My Little Pony: The Movie review, Vector

I’ve just seen an email about the annual round up for British Science Fiction Association’s  Vector magazine. I was sent it because last year, I wrote two reviews: one on the film Okja (warning- swearing in the trailer) and one on My Little Pony: The Movie.

my little pony

This is my piece. I hope you enjoy it!

My Little Pony: The Movie

2017, Dir: Jayson Thiesson

All is well in the female-centric ponytopia of Equestria, and Applejack, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, Rarity and Rainbow Dash are helping their friend, Princess Twilight Sparkle, prepare for the Friendship Festival, featuring pop star pegasus Songbird Serenade (played by Sia). However, the festival is interrupted by the arrival of ferocious minions of the Storm King, led by a unicorn with a broken horn, Tempest (Emily Blunt). Tempest captures Twilight Sparkle’s sisters, Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, inside obsidian spheres, but before she is petrified, Celestia calls out that her sisters should get help from the “Queen of the Hippo…”. Twilight Sparkle, her friends and her assistant, the dragon Spike, head off on a quest to save her sisters, unaware that the Storm King has charged Tempest with the capture of Twilight Sparkle to complete the spell to activate his staff; in return he will mend her broken horn. On the way the Mane 6 encounter a con artist called Capper, who intended to sell them to pay off a debt until their friendship convinces him to help them, some bird-like former pirates turned delivery airship crew and they discover that the hippos they are looking for are in fact hippogriffs, Queen Novo and Princess Skystar.

This film, aimed at small girls, is no Moana or Despicable Me. Some of the songs are catchy (Rainbow Dash’s It’s Time To Be Awesome is particularly tenacious as an ear worm) but Sia’s Rainbow is rather lacklustre as a finale to an epic quest, facing peril and testing honesty and friendships. So why include it in a round-up of SFF films of 2017? Well, when women’s roles in genre films are still too often Smurfette (Wonder Woman) or Princess Peach, a reward for the hero’s successful quest and persistence (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) it is positive to see a fantasy film where friendships between female characters are prioritised; where they rescue themselves and are resourceful and independent, solving their own problems.  I have not yet seen Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but I have read that the core friendships and relationships are between women; however it is Rose and Finn (a man and a woman) who go off on the quest.

Katha Pollit first used the term “The Smurfette Principle” in a 1991 essay for the New York Times Magazine, in which she cited April O’ Neill from the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles cartoon as well as Miss Piggy from The Muppets- and indeed, we could include Paw Patrol with its one female puppy; the pink one, of course, as a contemporary Smurfette. By having a mainly female cast of protagonists- and a female antagonist- My Little Pony: The Movie centres female friendships in a SFF film in a way that I have not seen since Ghostbusters (2016).

I told my resident 8-year-old Brony that I was writing about My Little Pony: The Movie. He said “it’s great!” And yes, it is.

Review: Ali Baker

A few of my favourite SFF things

As I said in my last post, in order to move the equality/ diversity conversation along in SFF fandom, maybe we need to point out where the good stuff already is available. Here are some things I love. Robin Hobb is one of the best known women writing in SFF; she was Guest of Honour at the 72nd WorldCon in London last summer (LonCon 3). But I came to her writing late, I’m not sure why. Her Farseer trilogy is some of the best writing in Fantasy that I have read, and the plots- political intrigue and shifting power underpinned by magic- intrigue and entrance me. If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones and haven’t read Hobb, you have a treat in store.

My very dear friend @PrincessofVP introduced me to Naomi Novik’s Temeraire and sequels. These are marvellous novels, the story of the Napoleonic wars, with a dragon regiment. I am no kind of expert in early 19th century military history, but the detail “feels” right, and the diplomatic plots of the later books are extremely interesting. Other books I enjoy set around the same period are Stephanie Burgis’s Kat series for 8 year olds +- imagine Joan Aiken crossed with Diana Wynne Jones– and Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey, which have everything I enjoy about Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances, with magic.

Nnedi Okorafor is a consistently interesting novelist, writing speculative fiction set in West Africa. The first book I read by her was Akata Witch, but The Shadow Speaker is still probably my favourite book by her. She has strong, but vulnerable, women and girls as protagonists, and very believable parent-daughter relationships. I hope that the Hugos-nominated Lagoon brings her a wider readership in the UK, and leads to more of her novels getting a UK publication,

Aliette de Bodard’s Obsidian and Blood trilogy of fantasy detective novels set in the Aztec empire are incredible feats of imagination, but her short stories and her novella, On A Red Station, Drifting are a delight. Her Vietnamese family structures and the conflicts therein work very naturally in the setting of a decaying space station and the deprivations after flight from a warring empire. I am very excited about The House of Shattered Wings, published in the summer, an alternate version of Paris with magicians and dragons.

Finally, three television shows that I have loved recently: Steven Universe on Cartoon Network, a delightful cartoon about a boy with magical powers and his three monster-bashing foster mothers; Orphan Black, an amazing show about clones, identity, the boundaries of science and privacy, and Once Upon A Time, set in Storybrooke, Maine, where fairytale characters are cursed to live, unaware of their true identities, unless the curse can be broken by Emma Swann, successful bounty hunter who is brought to Storybrooke by a 10 year old boy who turns up on her doorstep claiming to be her son.

Let me know what you think. What are your favourite SFF things? Tweet me @AlisonBaker01 or comment below.

EasterCon and moving the conversation along. 

Three events this weekend have got me thinking (very slowly- Monday of a Con makes thinking very tiring). Firstly, this article by John Mullan in the Guardian, where he fails to name JK Rowling by name, or mention any other woman writer of SF, fantasy or speculative fiction.

Secondly, the Hugo award slate was announced yesterday. In reaction to last year’s sweep by more diverse voices, a group of mostly right wing, mostly American fans (at least so it seems from the blogs and articles discussing the “Sad Puppies list”) have block voted, seemingly to exclude what they call “Social Justice Warriors” from the slate. IO9 sums up the situation fairly.

And thirdly, I attended an interesting panel at Dysprosium, the 2015 British Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention, called Equal Rites?, where a comment by one of the panel seemed to suggest that the panellist seemed to suggest that even if the central characters in TV shows are white and male, the increasing presence of secondary and periphery characters who are women and/ or people of colour, this is progress.

Until that point I was getting a little frustrated with the panel. It was not the fault of the panellists, but it seemed to me to be the same conversation that I have heard by panellists at conventions for at least the last 5 years: listing the issues, outlining shows/ books/ films that do it well and calling for more. One panellist at this con outlined intersectionality- an example of an illustrator that she knows who drew a mixed race gay family for a book for an independent press and was asked to change it by the publisher and author. But otherwise, I felt, don’t we all know this? There are great diverse books. There are great authors of colour, from diverse backgrounds and what we need to do as fans is to celebrate them and buy their work and pass it on. There are wonderful TV shows (Agent Carter, Orphan Black, Once Upon A Time, Steven Universe) and we need to watch them, tweet about them, ask for more of the same.

But then: that article. That block voting.  That comment. And here we are, still needing that privilege checked and that conscious raised. But I console myself with the hope that perhaps there could be more than one panel explicitly talking about diversity at next year’s Eastercon. Perhaps we could all do better at supporting books/ films/ shows we love. Perhaps if we go to film, TV or book events and the panels are stale, male and pale we can ask why. I must say that there were no all-male panels at EasterCon- but that may be because of what I chose to attend. But the conversation has to move on, or in 2020 very little will have changed.

Girl cooties, or why do we think boys won’t read books with girl protagonists?

A discussion with our employment based trainee teachers on teachers reading class novels aloud prompted me to think further about my attitude to the assumption that boys won’t read “girls’ books”, which seems to have become extended to experiencing any books with girls as protagonists. My argument against this perception is two-fold- firstly that just because there is a (legitimate) concern about boys’ literacy, particularly white working class boys, does not mean that there aren’t reluctant girl readers who should hear good quality literature to engage them read aloud, and secondly, we don’t expect maths-hating girls to avoid geometry, so why should we not challenge boys’ assumptions about “girl books”?

The case for Pullman’s His Dark Materials boy-friendly books with a girl protagonist has often been made (despite Will becoming the de facto protagonist in The Subtle Knife and Lyra being off stage for most of The Amber Spyglass) so I will say no more about it. But my suggestions for books about girls that should appeal to all children are:

Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and sequels. Bonnie Green and Dido Twite are great kick-ass girl characters, but there are also feminine  girl characters who are brave, quick witted and resourceful, while also able to sew and cook.

Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. A wonderfully creepy book with more than mild peril: definitely more appropriate to upper KS2 (9-11 year olds) and early years of Secondary school.

David Almond’s My Name Is Mina. Skellig is a fixture in both KS2 and KS3. Why not encourage both boys and girls to read this amazing companion text?

Lauren Child’s Clarice Bean books and Dick King-Smith’s Sophie Series. These are great comic books, which have had my lower KS2 (ages 7-9) classes in fits of laughter. Both are set in firmly “real world”, Clarice in an urban setting and Sophie in the country, but with family and school relationships that most children will recognise- annoying siblings, busy parents and in Clarice Bean’s case, an unsympathetic teacher.

For younger children, Catherine Storey’s Polly and the Wolf stories have stood the test of time for a good reason- who doesn’t want to read about a clever little girl outwitting a bad but easily fooled wolf? This is a great read-aloud for years 2 and 3.

All reception and KS1 children (5-7 year olds) will relate to Rebecca Pattinson’s Roald Dahl Funny Prize-winning My Big Shouting Day– a day when your cereal is too crackly, you don’t want to play with your friends and ballet is TOO ITCHY. It’s great to read a book where a girl’s anger is not punished. This would be good to read alongside Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are. 

Pip Jones’ Squishy McFluff books are great- funny domestic stories about a girl and her invisible cat. Written in rhyme but in early chapter book format, these will engage years 2 and 3 as read-alouds due to the rollicking text and because of the delightful illustrations.

Finally, two comic/ graphic novel books: Kate DiCamillo’s award winning Flora and Ulysses, beautifully written and illustrated part-novel and part-comic strip, a book about love, loss and faith. It’s a book that made me think deeply and laugh a lot. Zita the Space Girl is a graphic novel, not great for reading aloud, but one that both boys and girls should enjoy for independent reading.

Why can’t “girly” girls have adventures?

Having reread Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights (1995recently, I was very struck by Pullman’s descriptions of Lyra’s appearance. She’s dirty and scruffy, with tangled hair. Mrs Coulter insists that she wears dresses at her cocktail parties in London. As soon as Lyra realises that Mrs Coulter is part of the Obligation Board and has no intention of taking her North, Lyra gets changed to run away, leaving her party dress on the floor. It is, of course, a pink dress.

There have been many discussions recently, such as those initiated by the Let Toys Be Toys and Let Clothes Be Clothes campaigns, on the limitations placed on girls by brands and shops by labeling active, adventurous toys as “for boys” and passive, appearance-based toys as “for girls”. This has been described as “pinkification” as shorthand.

But here’s a confession- I like pink. I like sparkles. I also like dinosaurs, robots, Space and football. Why can’t adventurous girls also like dresses? Why can’t girls wear pink and slay monsters? Why do girl protagonists have to reject “femininity” to be approved?

littlelittle white horse

Like JK Rowling, one of my favourite childhood books was Elizabeth Goudge’s Carnegie-winning Little White Horse (1946). It is the story of Maria Merryweather, orphaned and sent to live with her uncle in the West Country. While there, her nosiness, courage and bossiness lead her to solve a mystery, break a curse and matchmake for her uncle and governess (not with each other). Maria is also fashion conscious- in the opening chapter she consoles herself on the long carriage journey to her unknown uncle by thinking of her favourite green boots. I love that.

The Little White Horse has been reissued in a lovely hardback with the original illustrations. Seek it out for a fashion conscious child who also likes adventures. Or for yourself, if that describes you.