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My Little Pony broke all of the ‘girl toy’ rules

How the classic toy reached across the toy aisle

“My Little Pony” toy on pink mottled background Graphic: James Bareham | Source Image: Alyssa Nassner/Polygon

The Horse Girl Canon is Polygon's celebration and exploration of the books, films, TV, toys, and games that have become essential to the cross-generational "Horse Girl" life.

Let’s talk about My Little Pony. Let’s talk about epic dynasties and perilous quests, about evil witches and terrible beasts, about dragons and dangers, about the sort of stakes that aren’t usually included in toy lines geared at little girls*. When the original My Little Pony toy line — preceded by her larger sister, My Pretty Pony — galloped onto the scene, it was something like we’d never seen before.

My Little Pony filled a niche no one had realized existed, except for maybe its creator, Bonnie Zacherle, and her team at Hasbro. Zacherle and company provided children with opportunities for non-specific pretend play set against a complex fantasy world. The design and marketing choices also rendered that world functionally optional, and eventually bolstered the theme with complex playsets that could fit into any desired mold. The brightly colored, chunky equines were for fantasy-loving little girls who didn’t want to learn to be better mommies as much as they wanted to learn how to fight monsters and go on epic quests.

My Little Pony was launched in the United States in 1982 and officially concluded in 1995, several years after the line had waned in popularity and been discontinued in the United States. The original line of My Little Pony toys and their associated media are referred to as “Generation 1” My Little Ponies, and were based on/inspired by designs created by Zacherle, who got her start in greeting card illustration.

Three photos of My Little Pony Toys Photo: Alyssa Nassner/Polygon

Today it’s impossible to imagine a toy landscape without My Little Pony. There have been times when no Ponies were being produced; Generation 2 is especially infamous for failing to gain traction with U.S. toy buyers, and was in production for only two years in North America, although it continued for several years more in Europe. But on the whole, My Little Pony has been introducing children to a world of fantastic adventure for almost 40 years.

That same fantasy, possibly the most enduring part of My Little Pony’s legacy, is where we diverge a bit from Zacherle’s original intent. In interviews and during her appearance on the Netflix show The Toys That Made Us, Zacherle has spoken about how she intended My Little Pony to reflect real-world horses and appeal to real-world horse girls, the kids who were more interested in having horses and stables of their own than they were in keeping house and tending infants. Her original prototypes were in natural colors like black and brown, as well as the white and gray that would go on to become canonical. (Only one gray Pony was produced, Snuzzle, a member of the original six, but white remained common until the end of the line.) Wisely, the other toy designers and marketing executives at Hasbro pushed the line in a more fantasy-oriented direction, and My Little Pony as we would come to know it was born.

(To chart the origins of Pony popularity and its immediate effects, I will be mostly avoiding discussion of 2010’s My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic here. However, as many of the primary characters in FiM were inspired by generation one Pony designs, most notably Firefly for Rainbow Dash and Applejack for, well, Applejack, it seems important to note that the two most successful Pony generations have been based all or in part on Zacherle’s designs.)

The 1980s were a time of fantasy adventures for children, with little attention paid by the censors to anything that had been preemptively dismissed as an attempt to sell toys. (There’s literally no other explanation for how Hasbro, Marvel, and Toei’s cartoon The Inhumanoids made it onto the air.) Death was generally off-screen, but it was present, and dangers were both real and manifest in the worlds we were told our toys and imaginary friends inhabited. But at the time of My Little Pony’s launch, all the grand, sweeping adventure was reserved for the blue side of the toy aisle, intended for the male** audience. Toys aimed at girls were much more likely to be domestic in nature, filled with baby dolls and pretend kitchens — in other words, training them for adulthood.

And then came My Little Pony. With fantasy themes from launch and diverse candy colors guaranteed to catch the eye, it seemed like there was something in the franchise for everyone. Everything about the way they were designed encouraged interactive pretend play. Their bodies were made of pliable, chunky plastic that fit well into a prepubescent hand, but had no delicate bits that could be broken off, and the entire thing was water-safe enough to dunk in the sink if mud or other substances became involved. Their hair was soft and brushable, and the symbols on their flanks aided clear identification for even the youngest children. Many of these design elements would change as the line went on, introducing Ponies with hard bodies or delicate appendages, but the core was built on chunky plastic horses.

Some people will criticize Generation 1 for having a uniquely thin playline narrative. The first wave of My Little Pony all shared the same backcard story, which simply entreated children to brush her hair and play with her. It wasn’t until year two, when the franchise introduced unicorns, Pegasus ponies, and hippocampi (called Sea Ponies) via the mechanism of their first animated special, Rescue at Midnight Castle, that My Little Pony began ascribing any canonical personality traits to the Ponies, much less enforcing any sort of ongoing narrative. This “narrative,” such as it was, changed at the whim of individual writers, with the same Pony being characterized radically differently in the books, comics, and television specials. There was, so far as I have been able to confirm from talking to writers on the original television show, no formal “bible” of character traits and arcs. They were recreated each time they appeared.

The original Pony personality traits were sketched out in one- to two-paragraph stories on the back of the Pony packaging, and usually revolved around one “relatable” activity or interest. Medley liked music. Seashell liked the Sea Ponies. Moondancer was a jerk with way too much of a focus on diet culture. You know, all the things children really cared about. (In case the sarcasm didn’t come through in the text there, please read it here).

Most of the kids I knew cheerfully ignored these “personalities” and set about shaping their own Pony kingdoms, basing them out of whatever playsets they had available to them and osmosing pieces of other toy lines to fill in the gaps. It was the very vagueness of My Little Pony that opened the doors to saga. The vagueness, and the fact that they were selling castles, dragons, unicorns, thrilling adventure, all painted pink and supposedly “appropriate” for the delicate sensibilities of a female audience (sarcasm again).

My Little Pony showed that there was a market for these things, that the girl’s side of the toy aisle was starving for more unstructured adventure and a franchise designed to support it. Rainbow Brite, the Care Bears, the Gummi Bears, all the great pink-washed fantasy franchises of the early 1980s — they came after My Little Pony had paved the way.

If anything left a trail for My Little Pony to follow, it was a fantasy movie that had little to no marketing and poor box office performance, The Last Unicorn, which was released in 1982, the same year the first Ponies made their debut. There is a chance, which I’ve been unable to confirm, that the ongoing fantasy direction of the line was influenced by this movie, and a lesser-known (to American audiences) Japanese property, Unico. There’s also the possibility that this is baseless speculation, and the world was simply primed for unicorns by some cultural gestalt I am too far removed to see clearly.

Regardless, during a time when the fantastic seemed pre-reserved for the “boy” side of the toy aisle, My Little Pony opened a door to adventure that was overlooked, but many were quite happy to exploit once they saw someone else pry it open. Fantasy franchises aimed either wholly or partially at girls began to pop up like mushrooms after an autumn rain, but they were all following in the well-trod hoofprints of the candy-colored horses who had been there before.

Even as My Little Pony’s unique status began to become diluted by imitators and “inspired by” franchises, they retained certain elements that allowed them to stand out in an increasingly crowded market. Their human avatars, Megan Williams and her young siblings, Molly and Danny, were never even teased with romantic entanglements. Despite the vast numbers of baby Ponies running around Dream Valley, the Ponies themselves lived in a vast herd of unmarried mares, seeing the male Ponies (called Big Brother Ponies in the U.S., and Mountain Boys in Europe) only when their travels brought them through the neighborhood. The toy line would branch into love and romance with certain assortments, including the mail order Ponies Tux and Satin n’Lace, but there was no central canon romance or even serious flirtation like with Jerrika and Rio in Jem, Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Mask in Sailor Moon, She-Ra and Seahawk in She-Ra: Princess of Power and in most properties aimed specifically at a female audience. The individual stories children chose to tell through My Little Pony were influenced and informed by its animated adaptations, but Ponyland overall was a blank slate for kids to scribble on at their own discretion.

And boy, did they scribble. Much as with Barbie, whose ever-changing identity adds a certain plasticity to play, My Little Ponies in bedrooms around the world found themselves constantly embroiled in dynastic struggles, murder mysteries, and quests to place the rightful heir on the throne to Ponyland, as represented by the pink, cheery, and surprisingly fragile Dream Castle. My Little Pony’s original cultural impact is not in the creation of specific iconic characters that could be slapped on T-shirts and school supplies, or reissued multiple times in slightly different versions, but from opening a space that little girls had been denied for too long. It let us into the room, and by extension, into the genre, and the importance of that choice can’t be overstated.

What will today’s adventure be?

*Because the US toy industry still divides itself so tightly along binary gender lines, and the My Little Pony franchise was originally intended for girls, we will be referring to binary gender roles and expectations throughout this history. Male and nonbinary fans of My Little Pony have always existed, and are a thriving part of the modern collector community, but they were sadly not considered in the marketing campaigns as designed.

**The gender binary in toy marketing has always been stronger than the gender binary in the people who actually play with and enjoy those toys. I knew boys who loved Barbies and My Little Ponies with equal fervor when I was a member of the target age group. “Boy toys” and “girl toys” are divisions put in place and enforced by adults until they become self-enforcing.

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