Monday, September 16, 2013

Not Far From the Kingdom: My Little Defense of Ponies

If you haven't heard about it already, the show "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic" is gaining quite the adult following.

And I think this is awesome.

 If it's a good show for kids, it's also a good show for adults.

I'm with C. S. Lewis on this one.  Lots of worthless things will hold a child's attention, but if something is actually good for kids, it's also good for grownups.

Some things that are good for adults are entirely unsuitable for children, and it's easy to slip into thinking that if something is for grownups-only, that makes it better than "kiddie" fare. This isn't true, and sometimes this can lead to absurdity. This kind of muddled thinking is part of the reason why young starlets must prove their maturity through their lack of decorum.

So then, either MLP:FiM is good for both children and adults, or kids shouldn't be watching it. Seriously, if you can convince me that I'm wrong to enjoy this show, I'll find something else for my kids.

But for now, we're having fun watching it together, because I'm convinced that it's good art.

I know that a lot of people are going to disagree with me on this, because the animation is so simple. In the same way that it's easy to conflate an M rating with actual maturity, it's easy to mistake complexity for excellence. There's a common assumption that complexity automatically makes something better, but it's simply (!) not true.

Complexity (by itself) is not a virtue.

If it was, my house would be a better piece of architecture than the Rothko Chapel. It isn't. =)

The animation of MLP:FiM is simple and clean, and works well within the limited constraints of its genre to produce something really beautiful. Lauren Faust has pared the world down to a few simple lines, clearing everything else away so that we can focus our attention on a few particular themes. This is what all (good) art does--it filters the massive glut of visual stimuli for us, to show us what was there all along. The way she distills facial expressions has changed the way I see my kids faces. My world is a little bit happier now that I've noticed the particular element of kid-cute that Lauren Faust loves.

Yes, the animation is simple. And it's good.

The simplicity of the story lines and ethical framework attracts as much criticism as the simplicity of the animation, but I'm not buying it.

There ARE things to criticize about the stories. There's no excuse for that episode about the Buffalo. But the problem there isn't that that the story was simple, but that it was untrue. The episode seriously misrepresented the conflict between European settlers and Native Americans. There may or may not be a story on that topic that is both simple and true, but if so, they certainly didn't find it. That episode was offensive and untrue, and I have no desire to defend it.

But when MLP:FiM sticks to pony-sized problems (like the ones that make up my own life!), it gets the simple stories right.
The ponies live in a simple moral universe where you really should love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you. Where if somebody slaps you on one cheek, the best thing to do really is to turn and let him slap you on the other cheek, because by repaying evil with good, you set the stage for evil to expose itself and lose its power.

I have yet to grow into these bromides and platitudes, let alone grow out of them.

The ponies live out the crazy notion that Jesus actually knew what he was talking about when he told us how to live.

If a whole bunch of people in my generation decide they want to organize their lives around that, well, glory hallelujah!

Now, ponies can't save anybody, and if that's as far as it goes, it's not going to work. The problem isn't that those simple ideas don't work, but rather that we can't actually live them out apart from the power of the Holy Spirit. It's just like the lame man laying by the pool of cleansing waters beside the five stoas--we can't do it until it's already been done for us.

But there really is hope, because it's just like the ponies learned in the first episodes of Season 2. The ancient snake with his tempting fruits (it's true that discord comes with chocolate rain!) perverts our virtues into vices, destroying any tools by which we might hope to fight him. But there is also an ancient book, and there you may find the jewels with which he will be defeated. If you try to use those jewels as mere talismans, going through the motions hypocritically, it will not work. No, first you must read the letters sent from heaven. Reading those letters, you must remember who you are, and use them to remind the others too. Only then can you use the jewels found in the book to defeat the snake.

My Little Pony is just pretend, but Jesus is real. And he has sent his Holy Spirit to teach us how to do all that he has commanded us.

Jesus' crazy upside-down idealistic ethic doesn't always lead to sunshine and roses. Sometimes it does (more often than you might expect!), but other times it leads straight to a cross. But the way of the cross is the way of resurrection, and sometimes the simple stories are the true ones after all.

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