“It’s for kids” is not an excuse (and we don’t need one, anyway)

[EDIT: To clarify, I don’t think for a second that Miller uses “it’s for kids” as an excuse to phone it in. If he did, Season 4 would not be nearly as good as it is.  My concern was more that I’ve heard that line used by a lot of people who believe the show isn’t worthy of discussion or critique, and the Tweets seemed like a good jumping-off point to discuss that larger issue.]

Well, I was right — they handled it well.

Dem feels

Dem feels

But my most pressing thoughts after “Castle, Sweet Castle” weren’t about the episode itself, but about reactions to the the episode.  Jim Miller apparently got irritated with some of the fan commentary:

Getting tired of folks complaining about storied being ‘too predictable’ or ‘not mature enough’. It’s a show designed for viewers aged 6 – 12. I’m sorry it’s not as sophisticated as ‘Breaking Bad’. It’s not supposed to be. It’s great that adults enjoy it, but it’s not designed to work specifically for you. It’s supposed to be fun and easy to digest.

Miller’s argument troubles me.  Not because “Castle, Sweet Castle” was too predictable or immature — it was neither.  Nor do I think he was out of line in responding to criticism (though apparently he might).  What concerns me is the specific argument he makes to defend the episode:

It’s a show designed for viewers aged 6 – 12.

This line is pretty familiar to anyone who’s been in the fandom for awhile.  Criticisms of FiM are frequently deflected with “c’mon, it’s a kids’ show,” and I’ve gotten pretty used to that.

But to hear that argument from someone directly involved in the show’s production — that disturbs me.

Now, I agree that the analysis community in particular tends to be overly-negative.  And if you think that a piece of criticism is unwarranted or unjustified, by all means speak out and say why.

But I’m convinced that “it’s for kids” is never an appropriate response to criticism.  Here’s why:

First of all, if we use “it’s for kids” as an excuse for FiM‘s simplicity, we assume that FiM‘s simplicity needs an excuse.  It doesn’t.  FiM‘s simplicity is a strength, not a weakness; it allows for clear morals, it makes for easy viewing, and it provides the setup for interesting and entertaining character interaction.

Don’t get me wrong; I love really deep, complex, layered narratives.  But if that’s all I were allowed to watch/read/hear, I would go insane.  Chocolate fondue is great, but sometimes (often), I just want a chocolate bar.  And if you can make a really good chocolate bar, my hat’s off to you.  More generally, we seem to have this notion that something simple can’t have artistic merit — which is clearly false.

My response to someone criticizing “Castle, Sweet Castle” for being predictable or unsophisticated wouldn’t be “it’s for kids”.  It would be 1) the episode wasn’t particularly predictable or unsophisticated, relative to the rest of FiM, 2) FiM‘s simplicity is a strength, not a weakness, and 3) it doesn’t matter if something’s been done a thousand times — if you do it really well, it’s still good art.

Miller uses “it’s for kids” as a defense against the criticism of simplicity.  That’s a mistake, but at the end of the day, it probably doesn’t cause much damage.

But there’s another, more insidious way that the phrase “it’s for kids” is used; to excuse legitimate flaws.

[EDIT: To clarify again, I have never heard Miller (or anyone involved in the show’s production) use the phrase in this way.  But I have heard several fans do so.]

FiM, like any creative work, is imperfect; some episodes have pacing issues, questionable visual design, or clumsy exposition.  And when these are discussed, there is always that one person saying “c’mon, it’s a kids’ show.”

“It doesn’t need do be great,” that argument seems to say, “it’s for kids, they won’t even know it’s bad.”

You’re right, they won’t — and that’s exactly the problem.  That’s the most important reason “it’s for kids” is a bad excuse; if we accept “it’s for kids” as an excuse for mediocrity, then we set children up for mediocrity.

Children form expectations of the world around them based upon what they see.  And if the only art for them is bad, they won’t realize it’s bad — they’ll just think it’s what art is.  And when they grow up, they will start making bad art, without even knowing it — because they’ll never have seen good art.

While I generally praise the show, I will point out its shortcomings if I think we can learn from them.  I don’t do this despite the fact that the target demographic is kids, I do so (partially) because the target demographic is kids.

There are future artists in that audience, and I want them seeing The Crystal Empire’s architecture, not the Rainbow Power designs.  There are future writers in that audience, and I want them hearing the story of Rainbow Rocks, not Equestria Girls 1.  There are future musicians in that audience, and I want them hearing “Winter Wrap-Up”, not…

Um…

Okay, so Daniel Fucking Ingram and William Anderson are apparently gods, and I can’t think of an example of bad music in the series.  But the point still stands.  I want kids exposed to great creative works, so they’ll grow up to make great creative works.

So yes, FiM is (non-exclusively) for kids.  And that is a reason to hold it to a higher standard, not a lower one.  And Miller clearly does hold it to that higher standard — at least if the show’s quality is any indication.

If we use “it’s for kids” to excuse mediocrity, then we’re encouraging mediocrity in kids.  If we use “it’s for kids” to excuse simplicity, then we’re excusing something that needs no excuse.

So let’s just stop using “it’s for kids” as an excuse.

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14 Responses to “It’s for kids” is not an excuse (and we don’t need one, anyway)

  1. Marioaddict says:

    “I want them hearing “Winter Wrap-Up”, not…

    Um…”

    Stop the Bats.

    The song you’re looking for is Stop the Bats.

    • DMS says:

      I love that song!

      How about Pinkie Pie’s song about sharing and caring in Over a Barrel? But it’s intentionally bad.

    • jensonn66 says:

      Stop the Bats is one of the better songs of the show. Lyrically, maybe, but not instrumentally. The composition is absolutely stellar.

      To be honest, Bad Seed would be my choice. Others would disagree, sure, but the music itself is nothing spectacular. Plus, I just don’t like songs that follow a Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus structure (like much of popular music), *unless* they really try to experiment with what you’re hearing. Bad Seed is too generic as far as song structure and chord progressions go.

      • Patrick says:

        I think “Bad Seed” is a neat song. The whole episode reminded me of some of the cartoons from the 1980s or the classic After-School Specials that used to run on ABC back in the day. The plots and acting were rather cheesy, and sometimes they contained a song that was relatively cheesy. It was more of a montage song, showing how Babs was constantly bullying them.

    • Patrick says:

      I was thinking of “Stop the Bats” as well. Pinkie’s “You Gotta Share, You Gotta Care” was pretty bad, but as you said, it was intentional. The only other one that grated on my nerves a bit was Spike’s rendition of the Cloudsdale Anthem, but I think that was also intentional.

  2. Raptra says:

    I definitely agree, after all, one of the main reasons Lauren Faust worked so hard to make the show so good was to subvert that very expectation that kid’s media (esp. for girls) was shallow and bad.

    The only way I could see “it’s for kids” being an acceptable answer to criticism is in the sense that it’s okay for a kids show to be more predictable because even though we may have seen a story a thousand times, doesn’t mean the kids have. If a plot/premise has worked before, chances are it has merit, and kids have got to see it for the first time(s) somewhere, so why not somewhere awesome, well produced, and ponyrific?

  3. 3Power says:

    You repeat that the episode “Wasn’t predictable” several times throughout this article, but the truth of the matter, the moment AJ’s line of the song began, the plot for the rest of the episode was clear: The ponies are bringing stuff that makes them feel at home, not Twilight. They realize that, and shift focus to what made TWILIGHT feel at home. And this, of course, was exactly what happened. Hell, because the song was released early the entire plot was spoiled before the episode even aired.

    So yes, this was a rather straightforward and predictable episode.

  4. Jim Miller says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful and well worded article. First off, I want to say that when I said ‘it’s for kids’ I never intended for it to be a slight toward the quality or sophistication of the show, or as some sort of blanket excuse to avoid admitting to any of its faults. I don’t view ‘it’s for kids’ as a derogatory statement of any kind. I was merely reacting (albeit in a hasty and poorly worded series of tweets) to what I perceived to be unreasonable expectations of a handful of fans. Myself and my crew work very hard to create a program that appeals to not only our core demographic, but to everyone. I love that we can bring a level of sophistication and emotional depth to a show that in different circumstances, could be easily written off as trite and cloying. I strive to continue to make the show the best it can be, as does every person who works on it, and while we sometimes may not succeed in our efforts, it’s not for lack of effort and care on our parts.
    Kids are smarter than we give them credit for. Kids are better at dealing with complexity of stories than many other programs assume. When I say ‘it’s for kids’ it’s out of respect for the audience, not to deride them or our older viewers.

    • Hsere says:

      …From what I can tell using WordPress’s tools, it’s actually you.

      Wow. Um…hi. I really like your work.

      So, let me clarify; I don’t think for a second that you use “it’s for kids” as an excuse to phone it in. If you did, Season 4 would not be nearly as good as it is.

      My concern was more that I’ve heard that line used by a lot of people who believe the show isn’t worthy of discussion or critique, and the Tweets seemed like a good jumping-off point to discuss that larger issue.

      And I tried to make that clear in the essay, but in retrospect, I think I failed. That’s probably something I should have done in a full paragraph, rather than a few sentences.

      …yeah, sorry about that. I kinda fucked up. I think at some level, I didn’t expect this essay to be read by anyone other than my usual 50 followers, plus a few thousand fellow denizens of /r/mylittlepony. Oops.

      Dear Princess Celestia,

      Today I learned that when writing essays, you should assume that the subject of the essay will read it, even if that assumption seems really egotistical.

      -Hsere

      • Jim Miller says:

        No problem! It’s a worthy discussion. And trust me, I’ve made my share of messes by not adequately expressing myself, too. I think this show is perfect for discussion and critique. There’s a lot going on in each episode, and I really love seeing what fans latch on to, and what seems to never affect them at all. It’s always more surprising than I would have guessed.
        In any case, chalk my use of the phrase up to me being a little butt hurt while still in bed early last Saturday morning. I got over it. And I think that it’s great that out little show provokes such interesting discussions.
        Thanks again for your level headed responses!

    • Patrick says:

      Mr. Miller,

      First of all, I am an adult fan of MLP but I’ve also enjoyed some of your other works, especially “Ed, Edd, n Eddy”. I saw some influence from that series in MLP, especially the last episode when Twilight lured Moondancer with the trail of books, like the Kankers did to Edd “Double D” in the episode “Honor Thy Ed”.

      Second, I can’t accept the show as a kids’ show. It is a common belief that cartoons are for kids. However, I would like to remind a lot of people that cartoons aren’t just for kids. In the beginning, they weren’t. Cartoons are meant to be enjoyed by everyone: not just kids, but adults as well. Many cartoon series, past and present, that have used the same model as MLP, were meant for entire families to watch. There was material there for everybody: Colorful characters and layouts with simple dialogue the kids could follow, beautiful artwork and the occasional pop culture reference the parents would enjoy, and a moral/lesson everyone could take with them. While some cartoon series in the past were a little more blatant with the moral/lesson, I think MLP, over the years, has really provided the moral/lesson in a subtle, yet understandable way. Many of the lessons taught in MLP are those both the kids and the adults could apply in their own lives. For example, Applejack learning that it’s OK to know when to ask for help, and to accept it when offered, could be applied no matter if it was an 8-year-old girl asking her friend to help with a project for her Science class, or a 35-year-old man asking a coworker to help him get some files together to send to a client. We all know somebody or are that somebody who insists on doing the job alone, because only we alone are capable of doing it the right way, the way it’s supposed to be done.

      I can remember back in the 1980s there was a huge push for cartoons to be educational and contain morals/life lessons. Some cartoons did this in a similar fashion MLP does today, but many featured an extra segment or vignette geared specifically to teach a moral/lesson. One such example would be the cartoon series “G.I. Joe”. After the episode itself played, with the storyline either resolved or to be continued, another segment played with some kids about to get into some kind of trouble, then the Joes step in to stop them, and one Joe tells the kids and the audience that doing drugs is bad, or giving in to peer pressure is not the way to go. Then they’d close with the taglines “Well now we know” and “Knowing is half the battle”. Cheesy, yes, by today’s standards, but it worked. I know some people would probably look at Twilight’s letters to Princess Celestia in Season 1 as cheesy compared to how the lessons are revealed in Season 5, but it’s what worked at the time.

      MLP isn’t a “kids’ show”. It’s a “family show”. It’s a show for the entire family. If MLP was being produced by CTW (Children’s Television Workshop, best known for “Sesame Street”) and aired on PBS, there’d probably be some extra stuff online for the parents to print out and use in relation to the show. I remember a long time ago TV Guide had little “Parenting Tips”, I think from PBS itself or from CTW, about how to apply something taught in an episode of “Sesame Street” with your child in the real world. For example, if an episode dealt with calendars, the “Parenting Tip” might be to show the child how they use a calendar, such as not just seeing what today is, but also letting them know when bills are due, they have to go see a doctor or a friend, or anything else they might have to do. If MLP was done similar to that, parents would be prompted to discuss with their kids not just the episode itself, but the moral/lesson taught in the episode, and how could it applied to real life. For example, if they had just watched “Sisterhooves Social”, perhaps that could help smooth out any wrinkles in the relationship between the siblings in the house. What is it you don’t like about each other? What do you like about each other? What can each of you do to improve yourselves? How would you suggest your brother/sister improve themselves? What is something you like to do together? How would you have acted if you were Sweetie Belle? If you were Rarity?

      Mr. Miller, calling it a “kids’ show” is a gross understatement. It’s not just for kids. It’s not just for adults, either. It’s for the entire family. Very few cartoons have come along that were equally enjoyable by both kids and adults. Many cartoons of the past were only enjoyed by kids, hence why cartoons in general were seen as “kids’ shows”. I remember watching some of the cartoons I grew up with when I was a kid, like some of the Disney cartoons that used to air back in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Some of them have held up, but many seemed too cheesy or kid-friendly rather than all-age-friendly. I believe that 10 to 20 years from now, some of us might stumble across old episodes of MLP on the Internet, will remember how good a show it was, watch it, and it might just be as good 10 to 20 years from now as it was today.

      What do I like about it? Everything. Not just the artwork/layout design of the characters and backgrounds, but the characters’ personalities, the storylines, the music; everything. There are a lot of elements of the series that remind me of other series I used to enjoy just as much, if not more so. I’ve seen a lot of influence from other series you or other writers, artists, directors, and producers have worked on in the past, be it “Powerpuff Girls”, “Dexter’s Laboratory”, “Ed, Edd, n Eddy”, or “Samurai Jack”, just to name a few. I remember when I first saw the show, through an online forum where someone linked a YouTube video of “Elements of Harmony Part 1”, I had commented how some of the artwork reminded me of “Samurai Jack” and the character design reminded me of “Powerpuff Girls”. I’m a big fan of the classic cartoons like “Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies”, “Tom and Jerry”, and “Droopy”. I’ve seen many influences from these classic cartoons in MLP, especially with Pinkie Pie. Her chasing after Rainbow Dash in “Griffon the Brush-Off” reminded me so much of Pepe Le Pew chasing after Penelope Cat, and Droopy popping up in various places, trying to capture some escaped convict.

      The characters are relatable in some way. I find myself more relatable to Applejack because I’m a hard worker, although my hard work is behind a desk, not on a farm, but I’m usually honest, and tend to be a bit hardheaded when it comes to work. But, I’ve found myself relatable to the other ponies in other ways, and I’m sure others have, too. Many of us are just as practical or logical as Twilight, or know somebody who is. We all know that person who is very bubbly and outgoing like Pinkie Pie, or likes to boast and show off like Rainbow Dash. We all know someone who is artistically inclined like Rarity, albeit their medium may not be of the needle and thread, but brush and palette, pencil and paper, or nails and wood. And they may be just as overly dramatic as Rarity in some cases, or else fantasize about being a part of the socially elite. I had a great-grandmother who was like that. She had bought several sets of fine china, and I remember when going through her old stenographer’s notepads of recipes, finding a planned menu for a dinner party she wanted to have, as well as a guest list, and a list of topics for discussion. We all know someone who is or are ourselves like Fluttershy, being shy, quiet, introverted, but love the companionship of animals. It may not be all animals in general, but some of us might prefer the company of our pets versus people.

      Also, some of the situations in the series are relatable. We’ve all had fights with our siblings like Sweetie Belle and Rarity did in “Sisterhooves Social”. We’ve all worried about where we’re going in life like the Cutie Mark Crusaders currently are (when are they getting their Cutie Marks? Inquiring minds want to know!). We’ve all dealt with bullies like Babs Seed or Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon. We’ve all felt pressure when deadlines loom like Twilight did in “Lesson Zero”. Just recently, with the episode “Amending Fences”, a lot of fans have commented on /r/mylittlepony about old friendships having died off over time due to moving away or moving on. I remember a couple of people posting that the episode inspired them to call or e-mail those old friends, and even arrange to meet up for coffee. I called an old friend, and we talked as if the last time we talked was just a week ago. We’ve been friends on Facebook for a while, but it’s just not the same as talking on the phone or actually meeting up. But, still, there was that connection rebonded.

      No one should discount MLP as a “kids’ show”. As I’ve said, it’s a family show. It’s a show that can be, and should be, enjoyed by the entire family. Yes, you have fans who become obsessed with the show and even go as far as to defend it whenever someone calls it a “silly kids’ show” or “silly cartoon”. A lot of shows have fans like that, whether the series is meant mainly for adults, or for entire families. Here’s a good piece of advice from another awesome show, “Mystery Science Theater 3000”: Repeat to yourself, “It’s just a show, I should really just relax.”

  5. Shrike says:

    In what universe was digging up the tree roots of the library and hanging it as a chandelier predictable….

  6. BlackWidower says:

    I’ve noticed the same thing. It’s quite bizarre how the show’s staff handles criticism. For instance, on twitter, they can be irritable and rude about it. Meanwhile, it looks as if they’ve devoted entire episodes to responding to it. Particularly, the last season premiere, and this season premiere. Where they established that Twilight being a princess doesn’t change anything, and how I’m a bellend for presuming otherwise. Seriously, I’m a right idiot for making that presumption.

    Anyway, they know how to respond, but just don’t do it until the production cycle finishes.

    Though I am genuinely surprised that people complained that much about the library’s destruction. To me it was just yet another major change in the status quo, following the twelve dozen others that have come before. Wasn’t anything to get upset about. The only thing to get upset about is the fact that Ponyville needs a new library. You know, Twilight’s got a lot of room in that castle…

    P.S. Hope you don’t mind the shameless self-promotion there.

  7. melanie says:

    It for kids is a good excuse, but for bad writing, and lazy animation.

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