“Is FiM for little girls, or for everyone?” — what does that question even mean? Or, why audiences are not demographics.

Awhile ago, The Geek Professor wrote another post of many arguing that the description of FiM as a “kids’ show” is inaccurate.  A few months ago, it was posted to the main FiM subreddit, and there was an interesting reaction; backlash.  The top comment reads (in part) as follows:

The only difference between a “kids show” and a “show for all ages” is that adults don’t want to acknowledge that shows they like were made for kids.

MLP was not made with the intent to draw an adult audience. It was written to be enjoyed by parents, as parents watch what their children watch, but adult audience metrics were never the bar against which success was measured. If we, as the adult fan base, didn’t exist at all, it would still have been a successful show because it succeeded in the demographic it was intended for. If we existed, but little girls hated it, it would be a failure because it failed to bring in the intended audience.

MLP is a kids show. It is a show for little girls. It is also a good show, and because of that fact, many people across many different demographics will enjoy it. But that doesn’t change what it is.

I’ve seen similar debates in other parts of the fandom — it seems to be a question that’s being discussed a lot recently.

For me, this whole exchange raises an interesting question: what does it mean to say that a creative work is (or isn’t) “for” someone?  By what criteria do we make that call?  And what consequences would that decision have?

Does the question “who is it for?” mean “who did the creators have in mind when they made it?”, as Fillydashon seems to claim?  Well, first of all, given what we’ve seen and been told, some of the post-Season 1 material was actually written with the adult demographic in mind.  So by that standard, the show is partially for us.  Or perhaps Season 1 is exclusively for little girls, but Seasons 2-4 are for both little girls and adults of both genders?  Or maybe only the first 3 minutes of “The Last Roundup” are for us?  My point is, if that’s our criterion, then we end up with some weird conclusions.

I felt a tremor in The Force, as though a thousand bronies suddenly flipped their shit in elation.

I felt a tremor in The Force, as though a thousand bronies suddenly flipped their shit in elation.

Furthermore, why should intention be our primary test for success or failure?  Modern chewing gum was originally designed to be rubber — it makes for lousy rubber, but saying that chewing gum is a failure seems seriously inaccurate.  And by the same token, it seems inaccurate to say that FiM would be a failure if it brought in only the adult demographic, but not the kids.  If we’re going to call a show a failure when it’s bringing in a ton of money and inspiring a lot of creative works, then we are clearly using the word “failure” in a very odd way.

At the same time, though, describing FiM as “for everyone” doesn’t seem all that accurate, either.  If nothing else, it’s not for people who don’t like cartoons.

So it’s hard to find a good answer to the question “who is FiM for?”, and it’s not even clear what exactly we’re asking.  But more importantly, It’s not clear what the effects of such an answer would be.

To illustrate this, let’s imagine that we somehow knew beyond doubt that FiM is for little girls (whatever that means) — let’s imagine that during the ten-millionth “is it for little girls or for everyone?” debate, the voice of god (or whatever infallible entity you prefer) echoes from the heavens and says “actually, it’s for little girls”.

At this point, we all go “well, good thing that’s settled, because now we can…” what, exactly?  Do we stop watching the show?  It seems like there’s no good reason to do that.  Do we stop analyzing the show and talking about what each episode does well or does poorly?  That just seems to be buying into the (bad) idea that little girls’ shows aren’t worth putting effort or thought into.  Do we stop drawing fanart and writing fanfic?  Again, why?

The same goes for the alternate universe in which the voice from the heavens says “actually, it’s for everyone”.  How does this universe differ from the one in which it’s “for little girls”?  It seems like it doesn’t.

"By royal decree of Celestia, there shall be ponies for all!"

“By royal decree of Celestia, there shall be ponies for all!”

To make this point clearer, let’s try to give a TLDR for both The Geek Professor’s post and Fillydashon’s response:

Geek Professor: “FiM is a high-quality show with young girls as its primary target demographic, but it also successfully appeals to adults.  Therefore, it’s a show for all ages.”

Fillydashon: “FiM is a high-quality show that successfully appeals to adults, but young girls are its primary target demographic.  Therefore, it’s a show for little girls.”

People, we don’t seem to be actually disagreeing about anything of substance, we’re just fighting over semantics.

So the question “Is FiM for little girls, or for everyone?” seems kind of incoherent.  Either the question just doesn’t make sense, or it does make sense but the answer is completely irrelevant.

But then, the question “who is this work for?” can’t be completely irrelevant or incoherent — after all, we’re often told “write with your audience in mind,” and this seems like good advice.  If someoneone wants their content to be successful, they obviously should try to make something their audience will enjoy.  And if they have no idea who their audience is or what they enjoy, that task will be nearly impossible.

So we’re in a weird situation.  On the one hand, the question “who is FiM for?” doesn’t seem to make much sense — it’s not clear how we’d answer that question, and it doesn’t seem like the answer would have any real-world consequences.  On the other hand, it must be a legitimate question — when some creative work is being made, we should know who we’re trying to appeal to.

And maybe that is a consequence of answering the question “who is FiM for?”.  If we answer that question with “little girls”, then the show should be trying to appeal to them semi-exclusively.  If we answer with “everyone”, then the show should be trying (in part, anyway) to appeal to the adults — which means doing things very differently.

Or does it?

Let us imagine that our worst fear comes true, and Hypothetical Hasbro Executive decides that the show should abandon the target demographic and start focusing on the young adult male portion of the audience (which seems remarkably unlikely, but let’s ignore that for the moment).

This image is bullshit, but we've all thought it at least once.

This image is bullshit, but we’ve all thought it at least once.  (Click for source, I guess — if you really want to for some reason.)

In the frequently-imagined worst-case scenario, the humor is downplayed, the worldbuilding becomes increasingly in-depth and convoluted, the episode-end morals disappear, the show degrades into a bunch of action cliches, the tone changes to grimdark, and any number of other bad things occur.

And that is likely one cause of this debate.  There seems to be a fear that ceasing to regard FiM as a “little girls’ show”, would provide “permission” to do this, in some sense.

But really, it wouldn’t.  Because regardless of the audience, changing the show so drastically would just be bad storytelling.

Don’t get me wrong — change is good.  Change is necessary.  But altering a show’s setting, story, and tone so drastically that it becomes unrecognizeable — that’s a mistake no matter who your audience is — because you’ll likely alienate them, even if they’re a group of people that are “supposed” to like the new version.

To demonstrate this, let’s consider the S4 finale.  While the fight was completely kickass, and I’m very glad it’s in the episode, I wouldn’t want it to become the standard for FiM any more than I’d want the standard for Dragonball Z to be slice-of-life episodes with overt morals.  Because that’s not what I go to those shows for, and it’s not, overall, what they’re really good at.  I don’t want FiM to become an action flick, because if I want that, I’ll watch an action flick.  I get a lot of things from FiM that I can’t get from those shows (or most other shows, for that matter).

And I think most other bronies would agree with me on this.  For that matter, I think most other people would agree with me on this.  Someone might like both Game of Thrones and The Office, but if GoT starts packing its episodes with awkward humor, they will be unhappy (and probably very confused).  Because that isn’t what they watch GoT for.

We frequently talk about the fear of “ruining FiM for the little girls”, but if the writers started changing the show in the way we tend to fear, they wouldn’t just alienate the kids; they’d also alienate most of the bronies, including the male ones.  Indeed, it would be hard to ruin this show for the little girls without ruining it for us as well.

“But how can that be?” asks Hypothetical Hasbro Executive, nervously puffing on his cigar rolled with hundred-dollar bills.  “All the changes listed above are things you’re supposed to like.  How could you be alienated by them?”

Well, the first answer to that question is another question: “who do you mean when you say ‘you’?”

And the most likely answer is: “18-30-year-old males.”

Read the statement from earlier: “write with your audience in mind”.  Note the choice of words; “audience”, not “demographic”.  And maybe that’s the key fallacy behind this whole debate: when we ask “is FiM for little girls, or for everyone?” we make the same mistake that HHE does; we’re assuming that audiences and demographics necessarily go together — and they clearly don’t, as shown by the existence of…well, us, for starters.

From the perspective of a writer (or animator, or musician, or whatever), the question “who is the target audience?” is important, but the answer “18-30-year-old males” is actually not a very useful one.  For that matter, neither is the answer “6-11-year-old females”.  Because there is a huge amount of variation within both of those groups (because, y’know, human beings are complicated and weird).  No work appeals to its target demographic universally.  There are little girls who don’t like FiM, there are teenage males who don’t like Dragonball Z, and there are adults who don’t like Game of Thrones.  Are those works failing because they aren’t enjoyed by 100% of the people who are “supposed” to?  Clearly not.  Equating “audience” with “demographic” might be useful from a marketing standpoint, but for most other purposes, it’s a pretty lousy approximation.  So answering the question “who is this for?” with “X demographic” is necessarily inaccurate, or at least oversimplified.

But of course, when we (or HHE) give those answers, we don’t actually mean that we’re trying to appeal to all 18-30-year-old males (or 6-11-year-old females, or whatever).  We mean that we’re trying to appeal to the archetypical 18-30-year-old male — the one who loves grimdark action, hates songs and Aesops, and so on.  The problem with this, of course, is that the archetypical 18-30-year-old male doesn’t exist.  He is an amalgamation of statistics, and while all of us real 18-30-year-old males have some things in common with him, none of us have everything (or even most things) in common with him.  And this is true of any demographic.  The archetypical 6-11-year-old-girl is just as mythical as her older male counterpart.

And there is one thing that basically no one reading this blog has in common with the elusive and mysterious Mr. A18-30M — he does not like ponies.  And yes, that is still true even though this subculture has grown a lot.

And unlike HHE, I think the real Hasbro execs understand this.  The team behind FiM certainly do.  So even if they did decide to start appealing exclusively to the older male audience, they wouldn’t be trying to appeal to 18-30-year-old males.  They’d be trying to appeal to 18-30-year-old male bronies.

Okay, the next question: what do 18-30-year-old male bronies like?  Well, by definition, we like My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.  And breaking that down, we like:

  • Colorful animation.
  • Cute characters.
  • Humorous slice-of-life storylines interspersed with adventure arcs.
  • Well-done cartoon humor.
  • Episodes with strong, feel-good, uplifting, and surprisingly sophisticated morals.
  • Entertaining voice-acting.
  • Well-done background music and songs.

So…how exactly does the show change if they decide to focus on us?

But of course, that’s not entirely accurate.  There are a number of ways the show might change to cater (or “pander”, if you insist) to the older audience while still retaining its overall feel:

  • An increased emphasis on worldbuilding
  • More frequent, longer, and more intense action sequences
  • A greater focus on continuity
  • An increase in the number of male characters
  • More adventure-focused story arcs and fewer slice-of-life episodes

And clearly this has happened, to an extent.  And that’s terrible, because little girls hate that stuff.

…just like grown men hate ponies, right?

I’ve said it before and I will say it again; when it comes to FiM, we are not the only ones challenging the conventional wisdom of what we like.  Little Miss A6-11F might hate these changes, but as we’ve established, she doesn’t exist, so who gives a shit about her?  And just like us and A18-30M, many of the people she supposedly represents disagree with her — at least if the Hub’s ratings are any indication — and remember, those are strictly television ratings, which means they’re mostly the kids, since we tend to watch via stream and VOD.  If our goal was to “steal” this show from the little girls (whatever that means), then apparently we are the most incompetent show-thieves that have ever existed.

We had one job

Seriously guys, how did we fuck this up this badly?

And the “audience = demographic” mistake is widespread, and causes far worse problems than unnecessary internet fights.  I’m sure some readers are familiar with Cartoon Network’s apparent disregard for its female viewers that writer/producer Paul Dini has discussed.  To hear Dini tell it, CN’s execs have decided that they don’t want female viewers for their superhero shows because girls don’t buy action figures.

Well, first of all, I don’t know of any data demonstrating that.  But here’s the more relevant issue; “do girls generally buy action figures?” is the wrong question to ask here.   The proper question is; “do girls who watch (for example) Young Justice buy action figures?”.  And apparently, CN’s execs didn’t bother to find out.

We’re currently saying (many of us, anyway) that it’s perfectly fine for grown men to enjoy a little girls’ show, just as it’s fine for girls and women to enjoy boys’ and mens’ entertainment.  Maybe that’s the wrong approach.  Maybe it’s time we give up on the idea that “girls’ shows” or “boys’ shows” even exist.  After all, if being female and young is neither necessary nor sufficient for enjoying FiM, and if being male and teenage is neither necessary nor sufficient for enjoying Young Justice, then in what sense are either of them “a girls’ show” or “a boys’ show”?

So if the answer to the question “who is FiM‘s audience?” isn’t a demographic, then what is it?  Well, the list above would be a pretty good starting point.  People who like:

  • Colorful animation.
  • Cute things.
  • Humorous slice-of-life storylines interspersed with adventure arcs.
  • Well-done cartoon humor.
  • Episodes with strong, feel-good, uplifting, and surprisingly sophisticated morals.
  • Entertaining voice-acting.
  • Well-done background music and songs.

Ask someone whether they like these things, and you’ll get a pretty good idea of whether they’ll enjoy FiM.  You’ll certainly have a much better chance of being right than if you just assumed it based upon their age and gender.

Demographics are not the same thing as audiences — and when we assume they are, we run into trouble.  And it sounds trite, but the best answer to the question “who is Friendship is Magic for?”, is probably pretty simple: it’s for people who enjoy it.

Pictured: the target audience of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic

Pictured: the target audience of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.  Sources below.

Photo sources, clockwise from top-left, used without permission for purpose of discussion and analysis of a cultural phenomenon (fair use):

1 2 3 4 5

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3 Responses to “Is FiM for little girls, or for everyone?” — what does that question even mean? Or, why audiences are not demographics.

  1. peppy69 says:

    Yeah I call BS on this whole article, but whatever it isn’t like proving it wrong will do anything.

    • melanie says:

      I disagree with you. I think that mlp is a family show.

    • Moonblaze says:

      Well sure. If “proving it wrong” is your goal, you probably won’t accomplish anything. But this post, like any sort of analysis, is about having a thoughtful discussion. So if you disagree, then you’re extremely valuable to the point of all this. I normally don’t comment because I often agree with this guy. If you don’t, then I’m very interested in your counter-points.

      Please share.

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