It is 1995, and I am recovering from surgery. My mother noticed a strange bump on my upper stomach, and a trip to the doctor confirmed it as an epigastric hernia, a term which I will remember because I will be hearing it daily for the next two months. What has happened is that, as a result of my backpack being loaded too heavily, a muscle in my torso has torn, and a small amount of fat has slipped through the hole, causing a weird bump that disappears when I lay on my back or push on it. The surgery is very minor, though the anesthesiologist makes sure to wait until my mother and father are out of the room before asking if I smoke, because it matters for their machinery and dosages. I am currently in 5th grade, but look much older thanks to an early growth spurt and the sullen expression and lack of affect common to children who are bullied regularly. This is also the first brush with death that I will consciously experience, as she tells me that there is a very minor chance that once I am put under I will not wake up. She reassures me that this is very very unlikely, but that I need to know it could happen. Why, exactly, I am not sure. It is more important to me that I do not receive an IV until I am under, because I have a crippling fear of needles dating back to the last time I was at the hospital, at age 4, and was wrapped up in a sheet and held down by two nurse’s aids while they sedated my mouth and sewed my busted open lip back together (I had performed a front flip over the sofa and smashed my face into the coffee table).
The surgery is very minor, and takes about twenty minutes total. Most of this is spent making sure I am properly sedated, and then triple checking their work. The actual cutting and sewing takes no time at all.
For such a minor thing, however, the recovery takes much longer. It is shorter than the surgery I will have to fix a testicular hernia three years later, but I still spend close to four weeks lying on the couch and watching television, drinking 7 Up, eating toast with jelly and peanut butter, and reading Robert Jordan and Timothy Zahn novels. And at 11 am every weekday, on the Disney channel, comes My Little Pony. It is a strange show, and I am clearly not the intended audience. Between the two episodes shown each day, one usually featuring the adventures of three annoying humans and the ponies escaping from slavery or repelling some monstrous threat, and the other a very domestic slice of life thing involving finding out who is polluting the river (spoiler: is wasn’t one big group, it was each and every one of us! We should be more careful!), of figuring out who Clover should take with her to a concert, as she only won two tickets and has more than one friend (spoiler: she scalps the tickets, buys pizza, and the entire group watches the concert on television instead). There is no doubt that I am not the intended audience for this show. Though I am socially awkward and shy, I am not too atypical of boys my age: I have seen Jurassic Park 13 times, I own a terribly large number of Go-Bots, Transformers, Aliens, Predators, and Colonial Marines, I play HeroQuest and Magic: the Gathering, and spend more time in 6th grade playing Chrono Trigger than doing any sort of school work. I have friends who are into similar things, though in retrospect it is clear that I was “that guy,” because none of the rest of them were. The gifted and talented program I am enrolled in keeps me out of the worst public school in my home city, and instead installs me in one of the less bad ones. Classes are painfully easy, to the point where I have trouble psyching myself up to bother doing the work, because I know I can pass all the tests easily. It should come as no surprise that a lot of the inner city kids who also attend have no interest in Doctor Who or Star Trek or Star Wars, and there’s no question that I need to acknowledge my privilege here and state that these kids most likely had home lives and situations I could never fully comprehend (one kid in particular who constantly made fun of my shoes was wearing the exact same expensive pair of Filas four years later, kept scrubbed and immaculate). This might not forgive their bullying, but it certainly allows me more retrospective compassion and empathy than I have towards the kids much richer than me in high school who played that role once I entered a Catholic college prep school four years later.
But we aren’t there yet, we’re on the couch watching magical ponies in a pastel world having troubles they usually resolve by the end of the week or episode, depending on whether we’re watching reruns of the 1986 adventure serial or the 1992 tales. Simple sensible morality, teachers who aren’t overworked and struggling to keep children passing exams or breaking down into screams because half the class can’t understand algebra works, friends you can tell anything to and they’ll still understand and love you. And I unfailingly keep watching everyday, alone in the house with the dog and cats, my siblings at school or daycare, and my parents off at work. Getting up to climb upstairs and use the bathroom or let the dog out hurts, but using a cane I manage alright and slowly my strength returns and I no longer need it. My aunt who lives next door drops by sometimes to check on me. She used to live with us, and though I do not remember it, she was kicked out after a huge fight with my father when her welfare check did not arrive and she screamed at me relentlessly, convinced I had lost it when I picked up the mail. Supposedly I was hiding in the attic when my parents came home, but I don’t remember any of this and have to go by what my parents told me happened.
Needless to say, the ponies presented a more appealing version of reality than the one I lived in.
Unlike the sacrificial battles of the Transformers and Go-bots (culminating with the scarring bloodbath that is the Transformers movie), the science terror of Jurassic Park and Power Rangers, or the filtered body horror of the Aliens and Predator toys (I only saw the films on cheap VHS, taped off television, versions at a friend’s house), this was a world you might actually want to live in. And unlike Saved by the Bell or Full House or any of the other live action shows targeted at my demographic, there was enough of a remove that the reflexive level of optimistic unreality those shows possessed didn’t trigger an uncanny valley style rejection. Sure, this is the same sort of half-hour toy commercial that make up most of the memories of my generation, but it was relaxing and reassuring in a way that other shows weren’t. If the purpose of art is to disturb the comfortable, and comfort the disturbed, then the show was doing its job admirably.
Over the course of three weeks and about thirty episodes, I recover enough to attend school again. It doesn’t seem to matter that I’ve missed lessons, because we’re still in about the same place we were four weeks ago. I don’t watch the program again until summer vacation and winter break, and by the next year it is off the air, and is replaced in my brainspace by Sailor Moon, which requires a different sort of devotion to be a fan of, waking at 5:30 am each morning due to Fox’s strange time slot schedules, and then due diligence on the internet and AOL chatrooms to learn what “actually happened” in the “real” Japanese episodes. In retrospect, it is odd that Disney would show commercials for a rival toy company, but who can fathom the programming decisions of major companies?
It is 2010, and I am eating lunch with my fiancee. We are back at her parent’s house in our home town, having moved halfway across the country for work, and idly flipping channels for something to have on television while we eat. And lo and behold, a new version of the show, done up in flash animation that looks far more crisp and clean than the cheap cel animation that warned you when something was going to move from the color difference. Firefly has been replaced by the more colorful Rainbow Dash, and is no longer voiced by Sandy Duncan (as the show reminded us every so often at commercial bumps, as though she were someone my 10 year old self ought to recognize). Twilight has a different color scheme. Megan and her siblings are entire absent (thankfully), but Spike is still there and still sarcastic, though his head is much smaller. Rather than a mini-musical commercial for how great the sea ponies are, they cross the river by repairing a sea serpent’s mustache. The second half of this adventure (we had missed the first half) teaches us that Friendship is Magic, and that even the worst villain who wishes to cast eternal darkness upon the world is really just the misunderstood little sister of the God-Empress of the world, who needs some love and friendship to help her understand that she doesn’t need to permanently remove the sun rising from the day for people to like her. A far cry from Tirek’s terrifying enslavement plot and brainwashing of a “handsome” mustachioed prince. It is the same show, generally, but the songs are introduced alongside an eyeroll from Twilight and a preface of “She isn’t…” It feels very much like watching the new version of Doctor Who, with the same blend of familiar and strange, but with less attention or care about the history of a show that the target audience has never and probably will never watch. I catch one more episode before heading back to Texas, in which Applejack (more serious, more cowboy hat, less Sandy Duncan) learns that there’s no shame in accepting help from your friends when you’re overwhelmed. I don’t have cable or any children, so it falls right back off my radar when I return home.
It climbs right back on a year or so later, when it turns out that I’m not alone in watching despite my age, and that the show’s periphery demographic are firmly in charge of the internet. It might be a little stupid, but they like it anyways. Academic essays are written, John De Lancie funds a documentary, and fairly cool looking people only slightly younger than myself are wearing clothing featuring the characters without a trace of irony or self-consciousness. This is, of course, part of a broader expansion of previously marginalized culture, which seemed kicked off by the release of new Star Wars films and culminating just last year with the Avengers becoming the film that everyone saw. We seem no longer afraid to talk about our likes and dislikes, whatever they are, and flamboyant displays of affection for media are no longer passe or worthy of scorn. The question of “Why are you being so mean?” gets asked regularly to the haters, with actual evidence being required for voicing dislike of something with the implication that no one should like it. I watch a cute fan animated series featuring a pony version of Doctor Who and his cross-eyed assistant, but do not really engage in the larger culture. I’m aware of it, but it’s not really for me. I don’t have access to the show, and aside from the occasional Facebook post, it remains something in the back of my mind. I attend a They Might Be Giants concert with my wife and a friend from work, and the concert hall has a large projector displaying all the tweets hashtagged with the name of the venue. Someone asks “Was anyone here NOT bullied as a kid?” which prompts a chorus of laughter from the crowd, and an outpouring of tweets about the subject. “Yeah, but we won,” someone replies. “Leaked TMBG Setlist: ironic covers of Jonathan Coulton’s setlist” replies another.
It is 2013, and I am exhausted and depressed after refinishing the floors in my house and a particularly long week at work. Seasonal affective disorder and the worsening of my obsessive-compulsive disorder have left me insomniacal, and because often times watching television makes me tired, I flip through Netflix to find something to watch. And what’s sitting there in the list of recommendations, next to Doctor Who and A Bit of Fry and Laurie?
A few hours later, my wife came in and asked what I was doing. “You’re watching those stupid ponies, aren’t you?” she asked, her tone one of amusement more than sarcasm.
“It’s actually pretty good,” I replied. “It’s relaxing. It’s not stressful like The Wire,” which I had previously been rewatching, and needed a break from.
“Oh, I was wondering what all the high pitched voices were. You’re not going to be become one of those weirdos on the internet, are you? Shipping them and stuff”
“No, no. It’s just so relentlessly optimistic. I’m enjoying it. I dunno.”
“I’m not judging you. If it’s what works for you right now, then have fun,” she said, scratching the top of my head the way she always does and heading back to bed.
Pinkie Pie appropriates Pepe Le Pew’s signature hop while trying to make friends with Gilda the Griffon, and it’s hard not to analyze the entire episode as addressing the old fans who are bitter about the new characters and situations (if, indeed, those even exist; I haven’t checked). I have a hankering for 7Up, but settle for a glass of orange soda, and keep watching. The small scar on my stomach, just above my belly button, is faint, but still there if you look for it.