Saturday, March 26, 2011

Ponies are magical. Real life, sadly, is not.

So far, Hasbro has been nice enough to not nuke the Youtube videos of My Little Pony floating around. Apparently this is because most of the profit is made off of the toys, so they don't really care if the cartoon is widely distributed for free, so long as people buy those little plastic ponies. Can't say I'm not tempted to grab a few myself (and mod them into gothic versions or something, but still).

The MLP series is built off of a very firm episodic structure. The ponies experience a plot revolving around learning one or two distinct morals, and then the moral is stated outright at the end of each episode for those who need subtext )or text-text) spelled out to them. Most of the morals are generic, simple, and unobjectionable basic niceness. Recently I came across one that actually bothered me a little, though.

The Show Stoppers episode centers on the three younger cast members, the 'Cutie Mark Crusaders' whose major continuing motivation and plot is to find their own individual talents that cause those little symbols on their flanks to appear. So, if you're a pony in the MLPverse, you have a major talent - you can be good at many things, but you are defined by one particular specialty that is literally branded to your skin for everyone to see. The initial 'blank flank' state of the Crusader ponies is a basic metaphor for one's struggle to find a purpose in life in youth. So far, we haven't seen any ponies grow up to be 'blank flanks;' every pony gets his or her Cutie Mark by the time they could be considered a teenager.

Now, I know there's only so much you can expect from even the best children's show. There's no way that politics, economics, or anything resembling a realistic climate for industry or jobs can be shoehorned in. It would go over the heads of the intended audience and restrict viewers according to culturally specific conditions. By keeping it broad and simple, the writers are able to appeal to as large a group as possible, in theory.

But I can't help but feel there comes a point when you dumb it down to a level of poisoning people with optimism. Oh, of course Scootaloo is great with a scooter, and she'll figure it out one day, in time! It's not like there's anyone else who copies her exact talent, she just needs time to work it out. And Sweetie Belle is a GREAT singer, everyone looks forward to hearing her sing! She doesn't hate singing, she's just shy about it, and in time she will learn to be confident and enjoy her talent in front of a crowd as well as when she's by herself!

Redundancy in talents is limited - there may be some overlap in broad strengths like athleticism or fashion sense, but no one will ever have YOUR Cutie Mark. The generation of talent is obvious and predestined - everyone knows what you're good at, and you'll always get good at something before the age where you'd need to figure out how to be an independent, responsible adult. No one ever hates their defining talents because those talents mesh with their personalities perfectly - ponies aren't saddled with talents they wish they didn't have, and any desire to be good at something that isn't their Cutie Mark is only a superficial interest that doesn't trouble them very much in the long run.

Why would you want to give your children such horrible messages in stories? Adults know that's not how life works. In fact, that's pretty much the opposite of how life works! Why would you set your children up for disappointment and allow them to be completely unprepared for the harshness of reality?

I think it's because, ultimately, adults want to believe that's how life works. And they feel ike maybe, if they tell their children that's how it is, and are very very careful to avoid mentioning the depressing parts of life, maybe the kidlets will have better lives. We pass our hopes and dreams down to our children, and tell them that they can be anything they want to be, even though that wasn't true for us. Because we want it to be true for them, so badly. We want them to have their own unique talents that make their lives rich and fulfilling and successful. And if you don't mention failure by name, maybe it won't come a'knocking, right?

Everywhere in children's stories there are messages about the power of friendship and love and making a difference. To a large extent, we need those messages. We need them as badly as we need religion, because it gives us something to hope for. But if you deliver those themes so consistently that real life doesn't poke its ugly head in at all, you just make children confident and ignorant of their own flaws. And then, like their parents before them, they too suffer the bitterness of disappointment. Of finding out that their parents lied to them, of finding out that life is hard.

Some people have no talent. Some people have talents that they hate. Some people have talents that aren't worth very much. Some people are unable to develop any talent at the things they want to do the most, no matter how hard they try.

Every time, mass market media takes the easy way out. Even a great product like MLP takes the easy way out. It tells people that life is awesome when we all know it's not always that way. And it's okay to have stories like that sometimes, but all the time? Might that not be doing more harm than good?

I think adults would be less bitter if they'd had more depressing children's stories when they were young. The drop from childhood to adulthood is a very cold and very sudden shock.