Being someone who’s been known to fuck around with gender a little bit myself, I’m always excited when I see new groups of people who are trying to take our stereotypical understandings of masculine and feminine and mess them up a bit. And things have certainly gotten messy with a new group that has emerged in contemporary fandom. They are men, primarily self-identified as heterosexual, who are eschewing the butch realness of traditional masculinity in favor of a world of friendship and caring that is populated with dancing, prancing purveyors of happiness and joy, meting out friendship lessons with a healthy dose of Technicolor animation and cutesy songs. They are the Bronies.
As a child of the 80s, I am very familiar with My Little Pony, at least the first generation of the franchise. You’d better believe my little gay ass was hauling around more than a few ponies in a vintage blue Samsonite suitcase for most of my 6th and 7th years of life; to further cement my budding homosexuality, I went to the My Little Pony movie in the theater. With my grandmother. But the newer iterations of the franchise have pretty much flown under my radar. I dismissed anything I did see, assuming it was another terrible revamp of a beloved 80s icon (Care Bears and Strawberry Shortcake have already been horribly mishandled) and just assumed it would fade away. But then I started hearing about the Bronies.
Without knowing anything about it, I assumed it was something where men were using the images of the ponies ironically or creating something new (and probably twisted) out of the iconography. But no: the Bronies are just fans of the show. Whether they like the animation or the stories or the music, or some combination of the three, they are just fans of the show and characters. This is where my fascination kicks in.
Our culture isn’t exactly kind to the feminine spirit. When men, especially heterosexual men, embrace something that is coded as feminine, problems ensue. This is not strange territory for me: I’m a 7-foot drag queen after all. Part of what attracts me to drag is that I feel a different sort of power in playing in “forbidden” territory. I can do and say things in my feminine persona that I couldn’t do or say when I’m “out of uniform” because drag places me in the category of outlaw, and being an outlaw, despite whatever other limitations might come along with it, tends to free you from certain boundaries and restrictions. It’s all very Foucauldian; so too with the Bronies.
There is something odd and wonderful about a grown man idolizing a small herd of pastel ponies who romp and frolic and sing about the values of friendship and caring. It’s the kind of thing we feed to little girls all the time; after all, our culture says that little girls (and as they grow up, women) are supposed to be the ones who worry about friendships, who nurture, who care. Boys and men are supposed to be rugged and active, their friendships are supposed to be activity-oriented, and emotional sharing is allowed only in certain circumstances and under very specific conditions. To think that teenage boys and men of all ages would be drawn to a child’s cartoon aimed at little girls is fascinating and perplexing, and just so deliciously queer.
Just the other day I ran across a documentary on Netflix (if you missed my blog about my sometimes troubled relationship with Netflix, you can catch up with it HERE) and I knew I had to watch it. Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony by Laurent Malaquais follows several young men, detailing their interest in the new generation of My Little Pony, how they first came in contact with it, what they like about it, and more. The film also features many of the primary subjects attending their first MLP fan gathering, including the largest event of its kind, Bronycon. These events are like any fan gathering, with vendor booths, cosplay, and panels featuring stars and creators of the show. There are tons of goodies to pick up; one of the featured characters and his girlfriend make and sell pony merchandise at European MLP gatherings (Yes, there are female Bronies too, though some of them prefer to go by the term “Pegasister”). The two actually met through a MLP gathering, and by the end of the documentary had gotten engaged. On the other side, the documentary also follows voice actors Tara Strong and John de Lancie (perhaps better known to nerds everywhere as Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation) who voice Twilight Sparkle and the villain Discord respectively, as well as the creator of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Lauren Faust who appears as surprised as anyone by the fandom that has sprung up around the cartoon she created.
The documentary has received some criticisms, including that it doesn’t spend enough time focusing on the female fans of the show and that it doesn’t include enough voices of dissent from people who are critical of the Brony fandom. But to level these criticisms, to me, seems to miss the point: there is less focus on the female fans because for women to embrace something feminine isn’t exactly newsworthy. Yes, it is interesting that so many adults in general have come to appreciate a children’s show, but the number of men who have embraced it and their reasons for doing so are at the heart of what makes this fandom so interesting. And what could be gained by including more voices of dissent? All it would do is give yet another forum to people who want to enforce traditional gender stereotypes and say that it isn’t appropriate for men to be vulnerable, to embrace their emotions. If there were some compelling argument for why men shouldn’t be drawn to this fan community, it might have relevance, but as I perused the internet looking for criticisms of the Bronies, what I found was all too predictable: people using sexist and homophobic slurs, calling the Bronies “pussies” and “faggots” because of the feminine associations of the show. Is this the “perspective” these critics believe should have been included in the documentary? I found it much more effective that instead of this barrage of negativity, they chose instead to include the story of a Brony and his father, a conservative “good ol’ boy” who decides to attend Bronycon with his son to see what this obsession is all about. You can see his discomfort, much of which is probably predicated on the sexism and homophobia already mentioned in relation to men and boys who embrace anything feminine. He’s the kind of guy who probably wouldn’t think twice if his son spent all day playing Grand Theft Auto running down hookers. Through his experience at Bronycon and meeting the father of another teenage fan, this man comes to an uneasy peace with his son’s interests. He doesn’t leave a Brony by any means, but he has more understanding of what his son might see in a show like this. And the fan base is more diverse than you might think. Another interesting scene from the documentary takes place at a special Bronycon event: a breakfast for Bronies who are also members of the military. The room is filled with clean-cut young men, some of them in uniform; it’s the kind of scene you’d expect to find brimming with crude jokes, catcalls, and other stereotypical behavior of butch young men in groups. Instead, the men express their feelings of isolation, not able to tell many of their friends and coworkers about their interest for fear of backlash, and their excitement at finding other service members who share their passions. Yes, some Bronies themselves have criticized the documentary for focusing on members of the fandom who have received negative responses to their appreciation of the show, their argument being that they have shared their love of MLP without any negative backlash from family or friends. But one would hope that these fan critics would have enough reflexiveness to realize that their experiences are probably atypical, that showing appreciation for anything deemed feminine in our culture is not typically treated with much respect or understanding. (This is not to say that the fandom should be free from criticism; for an alternative viewpoint, here’s an interesting link that you may enjoy as well: http://fusion.net/culture/story/brony-documentary-draws-criticism-male-female-fans-7687)
However you may feel about the Bronies and their love of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, one thing is clear: these adult fans, especially the men, are upsetting traditional understandings of masculine behaviors and are part of a larger cultural tension about the types of roles that are appropriate to men. We need more things like this to fuck up our crazy restrictive gender boundaries, and more people who are willing to say that the way things are isn’t necessarily the way things should be. I think the Bronies are an important part of a larger change in our culture that, more than ever before in recent history, is allowing more people to find their inner freak and expand the boundaries of queerness. And that sort of gender-bending goodness really is magic.
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