My Little Pony and the Importance of Theme

fluttershy??Before we get started, some terminology: My Little Pony (MLP), is, well, My Little Pony. You know, that show from the 80’s that your little sister was into before she moved on to twisting the heads off Ken dolls? Bronies are people (typically adult men, with a minority of younger and/or female participants) who constitute a My Little Pony fandom, which although it might nominally encompass all things Pony, is really only devoted to the 2010’s-era show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, aired principally on various kid-centric cable channels.

And when I say devoted, I really mean it. As fandoms go, Bronies are pretty intense, encompassing not only the typical viewing parties, fan art and fan fiction, collectibles, etc., but also an annual convention which puts them up with (though certainly not anywhere near eclipsing) that other great single-franchise fandom, the Trekkies.

Besides their devotion, the main thing that stands out about the Bronies is how reviled they are. A quick googling picks up many “anti-Brony” and “Brony H8” groups online, and general trolling and harassment abound on every Brony discussion forum in existence. It’s not hard to see why–people tend to hate things they don’t understand, and it’s safe to say that, outside of the Brony community, very few people understand what the hell is going on with the Bronies. I mean, putting aside all the name-calling and the irony and various other distracting arguments, what we have is a rather large group of ostensible adults, spending inordinate amounts of time obsessing over a show that is clearly made to appeal to pre-teen girls. Why? It’s a question that’s plagued the Internet since the show’s inception, and thus far (to my knowledge) eluded all attempts to answer it.

Well, I’m here today to tell you, fine netizens, that I have cracked the Brony code.

But first, a little more background.

Like many writers (or so I suspect), I’m interested in the nuts and bolts of what makes a story (represented by a novel, movie or TV show) “good.” For example, I like the book series A Song of Ice and Fire. To analyze why I like it, I can point to various aspects of it which I feel are done particularly well: the characters, the world-building, the plot, and so on. If I have decent taste, then it’s likely other people will like the series as well, and although they won’t agree with me completely, it’s also likely that they will cite several of the same reasons for liking it. If these reasons appeal to enough people, then the series may get very popular indeed, get adapted into a series by HBO, become even more popular, threaten to have its TV episodes outpace the books they’re based on, etc.

None of this is rocket science. We like high quality things because they’re good, so it’s natural for those things to become popular to some degree of proportion to their quality. So, if I want my books to be as popular as GRRM’s, then I need to focus (among other things) on making my characters as compelling as his, and so on, which is what makes this whole exercise worthwhile in the first place.

But then, every once in a while, you run into one of those rare beasts, an outlier. An MLP. A piece of media which, for seemingly no reason whatsoever, blows up to a ridiculous extent for seemingly nonsensical reasons. What lessons can we, the next generation of creators, take away from examples such as these? Is there a secret hiding here, waiting to be exploited? Or are they truly just a random, pony-based winner in the cosmic lottery?

I started my quest by asking the people who seemingly should know the most about this issue: the Bronies themselves. Here is an excerpt from the My Little Pony Subreddit FAQ:

Why do you watch it?

It’s a genuinely good show. It has great characters, all with different and likeable personalities, it has its funny and awesome moments making it entertaining and it gives a good lesson in the end that isn’t shallow or boring, making it a fairly educational cartoon for anyone. All the people responsible for making it have a history of working on other great shows, here is an image showing it.

Now, anyone who sees that ridiculous answer can tell that Bronies have no idea why they watch My Little Pony. OK, so it’s a “good” show. So is Game of Thrones. So is Downton Abbey, Breaking Bad, The Mindy Project, Orange is the New Black, and so on. But you’ve chosen to lavish a rather inordinate amount of attention on this particular show, which happens to feature day-glo animated magical ponies. Clearly the fact that the show is “good” does absolutely nothing to explain to us, the rest of the world, why this is the case.

About now is the time when a good portion of my readership is screaming, “But wait! They know why they watch it, they just don’t want to tell us, because they’re ashamed of all the My Little Pony pornography.”

Well, I say “Halt” to that line of thinking. Yes, it’s true that MLP erotica, otherwise known as “Clop Clop” (do not google that) is popular within the Brony community. But I’ve never seen anything to suggest that it’s more popular than the similarly erotic offshoots of other media-based fandoms, like anime. The fact is, if you get a bunch of horny guys in their twenties together to discuss anything, sooner or later you’re going to find that one group of dudes that needs to find a way to wack off to it. But if you want to put forward a theory that erotic pony images are the reason the community came together in the first place, well, I’m just not buying it.

All of which left me at a bit of a dead end with regards to the Great Internet Brony Mystery. So I took the next logical step, the one I’d venture almost everyone who has ever scratched their head at a Brony never takes: sat down (with a willing friend to compare notes) and actually watch an episode of the thing. To avoid bias, I selected an episode at random and watched it all at once, with no commercial breaks, trying to experience it with as little pre-judgement as possible.

The first thing I noticed was that the show is indeed pretty damn good. The particular episode in question (#62) guest starred John de Lancie, who reprised almost the exact same role he played in Star Trek: TNG as “Q,” and did a fine job of it, too. The show is tightly plotted, has some fairly witty (if tame) dialogue, and the animation is well-done. But this information, while strangely relieving, did little to explain the Brony Conundrum, for reasons explained above. For that, I had to wait until the episode’s final few minutes, and the consequent resolution of its main conflict (locating a video of the episode in question is left as an exercise).

Here’s what happens: Discord (de Lancie), who is essentially omnipotent, has been freed to wreck havoc on the Pony heroines’ home planet or magical land or whatever it is. Most of the ponies want to use a magical artifact to force Discord into submission, but the main protagonist of the episode, Fluttershy, instead opts to kill him with kindness, treating Discord as she would a friend, despite the fact that he’s been an absolute cock to everyone up to that point. Discord in turn realizes the true value of friendship, reforms himself, and thus brings the episode to a happy conclusion without anyone having to resort to violence.

And that, dear readers, is when it hit me–the theme of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Hell, it was so obvious, it’s right there in the subtitle of the goddamn show. Themes, generally speaking, can be a slippery thing. Sometimes they’re subtle, or paradoxical, but MLP: FiM is a show that really wears its theme on its sleeve. In this case (and in the case of every episode for all I know), the creators state the show’s theme rather bluntly right at the end: no matter who people are or what they do, you should always be friends with them.

Now ask yourself: how would this theme appeal to a group of, shall we say, socially isolated men in their early-to-mid-20’s, used to dealing with rejection, who spend large amounts of time in front of their TVs and computers and are, for the most part, ridiculously and hopelessly lonely?

Keep in mind, I’m not making fun of Bronies or purposefully being mean. The above description could easily have applied to me at various points in my life, and the phenomena of outcasts seeking group activities which lie outside the mainstream has existed since there were outcasts. The point I’m making is that the Brony community takes to another level the acceptance such people have gotten from things like D&D and sci-fi fandom, because universal acceptance is the entire point of the show the community is based around.

So there you have it, the reason Bronies exist. Which brings me to the next question: is there a lesson to be drawn from all this?

If there is, I think it’s about the power of theme.

Theme is an element of storytelling that’s sometimes overlooked by content creators; certainly many of the writers I know avoid or even disparage consciously including a theme in their work, at least at the first draft stage. And yet, the right theme in the right work can have a, dare I say it, magical effect on readers and viewers, drawing them to media even as they remain unaware of why they are attracted to it.

In fact, I would argue that while there are thousands of perfectly good, even great novels which you have never heard of, when a book does break that barrier between great and truly popular, the themes are usually responsible. A Game of Thrones was published in 1996, and ASoIaF grew in popularity over the next fifteen years until its HBO debut based almost entirely on word of mouth within the fantasy community. For that to happen, it’s not enough for readers to simply “like” a book–the themes in the book need to resonate with them so deeply that they feel compelled to go out of their way to get others to read it, thus forming the beginnings of a true fandom.

Of course, theme alone won’t carry a piece of media to popularity–if the Bronies were not given good plots and good characters (and lots of them) to discuss and draw and do less savory things to, then the fandom would have no reason to exist. And it’s also interesting to note that the show’s creators chose a theme they felt would appeal to one demographic group, and ended up discovering an entirely new audience who appreciated it even more, thus proving that planning an outlier, freak-of-nature type success remains impossible.

But still, the next time you’re plotting that book or drafting that screenplay, consider spending some time thinking about your theme(s), and how they might appeal to your potential audience (or even those outside your potential audience). Or if you think this is a bad idea, or you want to discuss anything else I’ve said, then feel free send me a message or a comment. Just please, no Brony H8.

Halt!

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5 thoughts on “My Little Pony and the Importance of Theme

  1. Good attempt… but no.

    Something established very early on in the series is the fact that not everyone can be friends all the time, especially if they’re rude, obnoxious, and rotten to the core. Episode 5, called Griffon the Brush Off, has a character in it named Gilda who most definitely loses a friend due to her obsession with being cool.

    Similarly, Queen Chrysalis of the changelings (A Canterlot Wedding) is not offered the hoof of friendship. She tries to attack the capital city, is repulsed (not by friendship, by the way), and has not returned since.

    Discord, who first appeared in the season 2 premiere (The Return of Harmony), and Trixie, a pony introduced in episode 6 (Boast Busters), are both villains who ended up causing a large amount of problems and weren’t initially offered the hoof of friendship. It wasn’t until their follow-up episodes (Keep Calm and Flutter On with Discord, Magic Duel with Trixie) that they were given any chance to redeem themselves.

    In the words of Twilight Sparkle at the end of The Return of Harmony, “We’ve learned that friendship isn’t always easy, but there’s no doubt it’s worth fighting for.”

    It is probably also important to note that I’m a pretty social guy. I like going out and spending time with people who AREN’T bronies just as much as I like spending time with bronies. Long before I started watching the show, I had a group of very good friends in high school, and wherever I’ve gone I’ve had plenty of friends.

    I’m not forced to be anti-social by any stretch of the imagination; any anti-social traits are my own desire for solitude, and I have a large net of support if I ever get the mood to go out and spend time with friends (which I do, and I do so).

    So, much as I like to think that someone can nail down what makes the brony fandom work (and I have to admit I was really excited when I read that you were going to try), I don’t see it. I’ve got a bit of reading you may like, though:
    http://thedailyoat.com/2013/11/11/scootareader-looks-into-the-fandom/
    http://thedailyoat.com/2013/11/24/scootareader-looks-into-the-show/

    So, back to the drawing board we go!

    1. Good to hear from you, Scoot (can I call you Scoot?).

      I probably should not have implied that the show’s message includes the idea that unconditional acceptance extends to individuals who are aggressive, dishonest, etc. Indeed, the very crux of the episode I watched hinged on Shutterfly’s rejection of Discord after he betrays her trust.

      But I don’t feel like this changes the core ideas at work, e.g. that friendship is a key value to be pursued even at the risk of personal loss, or that a previously shunned individual like Discord should still be welcomed into a group as long as they have reformed their ways.

      One element that keeps being emphasized in your first link is the diversity within MLP fandom, which is something I (some might say unfairly) glossed over in a post dedicated to forming a sweeping generalization. Of course, any large fandom will be diverse in numerous ways, not the least of which is their initial attraction to the community. I may like Game of Thrones for reasons A, B, and C, while someone else may like it for A, B, and Z, and yet another person for X, Y and Z, and while characterizing every individual may be impossible, my goal was to identify at least one common thread that runs through a large number of individuals.

      This isn’t meant to imply something like “the majority of Bronies have no friends”–that would be as unfair and inaccurate as saying that the majority of SF/F fandom have no friends. And yet, in his acceptance speech for this year’s Hugo award for best novel, John Scalzi said that when he attended his first sci-fi con, he felt like he had “found the Land of Misfit Toys.” The audience laughed–but it was a slightly uncomfortable laugh, as if John was speaking a truth which some people would prefer not to acknowledge.

      And a part of that truth, I think, is the fact that in the real world, many people don’t display the kind of empathy that Shutterfly and her companions do. It wouldn’t surprise me if many Bronies, like me, bear some scars from experiences with those people, even if they had other friends at the time, or have moved past the phase in their lives when they let others hold power over their feelings. So is it likely that these Bronies are attracted, even subconsciously, to the prospect of an escape to a world where such empathy is held up to be the pinnacle of human behavior? The readers will have to decide for themselves.

      Which isn’t to say your personal experience as outlined in your second link is invalid, or that I’m necessarily right about anyone else’s experience, But I would like to thank you for engaging me on this issue. Cheers..

      1. Admittedly, every single episode has something to do with friendship; this much is true. There’s just a lot more at work here. I’ve been hunting boards, having interviews, meeting every caliber of person–there’s a prevalent fandom icon named DustyKatt who goes by the moniker “Manliest Brony in the World,” and is something of a role model for bronies as being able to be a man while still liking a show like MLP. Nothing has stood out as the one thing that the fandom has.

        As far as relatability, yes, the characters are actually extremely relatable. You are correct in saying that it’s not just the great writing, great characters, and great talent that makes the show so popular; they are, however, a significant part of it. Most actually relate to Twilight Sparkle, the “leader” of the group, most; recent events may have changed the status quo somewhat, but she’s still the same Twilight to me.

        There are, however, people like the hotheaded Rainbow Dash that I’ve met in person. A very good friend of mine who I met through schooling related to that character very much, but he also was very much not the pasty-skinned glasses-toting suspendered nerd blinking behind a computer screen; rather, he had long, carrot-colored hair, regularly performed physical activites to stay in shape (and was pretty bulky as a consequence), and only occasionally did things on his laptop, instead seeking primarily social opportunities with others.

        Bronies like this are by no means uncommon; I’ve met more than a handful myself. They are, however, a primarily in-person group–you don’t see many Rainbow Dashes or Applejacks fiddling with computers. You can, however, say that everyone who watches the show likes at least the notion of friendship, if not the practice therein, as again, I’ve met a small handful of people who watch the show and don’t want any friends.

  2. Interesting blog! My boys (9 and 11) love MLP. I think part of the reason is the shocked and surprised looks they get when they tell people they are fans of the show. There are way worse messages that they can get from TV, so I’m happy with them being Bronies.

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