Yeah, we’re gonna talk about it. Don’t get weird.
I realize that the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic contingent is old news for a lot of us, and that most of us have made up our minds one way or the other, so I want to make clear at the outset that I’m not making a case for or against, or even really trying to take part in whatever the conversation has become, because I don’t really know where the state of things has ended up.
But I do want to talk about the time and place in which this conversation is occurring, because I think it has major ramifications for society, generally but also specific to geek culture, and maybe clear out some cobwebs as far as what is going on and why we feel about it the way we do. Frankly, I’ve thought about writing about them all along, but waited for it to die down a bit because what I want to say isn’t that loud. It doesn’t rise to the volume of the usual fight.
In some corners of the internet—both super-deep genre geek spaces and more mainstream conversations—you get a near Godwin’s-level response whenever these guys are mentioned. Which means we have two topics to discuss here: First, what they’re actually doing and represent, and secondly, why they enrage people so effortlessly. (On the latter point, I’m not talking about their ubiquity and enthusiasm and repetitive behaviors, because that’s true of every geek group—run into a Browncoat lately?—but the fact of them existing at all.)
Consider first the fact that women have been people for about a hot minute. “Feminism” was not a word our grandparents had ever heard: The Pill was invented in our mothers’ lifetimes. Sit with that a second.
When we talk about time speeding up, we’re also talking about time dilation: Because we personally grew up in the first generation of men and women raised by feminists—or at least in an epoch where they’re given voice—we think this is the eternal state of things, but it is in fact blisteringly new.
So the first thing about Bronies is, they’re the second iteration of a very new experiment. You’re talking about boys raised on the Powerpuff Girls, on Pokémon, who see no reason to limit their avatars to classic male archetypes: Girls had Princess Leia, and boys had Han Solo. But the Brony generation gets both, and doesn’t see the problem. In fact, as fans they don’t even need human avatars: Anything with a face can represent a piece of you. That’s entirely new.
As a gay man, I can’t be the leader of a Boy Scout Troop. I have mixed feelings about this. But the reason for it is that we’re still used to looking at sexuality as a strict binary: Straight men, versus any- and everybody else. The fact is that a gay man is interested in men, and a straight man is interested in women. Pedophiles are interested in neither. But because we have a history—going back, technically, forever—of lumping everything into these two categories, straight men v. everybody else, that’s gonna be suspect.
So you take a male who is interested in a stereotypically girlish thing, and—presuming you know nothing about the actual show—you’re going to lump him into the “Other” category of sexuality. Then, too, it’s nominally a product for children, which indicates a pederastic sexual retardation that can only lead to abuses. Right away, they are two things: Perverts, and preoccupied with immature and childish iconography.
But back it up: Again, you’re talking about boys raised on Powerpuff Girls and Pokémon: Their nostalgia doesn’t prevent them taking an interest in this show, as it would us, any more than our nostalgia for Transformers, Star Wars and Ellen Ripley indicates a sex-mad statutory rapist of young girls. They don’t have the walls up that we do, so what for us would be looking over those walls—playing with dolls, what have you—and possibly would indicate something creepy about us.
But it’s not us we’re talking about, it’s them: Boys, raised by feminists to proceed as if those walls never existed. (Spoiler alert: They never did. We just took all this time to realize that.) And it’s true that, like with any kid-stuff enthusiasm, there is a demonstrative aspect to Bronyism: “Look at me liking this kid thing, look at me liking this girl thing.” But from their side of the wall, it’s a point of pride, just as with any other kiddie-stuff nostalgia performance. “Look at me watching The Muppet Show on Netflix, look at me complaining about the Star Wars prequels.”
But all of that is reactive, all of that points to the feminist and patriarchal concerns we just said didn’t matter. So then what is it they’re actually enjoying, when you’re not there to gape? Well, everything I’ve seen indicates that the show is doing its stated job. Remove the pink and purple marketing tricks, remove the toys altogether even, and focus on the primary product: The show.
Which is about a loner, happier with books and solitude than the company of others, overly intellectual, nearly terrified of social contact, who is tasked with—before taking on an adult leadership role—is tasked with exploring other states of thought, other ways of being, other kinds of life. The express task of the show, the lead’s actual job, is to cross the gap from Self to Other, to understand and accept others as being different from Self and acceptable anyway.
But the obvious appeal doesn’t end there: The protagonist is introduced to a cast of characters drawn from the most terrifying archetypes of our young lives. The Jock who excels in sports and physical activities, the Stylish Popular Slytherin who is beautiful and always composed, and so on. And at every turn, we’re shown the positive and open sides of those character types we’ve been trained to hate and fear: The popular girl has affection and insecurity to spare, the Jock is more obsessed with having fun and testing herself against herself to mean you any harm.
Sound like anybody you know? Most of us call this “socialization,” and in today’s focus on things like the autism spectrum and ADHD-enhanced oppositional behavior, it’s probably the highest-minded such program since, I don’t know, ShirtTails attempted to get us to communicate our emotions rather than bottling them up. At the end of each story, the lead character is called upon to verbalize her findings—literally, write a letter to the Godhead figure on the show—and demonstrate how the trust she’s bravely used to cross the gap between Self and Other has once again helped her understand the truth: That Friendship Is, in fact, Magic.
I want my kid watching that show. I want my kid watching the heck out of that show, boy or girl. We’re only going to need more tools of connection in our toolbox as the ways we communicate with each other proliferate. There is no room for fear in the connected world.
But that isn’t the whole story, because we’re not talking about kids here but adults. And for a lot of Bronies, at least in the early days, the function above is not only enjoyable and comforting, but actually represents those tools in an engaged way. These are functional approaches to making friends, making connections, finding love, eradicating loneliness. Tools in the toolbox.
I cried, a little bit, at an interview in which one Brony said—with full knowledge of what’s implied here—that he’d learned more about emotional and social life from one season of the show than from thirty years of living.
Now, I can imagine a viewpoint that would find that funny, or pathetic, or “gay” (or even actually gay), but it’s nearly impossible to understand it. Because that is, to me—a person who has devoted my life to staking out new ways to talk about our personal connection to media and how it influences culture-in-general—just about the best thing ever.
In the same geek community that lauds parents whose children beg for non-gender-specific EZ Bake ovens, or mods classic video games to contain female protagonists, it blows my mind that we react to these guys with such vitriol, such kneejerk horror. It speaks a lot to where we are, at the beginning of the world’s chapter called “Feminism,” and to where we still need to talk, on the default-straight-male conversation the internet is slowly letting go. In the end, they’re doing more work toward the future simply by rising to the occasion—both as fans and in the geek world—and demonstrating what a generation actively engaged in the project of evolving looks like.
It wouldn’t be the first time the advance scouts looked like monsters to the rest of us—generally that’s exactly what happens, when a social change comes about—but to me, they’re incredibly beautiful future-mutants, men whose brand of masculine evolution is so unrecognizable some of us think of them as ex-men.
Check back with me in about twenty years, and we’ll see who was on the right side of that one.
Jacob Clifton is a freelance writer and critic based in Austin, Texas. He currently recaps The Good Wife, Bates Motel, and Defiance for Television Without Pity.com. Check out jacobclifton.com, Twitter and Facebook.