Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony

Think you are open minded? Think again.
No one ever notices how deeply ingrained social conventions and cultural stereotypes are until a bunch of teenage boys and grown men decide to start watching My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic, a show that was, by all accounts, marketed specifically and originally for little girls. Anyone as old as I am, who remembers 80s TV, retained the fact that toys and TV shows bearing the My Little Pony name are nothing new. Everything gets regurgitated, especially by us adults who grew up, became creative, and gravitated into positions to bring new life into these old properties we once loved.
So back in 2010, the new 4th generation of the My Little Pony animated show premiered. According to Wikipedia the show was intended for girls ages 2-11. Then something else happened. Fan appreciation spread quickly, especially appreciation by those who were not the 2-11 year old girls the show was intended for. It is suggested on Wikipedia and elsewhere on the web that a negative article by Amid Amidi, and the reaction to this negativity, may have been the catalyst that started it all. I can easily see this being the case. Over the years I have been witness to so much negativity, haters, negative reviews, and more—especially for pop culture entertainment, where such horrid anger seems so out of place. I myself often wondered what on earth was wrong with people that they would let entertainment, something meant to be escapist fun, get them into such an angry uproar. WTF? Why are so many people so angry, and often about such benign things as entertainment?
So did a group of people sick to death of rampant negativity—specifically My Little Pony negativity—react to and embrace My Little Pony above and beyond the norm? Perhaps at first, but that’s not enough to gain the true momentum the group now has.
I first learned of the “bronies” and the My Little Pony adult fans a few years back and just chuckled. Contemporary culture in the United States has become so fractured now that very few cultural niches, no matter how seemingly outer limits, cause me to raise no more than an eyebrow. Also there is so much media created today that even if you are extremely media hungry, as I often am, there is no way to consume it all.  Finding time to watch My Little Pony and figure out what exactly was the deal with the Brony phenomenon was not something that was even remotely on my radar. Not until the other night. I was flicking through Netflix and I stumbled on the Brony documentary. Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony. I had to see what the deal was. As I started watching the film that lays bare this new culture I became fascinated. I had still not seen a single episode of the TV show. The show obviously has had a massive impact on people way outside what older traditional social conventions seem to suggest should be the show's target demographic, little girls.
Maybe its appeal was because it's ironic to be into something that was clearly not intended for an older, often male audience? People today hate being told what to do so maybe this was some sort of anti-corporate movement meant to confuse market research? I considered those possibilities. Irony is often a huge part of any teen's language. Maybe that was the impetus behind the phenomenon? Still irony can only sustain feigned interest for so long. Bronies clearly are not stoking the My Little Pony fire with irony as its only fuel. True devoted interest and love for the show and culture was obvious just from watching the documentary. I became extremely curious to see at least one episode before the night was up. I continued watching the documentary, glued to my TV, fascinated at the all-inclusive nature of the My Little Pony fans and groups.
All groups are exclusionary to some degree though, even groups that claim they are all inclusive. My Little Pony, no matter how filled with rainbows and friendship and magic will never attract, or appeal to, certain people or personality types. This is the unintended exclusion. Very closed minded people that are deep rooted in traditional gender conventions and stereotypes are likely to never be seen anywhere near a My Little Pony convention. They'd likely not even be taking a cursory glance. I suspect the Brony culture had a sort of emergence, not just via a collective love for the show, but a love for being truly open minded in a way that is so against conservative baby boomer norms that there is no way someone who is very negative might be into My Little Pony. The My Little Pony crowd is not in any danger of attracting negative closed minded people. The show's look and feel and little girl origin is so far away from the orbit of certain people. I am not suggesting this is something that happened consciously within the My Little Pony fan base, but rather as a sort of bottom up inception. I doubt there are going to be any bigoted racists haters found at My Little Pony groups.
Now taste and subjective opinions do count for something. I wanted to see the show firsthand and find out if it could hook me with the pilot episode. I even got my boys to sit and watch with me, explaining to them that they keep an open mind, despite the fact that it was obviously a show originally made for little girls. We watched the pilot episode. It opened with a myth that reminded me a bit of the split from The Dark Crystal and a dark prophecy. The show was very colorful and well animated with gorgeous backgrounds. I saw its roots in anime, Powerpuff Girls, and my son even mentioned a similarity to Dragon Tails. Did the show hook us/me? No. To be fair, one ½ of the 2 part pilot is not enough to truly judge my overall taste. Even favorite shows of mine often took a few episodes or seasons to get up and running. Later on my own I did give it a few more episodes to make sure I was not selling it short. Even though the show and story may not be my exact taste I did not hate the show. I can surely see the appeal and understand passion for pop culture TV shows. Recently I’ve been watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with my youngest son. Aside from just being fun for him, I am very happy that something I'm nostalgic about from my own childhood is something we both now have an appreciation for.
As far as social conventions go, well it’s about time men crossed the line to the pink girl aisle. When my youngest son was about 2 he wanted a pink kitchen set for his room. We suggested a brown kitchen set, not to bang gender conventions into his head, but to save ourselves a trip back to return the thing after I spent all those hours assembling it. We knew he might change his mind after realizing what we already knew—socially pink is typically for girls. Even though we’d never care, make fun, or say it was wrong, we can't control the whole world. He would not take any kitchen set other than pink and we bought it for him. He enjoyed it till he outgrew wanting to play with kitchen toys altogether. The fact that it was pink never entered his mind as being off limits. Now that he is older, has been around other kids at school, he definitely thinks otherwise.
I often hear parents with girls being a bit upset over the continuing Disney
princess/barbie/pink/cutesy rainbow of magic that has permeated girl/kid culture for a long while now. Stereotypes can suck, especially when the cultural conventions forced upon us are so strong we can't easily fight them off. You just don't dress a boy in a bright pink jacket and send him off to school. He might get teased. He might get picked on. Girls might have it a little easier but I do see the universal magnetic forces that usher conformity upon us all running almost as strongly through girls social conventions as they do through boys social conventions. My own son was told by kids at school that the navy pea coat I bought him was a women's coat. This is mostly because 11 year old kids have only been around about 4,000 days and they don't know any better. And they never saw Jack Nicholson wearing one in The Last Detail. And women have also adopted many traditionally male clothing articles over time. Anyone ever see Annie Hall?
The Last Detail
Slowly things might be changing for men. Barriers are being broken down as those with open minds have more influence. Many parents with kids of both sexes are bucking the trends they were raised with. Brony culture, I feel, is more than just the love of a TV show originally intended for girls. It is the rebuilding, or tossing out, of older traditional social conventions. It’s a group for people who are tired of being expected to dress a certain way, act a certain way, like only certain things, and group with others in some specific predetermined fashion. The stories in the show, the friendship mythology it has, and the look and feel of the show itself is spilling out into fans day to day lives. The show is fun and happy, but alone it was not so different from many other kids shows I’ve seen. Personally I like Adventure Time much more. The one aspect about My Little Pony that stood out to me was the communal friendship mythology it has at its core. This all inclusive communal friendship, I believe,  is at the core of the Brony culture too.
I’ve seen at my local gaming store that My Little Pony now has card games. This is just like Pok√©mon, Magic The Gathering, and other physical games where you need to group together in real life with others to play. This is a social thing. No matter what gadget technology throws our way to keep us connected when we are apart, people will still want to gather, have fun, and collectively share appreciation for something they all have in common. Bronies gathering at Bronycon or Brony conventions have become common because isolated appreciation of something by itself is not enough. Even connecting on the internet is not enough. Communal gathering is where it’s all at and what we as a species all desire.
Now there are many who think Bronies are creepy. The documentary itself even talked about this. Why is it OK for girls or women to shun Barbie and princess culture and adopt boy centric things but if boys or men adopt something intended for girls it’s creepy? Girls can play in the mud. Girls can play with G I Joe. Girls can play Dungeons and Dragons. Girls can become marines. But if a boy watches My Little Pony he’s odd. This is simply hypocritical and just not the case.
If you think you boys and men out there are open minded, head over to Netflix and sit down with your sons, your wife, your BFF, or your brother, open up a beer (21 and over please) and watch My Little Pony. I am not guaranteeing you will like the show, but If you can't even bring yourself to watch, or if it seems utterly too crazy to even give it a shot, ask yourself why that is?