Monday, 23 November 2015

Romance in My Little Pony

My Little Pony has a distinct aversion to romance, and as much as it benefits the show, it's understandable that it may leave some hungering for more. Here, I explore the show's treatment of romance, and why fans continue to look around it.

Among the rules which control My Little Pony, a prominent one appears to be that romance is disallowed. While there are some examples of romantic relationships between characters on the show, and while occasionally infatuation is used as a gag, actual romantic relationships are strictly forbidden around the main characters, and side characters who are in romantic relationships tend to either have their relationship downplayed or exist solely in the background. While this is prominently a good thing, as it allows the show to avoid some of the stereotypes usually piled upon shows aimed at young girls, it also reduces the number of stories which the show could potentially consider, and leaves an empty space where a very real part of a considerable majority of people’s lives would be.

Perhaps the most prominent example of a romantic relationship in the show is the marriage of Princess Cadance and Shining Armour, whose own wedding comprised the finale of the second season. Within the vast majority of their debut appearance, the two were separated, with Cadance replaced by the evil changeling Chrysalis, who had taken her form. While they spent time together after being reunited, the vast majority of their ensuing appearances have been apart, to the extent that there is not a single scene in season four where the two are in the same room. Season five’s “Slice of Life” does allow them to snuggle, but that it only happens in such a unique episode as that calls attention to its absence elsewhere, and the lack of this makes it a lot harder to care when, later on, they are shown to be having a child. The other prominent couple, the Cakes, who are also married, are decidedly minor characters who have had a declining number of appearances since the first two seasons.

Some episodes, such as “Hearts and Hooves Day” and “Simple Ways,” use infatuation as a sense of humour, in the form of a love potion and Rarity’s crush on a Canterlot trendsetter, and his own crush on Applejack, respectively. However, in neither case did the infatuation in question evolve into a relationship, with the two ponies in question (Big Mac and Cheerilee & Rarty/Applejack and Trenderhoof, respectively) become a couple. In fact, they very clearly went their separate ways, even considering how the former two teased the Cutie Mark Crusaders in that episode’s final scene. Infatuation is something the show very rarely takes seriously, which is again most prominent in the fourth season. Throughout the entirety of that season, there is not a single sincere example of romantic love.

This isn’t a bad thing. The existence of romance in shows aimed at young girls is something of a cliché, stereotyped as girls fawning vapidly over some boy in episodes with no real substance. Avoiding the stereotypical pitfalls of media for little girls is one of the show’s major successes, and the absence of romance also contributes to the show’s promotion of female independence. Each of the main characters exists and thrives without a boyfriend (or girlfriend, but this show is heavily heteronormative), and this sends the subtle message to young girls that they too don’t need a relationship in order to live a good life. Certainly, the show passes the Bechdel Test, and allowing characters to exist primarily in and of themselves is good for the existence of strong characters in general.

In the Equestria Girls spinoff movies, where a romantic subplot was introduced around Twilight Sparkle and a new character, Flash Sentry, the unspoken rule against romance is abandoned, and yet the writers’ lack of skill or experience in writing such a subplot becomes very obvious in the first film’s woefully underdeveloped attempt. In general, these films suffer for this subplot, which lends further credence to the idea that the show proper is better off for avoiding romance whenever possible. However, more successful examples have occurred in the show, specifically in season 5’s “Hearthbreakers,” wherein Big Macintosh is paired with Pinkie Pie’s sister, Marble, to great success and acclaim. Even in that situation, however, the successful execution of that romantic subplot was compromised by the show’s emphasis on the marginal family relationship between the Apples and the Pies, making the couple seem more incestuous than it actually is. Even when giving speaking roles to a pair of background characters who were popularized in the fandom as being in a same-sex relationship, the show insisted on painting their relationship as “best friends,” which, despite arguable overtones, is at least a significant missed opportunity, if not outright erasure.

Despite the show occasionally suffering from avoiding depictions of romance, the net benefits do significantly outweigh the drawbacks. And yet, despite the benefits the show gains from avoiding romance, the franchise has a vibrant and populous shipping community. In part this is likely due to habits gained from media which emphasizes romance more as well as from shipping in other fan bases online, but it’s also worth noting that, for many people, romance is an important aspect of their lives. I don’t feel any impulsion to be in a relationship, but many others do, and so they might value romance more than I do. Fans who enjoy romance are forced to make their own, and thankfully the show provides some very strong character dynamics which are ripe for extrapolation. As a show which ignores the entire realm of possible romantic stories, it gives writers of fanfiction a lot to work with. This is still a show with plenty of possibilities for romantic stories, even if it (perhaps rightly) chooses to avoid them. With so many people in the world who enjoy romantic stories, it’s inevitable that a number of people would wish to see them with the characters of My Little Pony.

The separation of these stories from the show proper is a good thing, to be sure. The show largely benefits from not telling romantic stories, although introducing them in proper moderation would likely make the show’s world all the richer. And yet, there’s plenty of room in this universe for romantic stories, and when the show doesn’t choose to go down that route, it’s on more creative viewers to find it for themselves. In spite of the few areas wherein My Little Pony is poorer for its refusal to acknowledge romance, it’s largely a beneficial decision on the part of the show, allowing for stronger characters and messages of female independence, as well as helping it avoid the pitfalls of the shows it is contrasted favourably with. Should this show seek to incorporate romance? Perhaps not. But that doesn’t mean that romance doesn’t belong in this universe. 

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