Welcome to the first in an occasional series by guest blogger, Sarah Sechan, who will be applying strong magnification and good humor to gender issues in popular culture. In the coming weeks, Sarah will take us to some of the more remote corners of the culture, exploring some surprising developments in mass media, fandom, and self-presentation. In her first post, below, she considers the phenomenon of “bronies,” adult (mostly male) fans of a new My Little Pony cartoon, originally created for little girls.
Don’t Tase Me, Bro(ny)!
When I first suggested writing a blog series about gender in pop culture, Beth Cooper Benjamin, Ma’yan’s Director of Research, asked me, “Have you heard about bronies?” I had not, but after a quick Google search I was both hooked and perplexed, and you should be, too.
Bronies (bro ponies) are adult fans of the children’s television show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (MLP:FiM), the rebranding of the popular 1980s toys and television show. Bronies have created online communities dedicated to the show that feature everything from episode recaps and interviews to merchandise and fan-created art and stories. In addition to their remarkable online presence, bronies also interact in real life and have created regional brony Meetup Groups.
Although show creator Lauren Faust—who was also the writer and storyboard artist for popular Cartoon Network show The Powerpuff Girls, which aired in the late 1990s and early 2000s—did not anticipate attracting such a large following from this demographic, she has embraced her brony fans. In addition to publically thanking bronies for their avid support after the first season concluded, Faust turned a cross-eyed pony (the result of an animation glitch) present in the pilot episode into a recurring background character for fans to identify, Where’s Waldo-style.
Admittedly, the first time that I heard about bronies, I laughed. In fact, it took me over a week to successfully say the word “brony” with a straight face. I simply had no idea why adults would be so profoundly interested in this cartoon which—from an outsider’s perspective—appears to be cutesy and simplistic, albeit well-drawn, let alone publically proclaim their devotion and build a sophisticated social network dedicated to the show.
When I began reading about bronies, I was under the impression that they were all men. Given that they are called bronies, this made sense. Although I did not understand the appeal of MLP:FiM, I did applaud bronies for subverting gender stereotypes and having the courage to—often literally—wear their fandom on their sleeve. However, additional reading led me to discover that brony is actually a gender-neutral term: adult women who are fans of MLP:FiM are also considered bronies. Despite this revelation, when I hear “bronies” I immediately picture unattractive, socially awkward men. I feel guilty, because I am aware that this association is a blatant stereotype and reeks of gender-based discrimination. Why should bronies be denied their hobby, just because My Little Pony was initially marketed solely to seven-year-old girls? Furthermore, who am I, a recent college graduate who just attended the midnight premier of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 in costume, to judge a group of people for their devotion to a franchise? As someone who proudly identifies as a nerd, mocking bronies somehow feels very, very wrong.
This guilt drove me to question: Why exactly did bronies rub me the wrong way? It wasn’t the focus of their fandom that irked me. Sure, I might not be interested in My Little Pony (I’m just not a horse person), but to each their own, right? Rather, I decided that it was the fact that bronies’ over-earnest obsession was, well, childish. I almost expected to walk into a brony’s room (male or female) and see it plastered with MLP:FiM posters, bedspread, toys—the works. Rather than an adult with a nostalgia-based interest, it felt as if bronies were actually children, not grown men and women. In short, bronies were self-infantilizing; they were not behaving like children per se, but were consciously adopting characteristics—in this case enthusiastic obsession with kiddie cartoons—which are only socially acceptable in children. If a brony was eight- to twelve-years-old, we would chuckle, say that they were going through a phase, and go on with our lives.
The main difference between my interest in Harry Potter and a similarly-aged brony’s interest in MLP:FiM—and the primary reason that I think my interest is considered (somewhat) more socially acceptable and I am able to write this brony critique—is that I grew up with the Harry Potter franchise: I was in fourth grade when the first book was published, and the last movie has arrived in theaters on the heels of my college graduation. In contrast, My Little Pony is undergoing a sort of cultural rebirth. While some bronies may have been My Little Pony fans as children, the original toys and television series, which were popular in the mid-eighties and -nineties, predate many bronies, some of whom are in their late teens/early twenties. As a result, bronies are by and large not synchronous with the My Little Pony fans of yesteryear; they are newcomers to the series.
My brony assessment can be summed up by a single sentence on the bronies’ online clubhouse, Equestria Daily. In a recent news roundup, under a picture of Pinky Pie, one of the characters on MLP:FiM, it says, “Pinkie Pie is pretty under-appreciated. I think out of all the ponies, her psychological state is probably the most fascinating.” While I do respect bronies’ right to pursue their interest, I refuse on principle to take a group of adults seriously when they are ruminating on the psychological state of an animated, magical pink pony. Sure, everyone is entitled to their own interests, but I can’t help but question bronies’ judgment and taste levels. This, coupled with the use of horse lingo (referring to bronies’ hooves and manes instead of feet and hair; “everypony” is frequently used as a substitute for “everybody”), alienates bronies from their peers. While bronies do embody the Ma’yan platform of embracing varied gender performance and we as an organization wholeheartedly support their right to “keep on keeping on,” I personally draw the line at over-ponying. Because—really? Analyzing a fictional pony’s psychological state is absolutely absurd. While I will fight for bronies’ right to rally around their ponies, this does not mean that I would want one to decorate my room or plan my next party.
At the same time, I am aware that my interest in Harry Potter could be construed as such by others. This thought is somewhat sobering…at least for a few minutes, until a new brony article makes me chuckle. Then, the process repeats.
Sarah Sechan is Ma’yan’s Office Assistant and former CLIP Intern. She is a recent graduate of Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary.