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.