When My Little Pony was relaunched in 2010, most everyone in the know (granted, a small group) suspected it would be a success. A bunch of recent studies had shown that young girls preferred ‘social play’, play that mimicked the emotions of interacting with others in a group. For a toy industry with desperately low profit margins this was pure gold. Girls had been heavily targeted in the past – often by coloring boy’s toys pink – but rarely captured for long. The impact of the study was fast and friendly: Dora and Friends. Lego Friends. Disney Fairies. Franchise after franchise scrambled to re-imagine themselves as a community of characters.
My Little Pony:Friendship is Magic had an advantage right out of the gate – their legacy already included themes of loyalty, morality, and friendship. Animation icon Lauren Foust developed a group of characters with complex personalities and quirks. It was a serious improvement over the “prissy blond princess/earnest red-haired nerd/sassy sporty ethnic person” trinity most shows settled for. Her “flash” style of animation provided the visuals, audio came from an exceptionally, almost unnecessarily talented cast of voice actors. The results were good. Really really really good.
We really shouldn’t be surprised that unexpected groups immediately started noticing just how good My Little Pony was. Social Play might be intended to match the learning styles of a 5 year-old girl, but it’s catnip for other folks as well. Like lonely 20-something men. MLP has a writing and animation style that’s more than sophisticated enough for older age-groups, and a theme of caring, understanding, and belonging that’s pure wish fulfillment for the socially awkward.
Even saying the word “Bronies” out loud in the right company can be enough to get a laugh. Really! Try dropping it into conversation tonight when you’re at the bar. If your friends don’t know what a Brony is, explain that these are adult dudes who are really super into a show aimed at little girls. Then watch their noses wrinkle in disgust and their fingers curl . There will be nervous giggling. Ewwwww.
Now, there will never be a great romance movie about zombies. Real zombies, the kind with organs hanging out. But there will always be room for another romance movie about vampires! That’s because, weird though blood sucking might be (mosquitoes aren’t especially debonaire), there’s something very human about using another person’s body to fulfill our appetites. Not so for zombies, based off of humanity’s deep-seated stigmas against rotting corpses and disease! Nothing tips off our “Argh argh argh” response like a sick person touching us, and nothing in the world freaks out our primeval lizard brains like a dead body. After all, whether the cause was berries or a saber-toothed tiger, you might be next!
Like Zombies, Bronies hit at two of our very core taboos as a society: fear of being non-age appropriate, and fear of violating gender norms. It is wired, actually wired into our primeval mammal brains to distrust an adult who behaves “childishly”. Our subconscious asks, what else might be immature about them? When a child behaves inappropriately they can be disciplined (or at worst, out-run), but that same behavior from a full-grown adult might be dangerous. Our brain protects us by providing that creepy feeling. Danger. Get away. Ewww. It is not hard-wired into our heads to fear gender fluidity – lots of cultures have no stigma attached to it at all. But, at least in the U.S., where My Little Pony originates, the cultural norm of “Guys do guy stuff, ladies do lady stuff, mix the two only for laughs” is still going strong.
These are the wrong reasons to hate Bronies. While fear of age-inappropriate behavior is hardwired into our heads, and rightly so, what constitutes age-inappropriate behavior is a cultural construct. There’s no reason that a well-written show, with edgy animation and catchy songs (just try to get “Winter Wrap Up” out of your head) should ring any alarms. And fear of non-traditional gender activities is just plain old dumb. You listen to NPR. You should know better.
So should we all go out and hug a Brony? Well… that’s where it gets a little bit complicated.
Ask any member of a fan group why they do what they do, and you’ll almost always get a canned response. In fact, one of the main purposes of fangroups is to club together against the potential stigmatization of their activities, and find a socially-acceptable face to show the world. Star Trek fan talk about the egalitarian vision and hopefulness embodied in the show. Sexy aliens and shirtless dudes will not come up. Teenage fans of the Twilight novels are likely to go on about the story’s themes of outsider-ism and innocent love. They are less likely to mention the eroticism of the central plot device: two sexy guys fighting it out over a shy wallflower.
Ask Bronies why they love MLP and there are a couple standard responses. “It helps me understand life and relationships better. It makes me a better person.” “The community embodies the values of the show. I have friends now that I couldn’t have otherwise. It’s a safe, accepting place to be me.” And sometimes even, “I really connect with the characters/writing/animation.”
These are the standard self-explanations in any stigmatized fangroup, from Star Wars to 50 Shades of Grey. They’re socially acceptable and, more importantly, logical. And there’s no reason not to believe them! The show certainly encourages this view. It routinely incorporates fan-service into its scripts, from the inclusion of in-jokes, to the creation of entire new fan-generated characters. Sly nods to its more adult audience that the 20-somethings will treasure and the little girls won’t catch.
This is what used to be called “Fandom as utopia“. Insiders think of their fangroups as a refuge away from the cruelty of the world, a place where higher ideals prevail and everyone is free to be themselves. When Bronies talk about the love and kindness in the show, they mean it in earnest. But as Bongwater pointed out in their 1991 Folk Song, “…it’s a lot easier to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior when he looks like Willem DaFoe.” Acting from baser instincts is always simpler when there’s an acceptable veneer on it. By the 1970′s “Fandom as Utopia” had fallen out of academic favor; too much discrepancy had been observed between the idealistic self-explanations fangroups used to defend themselves against ridicule, and the actual behaviors observed within them.
My preferred framework is called “Fandom as societal reconstruction“. The concept goes like this: “I don’t fit into mainstream society. I’m sick of being picked on by the jocks, and I’m never going to date a cheerleader. So I’m going to make a subculture where my differences are prized, and then it will be ME doing the picking on people who don’t fit in! Maybe I’ll even be allowed to date this group’s equivalent of a cheerleader.” Fandom as societal reconstruction means the creation of spaces where there’s a chance to re-align the pecking order around a more accessible set of criteria. It means redefining the caste system, but few would ever consider abolishing it.
Bronies tend to be socially awkward. There is no way around it – the whole purpose of Social Play is to teach those with no experience how to interact in a group, whether you’re 6 or 26. And while the Brony fan object is decidedly feminine, the fanlike activities aren’t – not always. A meetup might just as easily include a spontaneous game of Magic the Gathering, D&D, or swapping porn (equine). These are dudes. Manly dudes. Manly nerdy dudes hanging out with the boys, enjoying a rare feeling of belonging and membership. And even though we all need a place where we can feel like an insider, it’s really easy to project that feeling into finding outsiders to exclude. Brony machismo may be coming from a highly unusual source, but its chest-pounding machismo just the same. Ladyfolks aren’t always welcomed here.
That’s not to say that female fans of MLP don’t exist – there are some girlfriends involved, and there are crafters who create merchandise like stickers and hats and T-shirts. And there are a few really gung-ho fanatics, perhaps realizing they need to doubly prove their commitment. But these are exceptions to the rule – in the 2014 “State of the Herd” Report less than 18% of fans identified as female. A higher percentage show up at conventions (with its safety in numbers and cosplay competitions, which are still female-dominated), a much lower percentage attend local meets, but on average 18% sounds about right. It’s almost exactly the same percentage to the amount of ladies in gaming.
And yes, there’s the usual litany of harassment, rape jokes, threats of violence against whistle-blowers, and all the other stuff we’re used to hearing from, say, the tech community, but not from a fan object that is still technically aimed at prepubescent girls. As one fan put it, it’s tough to remember this is a show about friendship when you’re getting death threats for asking not to be groped.
The issue can best be summed up by a tumblr post, put out after a massive bullying, hacking, and threat campaign Bronies carried out last January against a 17-year-old girl who been critical of MLP porn. The post, by user officialsaionji, read:
“why bronies think people hate them: they watch a TV show marketed at little girls
why people actually hate bronies: they sexualize technicolor horses, they’re misogynistic despite the show’s feminist messages, they harass people, they think “coming out of the stable” is a big deal, rape jokes, they make everything about them, do i even need to go on”
Is this all just a self-defense mechanism from a subculture that’s used to being stigmatized? A wise dude (…my dad) once said we should never read malice where stupidity might suffice. The equivalent to that might be: we shouldn’t assume that Bronies set out to create an uncomfortable environment. It’s just that when people get together with poor social skills, a chip on their shoulder, and that first intoxicating taste of belonging, the results are often the same.
Don’t hate Bronies because they’re bucking (hur hur) gender and age norms. If anything we should be proud that someone is doing it! And the show truly is worth all the fuss. But feel free to judge away when it comes to the real tension in this, and lots of other dude-dominated fandoms. There’s absolutely no reason Bronies should make our lizard hind-brain go “Ewwwww”, but that doesn’t mean it’s always nice