Why can't you escape the colourful cartoon ponies? Over the past two years the rising tide of adult male fans of the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic cartoon have invaded the internet, seeding internet forums, Facebook, YouTube and pop culture conventions with proof of their passion for animated equines. Don't understand the appeal? Perhaps I can help.
The My Little Pony fan community is beast that's grown far too large to ignore. There are brony conventions that draw in thousands of attendees every year. Equestria Daily, the largest brony community news site, has been visited more than 150 million times since it launched in 2011. The first issue of IDW's comic book treatment of the show garnered more than 100,000 preorders.
An informal survey places the U.S. brony population at somewhere between 7 and 12.4 million. That's a substantial chunk of people, and it raises the question...
What is a brony? A brony is someone so enamoured of the Hub Network animated series My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic that they're willing to identify as a member of a group despised by a large percentage of the internet. "Brony" is a portmanteau of "bro" and "pony". The term is generally used to refer to older male fans of the program. Most female fans identify as "pegasisters", which is incredibly clever. Collectively the community is known as "The Herd."
My Little Pony? The pastel-coloured girls toy line from the 80s?
Sort of. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic represents the fourth generation of the franchise, following the original line released in 1983 by Hasbro and the subsequent cartoon series in the 80s and 90s. Friendship is Magic was developed for Hasbro by Lauren Faust, an animator whose previous work includes The Powerpuff Girls, another girl-focused television show that enjoyed an uncanny adult male fan base. In fact, she's married to Craig McCracken, the creator of The Powerpuff Girls. Good for him.
But it's still a show for little girls, right? That's the target audience, sure, but one of Faust's goals in creating the series was to challenge the established "girly" nature of the toy line, creating characters with depth and stories with a real sense of adventure. The underlying educational life lessons lurking beneath the jokes and song and dance numbers are universal ones.
As with many modern children's programs (Yo Gabba Gabba, Tiny Toon Adventures -- man, remember Tiny Toon Adventures? It was the best), the show was also written with adults in mind, laced with humour and references aimed at keeping parents entertained while watching with their children. While the kids are mesmerized by the bright colours and sounds, the adults are doing double takes -- were those ponies from The Big Lebowski? Yes, yes they were.
Parents get a pass. How did all of these teenage and older males get hooked on a cartoon about ponies? It was a process.
What sort of process? A lengthy one? I'm not getting out of this, am I?
Like all great stories, this one began on the infamous internet image sharing site 4chan. In October of 2010 a link to an alarmist article from the site Cartoon Brew appeared on 4chan's comics and cartoons board (/co/). Titled "The End of the Creator-Driven Era in TV Animation", the piece centered around My Little Pony and other toy-based cartoons being developed for Hasbro's Hub network. The article led to 4chan users watching the program with the intention of lambasting it. Instead, they became addicts.
Ponies invaded 4chan's cute and cuddly /b/ board. Trolls followed, only instead of getting the rise they expected they were either ignored, tolerated or bombarded with pony pictures. You can read about the whole inspiring affair over at Betabeat. Long story short, My Little Pony conquered 4chan and then infected the rest of the internet.
Seriously, what's the appeal? Did I mention The Big Lebowski Ponies? I believe I did.
It's different for everyone, I suppose. Some fans are drawn to the sharp and expressive flash animation. Others enjoy watching each episode to catch the pop culture references.
A lot of the growing appeal stems from the show creators' reaction to the unexpected adult male fan base, incorporating fan creations and terms into cartoon canon. A grey pegasus pony with a googly-eyed expression that appeared in the show's first episode was named "Derpy Hooves" by fans. After several cameo appearances throughout the first and second season, Derpy was given a speaking role in the episode "The Last Roundup", referred to by her fan-given name (though later airings removed the name and changed the character's voice after it was deemed insensitive to the mentally handicapped). That sort of interaction and integration is something new and exciting.
Others (myself included) believe the show's appeal lies in it being a shining example of innocence and purity in an increasingly dark world. The Elements of Harmony -- a central plot device -- are kindness, loyalty, generosity, laughter, honesty and magic. Turn on CNN and take a drink whenever you see all of those gathered in one place. It's much more effective than AA.
Right. They're just watching the show ironically, aren't they? Quite the opposite, actually. The brony phenomenon is considered part of the "new sincerity" movement, which is directly in conflict with the whole irony trend in film, music, literature and the appreciation of things. Instead of irony and cynicism, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic fans enjoy the show for what it is.
It's a difficult concept, engaging in an activity because you enjoy it. It's led to a great deal of hatred and intolerance aimed in the bronies' direction. That the fans generally abstain from lashing out at their detractors is a strong indicator, to me at least, that they're on to something.
But it's a show for girls. You keep saying that, but that's not the way the world is anymore. Despite what the secret deodorant marketing team would have you believe, women and men don't have to like separate things anymore. There was a time when men with a penchant for the colour pink and products marketing towards females were the subject of hatred and derision. That still happens to a somewhat lesser extent, but frankly we don't give a shit anymore.
Why do people hate bronies? Well, we do tend to paste pictures of ponies everywhere, which is admittedly rather obnoxious, but other than that? For one, we're on the internet, a place where people with hate in their hearts are always looking for something to piss on, and My Little Pony fans have painted a giant pastel-colored target on their chests, just above their cutie marks (the simple icons on the ponies' flanks that are indicative of their personality or purpose).
But I think the hate stems from the challenging of the status quo, the blurring of gender lines. This is not the sort of entertainment men traditionally flock to. Men should be out at bars, downing beers and leering at women, not collecting pink toys and making friends on the internet. Why aren't they out making a living and supporting a family? Why can't they just enjoy golf and watch porn?
What amazes me is the assumption that all bronies do is sit around the internet talking about fictional characters with names like Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy. Don't get me wrong, we do those things. We also have time to go to bars and leer. We play golf. We watch a lot of porn. We raise families. We even create some of the most popular video games in the business.
Do bronies want to have sex with horses? What's your favourite hobby? Playing video games? Do you want to have sex with a video game?
Don't answer that.
Researching this article the author discovered he is quoted in the Wikipedia entry for bronies. He couldn't be more proud.