Brent Hodge’s new documentary film seeks – somewhat successfully – to demystify the mystifying phenomenon of Bronies.
Bronies are adult male fans of the 2010 cartoon show My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, currently running in its fifth season. Bronies (a portmanteau of “bro” and “ponies”), a vocal subset of nerd culture, are a lot like Furries in the way they are regarded by the nerd community; that is: most people react with a mixture of confusion and derision. Why are grown men so actively and passionately following an animated television show so clearly geared toward young girls? What is it about this particular television show that it has spawned a cult so large? The Bronies are legion. They hold their own annual conventions, produce copious amounts of fan art, and wax deeply emotional about how much joy and comfort they take from this show.
Many Bronies are interviewed in Brent Hodge’s new documentary film A Brony Tale, a good-natured and sympathetic movie that may not fully unknot the riddle of the Brony phenomenon, but certainly elicits a weird, disarming sympathy for a fan movement that is quick to acknowledge its own baffling qualities. Here’s what I have learned about Bronies from this film: they are all typically pretty shy, many of them are a bit awkward, and they are all, in their own quiet way, pretty open about their love for this sweet TV show. They are also a bit defensive about their passion, perhaps half-acknowledging that their chosen object of fandom is decidedly childish and uncool.
In short, Bronies are a new vanguard of nerds. They are using their fandom as a form of identity, and are working their way through a shared crucible of mockery. This is what nerd-dom has always been about. Or at least (speaking as a 35-year-old) that’s what it was before the internet and the notion of a “virtual community” could bring nerds together, feeding the fires of fandom until it was not only acceptable, but expected. Bronies are essentially riding the line – even within the nerd community – between derision (for liking something so childish) and bravery (for declaring that love, despite the derision).
Hodge clearly thinks they are brave people, and allows them to speak openly about their own phenomenon. Hodge does not look down on them, or even keeps them at arm’s length. The outsider in his film – and the film’s functional narrator – is voice actress Ashleigh Bell, who plays two key roles on Friendship Is Magic. Bell is not a Brony – she’s just an actress – but she is thrust into the central nest of her fans when she agrees to attend her first Brony convention. After the con, she seems a bit overwhelmed, finally admitting that she didn’t know the true depths of love people had for this show. I didn’t. I’m not sure many non-Bronies really do either.
A pair of psychologists appear in the film to spitball a little bit, trying to unpack the phenomenon. They do come to one conclusion: that widespread social movements tend to be reactions to worldwide tragedy. In the wake of 9/11, young people didn’t unite as hippies or as beatniks or as punkers, but as fanboys. I see some credence to this. The world of fandom offers fantasy safety within social chaos. One word they never use, however, is “infantilization.” There has always been a childish edge to a lot of nerd love; most objects of nerd fandom tend to be based on, continuations of – or at the very least couched within – things we consumed as kids or as teens. Bronies just take that notion and shift it backward a few years. As anger becomes more overt, people begin to revert. Something like Friendship Is Magic appears to be gentle, colorful, unsophisticated, and appealing to very young children. The men who enjoy it, then, are seeking a childish antidote to the world’s anger.
There seems to be more of an edge to this new 2010 iteration of Hasbro’s My Little Pony (the original toy-based phenomenon from 1983 was entirely edge-free and more pointedly marketing-based), but it’s still very, very gentle. I should perhaps admit that still haven’t seen a single episode of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, and I still don’t want to; I had enough of the Ponies the first time around.
So A Brony Tale didn’t fully unpack and analyze the Brony phenomenon. What it did was offer a venue for earnest testimonials. If you don’t “get” Bronies, you may still not by the end of the film. The movement is still largely mystifying to me, but – as someone who attended Star Trek conventions – I can at least recognize the color of passion, even if I can’t identify the shape.