The 1980s. The decade that gave me ten years of bad perms and MC Hammer pants also taught me to fear the secret lives of men. As kids we were warned to avoid a host of stranger dangers—windowless vans, men in trench coats who might show us their bits and bites in parks. I learned nefarious men were out to get me and nowhere was safe.
The toys we played with centered around male heroes who could fight the evils of these bad men. Hulk Hogan wrestled his way past the Iron Sheik; Optimus Prime battled with Megatron; He-Man triumphed over Skeletor. Heroes were loners who didn’t need friends, their manliness busting out of their chestplates and tank tops. Little boys learned how to be men from these figures, and little girls learned how to let boys do just that. I was given girl toys in hopes they would help me develop a maternal side, their adorableness a healing salve to my tomboy ways.
I got my first My Little Pony in third grade. I’m not sure if it was the long coarse mane and the free comb accessory, or if it was that faint perfumed smell of vanilla, but every girl I knew had, needed, or begged for these pink, yellow, green, blue, and lavender ponies. Even I did. Though the toy made no sense to me, I knew I’d better have one. A murder of us girls would herd over to each other’s houses with our pony gear, dragging our plastic bags, laundry baskets, or, if we were in the process of being bought-off by divorcing parents, our limited edition My Little Pony carrying cases. I can’t remember what playing pony meant, but there was a lot of brushing, braiding and bickering over who got to play with the pink one. While all the ponies cost the same amount of money, we simply knew pink ponies were tops and green ponies were bottoms, sucking on mediocrity like sugar cubes. Their currency in cuteness shaped how we saw ourselves as little girls.
Recently, I saw a My Little Pony in an indie comic store in Chinatown. As part of a trend to revamp toys and cartoons from the 1980s, the comic store had a few pony figurines alongside an entire shelf of the new My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic cartoon series comics.
“Would these be a good introduction to comics for a little girl?” I asked the broken-hipster in skinny jeans behind the cash.
“Honestly,” the guy seller said, “the only people who ever buy those comics are men.”
Lauren Faust, of The Powerpuff Girls fame, debuted her freshly imagined version of My Little Pony on October 10, 2010 in an attempt to design an empowering show for little girls in a world of male-dominated cartoons. The cartoon focuses on the lives of six young, female ponies: the introverted Twilight Sparkle, the brash Rainbow Dash, the cowardly Fluttershy, the steadfast Applejack, the fashionista Rarity, and Pinkie Pie, the pink one. In each episode the ponies use their friendship power to fight villains that threaten their home in Ponyville and by the episode’s end friendships are strengthened and celebrated—usually through an annoyingly addictive musical number. And that’s really it for the show’s complexity. But to the shock of network executives and Faust herself, it wasn’t an audience of little girls who were in love with the show, but men who called themselves Bronies.
Born out of an online debate over hack animation when writer Amid Amidi accused My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic of being nothing more than an “extended toy commercial”, an unprecedented number of men piped up in defense of the ponies. A virtual coming out of the stable occurred. Comment after comment revealed confessions from guys who admitted to loving a show for little girls. Overnight, the Brony subculture was born. Today, with over 10,000,000 online followers and thousands of active Brony fan sites, Brony movies, YouTube channels, conventions, and charities, Bronies are king. As Lauren Rae Orsini explains, “somebody tweets the hashtag #brony on average every ten minutes.” Comic shops sell out of Brony T-shirts and plushies faster than they can get them in, while Spiderman, Batman, and Superman, once the reason these stores thrived, are shoved into front window displays alongside the ponies in hopes someone will remember their cache. As one reluctant storeowner admitted to me, “the fact the Bronies around here will buy the pinkest pony stuff I have sometimes pays my rent.”
Bronies are easy to joke about. No matter how open-minded you are, it’s hard not to wonder why grown men are drawn to a show for little girls. A beer-bellied, bearded man wearing a Pinkie Pie costume on the subway in a society that sees Duck Dynasty as a national treasure becomes a big furry fish in a tiny barrel. And there are a lot of cartoons out there that are marketed to and enjoyed openly by adults. I’m thinking of Archer, Bob’s Burgers or The Venture Bros. They’re funny and watchable and yet none of these shows have tempted the man fandom that My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has. So what is it? What is it about this cartoon that is so compelling to grown men?
According to the “Brony Study, 2014,” men watch this show for three key reasons: to become a part of the Brony community, to escape the realities of real life, and to learn about the importance of strong friendships. As one Brony states: “I’ve learned more about being a decent human being from a bunch of colorful ponies with tramp stamps than I did from existing for 18 years.” Another key reason is that My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic offers happiness. In quaint Ponyville, everyone cares. Even the villains deeply care about being villains. No birthday is forgotten, no pony is without a home, there isn’t an unemployment line or a domestic abuse pony. There are no Pony AA meetings and no pony dies of cancer. Bronies drink this happiness up like water in a desert and even though it’s only a cartoon, they don’t care. The genuine kindness in Ponyville makes our disingenuous real world seem horrific. As a Brony puts it:
Real life is shit. Ponies have none of that. It is an escape from the grim realities of the real world. Its bright and colorful world is full of well-written and charming characters, that will nearly always bring a smile to your face.
Being a Brony is easy (you simply call yourself one) but the abuse you might suffer from the outside world for being a man who likes My Little Pony is another issue altogether. There are almost as many Brony-hater Internet forums, YouTube videos, and sites as there are Bronies themselves. From hashtags on Twitter (#antibrony) to entire online channels dedicated to hating Bronies, thousands of groups have been formed to break Brony hearts. Accused of everything from being failed men to monstrous pedophiles, to the average anti-Brony, Bronies are stunted, weak man-children who are a perverse danger to us all. These critics are quick to attack the manliness of the Brony, too easily equating being a Brony with being a homosexual. Even though only 3% of the Brony fandom actually identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans* and although the overwhelming majority of Bronies are heterosexual men (97%), anti-Bronies are not interested in these facts. To them, Bronies are not real men. They are, as christwire.org puts it, “gay freaks” and “pink wearing, butt slapping sodomites” at war with God. Sadly, Bronies have been left to defend themselves by denying being gay, as though being homosexual were anything at all to be ashamed of.
The media likes to suggest that the Brony is a man whose masculinity has gone missing. In a recent online forum about Brony bullying, Russ Ward, a concerned father who wants the boys at his son’s school to be told not to wear My Little Pony apparel, states: “the #1 problem with our society is the pussification of men.”
To many, the Brony embodies a spoiled or wasted man. “Friendship is Tragic” is an example of a popular anti-Brony video that was posted by collegehumor.com on February 28, 2012. The short cartoon opens to ponies Pinkie Pie and Twilight Sparkle excited they have a new home with a little girl who will play with them and brush their hair. But when they hear a male voice singing the My Little Pony theme song they yell, “oh no… Brony! We didn’t get a little girl at all, we got an emotionally stunted old man.” The man in question then suggests that he is going to use the pony toys for sexual purposes. This parody got over 4 million views on YouTube, which shows how popular sexualizing the Brony has become.
To be sure, if you’re looking for the seedy underbelly of all things My Little Pony, you will find it online. There are hosts of “pony porn” sites that get a lot of viewers. The same is true of any popular cartoon character. I even found an incredibly inventive video that somehow made the Kool-Aid Jug perverse—I’ll never drink cherry Kool-Aid again. The Bronies I know only ask that you follow Rule 34 of the Internet—if it exists, there’s porn of it—and not judge the whole identity on the actions of a few.
I think the stories we tell about the toys of our childhoods reveal more about the fragility of gender identities than any family photo might. As children, our toys travel with us through our messiest and snottiest experiences. They also serve to reflect the social moment we are trying to grow up in. My pink My Little Pony (not my mom, or dad, or friends) witnessed my tears and shame around not being “girl” enough. And this same pink pony sat on my shelf untouched until I had to play outside, reminding me every day that out there, in the world, I had to become a good girl who liked ponies.
Around me, little boys internalized the stock image of the masculine hero who fights and pounds his way into manhood, through the toys they were gifted. Little girls learned to cook these boys their just desserts with Easy Bake Ovens. Each of these directives were driven by societal need for a masculinity that our culture could depend upon. Adults wanted military leaders and CIA operatives. Men needed wives and good mothers to raise strong sons. Our society wanted to feel protected in an unprotected world where everything was leaking and bleeding and felt unsafe. But after playtime was over, we kids were raised to forget about our toys, enroute to becoming serious grownups.
Today, largely by chance, a television show that was created to empower a new generation of young girls has become a beacon of strength for a community of grown men. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has enabled a formidable shift in the way we understand masculinity. Maria Bustillos recently argued that the bond between Bronies conjures in her the image of “twenty-somethings with the simple, unaffected friendship of 5 year-olds.” I wonder though if there is something more to this Brony phenomenon than offering these men a trip back to the childish friendships of yesteryear. It is true that as adults, Bronies have reclaimed the necessity of play; they see the value of maintaining an imaginative internal life. Their genuine, non-ironic love of this show and the friendships that they have built because of it might seem childlike on the surface, just as children playing with dolls and action figures might seem so. However, if we think about it, how many of these young men were able to live their life according to the ethos of pony masculinities when they were young? I would bet not many. To me, the Brony identity evidences a very grown-up and mature understanding of altruism.
Bronies are telling us that many men are tired of playing the role of the omnipotent, solitary hero whose buff biceps and brawn supersede his vulnerability. They are demanding more. Pony masculinity pushes us beyond what we have always taken to be the truth about gender—boys will be masculine, girls will be feminine, anything else will be abnormal. But being a Brony is not about being a “girly man”—thanks Arnold Schwarzenegger—and it’s not about accepting some notion of female masculinity. Pony masculinity subverts both of these ideas, forcing us to imagine masculinities that push us beyond the surface scope of our limited gender categories. While gender is often individualistic, pony masculinity turns its gaze outward, toward building a kinder community. It is a masculinity that focuses its energy on how to be a loving person.
What I respect about Bronies is that they are attracted to My Little Pony no matter who tells them they shouldn’t be. They have been called every name in any book, threatened, fired from their jobs, and beaten up, and still they continue to show up to conventions dressed in pink capes. They are passionate enough about the show to dedicate large portions of their week watching, playing with, collecting, researching, reading, and creating pony stuff to share with the world. They love one another and value friendship. A pony masculinity that dreams of a better life where we all take care of one another has been created, and it is multiplying. Brony culture proves there is plenty of magic in friendships between men. Our need to spin conspiracies about why men playing together must be wrong is, as my four-year-old self would say, stupid. It’s also too easy. Brony culture has given thousands of men a community they did not have before and a network of friends they feel better for having.
Will being a Brony ever be accepted by the masses as a viable expression of being a man? In a society that still values war over peace and money over happiness, I have a hard time believing we will be able to see toy ponies and the men who feel a connection to them without our bellies filling with stark pessimism. Bronies are the unknown, and their sense of play feels wrong in a world that has lost its sense of playfulness. However, Bronies don’t need our approval. They are living the life they choose, together, without our blessing. They have found reasons to smile in the face of their bullied manhoods, and are becoming the men they need to be, and perhaps always were. I’ll raise a brohoof to that.