The Elements of Harmony series are commissioned essays in which I examine a character selected by the Kickstarter backer who commissioned the essay, and construct an argument on why that character is best pony.
Speaking of, My Little Po-Mo vol. 2 is on sale, and contains among other things the first three Elements of Harmony essays, on Rarity, Applejack, and Zecora! Check the Books page for details!
One of the oft-overlooked aspects of Friendship Is Magic is the way it approaches masculinity. It is, of course, not the focus of the show, which is as it has always been about showcasing and celebrating myriad ways of being feminine. But nonetheless it also depicts a variety of male characters, and many of them are presented in a way to suggest they are performing a similar function of showing varied, positive expressions of masculinity.
By far, the member of this group with the most screen time is Big McIntosh.
Big Mac is a fascinating figure to look at in terms of gender, because he very subtly undermines hegemonic masculinity--that is, the way in which our culture equates masculinity with power. At first glance he appears to be an expression of this concept. In particular, he is physically very strong, carries great burdens and responsibility, and speaks little, in most of his episodes saying little other than "Yup" or "Nope." Nonetheless, he has hidden depths. He pounces lovingly on Twilight's doll even after the spell of desire laid on it in "Lesson Zero" wears off. He is able to eloquently express his anger and disappointment to the Cutie Mark Crusaders in "Ponyville Confidential," and he has an artistic side, singing as a member of the Pony Tones in "Filli Vanilli."
He thus appears to be an instant of the Warrior Poet type, a man whose taciturn and violent exterior hides a sensitivity and creativity underneath. Rather than appearing weak or unmasculine as artists and performers are often depicted, he is doubly powerful, since he is able to express his power both through destruction, as violence, and creation, as art or nurturing.
But to read Big Mac in this way is an error, but within Friendship Is Magic masculinity is not hegemonic, and this reading depends on misunderstanding his strength as a form of power, when that's not how he employs it. Power, remember, is always over someone or something; it is the ability to impose one's will outside oneself. Strength can be used as power, but Big Mac is never shown employing it that way: he is never violent or destructive (except twice, in "Lesson Zero" and "Hearts and Hooves Day," both cases where he was under the influence of behavior-altering magic), never uses his strength or size to intimidate, and most notably never tries to dominate others.
Key here is his relationship with Applejack. She very clearly is in charge of Sweet Apple Acres, but at the same time this is not so much a matter of dominance--there are times at which Granny takes the lead, and more rarely Big Mac, as in "Ponyville Confidential"--as it is each member of the family doing what they are good at. Applejack is more gregarious, so she does most of the work involving dealing with ponies, managing the farm and representing it to outsiders, while Big Mac is content to provide muscle and do repairs because that's what he's good at. He does not feel the need to be part of a hierarchy, does not need either to be pushed around or given orders, or to try to dominate or assert himself as being able to control his surroundings; he can simply be who he is and do what he does.
That is strength. He does not shirk his tasks, but neither does he feel the need--as made clear in his conversation with Applejack at the beginning of "Applebucking Season"--to prove himself by pushing past his limits. He does what needs to be done. He is not quiet because of some macho suppression of feelings, but because he speaks only when it is necessary to speak. As we see with his singing in "Filli Vanilli" and lecture in "Ponyville Confidential," or for that matter his and Cheerilee's bizarre love-talk in "Hearts and Hooves Day," he is perfectly capable of expressing himself when he wishes to; he just usually doesn't see the need.
And, importantly, he is nurturing. He does much of the farm work at Sweet Valley Acres, and so is as responsible for the health of its plant life as Applejack is. The way he plays with Twilight's old doll in "Lesson Zero" and "Ponyville Confidential" also shows this side of him, but it is most clear in "Filli Vanilli," where, with body language alone, he is shown becoming increasingly tense, uncomfortable, and sweaty during the repeated lip-synching performances, but calms down when he glimpses Fluttershy. The strong implication is that he is deeply uncomfortable with the deception inherent in lip-synching, but is willing to do it to help make his friend comfortable with singing and enjoying. In other words, he is putting himself through the risk of being caught in order to help her grow.
He is far from flawless, of course. He takes part in the family spat in "Pinkie Apple Pie" just as much as any of the Apples, and the way in which he tries to hide his doll in "Ponyville Confidential" suggests that he has some anxiety about being seen with it. However, the general lack of gender norms in pony society suggests that it's not that he's anxious about his masculinity, but about being perceived as childish.
More importantly, the doll represents the most important way in which he differs from the "quiet, but strong" type, the frontier farmer manly man who never makes a fuss and demonstrates his strength by adhering closely to (and enforcing) social norms: Big McIntosh does not deny his feelings. He enjoys what he enjoys, and while he may sometimes fear the humiliation of being caught playing with a doll or lip-synching, that won't stop him from doing what he feels is right to do. Because unlike power, strength is not inherently anxious, does not have victims and therefore does not require vigilance against counterattack.
Big Mac is hardly the only positive model of masculinity in the series. Shining Armor, Mr. Cake, Cheese Sandwich, and Fancy Pants all come easily to mind as constructions of masculinity who vary almost as widely as the Mane Six do in their construction of femininity. But of all the models, he is the one who most clearly takes the essential defining element of toxic masculinity in our culture, anxious power, and gently subverts it into calm, quiet strength. He is, in other words, the easiest character for a male viewer trying to break free of our culture's toxic gender roles to accept as an alternate model, yet still able to guide them away from that toxicity.