As a little girl, I loved Strawberry Shortcake and My Little Ponies. My daughter has, somehow, developed a similar love thanks to the ubiquitous marketing that puts such characters—or Disney Princesses—on everything. But, when she made me a lovely picture this week at a friends house with a My Little Pony sticker border, I was shocked. When did ponies become so…sexy?
That’s right, sexy ponies. As in horses. Thinking that they didn’t used to look like equine call-girls, posed to please, I googled 1980s My Little Ponies. True to my memory, the old ponies looked cute, modest – like those my little sister used to play with, were her favorite toys. Side by side, the difference is striking: the new ponies have huge eyes and hair that would make most Disney Princesses jealous. The horse snout has turned into an upturned pug-nose that barely suggests a snout, shortened and thinned as it is. Even worse, the legs are longer (in a less realistic way) and their bodies are much, much smaller and thinner. And, rather than standing like nice show-ponies, these colts cock their heads and jut out their chests. Remember, we aren’t talking about toys representing people that have been turned into sex-pots…we’re talking about horses.
It is no surprise that children learn from images as much as from stories (and from the shapes of stories as much as from the content of stories), but few people seem as disturbed as I am by the makeover these ponies have received. In fact, there is the Brony community of adults out there who defend MLP:FiM (My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic) franchise relaunch from 2010 as ironic and empowering story-telling that simply makes use of a different animation style. In the comment sections on posts chronicling this (and other toy transformations), some people argue that the new toys are prettier and that it is silly to think of horses as sexy. And, to be fair, this is not the only brand re-launch that has sexed-up toys from my childhood. After some tasteful updating in the mid-2000s, Strawberry Shortcake has re-emerged with a svelte body, luscious hair, and a wardrobe to match. And don’t get me started on Disney Princesses! But, the very fact that the styling on so many toys is being changes makes me wonder what does it look like, from a Christian perspective, to tell my daughter the real story about the culture she lives in and the images that surround her.
I’ve experimented with a number of metaphorical stories that convey the truth to her in narratives she understands. So, I tell her about how Disney Princesses are really evil fairies in disguise who wake up each night and eat little girl’s hearts, slowly killing them. I tell her that Barbies scare me because they steal girls souls, replacing them with hard plastic shell-girls who have no insides, no mouths to taste, stomachs to eat, or muscles to let them play. I tell her the old versions of fairytales, the ones that teach children greed and envy lead to suffering and folly leads to death. I tell her about how Strawberry Shortcake and My Little Ponies used to be nice and sweet, but then an evil sorcerer came and started cutting off their body parts to make them look “funny” and be his slaves. Now, like the emperor who has no clothes, everyone says Strawberry and the Ponies are beautiful, while they are waiting for brave voices to say that they look mean and spoilt. Only when little children start saying this will the sorcerer’s spell be broken.
As you might imagine, my stories to her take a bit of explaining with other parents when she, with a somber fear, repeats them to her friends! However, these alternate “true stories” are not the most effective way to challenge the images and implied narratives that bombard little girls every day.
Creating new stories for my daughter—stories that haven’t been co-opted by such problematic images—also keeps these images at bay. We tell the story of “Princess Abigail: To the Rescue,” the one where the beautiful and clever Abigail rescues David and her husband from their foolish, rash words, stopping a slaughter and eventually becoming a princess herself. We tell the story of Shiphrah, Puah, Joheved, and Miriam, about these brave women who defied the king’s edicts and saved the life of a little baby. We read the story of “The Princess and the Goblin,” celebrating Irene’s courage and faith.
The Christian tradition has the alternate narratives, the alternate images of women, that our daughters need. The biblical narrative and the stories it has inspired are replete with images of strong, daring women. But all too often these stories have been silenced, not by the culture at large, but by the church. Too many Christian adults look blankly at my daughter when she talks about Abigail or Joheved; and if they know the names, they’ve never heard the stories told in a way that celebrates the heroines and their bravery.
It is true that Christian tradition has a powerful antidote to passive Sleeping Beauties and “helpfulness” constituted by the “hair and fashion advice” that characterize Rarity. But, they are ineffective if they remain silenced, marginalized, or shrouded in insipid (but pious) renderings that minimize the risk, adventure, and beauty at the heart of such stories. To cut through the clamor and clutter of other stories and other images, the alternate stories of God and the women who trust him must be recovered, re-envisioned, and retold….before the princesses feast too deeply on our daughters’ hearts.