How do you teach the magic of friendship?
(featuring Sailors Uranus and Neptune)
by Jason R. Nguyen (ResearchIsMagic.org / Indiana University Bloomington)
People in the fandom talk a lot about the values of the show and about how it teaches people what friendship is and how it even helps the more socially awkward of us to have models for healthy socialization. But when we use the word “teach,” we can sometimes get tunnel-vision about how we actually learn behaviors in the world. We don’t learn how to be better friends because Twilight Sparkle tells us a one-sentence secret about what friendship is. Sure, the lesson reinforces something, but what exactly is that, and how?
A related story: long before I learned what “queer theory” was, the magical-girl anime Sailor Moon showed me through the lesbian pairing of Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune that gender and sexuality were fluid categories. The show didn’t provide me with a theoretical vocabulary for discussing those topics, but it helped open me to a possibility—to the very basic humanity of people with different sexualities and genders than my own—and that receptiveness would later serve me when those concepts were taught.
Everything about their relationship seemed familiar to me—their suaveness as a gorgeous pair of people, their genuine concern for one another, the occasional sexual joke—except that they were both girls. And since the fact that they were lesbians was the one thing that little Jason felt to be “unnatural,” it was less mental effort to shift my heteronormative worldview than to shift my positive inclination towards these two characters.
I intellectualized it later, but more importantly, their normalness—signalled by how their homosexuality was a non-issue to everyone else in that universe—justified them to me on a visceral level. More than teaching me how to act, Sailor Moon taught me how to react to and interpret sexualities different from my own. In other words, the best lessons of social behavior are ones that shift your ability to interpret social worlds—ever so slightly at first—to a different position that makes more sense with the people and objects from the world in which you’re invested, be that “real” life, Sailor Moon, or My Little Pony.
MLP:FiM’s underlying premise—that a group of young, four-legged, multi-colored women are interesting and fundamentally good and that they value their friendships despite obvious differences—permeates every other aspect of the show’s narrative. If one accepts that premise, just as I accepted that the Sailor Scouts were compassionate and good people, the conflicts within the group and the individual flaws of each of the characters become normalized as problems that good people/ponies have.
Twilight Sparkle’s obsessive personality and need for validation from authority figures become recognized as parts of a protagonist’s struggle. Rarity and Rainbow Dash have occasional bouts of vanity, but they are linked in the story to their skills and confidence in their respective fields. Fluttershy’s social anxiety is accepted by the characters and by viewers as a part of her personality and, while something to struggle against, not something to be ridiculed. Etc…
If there is any lesson about friendship and inclusivity here, it is less tied to aphorisms and end-of-episode lessons and more to 1) the ways these characters have complex personalities that remind us of real people’s emotional struggles and difficulties and 2) our acceptance that these struggles are the problems of fundamentally good people/ponies. As with my acceptance of homosexual romance in Sailor Moon, I imagine that MLP:FIM doesn’t so much teach bronies how to act as it performs on their screens the strong bonds between ponies across a wide emotional and personality spectrum.