The ruling class of alicorns of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is able to stay in power because of a mix of fear and ingrained civic virtue, and this reflects the adult viewers pessimistic view of the current American government, their low voting patterns, and high civic involvement. In addition to the expressed view of political power seen throughout, other issues include terrorism, homeland security, and international conflict. The explicit and implicit messages contained in this programming strongly influence the shows most devoted fans. By looking at aspects of life in Ponyville with a critical lens, the actions of the ponies and the citizens of Equestria can be explained, and then the adult watching and the message being shown can be analyzed.
Access to media is a key part of this analysis, specifically media relating to the popular franchise that transcends age groups, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. The question is if the animated show, books, and comics, originally marketed for eight year old girls, can influence and reflect to how the adult fans of the series view political issues, or if it is completely unrelated. “There is no dispute that the media has a great deal of influence over society” (Nickoli 150). The large “adult fandom that has developed in response to the show suggests that it is not only children who are affected by the embedded messages in this program” (Robertson 22).
The political structure of Equestria can help explain how adult viewers see the current American government. Because “politics and entertainment media are becoming increasingly intertwined…young Americans’ political beliefs are…shaped by what they see and hear through the entertainment media” (Cobb 144); it will also help determine whether or not they want to help create a more utopian democracy, or if they see it as such, since “the anthropomorphic animal has long functioned as a useful metaphor for the human condition, allowing us to see a reflection of ourselves and yet place a convenient distance between us and the mirror by virtue of our fundamental human/animal difference” (Robertson 23). “Animals are also exempt from the vicissitudes of history and politics, they are convenient symbols of a world beyond socio-economic realities,” allowing for people to explore different political models (Dorfman 29).
There is an argument that “fictional narratives are not mirrors of reality. They extract, abbreviate, and amplify relationships that occur in reality, in a similar way to experiments and surveys” (Chen et al. 30). This shall be called the funhouse mirror theory, since it does reflect but also distorts the image. Both the accurate mirror theory and the funhouse mirror theory can be helpful in determining certain human traits and themes that are being shown to the viewers. When television started to become a household norm, during the presidential election of 1952, “Miami University carried out a panel study investigating television’s effect s upon Ohio voters…[where the majority] of the panel judged television to be the source of information most helpful, and three-fourths believed that TV had exerted an influence on the election”(Coffin 637). Television and media have changed a lot since 1952 and have become more prevalent in our society.
“My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is a prime example of how it is not the medium that matters, but how… [one can] communicate ideas and messages to an audience that makes a program appealing,” (Fross 26) and influential. “The use of popular culture … [in a classroom or other intellectual setting provides people] with the opportunity to critically analyze a form of media that permeates their daily lives” (Nickoli 161), allowing viewers to interpret the possible messages in a show.
Another view is that “while the messages conveyed are themselves important, arguably the technologies also produce new types of association, identity and mobilization shaped by popular sentiments” (Grayson et al. 158), meaning that the community and what the members create is the more important than the message being shown.
One theory is that, “children have been conditioned by…the culture which spawned them. They…reflect in their daily lives the characteristics they are supposed to possess, in order to win affection, acceptance, and …in order to grow up properly and integrate into society” (Dorfman 30). In that theory, Disney films and the morals they taught were primarily studied. Dorfman argued against the indoctrination of the Disney stories in a non-violent, predictable plot. “So-called ‘anti-bronies’ groups have popped up on Facebook…[with most of their] postings read to the effect of, ‘I figured I’d make a sanctuary for…those of us that believe it’s disgusting how…men watch, and enjoy, a show…for little girls’” (Bell 10). There are many people who argue that My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is just a television show for little girls, and further research will definitely include people who share this point of view to find out whether they have a higher or lower sense of efficacy compared with fans of the show.
Facebook and other social networking sites users, according to Nee, “were no more inclined to participate in politics than users of other media early in the 2008 presidential primary” (Nee 175). However, in the same study Nee said that there is an “established a positive relationship between those who used social networking sites for information purposes and civic engagement” (Nee 175). So those who participate in both pro- and anti- My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic forums to discuss the show and theories about it might be more inclined to participate in civic matters others than voting. By “engaging with political information through expressive communicative activities online… users effectively think about political issues…relate to politics, eliminate uncertainty, and form or reconsider issue stances (Yamamoto et al. 13). This can be expanded to television, books, and comics, since it is common to find both likeminded and different people online where they can be discussed.
Civic bonds are the second most important variable for this particular study. Civic bonds are the connections felt by a community, and the willingness of the citizens to bond together in various groups. “The more knowledge citizens have of civic affairs, the less likely they are to experience a generalized mistrust of, or alienation from, public life” (Galston 637). Civic participation does not mean voting, but that is one of the main ways to participate in politics.
Membership in clubs is another way of civic participation. “Scholars, elected officials, and ordinary citizens are concerned about the apparent weakening of civil society…[because of issues like] membership in major national organizations has declined, as has active participation in local clubs and groups” (Galston 621-634). However, civic participation does not have to be with a formal group.
“Only through active participation will the people of this great nation better understand…[the] importance of all three branches of government, and feel empowered to protect our past and make a difference in our future” (Zack 8). In this view, voting and having insight on what is being voted on, is most important, as is participation “in well governed democracies, [where] voice typically takes the form of voting or protest. Voice can also take the form of revolt, especially… [when] citizens cannot rely on democratic institutions to make their voices heard” (Hanssen & Fleck 26).
In both views, it is important that every citizen is able to voice their concerns; however, “the American electoral system…makes it exceedingly difficult for political protest movements to become institutionalized as third parties” (Brym 46). Voices are heard but they are not long lasting or popularized changes. Whether this is possible in Equestria is yet to be discovered.
Another view says that “civic knowledge is an important determinant of civic capability and character…[and shows how] recent findings suggest that formal, classroom-based civic education provides an effective means of teaching civic knowledge” (Galston 639). Figuring out how the leaders of Equestria in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic actually rule the land can determine if the citizens are taught civic virtue, or to act accordingly out of fear. There has been no research conducted to determine the openness of Celestia’s and Luna’s rule in Equestria. Based on the available media, further analysis will attempt to classify their leadership methods and understand what is being reflected or absorbed by the My Little Pony adult fan base.
It is clear that “each adult member of an association be entitled to participate in making collective and binding decisions…which can be achieved only in a fully democratic political system” (Dahl “Equality” 639), which Equestria and America are not. “Higher civic participation has been linked to greater policy innovation and improvements in government performance,” (McAtee & Wolak 46). Both the people and the ponies have a sense of civic virtue and are committed to making their community a better place. The ponies do it because of a history of fear that has turned into just a simple way of life and because of the heightened status of the rulers, due to perceived racial superiority.
The adult viewers of the show share the feeling that the American government is unbeatable, not because the politicians and leaders are physically more powerful, like in Equestria, but legally and financially so. For example, “when Congress blocks off one avenue for funding political campaigns, millionaires find other routes—or bulldoze new ones through the wilderness”(Chapman). Laws are hindrances, not strict rules, for certain people. However, the idea that the ponies are ruled by fear does not account for a lack of attempts to escape, as seen in real world countries with horrible, oppressive conditions, where “hundreds of thousands of…people have [attempted escape]…at the risk of [being], arrested, repatriated, and charged with treason” (Hanssen & Fleck 36) or being drowned if escaping by boat. Although, they may not run away because the idea that the rulers of Equestria are powerful is not propaganda: Celestia and Luna actually raise and lower the sun and moon, and there is simply no location where the citizens can be safe from their reach.
A cluster of variables that can be classified as predictors to vote, is the third most important variables in this analysis. Others, such as parents, guardians, teachers, and peers can influence whether a young person votes or participate in civic events. “Generally, important others affect young people’s political participation in several ways: Besides explicit discussions, being a role model, or providing access to social network” (Eckstein et al. 429). The reference to social networks means just having access to different people, and the more social networks one participates in, the more perspectives he or she has access to. The Cutie Mark Crusaders in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic start as a group of friends, and expand to include other young fillies in neighboring cities who are experiencing life and finding their places, much like after school programs in the real world.
“The approval of political behaviors by… others represents one possible way of influence, [but] it is certainly not the only kind of a social predictor” (Eckstein et al. 433). Internal reasons for voting and participating in government issues are the most powerful. “Schools are still more or less a common experience and as such, they are one of the few vehicles available for the character development and reinforcement of the necessary features of our civic life” (Healy 238); this means that schools are one of the places where civic virtue and the building of community is a commonality in America. There seems to be an elementary school where attendance is actually required in Equestria, however there are Universities and other colleges that are accessible.
“Online political expression was found to have a mobilizing effect on offline political participation for those who use,” social networking sites (Yamamoto et al. 13). One large predictor to vote depends on if one has a “political interest… [or if] a person’s resources and interest in politics help explain involvement at the state level as well as at other levels of government” (McAtee 51). Adult viewers participate in their communities and political matters in other ways than voting, as mentioned before. “The self-actualizing citizen… sees political engagement in very personal terms, motivated by a desire to enhance the quality of his or her personal life and social relations rather than to support government institutions” (Atkinson 193). The hypothesis argues that the views arise from these self-actualizing citizens.
Another way of participating is volunteering. “Over the past quarter-century, volunteering by the average American has risen from six times per year to nearly eight times” (Galston 635). Fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic have formed charity groups, which is not the first time that a television show has inspired such generosity. Fans of Star Trek, have formed “stress community service projects; this aspect distinguishes them from a mere fan group and underlies the seriousness with which they take their beliefs about building a better world” (Jindra 36). Another reason that people may vote or participate in civic matters is that “the greater the reward a citizen receives or expects to receive from politics, the greater is his participation. Thus, the more concerned he is over politics, the greater is his participation” (Dahl “Who Participates” 1348). This participation seems to be due less to civic mindedness, and more related to cost benefits.
The idea that Equestria is ruled by both fear and civic virtue is explained by Dahl’s statement that “the life chances of every human being are enormously dependent on the contingencies of birth” (Dahl “Equality”). Ponies who are born as, or turn into, alicorns are the rulers, unicorns are upper class citizens, and pegasi are the middle class, leaving earth ponies as the labors. These roles are not immovable, but they are typical. The other species in Equestria besides ponies, such as the gryphons, breezies, and hydras do not have a voice within the castle walls.
One thousand years ago in Ponyville, Princess Luna rebelled against Princess Celestia, her older sister, for more power. Celestia merely ignored her sister’s complaints, until Luna could not stand being silenced, transformed into NightMare Moon, and attempted a coup. It failed, and NightMare Moon was sentenced to isolation on the Moon NightMare Moon returns in season one of the program to try once again take over Equestria. After NightMare Moon is defeated, Luna is given her position as a Princess once again, serving under Celestia. The coup was in spirit of the founding of Equestria. Before Celestia, the creation of Equestria and unifying the three pony races was only accomplished by the death of the three leaders of the different races, leaving their subordinates to come together and form a land where each race works together. So far there has been no history behind the royal lineage of Celestia. These plot lines create a message that what matters is community and helping people, or ponies, no matter how futile the larger issues may seem.
Alexandra Agostinelli is currently an undergraduate student at SUNY Buffalo State College. She is studying Political Science and Sociology, and enjoys combining the two subjects to help understand the world. Her project about the My Little Pony franchise and political antagonist attitudes is the result of these combining interests and will continue to be worked upon and studied. Her educational past includes an Associate of Arts degree from Monroe Community College.
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