Learning to Love and Tolerate the Bronies: What The Brony Phenomenon Can Teach Us About A New Era in Participatory Culture
by Kyle Kontour — Montana State University - Billings
October 15, 2012 – 16:07
When My Little Pony Friendship is Magic began airing on October 10, 2010 on third tier cable channel The Hub, commissioned to promote Hasbro’s new generation of My Little Pony toys (Hasbro is also 50% owner of The Hub), little did Hasbro know that this show would attract a large cult following, spreading through various networks online. Fans of the show came to call themselves “bronies”—a portmanteau of “bro” and “pony” (and/or incorporating the “b” from the /b/ board in 4chan, where pony-related memes originated, covered below)—denoting both their authentic adoration for the show as well as self-reflexive acknowledgement that as adults (most of whom are young men) they are outside of the target demographic. Although many bronies are women (also referred to as “pegasisters”), the phenomenon of adult men watching (and generating voluminous paratexts online in response to) a cartoon ostensibly produced for girls aged 4-11 has garnered considerable notoriety—ranging from neutral to highly negative framing (see LaMarche, 2011; Vara & Zimmerman, 2011; Watercutter, 2001). Although there is a great deal to be said about the gender politics of this phenomenon, the focus of this piece is on the interaction between the fan/consumer/prosumer and the producers of My Little Pony Friendship is Magic—how did bronies make the show their own and how did Hasbro respond? And what can the brony phenomenon tell us about contemporary impact that participatory cultures can have on the objects of their fandom?
First, let’s provide some background. My Little Pony is among the most well-known and longest running toy brands on the consumer market, almost on par with Barbie and G.I. Joe in terms of brand recognition and multi-generational appeal. Hasbro began production of My Little Pony in 1983, and was soon promoted through a concomitant series of animated movies and television shows. The My Little Pony toy line had been under constant production ever since (with varying degrees of popularity), in at least three different incarnations—all of them, it should be emphasized, explicitly “girly” and “cutesie” in a way that is perceived to be the sole domain of prepubescent girls. By the early 2000’s, Hasbro executives were looking to both update the brand for the current generation of young girls and revisit many of the properties that some of them had themselves grown up with (Anderson, 2011). This impetus coincided with Hasbro and Discovery Communications’ launch of The Hub, where both companies’ brand properties could be promoted, and where Hasbro in particular wished to instill “co-viewing” of parents with their children (Griffiths, 2011). The Hub hired acclaimed animator Lauren Faust (Powerpuff Girls, Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends) to be creative director and executive producer of a revamped My Little Pony television show. Motivated by the desire to make girls’ programming that was more in line with her own (third wave) feminist proclivities (Faust, 2010), Faust and her creative team created My Little Pony Friendship is Magic (hereafter FiM). Where previous animated series were heavy on adventure yet lacked almost any character development among the pony protagonists, FiM attempts to balance adventure and relationship stories, is highly character driven, and includes a number of references and visual gags that are likely to go over the heads of viewers in the 4-11 primary demographic.
The dynamic animation style and well-rounded characters appealed not only to the “usual” viewers, but also to the animation connoisseurs in the “/co/” boards of the notorious message board, 4chan. Shortly after the fandom began to explode on 4chan (igniting the so-called “Pony Wars”), several stand alone fan sites also popped up, most notably Equestria Daily and Ponychan, and there was even an exclusively brony-oriented site, My Little Brony, created as part of the large Cheezburger Network.
Figure 1: Bronies look for opportunities to spam the message boards.
What is particularly noteworthy of these fan sites is not merely the proliferation of humorous memes that mine the show for content, they also clearly operate as more “traditional” fan sites: artwork, fan fiction, music (including house, dubstep, folk, etc. versions of the show’s songs), “ponified” versions of movie trailers, and various other paratexts—all of which generate discussions about the show as well as the brony community more generally. Bronies also generated their own specialized language and phrases, such as “brohoof” (approval of another’s image post, or a show of “real life” solidarity upon meeting another brony), “love and tolerate” (the ethic of embodying the message of the show and staying non-confrontational toward their critics), and “welcome to the herd” (officially welcoming a new brony convert), among many others. In a very short time, bronies had a more or less consolidated fan culture, capped by the the first annual brony convention, Bronycon 2011, in New York City. While there is a certain ironic cachet to pony memes, it is important to point out that this is not an ironic fandom: bronies are genuine fans of the show and take their fandom every bit as seriously as the famous Trekkies, and have even campaigned among their ranks to spread the ethic of “love and tolerance” through organized brony charities. Several bronies even credit the show and the support network of fans with saving their lives.
It wasn’t long before the show’s creators and Hasbro, Inc. began to take notice of the proliferation of pony-related memes and content on the internet, and that the vast majority of this content was being generated not by young girls and their mothers, but rather young men, many of them ostensibly childless and single. Although there has been a significant number of adult collectors (many of them men) for years, this was an entirely new fanbase and a palpably different phenomenon. It was also a phenomenon that Lauren Faust and the rest of the creative team (including not only animatos and producers, but also most of the voice cast) embraced: interacting with fans on message boards, giving interviews to fan sites, and eventually attending panels at fan-organized events, including Bronycon. On May 27, 2011, Hasbro and the show creators even collaborated on a specially produced promotional video called “Equestria Girls”, which is a video parody of Katy Perry’s “California Gurls”. The video was sent to Equestria Daily as an exclusive premiere, accompanied with the text: “This promo spot that [sic] will debut on air after our family movie on saturday. The promo uses original voice talent from the show and has some special lines in tribute to our favorite Pony fans” (Equestria Daily, 2011). Not only was the video released exclusively to the most popular brony site, not only does the song include a shout-out to bronies (referring to them by name in the song), the lyrics also reference DJ-Pon3, thereby canonizing the brony-given name of another popular background character.
This video confirmed that the brony fanbase was not only embraced at the level of the show’s creators, but at the level of The Hub management—and not just as fans per se, but also as a valuable market. This has been further reflected in The Hub’s decision not to pull episodes from Youtube or shut down live stream broadcasts of the show on special viewing websites (arguably the biggest incubators and generators of brony fandom). In fact, Hasbro itself appears to be catering to the brony demographic in that its release of toys for Fall 2012 include some toys that would be well-known to bronies but probably all but unknown to other toy collectors (kids or adults), such as toy versions of DJ-Pon3 and Lyra Heartstrings (another background character picked out by the fans). Though brony fandom may have originated in a place with which Hasbro would want no association, Hasbro has been unusually accommodating to the genuine, hardcore, and evangelistic nature of brony fandom, which has almost certainly been a boon to the line’s financial success: My Little Pony toys have seen continued sales success in lieu of almost universal losses in Hasbro’s other toy lines (Kell, 2012), the Season 2 finale of the television show garnered exceptionally large ratings, driven in part by key increases in viewers well outside the ostensible target demographic (Kern, 2012), and bronies are almost certainly the chief buyers of the Friendship is Magic comic book—the first edition of which, as of this writing, has over 90,000 pre-orders (Johnston, 2012), which in context is an enormous figure.
But while Hasbro continues to indulge brony fandom, there are also indications that they are wary of adult and/or “internet geek” sensibilities potentially tainting the little girl friendly branding of My Little Pony. Perhaps what best encapsulates this is the saga of Derpy Hooves. In the premier episode of FiM, fans noticed that one of the background ponies, due to an animation error, had eyes pointing in different directions. This pony soon came to be known as Derpy Hooves, and was a fast fan favorite. Having got wind of Derpy Hooves, the animators began to purposefully insert her in the background, goofy eyes and all, then as a scripted character. Then on January 21, 2011, Derpy was given a speaking part and was referred to by name as Derpy in the episode “The Last Roundup”. Understandably, bronies everywhere freaked out. However, there was a groundswell of protest among some viewers (including among many bronies) who felt that the character was disrespectful to people with disabilities—with the way she had been voiced, with the focus on her wall-eyes, and with the emphasis on the havoc she wreaks with her clumsiness during her cameo. Without any announcement, fans discovered that in subsequent airings and versions of the show (namely iTunes and DVD), Derpy’s eyes were “fixed” for her cameo, she was re-voiced, and Rainbow Dash no longer refers to her by name—clearly Hasbro sided with Derpy’s detractors that she was a disrespectful character. Yet, although this caused a fair amount of outrage among bronies, Hasbro has not utterly erased Derpy: she was still included as a background character in subsequent episodes, she appears on licensed apparel from WeLoveFine and Hot Topic, and she was made as a special ComicCon Exclusive collectible toy (though coyly un-named).
Fig. 2. Derpy’s first appearance.
It is not clear precisely where the brony movement is headed, but the impact it has had already raises a number of questions concerning our understanding of participatory culture and the way such cultures impact the objects of their fandom. There is of course precedent for fans directly influencing mass media content, but rarely, if ever, has this influence been quite as sudden and extensive. The approach Hasbro has taken to brony fandom is also instructive. By catering to fans that other companies may have shied away from, Hasbro has almost certainly helped their own bottom line by openly (if on occasion coyly) making products intended just for this audience and being lax with their intellectual property so as to let the fandom grow—yet at the same time ensuring some level of distance between the more “adult” aspects of the fandom and a removed and “innocent” domain for little girls. While there is a great deal of interest and discussion on what bronies mean for adult masculinity, an equally interesting question is what it means for girls that “girly stuff” can have cross-gender and cross-generational appeal. Where girl toys, games, and media have long been held in contempt as “lame” and extremely reductionist and retrograde in their depictions of gender roles, with FiM there are now undoubtedly brothers, fathers, and male cousins who are supportive of or even themselves fans of this product—which not only suggests avenues for male involvement in girls’ playing and viewing habits, but demonstrates the potential of creating girl-oriented products of higher quality and greater complexity.
Dr. Kyle Kontour is an Assistant Professor at Montana State University - Billings. His main areas of research are internet culture, and gaming and gender in the military entertainment complex. He is also the father of two pony-mad little girls.
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