Believe it or not, liking My Little Pony is effectively fighting the man, brah.
Fandoms can be messy. More than one person has told me that they’ve been turned off of Dr. Who by the show’s rabid fans. The fact that some Supernatural enthusiasts not only believe the two main characters (who are brothers) are in a relationship, but that the actors that play them are as well unsettles me. But if there’s one fandom that attracts ire like no other, it’s male fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic— the brony.
Admitting to being a brony is asking to be made fun of. It’s accepting association with creepy fan artists on Deviant Art and the guys who send cease-and-desist letters to these artists because they think they’re actually married to lead character Twilight Sparkle.
And yet…confession…I’ve watched all 65 episodes of the series and will admit it happily when asked.
But before I tell you why that’s ok, some background for those unaware of the brony brethren. Animator and writer Lauren Faust, formerly of The Powerpuff Girls and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, approached Hasbro about a separate animated show concept, with the hope of creating a cartoon for little girls. She was tired of youth programming focusing on boys and wanted to show that a show aimed for girls could be successful. Hasbro Studies managed to convince her to take a look at the MLP line and come up with a new direction for the brand. Faust, who was at first hesitant, later decided that the show could be an opportunity to show that, in her own words, “cartoons for girls don’t have to be a puddle of smooshy, cutesy-wootsy, goody-two-shoeness.” She chose to focus on episodic adventures while also instilling a message about the importance and value of friendship.
The presence of a high-profile animator like Faust, an Emmy-award winning “Powerpuff Girls” alum, attracted significant attention to the new MLP—and not always the positive variety. An early review of the show pegged her involvement specifically as “the end of creator driven animation” in favor of cash cow franchises. The review’s alarmist tone attracted the attention of posters on the website (and place where dignity goes to die)— 4chan. Many male members of the site responded positively to the MLP reboot, praising the characters and animation style, all while constantly protesting that they were watching it ‘ironically.’
Eventually, the MLP love spread beyond 4chan. Soon, the show became popular enough to inspire entire MLP fansites, followed closely by a host of conventions as the fandom began to swell. And as the number of devotees multiplied, so did the people who genuinely enjoyed the show— until those watching ‘un-ironically’ outnumbered those watching ‘ironically.’
One unexpected population of the fanbase was high school and college aged males. A study conducted by one brony which received 9,000 responses showed 85.71 percent were male, 89 percent were between 15 and 29, and 96 percent have never been married. Now, this survey should be taken with a grain of salt considering who is most likely to respond and fill these out, but the overwhelming male response is still surprising. Almost as surprising is the fact that one fan conducted a survey and wrote a 90-page report on the subject, but fans sometimes do crazy things. Other bronies have analyzed the show’s magic system or how the weather in Equestria works, or the implications of a quadruped society emulating humans. Some of these topics speak more to having too much free time than scholarly discussion. But others are surprisingly enjoyable and interesting reads, and no different from the manisfestos penned by Batman or James Bond fans.
The only difference is that all of the main characters are ponies and the target audience is girls.
As for the show itself, it tells the story of Twilight Sparkle who is sent to the town of Ponyville under orders from her mentor, Princess Celestia. Hilarity and a heart-warming adventure ensue and Twilight decides to settle down in Ponyville and explore “the magic of friendship” with a host of pony pals.
But beyond that generic synopsis, the show has a charm to it unlike many other cartoons. The characters are originally created in broad strokes using girlish archetypes like the bookworm or waif or girly girl, allowing for a broad appeal while the characters develop over the course of the show. References to X-Men, 2001: A Space Odyssey, I Love Lucy, and The Big Lebowski pepper the show. One episode features a group of villains calling themselves the Diamond Dogs. References like this started as a nod to parents who watched with their kids, but over the course of the series these jokes came in broader strokes, become an essential comedic underpinning in the MLP universe.
Had you told me a year ago that I would not only like, but seriously enjoy, a “My Little Pony” cartoon, I’d probably think you were crazy. But yet here I am, the whole man of me, curled up to watch an hour or two of pony-driven plotline. To me, MLP offers a respite from the grim and dark atmosphere of other shows I watch. At the end of every episode, I’m pretty much guaranteed that the main characters will be okay and will have learned a lesson about friendship. It’s not complicated, but it doesn’t need to be. Not all television shows need to be groundbreaking and weighty. Some, like MLP, can simply be clever and light.
But what about that legion of true bronies, the ones who think a whole lot more of MLP than just a cutesy diversion? It’s unfair to judge a whole group based on the (admittedly very bizarre and unsettling) actions of a few. Media attention on the brony culture has been decidedly negative, and in extreme cases has included accusations of pedophilia and immaturity. Others, though, have pointed out the obvious—that discomfort with the fandom comes from it differing from the conventional idea of what a male is supposed to like and that admitting to being a brony is rebelling against gender norms. Watching and enjoying a little girls’ cartoon challenges the media’s preconceived notions of masculinity.
Believe it or not, liking “My Little Pony” is effectively fighting The Man.
Not only do bronies rebel against heteronormative authority by watching the show (which sometimes means making creepy fan art that inspires even creepier responses), but they have also done admirable work beyond its half-hour span. Last November, bronies established the Brony Thank You Fund to raise money to create an ad to air on the show’s network, the Hub, as a thanks to the creators. They far exceeded their goal and excess funds were donated to Toys for Tots. The fund has since gone on to be incorporated in New Hampshire and is registered as a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization under U.S. law. Another group of fans have run blood drives and raised $60,000 in 2012 for charities like Children’s Cancer Association. MLP devotees also helped voice actress Tara Strong raise money for a fund to help the daughter of a close friend of hers battle a brain tumor. Further donations by self-proclaimed brony groups have gone to Child’s Play, the American Red Cross, and the Wildlife Learning Center in California.
I’m proud to be among these fans. More importantly, I’d ask why we keep shaming people for liking anything, forcing them to cloak everything odd or non-expected in a cloak of general irony. How boring, dude. Sure, I’m uncomfortable with some bronies, but the weirdest people like some of the greatest things. Maybe some of the guys underneath those neckbeards and fedoras are more of a man than I’ll ever be.
Also, Pinkie Pie forever. Accept no alternatives.
Photo AP, Mel Evans