therefore why Equestria should logically have its own version of satellite television and even an information-sharing ponynet. But to do so would risk breaking immersion in the world the show has constructed, which is a far greater sin than ignoring an “X leads to Y” commandment of scientific progress.

“[Equestria] has rules,” Meghan McCarthy affirmed during her Comic-Con appearance. “We’re not going to see robots attacking.”

And if, somehow, McCarthy is wrong? Just in case next season brings an onslaught of giant mecha-zoids, I’m keeping my eye on this guy:

Nerd Pony's robot cutie mark Yeah you. I’m watching you.

Share your thoughts


  1. I am completely glad that someone sat down and looked at this and explained how it all might work in synch. Of course, Friendship is Magick but despite Lauren Faust’s intimation that Ponies just go ‘wherever’, I’m a big believer that if a frontier town has public pony facilities then someplace like Canterlot or Manehatten has an even better system in place and that ponies live clean and healthy lifestyles (even the garbage collectors)

  2. Hey, loved the article. One minor nitpick: Fluttershy’s helmet in Hearth’s Warming Eve, to me at least, looks less like a morion and more like a Boeotian helmet (an ancient Greek style, based on the petasos, a type of sun hat) to me. That would fit in better with the pseudo-Grecian culture that the pegasi have going on.

    Boeotian helmet
    Petasos

    • Great points, and you might be right. On the other hand there seems to be a lot more visual reference available for the morion which may have been a factor when it came to the artists who designed the armor?

  3. Don’t forget The Last Roundup, where it’s revealed Equestria’s railroad has electric powered automatic railroad crossing signals.

  4. Great article.. one of my personal observations is that Equestria seems to have much less military tech than modern humans, but their medical tech (can heal a broken bone in 3 days) is far in advance of ours. The doctor was a unicorn, so it’s possible that that aspect is magically-aided in the same way that the super squeezy cider 6000 was powered by magic.

    Magic is the real wildcard for technology development, it can do certain things far better than any technology. Weather control from pegasi is a pretty important asset too, hunger must be non-existent in Equestria with the weather always providing exactly enough water and fertilizer (pegasi can use lightning clouds to create nitrogren).

  5. Pingback: dustbury.com » Where everything is an anachronism

  6. My personal thought has always been that any country ruled by a chaos spirit for any length of time will have anachronistic technology.

  7. IMO they are just simply on the threshold of a technological singularity (or many of them piled up), lots of innovations taking place while there is still lots of people used to the old ways (or even stubbornly sticking with the old ways).

    And don’t forget we’ve mostly only seen a small town, a capital mostly filled with stuck up nobles/rich people, a couple settlements at the edge of “civilization” and an empire frozen in time for thousand or so years. As a matter of fact, we can actually see lots of similar “anachronisms” in the real world, you just have to know where to look (or be lucky to stumble on them).