Many young girls are horse-crazy, and advertisers have both tapped into and fueled this attraction by marketing everything from from horse toys to horse cartoons to horse bedroom sets to little girls. Some of these products reinforce the pretty, pretty princess feminine ideal, telling girls that they need to be all about flowing hair, rhinestones, and glitter. But some of this pony-industrial-complex sends a different message: That it's cool to be an independent, active girl who likes to get her hands dirty.
At the center of horse-girl media these days is the astounding successful animated show My Little Pony (full awkward show name: My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic), which centers on the happy travails of an all-female cast of ponies. Though marketed toward young girls, the show has caught on with older and male viewers, resulting in a cult of bronies: guys who flout age and gender norms as proud fans of the show.
With the series' success came a plethora of discussions of its impact on media and gender.
"It breaks my heart that the word 'girly' is synonymous with 'stupid,'" series creator Lauren Faust said last year. "I want so badly for that to change. If this is a start in the direction of maybe changing that, or at least making that better, I can die happy."
Despite claims of racism, the show has mostly been celebrated for its messages encouraging young girls to be smart and active, and for challenging typical male dominated programming. In the series, a young unicorn named Twilight Sparkle is sent to the land of Equestria to study the magic of friendship (hence the name). In the process, she is introduced to a diverse community of young female ponies, each with something valuable to offer. As the young mares grow, embarking on a variety of adventures and interpersonal relationships, they learn simple lessons about tolerance and the nature of friendship.
The show emphasizes identity and autonomy while encouraging girls to value relationships with other women. For example, in the episode "The Cutie Mark Chronicles," the young mares share the stories of how they acquired their "cutie marks," images on their flanks pointing to a prominent feature of the pony's identity. Each pony describes the process of self-discovery, of finding their own identity—attributes like bravery, independence, kindess, and intelligence that make them unique. It's absurdly corny to describe, but at its core, is a solid message for young girls.
While some of the My Little Pony toys themselves are certainly hyper-girlie with their rhinestones and glitter, others are not. Several of the horses are deep, dark blues typically reserved for boys, and earthy browns and greens. With the variety of ponies‚—from sea ponies to pegasus ponies!—kids are offered a choice in what type of play they'd like to engage in and what type of toy they identify with. And though My Little Ponies have gotten thinner and more femme over time—along with Strawbery Shortcake—they aren't representing some hyper-sexualized version of femininity. They are a toy series that entertains both the cowgirl who likes to get dirty and the princess-wannabe. In the accompanying television shows and films, the ponies are shown engaging in all sorts of activities, in all sorts of spaces, encouraging girls to engage in play that evokes agency and autonomy as the pony is it's own character acting out it's own story.
My Little Pony's sophisticated counterparts are the Breyer horses, with their seemingly endless collections of horse figurines and accessories. And like My Little Pony toys, the marketing machine reaches beyond the toy aisles with clubs and events. This year's BreyerFest theme is "Denim and Diamonds," again demonstrating this marketing attempt to appeal to both the real-life cowgirl and the horse-crazy girlie girl.
Some of this marketing cashes in on hyper-feminine princess culture, playing on the idea of the horse as a necessary rich girl accessory. Barbie even has a few horses and unicorns herself, each wearing glamorous purple or pink tack. The product description of one of Barbie's horses even reads: "Barbie looks oh-so-glam in her ultra chic equestrian riding fashion." Barbie's horse is reduced to a opportunity to demonstrate her keen fashion sense.
Barbie's horses are petite looking verging on fragility, prettier, existing as decorative accessories—suggesting that not even the horses are safe from media's peddling of girlie girl culture.
Unlike the Breyer horses mimicking the true look and movement of a living horse or My Little Pony's toys, these princess horses tend to be firmly grounded in stereotypical notions of femininity. So while each My Little Pony toy is distinct, has her own individual mark with a variety of poses suggesting movement and personality, Barbie's horse is passively posed meant to glamorize and enhance Barbie's hyper-feminine image. They are simply a mirror to her conventional femininity.