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.
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.
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.