I don’t explore much of the internet. I have a handful of sites that I visit regularly, some that I visit once in a while, and some that I visit only when the bills are due. It takes time for things that become popular on the web to reach my eyes and ears – they have to percolate down to me.
Recently, I read an article on GamesRadar detailing a mod for the popular videogame, Skyrim. This mod turns every single dragon in the game into a My Little Pony figurine. Upon reading the article, I found myself asking many questions. What is a “Brony?” Who is “Fluttershy?” Toddlers don’t usually make modifications for M-rated videogames – what is going on here?
This was my first brush with My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, the second attempt to create an animated series based on Hasbro’s My Little Pony toyline. Apparently, Lauren Faust, who worked with Hasbro to develop the show, has very strong animation credentials, having worked on some of the more critically-acclaimed shows in the medium’s history. Pony quickly became popular with a small group of adult men, who began to champion it as “a very good cartoon in its own right,” one that is “respectably animated, generally well-written, and most of all just fun.” Skeptics who pointed out that this was a show for little girls were hushed with all the expedience of a Salem witch trial. “Don’t make judgments like that until you’ve watched the show for yourself,” they said.
Television’s making a comeback.
(Not pictured: television making a comeback)
The conflict escalated. It split most people on the internet into two camps, with one side bringing their undying admiration for Pony to bear, and the other finding the adult male fans of the show to be incredibly creepy. Each internet argument became more intense than the last, eventually leading to the banning of Pony talk on some websites, the creation of specialized Pony discussion forums on others, and, ultimately, the birth of an entire subculture revolving around the show.
I became curious as to how such a trivial thing – a television show for little girls – could be so divisive. In an effort to understand where these fans were coming from, I performed a Google search for “what’s so good about My Little Pony?” The top hit was an article from the good people at Wired. The article covered the buzz around Pony fandom as of six months ago (like I said, percolation). It provided the following explanation as to why Pony fans claim to love their show so much:
- It has good animation.
- It has good writing.
- It is a “perfect storm of ’80s nostalgia and cultural irony.”
High standards of excellence, those. I wonder if there have ever been any other animated shows that had the same qualities?
- Ren & Stimpy
- Rocko’s Modern Life
- Phineas & Ferb
- SpongeBob Squarepants
- Kim Possible
- Dexter’s Laboratory
- The Powerpuff Girls
- Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends
- The Simpsons
Ah, so Friendship is Magic is unique in the sense that it’s just like every popular animated series of the last twenty years.
It was around this point that I began to problematize the rampant fandom surrounding My Little Pony. The breakout demographic of this show is the 20-30 year old male. These are people who all grew up in the same years I did, saw the same television shows I did, and lived through the same surges and declines of program popularity. Which means that what Pony’s fans see in their show is something they have all seen before. It shouldn’t be so surprising that an animated series can find crossover appeal anymore.
But there’s a definite distinction between children’s entertainment and all-ages entertainment. If the producers wanted to make a show that appealed to everyone, they wouldn’t have chosen to adapt My Bloody Pony. Unfortunately, this meant that the rabbit hole had to go deeper. That the noise Pony fans were making was simply on account of the show being “totally legit, bro” was not a sufficient explanation for me. Nobody who likes a show that far outside their demographic, that much, is that vocal about it without something else coming into play.
Had the show been altered in post-production to modify viewer brainwaves? Was it FBI weather machines? Government-sanctioned flouride water mind-control? Was this something out of John Carpenter’s “They Live?” Were aliens controlling these broadcasts?
Maybe it’s just that the show’s developer is hot?
I needed to know – the future of humanity might have been at stake. So, I did the only thing I could.
I watched the show.
In truth, I was curious to see what all the hubbub was about. The show looked precious enough, and I was a fan of many of the aforementioned cartoons growing up. Some of them, such as The Animaniacs or The Powerpuff Girls, still hold up remarkably well, even to my adult, more critically-mature eyes. Even if I am wary of anything the internet tells me, I began to suspect that at the least, I wouldn’t absolutely hate what I was getting myself into. Nor would I hate myself for what I was getting into – which, when it comes to the internet, is a far thinner line to walk.
I picked a random episode. It did not matter which. I was convinced that I would never actually become a fan of the show, so figuring out which was the best “introductory episode” was of little importance to me. I began the video stream, and the saccharine pinks and sparkling purples began overloading my senses. The theme song flew by in ninety seconds of pop music. The plot was a classic of children’s television – a girl is embarrassed by her grandmother, teased by her classmates about it, and finally, after much trying to avoid said grandmother, comes to realize that granny is pretty cool after all.
Then, the episode was over.
It’s an adorable show for little girls, and one that is enjoyable enough to not annoy their parents. That’s saying something, considering the state of children’s entertainment today. But it’s rather telling that the only things I remember about the show were its color palette and recycled story, and it’s inconsistent with the general opinion of the show’s many fans – fans who made this out to be one of the best shows on television, fans who listed it as their favorite show of all time, and fans who hounded critics, telling them that watching the show would make them understand.
What’s not to understand?
Well, I do understand. That is to say, I understand why Pony fans talk so much about how much they love the series, and how much they think you should watch it. It’s because they want you to know that they watch it. It’s the perfect attention-grabbing question – “What, you watch My Little Pony? Isn’t that a show for little girls?” It’s just shocking enough to get people talking to or about them, and if it doesn’t get a verbal reaction, it will get a social reaction. “Imagine that! A thirty year-old man, watching My Little Pony!” This behavioral response is so dependable that, for better or worse, fans have made their love of the show a part of their identity. The cult of fandom that rose up in the show’s wake merely perpetuates the cycle. Imagine that someone were to suddenly find out that their eccentric hobby is also enjoyed by thousands of other people. It makes it acceptable in a way that it never would have been before. Even if some people think that Pony fans are obnoxious manchildren, the fans can always count on finding acceptance amongst themselves.
In the same way Pony’s success is hardly a unique phenomenon, the societal response to the show is similarly also-ran. A group of fans, vying for attention, proclaimed their love of something incongruous with their demographic as loudly as possible. In response, the rest of the world accused them of being a group of weirdos.
And the world kept on spinning.