My Little Pony: Reality is Magic!

(Cross-posted at 3 Quarks Daily)

You probably won’t be very surprised to hear that someone decided to reboot the classic 80’s My Little Pony cartoon based on a line of popular pony toys. After all, sequels and shout-outs to familiar brands have become the foundation of the entertainment industry. The new ‘n improved cartoon, called My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, follows a nerdy intellectual pony named Twilight Sparkle, who learns about the magic of friendship through her adventures with the other ponies in Ponyville.

But you might be surprised to learn that My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic’s biggest accolades have come not from its target audience of little girls and their families, but from a fervent adult fanbase. I first heard of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic from one of my favorite sources of intelligent pop culture criticism, The Onion’s AV Club, which gave the show an enthusiastic review last year. (I had my suspicions at first that the AV Club’s enthusiasm was meant to be ironic, but they insisted that the show wore down their defenses, and that it was “legitimately entertaining and lots of fun.” So either their appreciation of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is genuine, or irony has gotten way more poker-faced than I realized.)

And you might be even more taken aback to learn that many, if not most, of those adult My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic fans are men and that they’ve even coined a name for themselves: “Bronies.” At least, I was taken aback. In fact, my curiosity was sufficiently piqued that I contacted Purple Tinker, the person in charge of organizing the bronies’ seasonal convention in New York City. Purple Tinker was friendly and helpful, saying that he had read about my work in the skeptic/rationalist communities, and commended me as only a brony could: “Bravo – that’s very Twilight Sparkle of you!”

But when I finally sat down and watched the show, I realized that while Purple Tinker may be skeptic-friendly, the show he loves is not. The episode I watched, “Feeling Pinkie Keen,” centers on a pony named Pinkie Pie, who interprets the twitches in her tail and the itches on her flank as omens of some impending catastrophe, big or small. “Something’s going to fall!” Pinkie Pie shrieks, a few beats before Twilight Sparkle accidentally stumbles into a ditch. The other ponies accept her premonitions unquestioningly, but empirically-minded Twilight Sparkle is certain that Pinkie Pie’s successes are either a hoax or a coincidence. She’s detemined to get to the bottom of the matter, shadowing Pinkie Pie in secret to observe whether the premonitions disappear when there’s no appreciative audience around, and hooking Pinkie Pie up to what appears to be a makeshift MRI machine which Twilight Sparkle apparently has lying around her house, to see whether the premonitions are accompanied by any unusual brain activity.

Meanwhile, Twilight Sparkle is being more than a little snotty about how sure she is that she’s right, and how she just can’t wait to see the look on Pinkie Pie’s face when Pinkie Pie gets proven wrong. Which, of course, is intended to make it all the more enjoyable to the audience when — spoiler alert! — Twilight Sparkle’s investigations yield no answers, and Pinkie Pie’s premonitions just keep coming true. Finally, Twilight Sparkle admits defeat: “I’ve learned that there are some things you just can’t explain. But that doesn’t mean they’re not true. You just have to choose to believe.”

Nooo, Twilight Sparkle, no! You are a disgrace to empirical ponies everywhere. And I’m not saying that because Twilight Sparkle “gave in” and concluded that Pinkie Pie’s premonitions were real. After all, sometimes it is reasonable to conclude that an amazing new phenomenon is more likely to be real than a hoax, or a coincidence, or an exaggeration, etc. It depends on the strength of the evidence. Rather, I’m objecting to the fact that Twilight Sparkle seems to think that because she was unable to figure out how premonitions worked, that therefore science has failed.

Twilight Sparkle is an example of a Straw Vulcan, a character who supposedly represents the height of rationality and logic, but who ends up looking like a fool compared to other, less rational characters. That’s because the Straw Vulcan brand of rationality isn’t real rationality. It’s a gimpy caricature, crafted that way either because the writers want to make rationality look bad, or because they genuinely think that’s what rationality looks like. In a talk I gave at this year’s Skepticon IV conference, I described some characteristic traits of a Straw Vulcan, such as an inability to enjoy life or feel emotions, and an unwillingness to make any decisions without all the information. Now I can add another trait to my list, thanks to Twilight Sparkle: the attitude that if we can’t figure out the explanation, then there isn’t one.

Do you think it’s possible that anyone missed the anti-inquiry message?  Hard to imagine, given the fact that the skeptical pony seems mainly motivated by a desire to prove other people wrong and gloat in their faces, and given her newly-humbled admission that “sometimes you have to just choose to believe.” But just in case there was anyone in the audience who didn’t get it yet, the writers also included a scene in which Twilight Sparkle is only able to escape from a monster by jumping across a chasm – and she’s scared, but the other ponies urge her on by crying out, “Twilight Sparkle, take a leap of faith!”

And yes, of course, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is “just” a kids’ cartoon, and I can understand why people might be tempted to roll their eyes at me for taking its message seriously. I don’t know to what extent children internalize the messages of the movies, TV, books, and other media they consume. But I do know that there are plenty of messages that we, as a society, would rightfully object to if we found them in a kids’ cartoon – imagine if one of the ponies played dumb to win the favors of a boy-pony and then they both lived happily ever after. Or if an episode ended with Twilight Sparkle chirping, “I’ve learned you should always do whatever it takes to impress the cool ponies!” So why aren’t we just as intolerant of a show that tells kids: “You can either be an obnoxious skeptic, or you can stop asking questions and just have faith”?

7 Responses to My Little Pony: Reality is Magic!

  1. Adam says:

    I believe the creator apologised for that episode. Trying to think where I read that.

  2. Paul Crowley says:

    I was going to make a joke about Twilight Sparkle and the Methods of Rationality, but it turns out Eliezer got there first:

  3. Thom Blake says:

    Yes, you happened to have stumbled upon a much-criticized episode, and the creator has apologized for the perceived ‘anti-science’ message (though the apology did wave its hands at some woo).

  4. Paul Crowley says:

    Wow, just Googled for “Feeling Pinkie Keen” and it turns out that *lots* of people felt the same way, and that the show creators did reply:

  5. Aaron says:

    As a veteran of television writing and production, I feel as though I should have something to add to the discussion. Hmmmm. I guess it’s worth saying that creating a television series and then an episode of that series is both simpler and more complex than you might imagine. The individual writer of an episode has no control of such refined things as the philosophical framework of the series. The creator of the series might be attentive to that, but most of these discussions are either implicit or non-existent. The writer of a given episode probably doesn’t even get to create the story structure, and since an animated kids show is either the first or last stop in a TV writing career, the writer’s professional power is at a minimum. The creator of the series, for his or her part, serves at the pleasure of the network which bought the show. The creator has also committed to whatever artistic agreements were established in development of the series with the network. Most of those discussion have to do with marketability of the series (first as a concept that has to rise through the corporate process and then as a consumable piece of entertainment). The corporate structure leans towards the needs of the advertisers. The audience gets last consideration, and at that point, they have only a yay or nay input. In the case of kids it’s even less about an actual preference and more about what channel they happen to like most. Should the show do a better job of presenting the scientific method? Of course. There just isn’t a lot of bandwidth devoted to such things. Not as a matter of policy, but simply a matter of focus. The solution is to figure out how religious pressure groups got propaganda like “Veggie Tales” on the air, and then do the same for the critical thinking perspective.

  6. Heleno Nazário says:

    Looking at a tv show written for kids can bring more good insights than anyone can imagine.
    Maybe the better solution to the problem Twilight Sparkle confronts when can not prove the other pony wrong is to assume that “for now, I cannot understand this, but I’ll keep trying!”. That’s what happens in the real world.
    That not only would show an attitude more scientific towards what is not cognoscible/understandable, but could add some dramatic tension, as a bonus.

  7. Sean Crowell says:

    My little girl has recently become very interested in My Little Pony, and I watched this episode with her just after reading the blog post. This gave me the opportunity to ask her what she thought about the portrayal of Twilight’s skepticism and Pinkie’s magical abilities. I think that watching the stuff our kids watch is important, because I’d hate for the message she took away to be the one described above. The fact that her dad does science for a living, and tends to harp on observing before making up your mind hopefully would have helped somewhat.

    Also, I think the comments about the network process are helpful for perspective, but they don’t change the basic fact that the message is terrible. If the network is responsible for that message, then they should be ashamed, but the writer’s comments make it clear that she felt responsible for the show’s content.

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