Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Brony Effect

So, after weeks of my fiancee talking endlessly about it, last weekend I began working my way through My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic the latest installment of Hasbro's long-running toy commercial. I watched every episode of the first season, about 10 hours of cartoon, over the next six days. And I loved it.

I'm far from alone on this. The latest incarnation of MLP has three major demographics: The little girls who are the target market for the toy line, nostalgic 20-something women who played with My Little Ponies as girls, and 20-something men who until now were vaguely aware that My Little Pony existed. "Bronies," as these male fans are called, are fairly common in Internet geek circles now, especially in the overlapping circles of anime fans and gamers.

But why should this be?

A better question: Why not?

Misogyny is as rampant or more in geek circles as in the culture at large, but on the other hand male and female geeks alike often have long experience in being harassed for failing to meet gender norms. Male anime geeks in particular often watch shows which, in Japan, are marketed to girls,* for a couple of reasons:
  • Sex appeal: Shoujo often have a lot of young female characters, and said characters are often more attractive than their counterparts in boys' anime.
  • Character depth: Shoujo series, even action-driven ones, tend to have more of a focus on character relationships and emotional growth than shounen series, and thus the better shoujo series are often less formulaic and have deeper characters than most shounen series.
  • Brevity: Most of the best-known shoujo series have 13, 26, or rarely 50 or 70 episodes, while the better-known shounen series may have hundreds, especially shounen fighting shows.
We thus have a body of American 20-something male geeks who more or less accept watching cartoons marketed to girls.

So why haven't they watched a lot of American girls' shows before now? Simple: Most American cartoons for girls suck. Consider, for example, the Nostalgia Chick review of an early My Little Pony movie, in which she cannot tell the characters apart. Most children's television in the U.S. is deeply socially conservative. So-called "general audience" kids' shows are primarily for boys, because only boys are people, and because only boys are people, there is no need to have more than one female character, who is effectively identical to Smurfette. Rarely, as in Scooby-Doo, you'll get a Princess/Geek dichotomy, which is basically a Madonna-Whore complex with intellectual assertiveness in place of sexual assertiveness, and still doesn't allow for much variety. Most shows for girls likewise have only one female character, she just inhabits multiple bodies. Or they may have very slight differences ("all girls love to shop, but this one is The Shopaholic!"), or a Betty/Veronica pairing (another kiddified variant of Madonna-Whore).
MLP:FIM, on the other hand, has actual characters. The ponies in the mane cast**** all have distinctly drawn personalities, many of which violate the usual stereotypes, and none of them are passive:
  • Twilight Sparkle is intellectual and socially awkward, but rather than the usual nerd-girl stereotype she's also a highly organized, take-charge natural leader.
  • Pinkie Pie is giggly, silly, and random (to the point of sometimes defying the laws of physics, such as they are in a universe of magical talking ponies), but she also often intuitively leaps to the solution to some of the more bizarre problems the ponies face, and late in the season we learn that her silliness masks a rather sad, borderline neglectful childhood and a deep fear of losing her friends if she fails to entertain them.
  • Fluttershy is painfully shy, self-effacing, and fearful, whose gentle, soft-spoken love for all living things makes her incredibly gifted at working with animals. Then she makes a full-grown, angry, enormous, fire-breathing dragon CRY. Then she wins a staring contest with a BASILISK. I won't even attempt to describe the pure awesomeness she gets into in the season finale. (Yeah, she's pretty obviously my favorite.)
  • Rarity is the fashionista pony, but unlike the usual shallow, vain, shopaholic variant, she's depicted as a hard-working, somewhat temperamental (and yes, occasionally vain) artist whose medium happens to be clothes. She's also depicted as the most generous of the ponies, and a successful businesswoman. (Actually, with the exception of Twilight, who appears to be on the equivalent of a government research grant, and Pinkie Pie, who may or may not be an apprentice baker, all the mane ponies have explicitly defined jobs.)
  • Applejack is another successful businesswoman, a workaholic, very strong farmer who, interestingly, appears to be the leader of her family (at least in its interactions with outsiders) and de facto owner of their farm, even though she has both a grandmother and an older brother. She supposedly represents honesty in the pilot, but seems a better fit for loyalty given her patient, steadfast nature and dedication to keeping her promises.
  • Finally, Rainbow Dash is a very athletic pony who tends to be very blunt and a little bit of a jerk, impatient, brash, and prone to charging into danger. Also she controls the weather by kicking it in the face. She supposedly represents loyalty, but her tendency to say exactly what's on her mind makes her seem a better fit for honesty.
The pilot for the series is basically a magical girl show: a group of young women are drawn together to face a prophecy of ancient evil, and overcome it by weaponizing the interpersonal bonds between them. Most of the rest of the show follows a more episodic, Western format, alternating between episodes where the primary conflict is interpersonal (for example, the hysterical episode in which Fluttershy reluctantly becomes a model because she thinks she'll disappoint Rarity if she stops, and Rarity is jealous but pushes Fluttershy to keep modeling out of guilt over the jealousy), and episodes where the primary conflict is straight out of the D&D Monster Manual (for example, the episode with the dragon).

My own experience ran something like this: I watched the pilot, moderately enjoyed it as a magical girl show with no uncomfortable fetishization of the underage main characters, and then mostly forgot about it. A while later, I was bored so I watched another couple of episodes, and enjoyed the adventure-y aspects and the humor. And then I started to realize I actually liked these characters, recognized them as people, and cared about what happened to them. Female characters being depicted as people! Weird people who kept learning childlike lessons while filling adult social roles, who happened to be shaped like magical talking ponies, but people!

I suspect my experience is fairly typical. Certainly there are other factors in the Brony explosion, such as Hasbro's lax attitude to piracy, but I think at its core it is a combination of a group open to watching a "girls' cartoon," and a cartoon that actually treats girls as human beings.

*For the uninitiate: In Japan, manga (comics)** and the anime derived from them divide into four basic categories determined by target demographic: shounen (for boys), shoujo (ostensibly for girls, though in anime increasingly driven by the "moe"*** market), seinen (for men), and jousei (for women). Unlike American comics, which are mostly about superheroes, manga cover pretty much the same range of subjects and genres as print literature.

**To be really anal, it's actually the magazines which publish manga which are divided into these categories, more than the individual manga. Often if a given manga is borderline (such as Fullmetal Alchemist, which straddles the shonen-seinen divide at times), the magazine which publishes it will be the deciding factor in determining what category popular consensus files it under.

***A phenomenon in anime fandom that can be roughly understood as a combination of Nice Guy Syndrome, White Knight-ism, and a touch of pedophilia.

****By convention so universal it might as well be law, all discussion of My Little Pony is required to contain a particular set of horrible horse-themed puns.


  1. To be fair, there are also those of us in the 20-something male demographic who just like things like rainbows and unicorns sometimes. So it's nice to have an option for that that seems to be socially acceptable.

  2. @Anonymous: Oh, absolutely. The question then becomes, however, why is *this* show the one that's socially acceptable, and why now? I think that's roughly an equivalent question to the one I asked.

  3. It's a particularly interesting question since being "horse crazy" is a stereotypically preteen-girl thing. To the extent that I have heard of boys being teased for their interest in ACTUAL horses, much less pink and purple ones. --Lila from slacktiverse

  4. This is the first review I've seen that actually makes me want to see some of the show; so thanks for the prod.

    I am greatly enjoying all the MLP icons around, though - the internet can always use more adorable cartoon horses.

  5. This is reynard61 from over at slacktivist. (For some reason blogspot won't let me use my LiveJournal *or* WordPress logons. GRRRRRRR!!!)

    I'm a 50-year-old male, and an Animation/Anime fan from childhood. (I was watching the original black-and-white "Astroboy" episodes as early as 1966 or '67.) I was introduced to MLP:FiM a couple of months ago by Dan Shive of the webcomic "El Goonish Shive" in this Sketchbook drawing:

    I'd heard of the original MLP mainly through it's having been advertised during the mid-afternoon cartoon bloc on one of the local Indianapolis stations, so I was aware that the show existed but never bothered to watch -- and, having seen Nostalgia Girl's review, probably still won't.

    Generally, you're probably correct about why the show appeals to a certain male demographic. But, in my specific case at least, there's a bit more to it. Two of the characters not mentioned in your character descriptions are Princess Celestia and her sister Princess Luna. In the mythology/introduction at the beginning of episode one we are told that both Princesses co-ruled Equestria; Celestia by day, and Luna by night. Luna grew jealous of Celestia because she felt unappreciated by Equestrians because they slept through the nights that she put so much effort into creating*, and turned into the villainous Nightmare Moon. Celestia was eventually forced to do battle with Luna/Nightmare Moon and exile her to the moon itself, where Luna’s/Nightmare Moon’s shadow served as a reminder of that exile. [spoiler] The rest of the two-part episode deals with Twilight Sparkle trying to warn of the end of Luna’s/Nightmare Moon’s exile as told in a prophecy, and the mane cast’s efforts to rescue Celestia, who had apparently been kidnapped by Luna/Nightmare Moon, and stop her from bringing eternal night to Equestria.[/spoiler]

    To me, Celestia is the embodiment of Wisdom (she is shown as a wise and patient** ruler) and Nobility -- but with a gentle and somewhat mischievous sense of humor. ([spoiler]As displayed in “A Bird in the Hoof” when she tricks a pair of ponies who are serving her tea into overfilling her glass.[/spoiler]) I like that she shows that a female authority figure need not be evil, tyrannical or bitchy in order to get things done.

    Princess Luna, who, unfortunately, gets barely 30 seconds of screen time at the end of episode two, becomes a redemptive figure when [spoiler] Twilight Sparkle uses the Elements of Harmony to break Nightmare Moon’s hold over her and she asks for and receives forgiveness from both Celestia and, apparently, all of Equestria.[/spoiler] (Although there’s a good bit of fan-fic out there that hints that Luna is still struggling with a guilty conscience.)

    *Both Celestia and Luna are the goddesses responsible for bringing both the day and the night to Equestria, as well as being it’s heads-of-State.

    **Especially where Pinkie Pie is concerned!

  6. Great article, but I have to take exception to the notion that misogyny is "as or more" rampant in geek culture compared to culture at large; even the article's own point that complex female characterization is a draw for a male audience seems to undercut this notion. In my own experience at least, juvenile attitudes about women may be overrepresented among otaku, but "juvenile" is a far cry from some of the Winter's-Bone-style horrible crap I've seen elsewhere in the muggle world.

    Just my two cents. YMMV.

  7. @FifthInterval: Yeah, talk to any woman who's tried to play WoW or join a tabletop roleplaying group, straightforward misogyny is alive and well among geeks. Subtler forms are, in my experience, even more rampant: Nice Guy Syndrome, moe, and so forth.

    There are *also* geeks who are more feminist, of course, which is why a show like MLP:FIM has an audience among them. But my experience has been that many geeks have basically never gotten over high school, and retain many of its attitudes, including the juvenile attitudes toward women you describe, which I see as a form of misogyny as potentially bad as any other.

    @Reynard: I have a very different interpretation of Celestia, in that her "pranks" consist of picking on people in a weaker position than she and laughing at them. In another episode, Pinkie Pie's pranks (which are good-natured, and explicitly only directed at people who can take it and laugh it off) are contrasted with Gilda's, which are much meaner. By the very nature of her position as God-Queen, Celestia's pranks are more like Gilda's.

  8. @ Froborr: I might agree with you if, say, Celestia were hurling lightning bolts at the other ponies a la Zeus in the "Pastoral Symphony" section of "Fantasia" (how dickish is *THAT?!?!?!*); but tricking someponies into filling your cup 'til it runneth over (where *you're* the one who risks getting spilled on) is hardly in the same league. I'm not denying that you probably have a valid point in general, but I think that, in this specific instance at least, no real or lasting harm was done.