One of the weirdest cultural phenomena of the last few years is the rise of the ‘brony’, the incredibly unexpected adult fan of the My Little Pony franchise (in particular, the most recent TV series, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic). Intended for pre-teen girls, the show follows a group of six pony friends and the host of townsfolk who support them as they adventure through the land of Equestria. Each pony embodies a virtue represented by the ‘Elements of Harmony’: honesty, generosity, laughter, loyalty, kindness, and magic. The show’s plots promote those merits—and, of course, the related Hasbro merchandise.
Much to the mass confusion of the mainstream public, brony fandom has exploded since the first episode of Friendship is Magic aired in late 2010. Bronies, and their less common female counterparts, ‘Pegasisters’, have banded into worldwide communities, in most cases brought together by little more than their appreciation for the show and a sense of camaraderie. Their presence is quickly becoming dramatic in size; websites like Youtube, DeviantArt and Tumblr are littered with transformative works based on the fantasy kingdom, pushing all facets of the “remix culture” of the digital age. Fans often create a pony avatar to characterise and identify themselves in the community, and My Little Pony fanfiction is written with just as much fervour as that of any other TV show. Brony conventions are growing in size and attendance across the world; in Australia, PonyCon was held in Melbourne in February this year, with Sydneigh to come in September.
Despite this popularity, the fandom has been a massive target for ridicule and abuse, from its very beginning on the notoriously cut-throat site 4chan to the current lack of understanding that outsiders experience when confronted by the phenomenon—at least one man has openly suggested that he had lost his job due to being a My Little Pony fan. As with everything new and incomprehensible to some, the response is often a mix of fear, anger, and confusion, and the stigma will no doubt reign for quite some time.
One subset of fans known as ‘cloppers’ are often condemned from outside the brony community.
“Cloppers are just people that like to masturbate to My Little Pony,” a clopper based in New South Wales told me. “Personally, I don’t see what the big deal is since there are people fapping to way crazier shit… the human mind is able to find a fetish for literally anything. There is just a large collective that has the same attraction to My Little Pony.”
While most of us would identify a definable perversity in the clopping fetish, it’s also true that some of society would agree that safe, respectful and victimless expressions of sexuality are acceptable, leaving the modern discourse on sexuality even more entangled.
Other threats to the community are more universally damnable. Earlier this year, an 11-year-old boy in the United States attempted suicide due to the bullying he received for being a fan of the show. He survived, but suffered severe brain damage. Thankfully, one of the lesser-known aspects of the brony fandom is the significant level of charity within the community; fans and production staff came together to produce a charity drive for his medical bills, and started an anti-bullying non-profit organisation, raising more than US$100,000 in the process.
Bronies have gone as far as creating their own non-profit corporation, started by a devoted fan in 2012 as a small fundraiser to raise US$2,000 in order to air a short advertisement thanking the show’s producers. Raising more than eight times its initial required target, the Brony Thank You Fund has now evolved into a tax-exempt non-profit organisation that provides toys to the children of serving marines, funding for environmental conservation and cancer research, and even a perpetual animation scholarship at the California Institute of the Arts.
There’s no doubt that the brony fandom is an incredibly unique intersection of people and passion. The show acts as a forum for men willing to throw away the perceived shackles of masculinity and embrace the virtues of friendship and the whimsy of bright colours. It acts as a nexus of cultural and countercultural creative output, and in many ways, it is an expression of the desire to return to a simple childhood. Friendship is Magic is many things to many people—though it would take at least three PhD graduates and a vial of LSD to even get close to concisely defining its allure.
But even if the average person on the street can’t understand the fascination of ponydom, who would we be to condemn it? After all, in the brony community, where the Elements of Harmony are held in the highest regard amidst a real world that seems increasingly isolating and cruel, maybe these friendships are just a little bit magic.