According to the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic diagnostic inventory for evaluating cartoon-triggered sociopathy, I am a monster.
There’s no hyperlink to this aforementioned inventory because it doesn’t exist. (You can find some scholarship about the difficulty of diagnosing sociopathy here, by the way.) If it did, I imagine one of its first questions would be something like, “Agree or Disagree: The statement ‘friendship is magic’ is positive.”
“Disagree,” I would say. “Nope. Hard pass.”
The psychologist administering the exam would raise an eyebrow and make a very telling mark on their clipboard. The questions would get more pointed. They’d want to know how I could possibly believe that friendship could possibly be a bad thing. They’d want to know who hurt me.
I recognize that my anger toward the underlying thesis of a children’s television program — one I’ve seen from start to finish many times over during the course of my daughter’s cloistered COVIDsummer — might not be exactly healthy. Or, more accurately, I recognize that others might see it as unhealthy. But I’ve come to realize the real issue isn’t with me. It’s with the insidious implications of this program’s portrayal of friendship and forgiveness, and what it asks my daughter and children like her to believe.
Let’s back up for a moment.
I’ve appeared at many conventions over the years speaking on a wide variety of panels, and one topic that frequently comes up (partly because it’s a favorite of mine) is the concept of a redemption arc or redemption narrative. I have a lot of capital-O Opinions about redemption, in no small part due to growing up Catholic, a religious background that places a premium on confession of sins and acts of penance. Toss in my general love of complicated, morally gray characters and it’s no wonder that a lot of audiences get an earful from me about what redemption is — and isn’t — in storytelling.
You’d think that my passion for redemption arcs would make My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic a paradise of trope catnip. In the first episodes, the horrifying Nightmare Moon is rehabilitated by the power of friendship and love into her original form, Princess Luna, reuniting her with the benevolent sister she has battled for eons. Not long after, the Lord of Chaos, Discord, is aggressively friendshipped into transforming from a malevolent trickster into an irreverent sidekick. Starlight Glimmer trades her brutal communist cult leadership for kite-flying dates with her stoic pal, Maud Pie. The entire Changeling species (less its cackling hive queen) is transformed by learning to “feed” themselves on friendship rather than devouring others’ love (the difference is apparently extremely subtle, relying on the semantics of “your friendship with me is the love I need to survive” versus “I survive because of your capacity for love”).
The list goes on. With the exception of the climactic battle that concludes the series itself, virtually no antagonist escapes unchanged or unredeemed when the Elements of Harmony (ie., magical tokens representing the values and behaviors of friendship) are used to battle them. At minimum, friendship and forgiveness are portrayed as powers that fuel magic capable of defeating any foe. Most of those foes aren’t just “defeated” in the sense of their plans being undone, but are actually transformed into repentant (sometimes comical) versions of their former selves.
Again, it’s fair to wonder, as you eye the sociopathy inventory I’m apparently in danger of breaking, why this should be a problem. All of us should practice forgiveness, offer friendship, and believe that it’s possible to right our wrongs. And, on those points, I generally agree.
The problem lies in the program’s aggressive, continuous, so-implicit-it’s-explicit message that the responsibility for fixing unhappy, destructive, selfish people lies with others — often, with the very people they’ve tried to destroy. The heroes (aka “the Mane Six”) are the bannerponies of a kind of toxic positivity, reinforcing the narrative that everyone should get a shot at redemption and coupling that with a call to action that they — and, by extension, their viewers in the world beyond Equestria — are only good and true friends if they do the emotional labor of making that redemption possible. Being reluctant to forgive or trust is a high crime. Consider Twilight Sparkle trying to steer her protégé Starlight Glimmer away from befriending an old nemesis, Trixie, because of her own resentments and distrust (season 6, ep. 6, “No Second Prances”). The entire episode revolves around her mistrust of Starlight Glimmer’s judgment of whom to befriend (given her background as a former villain) and her assumption that Trixie would be a bad friend (something she quickly proves not to be). It is Twilight Sparkle who must make amends, and who puts herself in one embarrassing situation after another trying to withhold trust.
My Little Pony wants its primarily young female audience to believe you can nice people into being good people. It puts the onus for making a better world on the people who are harmed, telling them that they need to extend a hand (or a hoof), and that someone else’s future (or the future of their entire world) depends on that choice. MLP seems to forbid characters creating boundaries. “Redeemed” characters are made to work for forgiveness, true, but forgiveness is always eventually given to anyone who seeks it (and sometimes, shockingly easily). At no point does the program model that it’s okay to be hurt and say, “You cannot make up for what you have done.” It is the children’s cartoon equivalent of the Facebook “Unblock Challenge,” demanding that people reinstate relationships with those they have curated out of their lives and apologize for asserting that boundary in the first place. It is a weaponization of kindness and empathy, with the weapon pointed back at the one supposedly wielding it.
I’ve come to resent MLP not because of the many hours my daughter has spent watching it, effectively earworming me forever, but because it’s trying to teach her that she can, and should, fix other people. It’s trying to teach her that being angry at someone for hurting you isn’t truly okay, and that deciding you don’t need or want their apology — that you’d rather have their absence and with it, the safety of knowing they’re no longer there to harm you — is evidence of your own failure to believe in the power of friendship. The show’s positivity is simultaneously hopeful and sinister, always casting a shadow of doubt over those who question whether they can or should trust the people who have harmed them. It’s emotional gaslighting, whispering to its viewers: We know you’re upset and this person did something wrong, but you do things that are wrong, too. If you can’t forgive them, who will forgive you? Aren’t you really the problem, then? Aren’t you responsible for doing what’s right now?
I haven’t shared my dislike of My Little Pony and its toxic emotional thesis with my daughter. I don’t want to harsh her squee, and besides, she’s nine. She identifies as a woman. The world will harsh that and many other squees soon enough. She’ll have her heart broken by a treacherous friend, or her feelings stomped on by a first crush, or an adult embarrass and judge her unfairly. One of these experiences may be bad enough to show her there really are people who don’t deserve, or cannot be touched by, the “magic of friendship.” That’s when I’ll pull up a chair and tell her what one of her favorite shows stubbornly refuses to:
You are not responsible for fixing or loving the people who hurt you.
I wish someone had told me the same thing, years ago.