• Editorial: Pathologizing Ponies - How We See Mental Illness

    Disorders on the brain? Have headcanons on which ponies have what diagnosis? I know I sometimes do, but at some point it makes me wonder why.

    Not just our fascination with who can make the craziest face (the answer may shock you) or have the wildest breakdown, but when it comes to real mental illnesses, why do we tend to diagnose the ponies? Does it provide more meaning to these characters or are we trivializing serious topics?

    Come along down the break and let's talk mentally advanced ill cartoons.

    The world of mental disorders in Pony is almost as old as the fandom itself. Cartoony, over-the-top psychosis—like Cupcakes, Lesson Zero crazy Twilight, and this lot—is only the beginning.

    Quite literally, because as the show's moved away from cartoony antics and background jokes with dark implications, we've also grown accustomed to our ponies breaking down. Naturally, the likes of Secrets and Pies won't blow any minds by this point.

    NOTE: This was made a chart a fan made in the early days of the show. This wasn't made for this article and I don't agree with it, to be entirely clear.
    Then there's charts like this, that treat mental illness more like an online personality test that tells you which Hogwarts house you're in. I'm Hufflepuff, by the way.

    When you take a step back, the need to fit every member of the Mane 6 into a box even when they don't exactly fit is odd, don't you think?

    NOTE: Another chart grabbed from Google, made by another fan. Again, I'm explicitly not endorsing it.
    This was a popular way to theorize about mental disorders especially in the fandom's early days, and it honestly gives me the impression that we used psychopathology to legitimize the cartoon for small girls thing.

    Like, yeah okay, I know what it looks like, but trust me, all of them are diagnosable. It's deep, because disorders = complex characters. But that's just the impression I get in hindsight. 

    I'd say we're a little more secure than that 8 years in, but it's definitely not like disorders have fallen out of the way we talk about the horsies.

    Now it comes up most often in the colloquial sense. This is when we somewhat lovingly talk about Rainbow Dash as a narcissist, or when those who have critiques with Starlight's character say she's sociopathic (fun fact #2: antisocial personality disorder is the real disorder the concept of sociopathy is based on).

    A lot of the time, we use disorders as shorthand to get across a point. Sometimes jokingly, sometimes with real critical intent, but either way it's an exaggeration. 

    What I find really interesting is when we mean it.

    This is where it starts to have real meaning to particular fans, but also where it gets into grey areas that are unique from more superficial headcanons.

    On the one hand, giving all the characters a diagnosis based on a few character flaws isn't really accurate to real mental illness. Not only are there specific criteria, but there's a huge difference between a disorder and a character flaw.

    Everyone has flaws, but it becomes a mental disorder when it's persistent and subjectively negatively impacts a person's daily living outside of the typical range (along with, again, a lot of specific criteria). It's arguably trivializing to say a character has depression based on one episode, for example.

    On the other hand, you might personally find a great deal of meaning in a headcanon or theory.

    As I've said, Fluttershy suffering from social anxiety disorder in addition to just being shy is one that has particular meaning to me personally. It's largely because I started watching the show when my own social anxiety developed, so as Fluttershy's overcome the worst of her struggles, so too have I overcome the worst of mine.

    Because I projected onto her, the character is that much more meaningful to me as her growth reflects my own. Now I can look back to where Fluttershy began and it helps me to appreciate my own progress.

    That's not even to mention headcanons that solely deepen the characters. To pull one randomly out of a hat, Maud having autism could explain why she struggles socially and excels in her geology studies, a subject she's practically obsessed with.

    Or, Rainbow Dash having ADHD, which would make Testing, Testing 123 a commentary on how we unfairly expect those with learning disabilities to learn in the classroom the same way their typically developing peers do.

    Not necessarily true to canon, of course, but there's meaning to be made if you look for it.

    Contrast this to something much closer to canon like the impact Midnight Sparkle had on SciTwi, Rainbow losing Tank, or Luna creating the Tantabus. These are all metaphors for mental illness, presented in a way that kids can understand and censors can get behind. 

    It's never explicitly said (even offscreen) that SciTwi has PTSD, Rainbow's going through the 5 stages of grief (not a mental disorder, but fun fact #3 you can currently be diagnosed with clinical depression during a period of grief which is a fascinating debate in and of itself), or that Luna's struggling with depression and self-harm.

    And yet, when these episodes/movies came out, they brought on widespread discussion on how meaningful or not these portrayals were as thinly veiled metaphors. 

    Which is where you can start to compare headcanons to what's considered to be a portrayal. We operate in a fandom where it's unlikely that they'll ever explicitly say x character deals with y, so for the majority of more mature topics, we deal almost exclusively in the realm of fan interpretation.

    Not that headcanons mean the same as representation; I think it's self-evident that representation allows creators to make actual, impactful commentary.

    Ultimately, though, in our fandom you can find your own meaning, and I think therein lies the beauty of the world Friendship is Magic has established. The world-building is often just as much about what isn't there as what is, because the rules they do establish can be used to imagine something even deeper, even more personal, or, even sillier, as the case may be.
    The same is true for how mental illness is treated in the show. It ranges from cartoonish one-off jokes to clear, meaningful metaphors, but the depth of the characters and the world they live in turns those few canon portrayals into permission slips to go hog wild. To find what speaks to you and to what depth you want to explore it in.

    I think that's why we tend to think "everypony in this town is crazy," in whatever way that means to us. We have such a wide variety of ways to talk about it and relate to it.

    We can use dark humour, brutally real fanfiction, headcanons that deepen the characters, and canon itself.

    In short, giving ponies mental disorders makes it feel normal. And when it comes to mental illness, few things mean more than an ability to understand and be understood.
    If you're struggling right now, the cliche is true: you're not alone. Find support from a mental health professional near you, when possible.
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