"My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic" follows the adventures of Twilight Sparkle and her friends Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Pinky Pie, Fluttershy and Rarity as they travel through the land of Equestria studying the magic of friendship.
You would think such a plot, along with strong female characters, whimsical settings, pastel colors and high moral messages make it the perfect show for little girls. Surprisingly, that's not the case -- its fastest-growing and most dedicated fanbase is not little girls, but actually late teen and 20-something straight-identified single men who vocally celebrate their true love for the show through music, fiction, art, fashion and memes ... tons and tons of memes.
They are called "Bronies," and their very existence on the internet and beyond may be moving the needle toward a new definition of what it means to be a man. Relax, we know there are probably a million questions running through your head (not the least of which is: what attracts a grown man to a cartoon for little girls?), but you can rest assured that there are no psychological pathologies or paedophilic motivations among the members of this fandom.
In fact, a study done by two American clinical psychologists, Dr. Patrick Edwards and Dr. Marsha Redden, compared 24,000 Bronies with about 3,000 non-Bronies and found there were virtually no personality or emotional differences between the two groups, especially when it came to gravitating toward things thought of as female. "The only significant difference in personality between Bronies and non-Bronies was that Bronies were more agreeable, which is consistent with the show's message of conflict resolution and tolerance," says Redden.
Tolerance is what Brony fandom is built on. A week after the "Friendship is Magic" premiere in October 2010, blogger Amid Amidi wrote an alarmist commentary on Cartoon Brew titled, "The End of the Creator-Driven Era in TV Animation," using "My Little Pony" and its Hasbro-owned network Hub TV, as its main target. A discussion of the piece erupted on 4chan and eventually men on 4chan decided to watch the show and ... they liked it.
Battle lines were drawn on the 4chan boards, as the first Bronies faced their detractors in heated arguments. But, instead of matching vitriol with more venom, the Bronies decided to subdue their haters with kindness -- inundating the boards with hundreds of ironic "My Little Pony"-themed memes. The boards were so overrun that administrators decided to ban all mention of ponies on the site, which only intensified fan dedication, as Bronies spread into cyberspace determined to create their own discussion boards and fan sites.
The largest of these is Equestria Daily, a fan site created by Shaun Scotellaro in January 2011 out of his parent's home in Glendale, Arizona. At 175,000 hits a day, if anyone knows what men like about this show, wouldn't it be him?
"Honestly it differs for everyone," he says. "Some just like the cute ponies, others get lost in the setting, and the newer guys tend to flock toward the incredibly friendly community aspect. It's a mixed bag."
While it's difficult for Bronies to narrow down what they like about the show (animation, relatable characters, community etc.), many say "Friendship is Magic" gives them permission to reject what media and society feeds them as traditionally male.
"There are all these shows that are 'male' with violence, guns and explosions, but 'MLP' is a different take. It's a more peaceful kind of thing and that's why I like it. Sometimes we just need some peace in our lives," says Trevor Buntin, a Brony from Hamilton, Ontario.
"I never really considered myself a manly man," says David Kong, a 15-year-old Brony, who believes the the fandom is a movement of guys breaking the traditional handcuffs society has placed on them.
"I don't like the common perception that guys have to be strong or uber-macho. I never could reconcile that idea in my mind, and the show gives guys an opportunity to express their inner femininity. The idea that the show is for girls enticed me to keep watching because I knew I was breaking that 'typical guy' perception."
So, why this shift from traditional gender norms? Joe Kilmartin thinks he knows. The manager of Toronto's Comic Book Lounge and Gallery has his theories after seeing more male customers surreptitiously approach the blind bag pony figures on his counter.
"As culture gets more brutish with things like Fox News -- the bully's idea of what a news network should be -- there's a certain kind of geek that takes comfort in having more female friends than male friends. These guys are looking for something to belong to and they know it won't be sports. Fandom, by it's very nature, is subversive and most geeks get a kick out of the perverse. Nothing embodies both more than a show that relies on gender stereotypes for its marketing, but has a level of humor and wit that takes a certain acuity and intelligence to appreciate."
To be a geek is to already be judged for what you like, and Bronies are still self-conscious enough to shorten "My Little Pony" to "MLP" when speaking about it publicly, and to skip past the saccharine opening theme. However, beyond the occasional razzing, Bronies say the public is actually pretty accepting. Does that mean what's considered manly could be changing?
"I think the definition of what it means to be a man is unfortunately still what it was 50 years ago, but this is a signal that things are ready to change," says Kilmartin. "If it doesn't happen immediately, it's going to happen in generations after ours because if it's something as casual as this, it says a lot about where things will go. It's a signal that those old tropes about what it means to be a man, and the things you can like as a guy, are falling away."