My Little Study: Ponies are Complicated

As part of my Qualitative Research Methods course in my graduate school experience, I finished a five-page paper this week on a topic that some SMYNjas may be interested in – my initial exposure in studying the My Little Pony fandom. The original concept of the assignment was to spend about an hour in an environment that was “outside our comfort zone” and write about it. So I figured, why not do something online, as opposed to the awkwardness of an in-person situation? I think I may have gone a bit above and beyond the instruction, as there is a lot crammed in the five page limit. Below is the introduction, as the rest of the paper continues after the jump. Any thoughts are welcome.

Many who hear the term “Brony” have a difficult time attempting to define it. This is not surprising, seeing as how the word has only gained relevancy over the last two years. At the same time, the rate of growth of “Bronies” in digital culture has been staggering during this period. A “Brony” is the self-identified term for a fan of the television program My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. This remake of the My Little Pony series from the 1980s is still targeted towards a young, female demographic, yet “Bronies” came into being because of the surprisingly high number of teenaged and older male viewers. Despite being an avid consumer of internet culture, I have never really understood the Brony phenomenon, even as friends and acquaintances jumped on the pony-pulled bandwagon. Therefore, for a social description of an environment that put me out of my comfort zone, I researched media portrayals of Bronies, watched the pilot episodes of the series, and studied online forum interactions. This analysis led me to appreciate the fandom, even if I did not see myself engaging further with it.

The media portrayals of the Brony phenomenon have been rather polarizing, so it is easy to perceive it as a confusing culture from an outside perspective. FOX News is among the first to get in line to claim how bizarre the practice of grown men watching a show about ponies is. One of the hosts on the RedEye program even probes and jokes “Bill, there are worse hobbies for a young lad to have, like, y’know…terrorism?” (Darksaber64x, 2011). While other media personalities prefer to explore the darker side of the fandom, some online voices illuminate positive effects. For example, PBS’ IdeaChannel on YouTube features a pony-centric episode, in which the host ponders if Bronies are changing the definition of masculinity. In an intriguing point of view, the host wonders if there is really anything wrong with the fact that “Bronies challenge the usual nature of masculine media consumption. […] The notions of what’s masculine, feminine, for adults, or for children seem like they’re permanent, but they’re actually very fluid” (Pbsideachannel, 2012).

While talking heads may argue whether or not Bronies are the next danger to society, their impact on the Internet’s culture cannot be avoided. Activities from viewers of the show may range from fan art to fan fiction, yet my first exposure to a My Little Pony fan creation occurred on YouTube in early 2011. A song called “Epic” mashed up seven well-known musical artists, yet a skilled video editor took to creating a music video using footage from the Friendship is Magic cartoon (Fujimujiwuji, 2011). The result is extremely impressive, as it shows the dedication of selecting appropriate footage, while having the patience to match the animation lip flaps with the lyrics. To understand the scope of the Brony culture portrayal is a massive undertaking, but it includes a wide variety of opinions and production skill levels.

I decided that before I looked at the online interactions between Bronies, I should at least familiarize myself with the source material. Fortunately, viewing the show was easy to do, as the episodes are uploaded in many locations on YouTube, but are also officially available via Netflix. In the two-part pilot episode, the viewer is introduced to the main character of Twilight Sparkle, a purple-hued unicorn who is, for all intents and purposes, a bookworm (Faust, 2010). She spends her time in the library acting as a student of Princess Celestia, where on this day, she discovers a prophecy regarding the return of Celestia’s banished, younger sister Nightmare Moon. Celestia ignores Twilight Sparkle’s worries, instead tasking the young pony to travel to the nearby Ponyville to ensure that preparations for the Summer Sun Celebration festival are complete. To make a long story short, Nightmare Moon does indeed return, enshrouding the entire land of Equestria in darkness. According to Twilight Sparkle’s readings, the so-called “Elements of Harmony” are required to imprison Nightmare Moon once more.

Conveniently, these personality elements are how viewers are introduced to the other main pony characters. Applejack is an orange pony, characterized in a cowboy-western style, whose frankness is represented in her element of “honesty.” Rainbow Dash is a confident, blue Pegasus pony who is a fast flyer and is portrayed through “loyalty.” Rarity is a white unicorn who has a sense for the visually beautiful, yet exemplifies “generosity.” Fluttershy is a timid, yellow pony who relates well with other animals and represents “kindness.” Finally, Pinkie Pie is an over-energetic, pink pony who loves parties and is identified through “laughter.” Together with Twilight Sparkle, the six ponies make a quest through Everfree Forest and encounter setbacks which establish these character traits even further (Faust, 2010). After encountering Nightmare Moon, Twilight Sparkle learns that “Friendship is Magic,” realizing that she and her friends are incarnations of the Elements of Harmony. Nightmare Moon is reduced to her original form as Princess Luna and all is well in Equestria.

It was easy to see why the cartoon was so popular, even though it was originally intended for a different audience demographic. The production value was surprisingly high, with clever detail paid to the animation and voice acting. In addition, the exposition was handled exceptionally well, to deliver a full story with significant stakes in just two 22-minute episodes. My Little Pony’s writing also shone through as something that could be appreciated by more than just a younger audience. However, the biggest advantageous aspect from the show’s pilot is the establishment of characters. A program’s characters drive the action and entice viewers to return for future viewings, so defined, interesting protagonists are critical. By reinforcing a variety of unique personalities – sincere, assertive, spoiled, shy, and hyper – viewers have a better chance to identify with a character, or at least appreciate aspects of the others. Unfortunately, as a result of this, Twilight Sparkle was not developed as well by comparison, especially since she acts as the viewer perspective stand-in to all there is in Equestria. Also, because the pilot reached such a satisfying conclusion, continuing to future episodes feels not entirely necessary. There is no sense of a greater, overarching story, as Twilight Sparkle must learn more about friendship through assorted adventures with her new companions.

After viewing the pilot and understanding the foundations of the source material, it was time to venture to online forums to view how fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic interact with each other. This led to PonyChan.net, which is generally seen as the consensus for a community forum (“Ponychan”). However, as a friend of mine quipped in an online chat on the subject “I don’t know of many centralized locations. Mostly Bronies just meet up in the forums they already enjoy and stick to a dedicated topic.” Upon viewing the layout of the site, PonyChan was certainly outside of my comfort zone, as I was expecting a very organized, text based forum layout like I am accustomed to. Instead, the forum is divided into sections which become its own image board. Users who may be accustomed to seeing a list of thread titles are surprised to come across ten threads per page, fleshed out with a few replies already included. To the untrained eye, the organization comes across as jumbled mess, but it makes sense with time and practice. The image boards fall under categories of ponies, fanworks, roleplay, non-pony and more. Discussions in the non-pony section appeared as if they were not even in a My Little Pony fan forum, although the most curious practice occurred in the roleplay board. Roleplayers had developed OCs, or original characters – pony iterations of themselves – to experiment with. Yet, this was not unusual compared to other fandom roleplay practices, as the source material lent itself well to the customization of new characters to populate a fictitious world.

Since nothing seemed too out of the ordinary with these newfound fans of My Little Pony, myths of the Brony culture seemed to be in need of clarification, which is why some researchers have taken it upon themselves to study the Brony audience. Clinical psychologists Dr. Patrick Edwards and Dr. Marsha H. Redden created BronyStudy.com to survey over 24,000 individuals who identify themselves as fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (Edwards). By gathering demographic and personality information, the researchers concluded some intriguing statistics through their website. The average age of the surveyed Bronies was 21 and 86% of the participants were male. Other statistics such as education level, employment, sexual orientation, and marital status were also taken into consideration. However, the most illuminating section of the results involved significant personality differences between Bronies and non-Bronies. Non-Bronies scored noticably higher in traits of extraversion and neuroticism in comparison to Bronies, while Bronies scored higher in agreeableness and absorption. Essentially, the study concludes that Bronies have very natural personalities and character traits, despite the media reports that attempt to claim otherwise. Bronies happen to be more passionate about their show, as they also seem to embrace the program’s message of love and tolerance. Overall, the survey paints Bronies in a very positive light by using data supplied by the fan base.

To conclude, I wasn’t sure what to expect with my introduction to the Brony culture based on My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Media reports ranged from negative to curious and fan creations were exceptionally creative. The pilot happened to be intriguing and very character-driven, but also did not seem to leave much for future story progression. Forum activity appeared to be no different than any other fan group. Finally, a study by clinical psychologists claimed that Bronies were normal fans, albeit likely a friendlier and more devoted bunch. At the completion of my study, friends of mine asked an intriguing question – if I had now become a Brony. While I do not see myself associating with the fandom further, the knowledge and appreciation of a community of passionate fans is all I will need for now.

WORKS CITED
Darksaber64x. (2011, June 17). Redeye on ‘bronies’ [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fi27530dDCc
Edwards, P. (n.d.). Brony study (research project). Retrieved from http://bronystudy.com/index.html
Faust, L. (Writer) (2010). Friendship is magic, part 1 [Television series episode]. In Faust, L. (Executive Producer), My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. The Hub.
Faust, L. (Writer) (2010). Friendship is magic, part 2 [Television series episode]. In Faust, L. (Executive Producer), My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. The Hub.
Fujimujiwuji. (2011, February 15). My little pony amv epic (7 artists) [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=irQ_d78feMA
Pbsideachannel. (2012, June 6). Are bronies changing the definition of masculinity? [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Est3UNs-LIk
Ponychan. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.ponychan.net/chan/

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