I don’t do much (or anything) to hide the fact that I like cartoons. Obviously, there are some very good cartoons for adults, like Bob’s Burgers, Archer, and Futurama, and it’s perfectly acceptable for adults to like those (and I do). I also like animated fare aimed at less mature audiences but that still give a wink to older viewers (Johnny Bravo, Angela Anaconda). And I do have fond memories of the cartoons I loved as a kid (Thundercats, Jem) including some very entertaining animated series based on toys (like Teddy Ruxpin, which was amazing).
So I wasn’t all that surprised to find that I enjoy watching the occasional episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (a reboot of an 80s cartoon based on the Hasbro toys) on Netflix. However, the reason I checked out the show in the first place is that I was curious about another group of adult (and teenage) viewers I had heard about, viewers who not only like MLP:FIM, but who LOVE it to the point of full-blown fandom. I was curious because this group of adult super-fans is comprised primarily of men.
They call themselves “Bronies”, and they are the unexpected demographic whose devotion to My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has created internet forums, merchandise, music, fan fiction/fan art, and major conventions (including BronyCon in the U.S., which draws thousands of Bronies each year). And I think that’s awesome.
Before I continue I should probably admit that when I first heard about Bronies I was confused and suspicious. Why would a group of grown men be obsessed with a show for little girls? I wondered. Is it some weird sex thing? Are they trying to socialize with children? What’s the deal here? I pictured an inappropriate presence of creepy old men crashing Pony events aimed at children. What I didn’t realize at the time is that Bronies have no interest in creeping on your little girl. They like the show for its own sake and have built communities of like-minded fans based around the show’s colourful animation and its core tenets of friendship, inclusion, and kindness. What’s not to like?
If you’re Fox News, you might concede that at least being a Brony is better than being a terrorist, and of course those who subscribe to outdated and restrictively macho gender roles will certainly think Bronies are an affront to “the way things should be”, but for the rest of us, Bronies are a subject usually treated with bewilderment and amusement, maybe even curiosity.
If you’re like me, curiosity eventually won out and I’ve not only watched a few episodes of the show to see what all the fuss was about, I’ve also watched the Kickstarter-funded documentary Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony, which is available on Netflix. Though the documentary has been criticized by some Bronies for presenting a very narrow picture of the Brony culture, and by members of MLP:FIM‘s female fan subculture (sometimes called Pegasisters), for almost completely ignoring women’s contribution to the MLP:FIM fan community, TC and I still found it completely fascinating. Not being very familiar with other established fan cultures either (like Trekkies or Whovians), I find the level of commitment that would lead fans to shell out hundreds of dollars to attend conferences, etc. intriguing enough. The fact that most of the fans interviewed were male and were so into a show that is so outside of what we consider to be in the range of “normal” interests for men is, to me, incredibly interesting and kind of amazing.
Lauren Faust, creator of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, said in an interview that although she certainly did not expect Brony fandom when she conceived the show, she welcomes their support, and sees the interest taken by adults and men in the MLP as an affirmation that shows which are considered to be for “little girls” can be good and do have cultural value. It’s worth taking into account that Hollywood has been banking on and promoting our interest in “boy” cultural products for a long time–just look at the millions of dollars spent (and made) on blockbusters like the Transformers and G.I. Joe franchises. When it comes to Hollywood’s treatment of cultural products aimed at girls, their efforts are usually constrained to flimsy, hyper-sexualized fare like the Twilight saga or the underwhelming film version of Josie and the Pussycats (IMDB gives the film 5.3 stars out of 10 and includes trivia tidbits like, “Melody is never in the actual movie seen in a full shirt, i.e. a full neckline and sleeves. The only time she is seen in a real shirt is during flashbacks in the “Three Small Words” music sequence.”).
Though critics of the Bronies documentary are quick to point out that not all Bronies have faced persecution for their fandom (as opposed to the film’s portrayal, which treats being a Brony almost on par with being homosexual, following the stories of young men who have had to “come out” as Bronies to their confused families), the backlash some Bronies do face gives me pause. Why, when we splash “boy toys” all over the big screen, blowing up vehicles and buildings and killing people/monsters/evil robots, is it considered fun for the whole family (or for date night), while magical animated ponies, whose dearest ambition is to take care of each other and their community, are only meant “for girls”?
While I am certainly not qualified to discuss Brony culture, the contempt, confusion, and derision I have come across even while I discuss Bronies in my personal life makes me question, yet again, the values we hold as normal. Why are violence, cruelty, and misogyny the norm in our cultural products? Why can’t we see values like friendship, hard work, and kindness worthy of our energy?
And even if you don’t like My Little Pony (and it’s certainly not my favourite cartoon), what the hell do you care what gender or age its fans are?