Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Bronies in the Mist: An Outsider Studies the Internet's Most Misunderstood Subculture

Long ago, from the primordial mists of the 1980s, there emerged a toy line and attendant animated series called My Little Pony.  I was a kid at the time, and I remember being aware that this cartoon existed.  I also knew that it was a “girl’s cartoon”, like Rainbow Brite or Jem and the Holograms; there was no doubt in my five year-old mind that I would burst into flames faster than a vampire in a church were I to watch it.1  I have no firsthand memories of the particulars of the show, but a quick look around Youtube does not reveal it to be a thought-provoking piece of art.

Like almost all 1980s children’s franchises, My Little Pony existed for a while, vanished, and then languished in shadowy undeath for a couple of decades; a lingering specter in the consciousness of former 80s kids.  A collector’s market for the original merchandise existed and periodically a new animated property, such as the Disney Channel’s My Little Pony Tales would make a brief appearance, but the franchise’s best days seemed behind it.

Then something unexpected happened – My Little Pony’s owner Hasbro, which was still counting the money from Michael Bay’s Transformers film and the subsequent surge in that property’s merchandising prospects, decided to resurrect My Little Pony in the hopes of hitting another rebranding homerun.  Animator and director Lauren Faust, who had previously worked on such well-regarded Cartoon Network properties as The Powerpuff Girls and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends2, was brought in to develop the new series with an eye towards steering the franchise away from its ooey-gooey, saccharine-soaked plots and clich├ęd depictions of female characters.  Thus, in 2010, premiered My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

So why in the hell am I telling you this?  My last post was a review of the freakin’ Giant Claw, so what in the world does My Little Pony have to do with anything?  Well..not much; BUT while I don’t have all that much reason to talk about My Little Pony itself, I think there may be an interesting discussion to be had about the show’s unintended fan base.  As anyone who’s been on the internet in the last three years or so is no doubt aware, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, while aimed squarely at young girls, has also attracted a very vocal contingent of adult male viewers.  They call themselves “Bronies”, and they are what I’m interested in discussing.

Maligned in many corners of the web as everything from pederasts to bestiality enthusiasts to just plain weirdoes, Bronies tend to do their, well, Brony-ing largely amongst themselves.  They have their own internet forums and their own conventions.  Some of them, when posting on Brony-friendly forums, even adopt terms from the TV series, such as using the phrase “anypony” instead of anybody”.  It’s hard for an outside observer to get a bead on these guys.  On the one hand, they’re fans of what’s probably the most inoffensive show currently on television and devote lots of effort and creativity towards generating fan content that is often fairly impressive in both scope and execution. On the other hand, a Google image search for My Little Pony will quickly yield results for such creepy items as fan-made erotic artwork bearing titles like My Little Pony: Lingerie is Magic.  Frankly, some of the creepy stuff is also strangely impressive in its scope and execution.

The bottom line is that I want to know who the Bronies are.  How old are they?  Why are they so interested in this particular property?  Are the ones pinning chapter after chapter of erotic fan fiction the norm, or just highly visible outliers who attract unwanted negative attention to the group?  I want to know all that and more.

To that end, I’ve enlisted the aid of a cadre of Bronies over at the My Little Pony Friendship is Magic Brony Forums.  They’ve generously agreed to answer my questions and talk to me about life on the inside of Brony culture.  From these surveys and interviews, I hope to paint a more accurate picture of this subculture than was heretofore available to outsiders.  This post is the beginning of  a multi-part essay during which we will try to get a firmer grasp on these often talked about, but rarely talked to web denizens, these Bronies in the Mist.

To start off, I recognize that the term “hypothesis” may be inappropriate here, as this “study” of mine is almost staggeringly unscientific in nature.  That said, I’m going to cling to the delusion that I’m above using the word “assumption”.  In any event I hypothesize that my survey will show the mean age of self-identified Bronies to be between 19-23 and that the majority of them will have at least some college education.  Furthermore, it is my expectation that slightly less than half (perhaps 40%) will self-identify as members of “Furry” subculture.  I suspect that many of them will report feeling as though their group is thought of negatively and perhaps even unfairly treated by other groups present on the internet and that at least half of them will not be “out”, such as it is, to their non-Brony friends.

In more broad terms, I think we shall see that the perceived biases of others against Bronies will strengthen the in-group commitment of Bronies and that this in-group, out-group interplay will contribute to insularity with the community and may result in some distrust of outsiders.  Likewise, I think we may see that the creative aspect of the group is likely to be highly valued by members and may also contribute to in-group solidarity, i.e. “Look what we have generated.”3

Finally, I’m interested to see if the accepting, friendly message of the Friendship is Magic TV series is personally important to Bronies themselves.  Specifically, I’m curious to see if Bronies consciously see their interest in the show as something of a statement against the increasingly hyper-masculine image of males often portrayed in the media.4<.sup>

Potential Problems
In advance, I would like to say that I foresee huge problems with any statistics I generate based on what I anticipate to be a vanishingly small sample size of survey respondents.  The forum on which I have posted my survey questionnaire appears to have approximately 1240 members, based on the site’s Member List, and I expect to receive usable responses from less than 5% of them.  This would obviously make it impossible to draw any scientifically meaningful conclusions about Bronies as a whole.

I also expect that there may be some reticence on the part of the Bronies who’ve agreed to speak with me with regard to talking about the less savory aspects of Brony culture.  By this I mean such things as the large amount of erotic fan-generated materials about the show’s characters or the group’s relationship to the Furry subculture.  This may be made all the worse by my decision to administer my initial “survey” as an open thread in a message forum; That is to say, my respondents are aware that their answers are visible to others.

It also goes without saying that I’m wholly ignorant of the principles of this sort of experimental design, so I think we can safely assume that gaping holes in my methodology will erupt throughout the process.   

Regardless of all this, I expect to have a good time exploring the world of the Bronies, I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

1.) The lone exception to this proscription against“girl shows” was arguably She-Ra.  Since she was He-Man’s sister it was okay to watch her show, although I seem to remember that those of us who did kind of kept it on the down-low.

2.) And also, weirdly, that old MTV show The Maxx.

3.) See Samuel F. Gaertner’s work on common in-group identity.

4.) For more on the portrayal of masculine imagery in the media, I highly recommend Jackson Katz’s short film Tough Guise: Violence, Media, and the Crisis in Masculinity.

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