My little brony

by Anya Jaremko-Greenwold

“Brony.” This peculiar term refers to an adult (usually male) fan of the Canadian animated TV series “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.” My Little Pony started as a toy and merchandise enterprise that was popular in the ’80s, later revived with the 2010 show. The small screen program follows the escapades of cutesy, candy-colored ponies with names like Applejack, Rainbow Dash, and Twilight Sparkle. The franchise was always intended for little girls – so why are legions of adult males, aka “bronies,” loving it with a fervid passion? The fanatic adoration of not just the TV show, but of the culture surrounding it (online forums, conventions, tattoos, music, spin-offs, fan fiction) has become an international phenomenon over the past decade. We spoke with two brony-expert KDUR DJs who have spun plenty of brony music in their day, and tried to understand what attracts these adults to the series (are they perverts or is it innocent?), how the supportive and rabid fans interact with each other and what actually makes the show worth watching.

Why “My Little Pony”? And is this creepy?

In a word, no. There are thousands of bronies around the world (more than you’d think). There’s even a few in Durango. And although these fellows might be violating societal norms, they aren’t doing anything immoral or predatory. They don’t hit on little girls who watch the show; they mostly watch and discuss it with other grown-ups with unabashed glee. Perhaps most unsettling for people is how the show was intended for little kids: How can it possibly be interesting or intellectually stimulating for adults? The truth is, adults watch stupid and low-brow stuff on TV all the time; the “Kardashians,” the “Real Housewives” or “The Bachelor.” “My Little Pony” couldn’t be much worse.

Still, people unfamiliar with the fandom can be hostile, judgmental and suspicious. Human beings aren’t always nice to those who deviate from the herd (no pun intended). Society is built around gender conditioning, after all; babies are dressed in pink or blue, little boys are encouraged to play with trucks and girls play with dolls. As we age, the gender roles expand – but still remain rigid; men are supposed to like action films and women assumedly love rom-coms. Yet masculinity is evolving. These days, it could be football, it could be “My Little Pony.” The show centers on a sense of community and friendship; it’s about six equine buds learning from each other, an unbreakable but inclusive clique. This theme is echoed in the show’s tight-knit community. The positive message behind “My Little Pony” is what these men admire and cling to. Each pony has human fallacies and strengths. They’re tasked with figuring out who they are, and what’s more relatable than that?

The fandom

A documentary on Netflix called “A Brony Tale” takes viewers backstage and behind the scenes of the brony brotherhood. It seems the men involved not only meet up in person (and become close friends, more often than not); they also go online and dissect plot points from the show, like you or I might fanatically debate “Game of Thrones.” They own Pony-themed merchandise and clothing. They even get tattoos of the characters. And ostensibly, like any segment of society, the majority of these men aren’t gay or effeminate – many are positively macho.

Michael Zimmerman, 22, hosted a brony-centric show on KDUR while he lived in Durango (he recently moved to Fort Collins). “When everybody is interested in the same thing, whether it be religion or sports, that passion and zeal and the fandom will just carry you away,” said Zimmerman. “The community is a good one. A lot of people in it seem to have difficulty interacting with people otherwise; but this is something they love, that they can talk about and not feel so marginalized.” Although Zimmerman concedes the brony community isn’t quite so vibrant in a small town like Durango as in a larger city, he did attend a brony convention in Denver (The Running of the Leaves) with five other Durangoans.

Chris Jahrling, 22, a current FLC student and DJ at KDUR, agrees there aren’t many bronies in Durango – but he makes friends via the Internet, interacting with people all over the world who also watch the show, it having a universally-appealing nature. There’s a darker side to the fandom, of course, though both Jahrling and Zimmerman successfully avoid that aspect. (“Clopping,” for example, refers to the act of masturbating while viewing “My Little Pony.”) “That’s just the nature of the Internet,” said Zimmerman. Every fandom has its perversions.

Bronies zero in on the nuances of each episode and obsess over details, assigning meaning to everything. It’s almost as though these fans are co-writers or creative contributors. “The show’s producers are aware of us,” said Zimmerman. “We’ve given names and personalities to every single background character, and fleshed the universe out.”

So why do adult men in particular enjoy it? “I do have to speak in generalities, as obviously everybody is an individual,” said Zimmerman, “But in the personalities of the characters, there is something that appeals to straight guys. The six main characters, all females, have idealized personalities. It might be that guys enjoy the show because we like girls – not just the physical aspects, but we go for their personalities.” Jahrling suspects male and female fans of the show are equal in number, but “the media tends to fixate on what is abnormal or interesting, and guys watching get more attention because it doesn’t really fit in the traditional ‘plan’ society has for men.”

The music

When Zimmerman hosted a brony music show on KDUR from 2012-2014 (on and off), he went by DJ Horse on the Mic, playing mostly electronica, aka electronic remixes of songs from the show. These tunes have been incorporated into just about every genre imaginable by eager fans; he also spun jazz, reggae and country. A male listener in Durango called up Zimmerman to say how much he loved it, exclaiming something along the lines of, “I didn’t realize such a weird concept could have such good music!” “There’s a stealth element to it,” said Zimmerman, “Like, ‘Haha, you really do like pony stuff!’ It doesn’t sound anything like what you’d expect a little girl’s cartoon to inspire.”

Chris, aka Chris the Prog Frog on his current KDUR radio spot, plays more of the show’s original songs (not remixed). “There’s a good 30 or so songs from the show to pick from. It’s kind of poppy. Daniel Ingram and William Anderson are the guys who write it.”

What makes it so good?

So is the show actually good? It’s certainly received positive reviews from critics. Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club wrote about its “sheer and utter joyfulness” and lack of cynicism. Many popular programs today glorify and exalt violence or criminal behavior (“True Detective,” “Breaking Bad”); but this one is innocent, comforting, devoid of life’s harsher miseries. The stories are relatively complex for children’s fare, but any drama between characters is resolved within an episode or two (with no grudges held). Every pony has a distinct personality and a life’s purpose. The show even inserts an unexpected number of cultural references: these would naturally fly over the heads of adolescent girls, but seem anticipated to amuse any parents or bronies who might be watching. In season 5 episode 16, for instance, the ponies venture outside their idyllic home village (“Ponyville”) to “Manehattan.” They struggle to navigate the cold brusqueness of the hustling, bustling city where nobody cares about community or helping each other. “Hey – I’m trotting here!” yells one angry steed as he crosses the street and nearly gets mowed over. There’s even a “hay-packing district.” Kids wouldn’t understand this.

What viewers find ultimately engaging is the show’s combination of positivity, good morals and impressive quality. “It’s funny, well-made, well-written, well-animated, the voice actors are good, the music and the direction and background artwork are good,” said Jahrling. “Everything that goes into the show is masterfully produced.”

Personal connections

“When people first hear about it, it’s absolutely bizarre,” said Zimmerman. “But once you get more familiar, it starts to make sense.” Zimmerman’s brother was the one who first encouraged him to watch the show, and to humor his sibling, he did – of course, the DJ ended up loving it. “It was witty, it had jokes, it didn’t take itself too seriously. I had been expecting something like Lisa Frank [American businesswoman responsible for those bright, neon folders and pencil cases with unicorns on them, legendary in the ’90s] , but it wasn’t over-the-top or saccharine like that – it was genuine,” said Zimmerman. “They pulled off what Walt Disney tried to, treating adults as grown-up kids. Putting jokes in there that only adults would understand.”

Jahrling seconds this praise of the program’s adult themes, mentioning one particular episode dealing with death (although no actual passing occurs). Rainbow Dash, one of the pony protagonists, has a pet tortoise named Tank who is going into hibernation for the winter; Tanks starts to become slow and lethargic, and Rainbow cannot understand why her best friend seems to be deserting her. She goes through the five stages of grief over Tank’s encroaching departure, before finally accepting things.

“There are lessons to be learned from the show,” said Jahrling. “About friendship, compassion, fairness, not judging others based on appearance – it’s not as simple as it should be. I don’t think we as a society have learned these lessons very well. We could stand to relearn them as we’re entering adulthood or the workforce. We don’t spend enough time trying to understand each other, and we substitute understanding with things like money, power, status – but that’s the root of every problem. These basic concepts of understanding are simple lessons that can be taken away from “My Little Pony.” The show provides us with insight into what the world could be, and what the world should be.”

Neither fan denies their fandom is unusual, even strange. They get it. But they don’t care. “You know, every once in a while I get a drop of perspective on what I’m talking about, and I’m left wondering what the heck I’m doing with my life,” said Zimmerman. “But then I remember, no … this is actually OK.”

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