Tag Blog: How do you teach the magic of friendship?

Tag Blog - Series 1
Tag Blog is an idea inspired by TAGJournal and Dr. Susan Lepselter at IU. We write blog entries about the My Little Pony fandom, then ask someone else in the community to write a follow-up and tag the next person in the chain. There are currently two concurrent series, one started by Jason (Series 1) and another by Kurt (Series 2). This is the first post of Series 1 by Jason.

How do you teach the magic of friendship?

(featuring Sailors Uranus and Neptune)

by Jason R. Nguyen (ResearchIsMagic.org / Indiana University Bloomington)

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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.

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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…

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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.

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8 thoughts on “Tag Blog: How do you teach the magic of friendship?

  1. Yeah.
    I’d agree that it’s so much what they end up doing, but how they interact with each other.

    One of my personal favorite episodes of the show is “Look Before You Sleep”. This is an episode that works because it’s all about how the rather vain and proper Rarity deals with the practical and messy Applejack and vice-versa. They both learn to respect each other’s viewpoints at the end, but it really comes out by how they interact over the course of the episode.

    CMC episodes are another good example of character interaction. Everything that comes about with them is due to those three working out just what they’re going to do.

    It really is a good way to show how different personalities can come together and just plain work. None of them are perfect and their flaws actually shine a little brighter than their positive attributes, but that’s okay. Because of that roundedness, we love them and it teaches us to do the same.

    But then, it’s always so much easier to love a fictional character than it is to apply the same standard to the real world…

    1. Is it easier to do in fiction than the “real” world though? It seems to me, based on the proliferation of meetups and conventions and charity campaigns, that the underlying ethos of the show can’t NOT be performed by its fans. There’s always conflict of some sort or another among any group of people, sure, but in my brief interactions with the fandom, there’s at least a predominant discourse about getting along that is always referencing the show.

      I’m having some trouble working through and talking about that, which is in part why I made the post, but what I know through experience is that you simply cannot sing along with these words and not feel like you’re working towards a better you:

      If you follow me
      We’ll put our differences aside
      We’ll stick together and
      Start working on that school pride!

      (Equestria Girls cafeteria song–does it have a NAME?)

      1. Actually it does, the official name is “Equestria Girls” but it is more commonly known as “Helping Twilight Win the Crown”

        And I agree about the songs, they are pretty powerful and whenever I hear them, let alone sing one, I can’t help but ‘feel’ it as well. The “Smile Song” and “A True, True Friend” stand out as particular examples of this for me.

      2. Funny you should mention it. The lines just before those were going through my head while I was compiling my post in this series:

        I’m gonna be myself
        No matter what I do
        And if we’re different, yeah
        I want you to be true to you!

  2. I’m going to preemptively apologize because this is going to be rather long. There were a lot of questions asked in this one and I’m gonna try to address them all. I’m going to talk first about how the show ‘teaches’ through characterization and situations. I’d also like to talk about how the show has helped me, and unfortunately to do that I need to give a bit of back story. So lets get started.

    There’s no question that the taglines at the end aren’t the real punch of the show. They serve a very valuable purpose of consolidating the episode and putting what we have seen into words, but they would be largely meaningless without the episode context to inform them. The real ‘lesson’ of the show comes from the characters and it always has. The show does an incredible job of producing situations that are totally universal, and the characters are flawed and human enough that their parts in these universal stories just seem to fit. I’m gonna use one of my personal favorite episodes to illustrate this point. Lets talk about Luna Eclipsed.

    I know, big surprise right? A Brony who wants to talk about Luna… better call the presses. Seriously though, lets look at what’s going on here. This episode is about entering a new social situation and not knowing what to do. I feel pretty confident that this is a situation that everyone on the planet can relate to on some level because everyone has been ‘the new one’ at some point. Here we get to see that familiar story acted out before us. More than that, we get to see it from multiple perspectives. We get to experience the fears and anxieties of the new person, the reservations of the established group, the uncertainties of both, and when it resolves it does so in a totally believable way.

    The reason this works so well is because we see bits of ourselves in these characters. We see them doing things that we may have done ourselves in the past. We see the resolution and we think to ourselves, “Yeah that makes sense. I can actually do that.” And this holds true for characters on all sides of the issue. All of us can relate to Luna, being the outsider, or Twilight trying to introduce someone into a new group, or Fluttershy being afraid to welcome to new person. We’ve all been there, and the show acknowledges that shared experience and offers a suggestion for ways it might be handled. The tagline at the end may put the cap on it, but the bottle has already been filled.

    I didn’t start watching the show until I was 29, so I feel like it didn’t as much ‘teach’ me how to act as much as it ‘reminded’ me how I should be. When I was much younger in high school I was a hopeless optimist. I was always friendly and open, I expected the best out of people, I was happy and always upbeat about life. This continued through college and then, unfortunately, I landed a job that wasn’t right for me. It took me 6 years to realize what a horrible fit it was, but by then significant damage had already been done.

    I had learned that people were not to be trusted. A series of very unfortunate and painful events had lead me down a very dark road. I had been accused of sexual harassment simply because a girl didn’t like me and thought it would be a quick way to get rid of me. I had been betrayed by people who were supposed to be my friends. I had been treated in equal turns as a monster to be despised and a pariah to be shunned. My own boss showed no regard for my safety, and repeatedly put me in potentially deadly situations without warning me about the inherent dangers. I don’t wanna get into too many specifics because they don’t matter, and nobody wants to hear them, and I don’t want to revisit them.

    Anyway, this went on for years and I was suffering. I was miserable at work and that misery and pain just followed me home every day. I was immediately suspicious of every single person I met. I had learned to view everyone as the potential threat they were and to isolate myself from them because I didn’t want to be hurt again. I made a very conscious decision that I could not have fun at work, because when I had fun I let my guard down and got burned… again. I became like that Simon and Garfunkel song, “I am a Rock.”

    Finally, at the pleading of my family, I left that job and went back to school. At this time I was a broken person. I had no trust and no joy, I saw only in varying shades of negativity anger. I started getting better almost immediately after I got out of that situation, but it wasn’t until I started watching MLP 9 months later that I really began to heal.

    Watching the show made me feel happy and safe. This is a very big deal and I do not want to understate its importance. I feel like a positive outlook rises from a positive atmosphere, and MLP provides that atmosphere even when the world may not. That was the very first important step, it gave me a sort of refuge where I could go and feel comfortable. It showed me situations I could relate with. Disagreements between characters, conflicts with villains, arrogance and bitterness and resentment and anger, all shown, processed, and dealt with in ways that made me begin to remember that I use to be like they were. The show and the characters in it gave me a window into who I use to be, and shed blinding illumination on what I had allowed myself to become.

    I saw on that screen exactly what I had been before, and what I desperately wanted to be again. That’s why I’ll never say that MLP taught me how to act, but I will claim for the rest of my life that MLP helped me recover who I had been. MLP was a beacon in the darkness, and it helped me find my way home when I was lost and afraid.

    1. Great post, Danny. I think it is amazing how many of the posts we’ve had here already (c.f. the first post on this blog) speak to similar things (the Brony Study people talk about it quite a bit too). I also really like your distinction between ‘teaching’ and ‘reminding,’ as I feel like people mention time and time again that the show helped them overcome a sort of cynicism or jaded feeling, reminding them of how to feel as they once were able to (the connections between the show and general feelings of nostalgia are interesting here) rather than providing them with entirely new ways of thinking (not that the show doesn’t or can’t do this though).

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