Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Exploding "Girliness"

There's a video by Digibrony called "Embracing Girliness" going around, and I think it does a good job highlighting how MLP criticizes one of the fundamental injustices of our society, that "feminine" traits are devalued relative to "masculine" traits.

However, I think he still implicitly assumes that there are such things as objectively masculine and feminine traits, and as such misses one of the other things the show does well, which is exploding the masculinity/femininity binary to begin with.

While male and female humans differ physically, the notion that certain psychological traits or interests are "masculine" and certain "feminine"--a belief known as gender essentialism--has no basis in reality. This is not (just) my typically liberal, feminist opinion; it's a matter of scientific fact. (For the less statistics-minded among you: If people fall into two distinct groups, then there should be two spikes on the graph, one for each group, as in the strength graph behind the link. If there aren't two spikes, it means that people don't fall into two distinct groups, as in the assertiveness graph. In the latter case, it possible that the "average" man is more assertive than the "average" woman or vice versa; however, there's so much overlap between the two groups that the average is basically meaningless.)

Society has arbitrarily decided that men should have certain traits and women should have certain other traits, and it punishes people who do not possess their gender's assigned traits or, worse still, possess the other gender's assigned traits. However, that's something we collectively decided to do; we can just as easily collectively decide not to do it. The "just like a boy" scene Digibrony shows is a rare misstep in a show that otherwise does an excellent job of avoiding gender essentialism by giving every main character, Spike included, both stereotypically masculine and stereotypically feminine traits.


  1. Well, by this standard Lauren Faust could also be accused of gender-essentialism, given that she said (in the interview quote that Digibrony based this essay on) that she had specifically NOT wanted to create characters who you could just stick a masculine jawline on and call them a man.

    You are, of course, correct about there being no inherent gender traits. And that "just like a boy" scene would indeed be a misstep... if the show existed in a cultural vacuum. But it doesn't, and if you ask most kids young enough to be in the target demographic (and thus young enough to have their worldviews nurtured by the show), and many grown women as well, they just don't think of it that way. And one of the travails of using a mass-market licensed kids' show as a surprise-attack vehicle in the culture wars is that we'll have to address them on "their" terms to get a foot in the door.

    In much the same way that the point of the show is that there's more than one "correct" way to be a girl, the point of the activist MO toolkit is that we need all four tactics. Similarly, by making the characters "unmistakably feminine," it becomes a sort of flank-attack against the common derailing tactics, by undercutting their argument that "inherently feminine" traits would be a bad thing if they existed.

    1. Oh, I don't disagree in the slightest. The show *does* do a good job of showing that so-called "feminine" traits are valuable. I just think it also does a good job of showing that it's okay to be whoever you are, without pigeonholing, and that by emphasizing the one without mentioning the other, Digibrony missed a big chunk of what the show does.

      Also, I'm quite sure we could find gender-essentialist comments Faust has made. Heck, I'd be surprised if I *hadn't* made a gender-essentialist comment somewhere in this blog. We live in a sexist society, and it takes a level of constant vigilance beyond the capacity of any human being to completely erase all traces of that society's attitude from oneself. That's why I think calling out such statements when they occur is valuable. Certainly I appreciate it when people call me out on it.


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