Last Friday I gave a paper at the Institute of Classical Studies’ ‘Early Career Seminar’, titled ‘‘Well-played, Fluttershy…’: Defeating Discord and Dragons in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic’. I started this little project because I thought it would be fun, and challenging, to do something that has nothing to do with my ‘real research’. With Greek religion I am on pretty stable ground – never more than a few shaky steps from shore, but here I was in the middle of a lake on a rapidly melting layer of ice. Without wanting to give too much away, I ended the paper by talking about my personal feelings about taking on a topic like this – broadly classical influences in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic – and that I felt it was probably not the right thing to look at. Now that I’ve done it, I don’t think deconstructing My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic as a reception of classical mythology is a valid thing to do.
Let me explain: there is no doubt that there are classical influences in the show. Not only is that obvious from watching the show, but also from listening to interviews with creator Lauren Faust, who talks explicitly about classical mythology as an influence. But, if you were to actually look properly at the way the show was made there’s a lot more to say about other influences. A show like My Little Pony gives children the beginning of their cultural vocabulary, and that it includes classical mythology is important, but I’m not sure it’s the point. What makes a show like this important for building cultural vocab is the sheer myriad of influences incorporated into the show (just have a look at the ‘List of Allusions’ on the MLP wiki!).
Part of what I took away from the experience of doing this work was that I couldn’t divorce myself from my ideas about what was happening on the show. I notice the classical influence because I am an ancient historian – that is what I am trained to do. If I were a geologist, I might be thinking about the Pie’s rock farm. What at the beginning of the project had felt like the important parts of the show were, in fact, very unimportant to the wider cultural scaffolding that is built around the show.
It has made me think more closely about the scholarly desire to divorce yourself from the research – summed up really well in Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood’s 1978 article ‘Persephone and Aphrodite at Locri: A Model for Personality Definitions in Greek Religion' in JHS:
Too often in the study of Greek divine personalities assumptions about deities’ nature and development have been reflected in the methodology adopted and have thus introduced distortions, forcing the evidence into inflexible interpretative frameworks which may be logical without being correct. I believe we must aim at a ‘neutral’, bias-free approach which does not allow the operator’s convictions to distort the evidence by casting it into a preconceived mould.
Is it possible to adopt a ‘’neutral’, bias-free approach’? I am starting to believe that it’s not, and perhaps it’s not desirable to remove oneself from the equation. If we acknowledge our own cultural biases, rather than attempting to hide them behind neutrality, then at least we start from a position of openness.