I'll admit it: I love My Little Pony. I watch it religiously every week, partly because my 5-year-old self still squees at the idea of those brightly coloured ponies, but mostly because it is an incredibly enjoyable, well-made show. It also happens to be a bit of a dream for every gender-studies, little-girls-deserve-good-television bone in my grown up body. My Little Pony is a witty, entertaining cartoon about the troubles and joys of friendship and of trying to find your place as you grow up. Also, it's about ponies. The show was created by Lauren Faust, who previously worked on The Powerpuff Girls, and it breaks all kinds of cartoony trends, by being entirely about female characters. Well-rounded, interesting individuals, who just happen to be female (and ponies).
Female characters, particularly in children's shows, typically fall into one of two categories. Either they're "the girl," with Smurfette-esque blonde hair and a love of all things pink, or, almost in reaction to this, they're "the tomboy," a bad-ass girl who likes "boy" things, like adventuring and fighting, and who hates all things traditionally girly, including girly-girls themselves. There's nothing wrong with a girl being either of these things, but when they are the only character types on offer, a disturbing message begins to appear. The first type marks girls as "others," who engage in activities completely different from the rest of the (male) cast, while the second only underlines the idea that "girly" things are inferior, and that girls can only be awesome by separating themselves from these ideas and becoming stereotypically boyish instead. Unpleasant ideas to see at any age, but particularly for young girls, who are beginning to form their sense of their place in the world.
My Little Pony turns all of this on its head by presenting a world where female is the norm. That's not to say that there are no male characters - one of the main characters is a male dragon called Spike, we see the characters' male relatives, and many one off or background characters are boys or men. But most of our protagonists are girls, and secondary characters in many positions of power, including the town mayor and the land's rulers, are female. The result is a show where a girl's worth is default, and where a female character be pretty much whoever she wants. And this includes both adhering to and breaking ideas of typically "girly" interests, because girls can both fit and differ from stereotype in a myriad of ways and still be complete, valuable people.
So we have Twilight Sparkle, the protagonist pony reminiscent of Hermione Granger. She is a bit of a prodigy when it comes to magic, and she spends all her time studying, until the Princess insists that she head out into the world and learn some social skills as well, because, as the title suggests, friendships are important too. She lives in a library, is a perfectionist, and despite her occasional insecurities, she never shows the slightest embarrassment or receives any resentment over the fact that she is the cleverest (at least in book-learning terms) of any character we see.
Rainbow Dash, meanwhile, is a tomboy pony, who wants to be a flying sports star and be more than a little reckless when it comes to developing her latest tricks. She is also responsible for keeping the skies over Ponyville clear of clouds, and she is extremely talented at her job.
Rarity is a fashionista who runs her own fashion business and dreams of being a world-famous designer. Fluttershy is a quiet, shy pony who loves animals and nature and is incredibly protective of her friends, while Applejack is a hardworking and loyal pony who runs her family's apple farm. And finally Pinkie Pie, the most "cartoonish" of the characters, works in a bakery and loves throwing extravagant parties for her friends.
These characters are all different, and yet we never once get any sense that any of their personalities are "lesser" or "more feminine." They never take a backseat in the action. And, despite their differences, they are all friends. They have their problems, but they are self-sufficient, strong, varied individuals who respect and care about one another, and, perhaps more importantly, respect and care about themselves.
And while doing all these wonderful things, My Little Pony has also managed to disprove the oft-heard "truth" in media that boys are not interested in female characters or "girly" things. That male is neutral, but female is for girls only, and so, to be commercially viable, children's media must focus on boy characters and "boy" troubles. Yet this show is massively popular with the "bronies," a large group of adult males who passionately follow the show. It even became popular with the 4chan crowd!
And that, I think, is the greatest gift of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. It proves that male viewers can be interested in shows built around female characters, as long as the writing is good, which includes presenting fully developed, varied individual characters, engaged in interesting plots. No one, male or female, is interested in watching a television show about a cipher or a walking stereotype. But everyone deserves to see a range of female characters allowed to engage with their world, and with themselves, as fully and enthusiastically as any male character might do.