One of the more unusual sights at the 28C3 last year in Berlin was a circle of hackers of all ages and genders sitting on the floor around a large flat panel monitor. They were watching a cartoon show with colorful ponies, while behind the screen you could see the dark basement with flags of various groups and hackerspaces hanging from the ceiling and a disarray of electronic devices strewn on tables. Maybe not surprisingly, this gathering also happened to be almost immediately below the no photography sign, which means that I was unable to find any evidence of it.
I have heard about this show now and then in the usual background noise of the web even before the congress. However this encounter made me somewhat curious and, having never actually overgrown watching an occasional cartoon, I decided to see what all this is about. For scientific reasons, of course.
Image by Chromamancer
I am talking about the latest remake of My Little Pony. It's an animated TV series that was created to advertise a line of Hasbro toys for girls, but in a funny turn of events actually got a sizable following of the opposite gender and in another age group. I guess something that would be unlikely to happen without the internet and the pseudo-anonymous discussions it enables.
After watching some of the show, I can say that I can understand to some degree why it has attracted such a broad audience. They say that a sign of good content for children is that it is also worth watching for adults. And in this particular example the latter certainly appears to be true.
You can often read that the show is well drawn and animated. For sure that is one part of the attraction. Remember my thoughts about the Avatar movie? I guess modern artists have become increasingly good at triggering emotional responses in their audience. The combination of human and animal visual traits in a character allows you to trigger more image recognition circuits than what is possible with only a human face. There's actually a word for that: superstimulus and it's quite amusing to see the parallels between songbirds falling for a red stick with white bands and people looking at what would be pretty deformed body shapes in nature.
Another thing that is often mentioned is the lack of cynicism in the show. Not surprisingly for a show that also carries an educational mark, the characters always find out that it's better to work for the greater good than for only your personal benefit. I can certainly see the appeal in this. It's nice to loose yourself in such fantasy after spending day after day in society that is increasingly focused on grabbing as much of the pie for yourself as possible and there isn't much space for laughter, truth, generosity and loyalty.
However, if this is one of the causes for the popularity among grown-ups, it's somewhat ironic if you consider why the show has been created in the first place: to increase profits of a multinational company that turns around billions of dollars each year. And in fact Hasbro has controlled the show from the start, making sure that it features things they can sell as toys.
But if you put these arguments aside, the creators of the show managed to paint a pretty consistent picture of a world where things are operated with hooves and mouths instead of fingers and three races divide their work to cover for each others shortcomings. This has made it possible for fans of the show to build upon it with their own original stories and, not having to stick to the original constraints, some of them are just as, if not more amusing than the original itself. So it's not all in the visual appearance either.
To sum it up, once you survive through the first view of the pink sugary overkill of the brand logo, it's an enjoyable show with memorable songs and a surprising lack of elements that could be described as fitting for a stereotypical little girl. If it makes more people think about their actions from the perspective of broader society, so much better. And if marketing departments can miss their target audience that much, I guess that's also a sign to be optimistic and might mean we have some time left before they figure out how to control our every thought.