How I Became A Brony

To pre-empt any gatekeeping bronies in their generally-quite-nice society who want to tell me that I’m no “true” fan: save your breath, I already know. I’m not actually claiming any kinship with the brony community. But what’s certainly true is that I’ve gained a level of appreciation for My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic that certainly goes beyond that of most people who aren’t fans of the show (or else have children who are), and I thought I’d share it with you. (I can’t promise that it’s not just Stockholm syndrome, though…)

Dan and Annabel wearing My Little Pony headbands. Dan is also wearing a T-shirt that reads "Masculine as fuck", written in flowers, although he hadn't thought about that at the time.
Twilight Sparkle and Rainbow Dash. Their friendship is magic, and yours can be too.

Ignoring the fact that I owned, at some point in the early 1980s, a “G1” pony toy (possibly Seashell) from the original, old-school My Little Pony, my first introduction to the modern series came in around 2010 when, hearing about the surprise pop culture appeal of the rebooted franchise, I watched the first two episodes, Friendship is Magic parts one and two: I’m aware that after I mentioned it to Claire, she went on to watch most of the first season (a pegasister in the making, perhaps?). Cool, I thought: this is way better than most of the crap cartoons that were on when I was a kid.

Pinkie Pie's friends learn about the Element of Laughter.
🎵 Chortle at the kooky… snortle at the spooky… 🎵

And then… I paid no mind whatsoever to the franchise until our little preschooler came home from the library, early in 2017, with a copy of an early reader/board book called Fluttershy and the Perfect Pet. This turns out to be a re-telling of the season 2 episode May The Best Pet Win!, although of course I only know that with hindsight. I casually mentioned to her that there was a TV series with these characters, too, and she seemed interested in giving it a go. Up until that point her favourite TV shows were probably PAW Patrol and Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends, but these quickly gave way to a new-found fandom of all things MLP.

A common sight on any flat surface around our house.
No ponies were harmed in the staging of this apparent massacre.

The bobbin’s now watched all seven seasons of Friendship is Magic plus the movie and so, by proxy – with a few exceptions where for example JTA was watching an episode with her – have I. And it’s these exceptions where I’d “missed” a few episodes that first lead to the discovery that I am, perhaps, a “closet Brony”. It came to me one night at the local pub that JTA and I favour that when we ended up, over our beers, “swapping notes” about the episodes that we’d each seen in order to try to make sense of it all. We’re each routinely roped into playing games for which we’re expected to adopt the role of particular ponies (and dragons, and changelings, and at least one centaur…), but we’d both ended up getting confused as to what we were supposed to be doing at some point or another on account of the episodes of the TV show we’d each “missed”. I’m not sure how we looked to the regulars – two 30-something men sitting by the dartboard discussing the internal politics and friendship dramas of a group of fictional ponies and working out how the plots were interconnected – but if anybody thought anything of it, they didn’t say so.

The Kings Arms in Kidligton. Photo courtesy of User:Motacilla on Wikimedia Commons, used under a Creative Commons (attribution, sharealike) license.
JTA and I’s local is among the most distinctly “village pub”-like pubs I’ve ever visited.

By the time the movie was due to come out, I was actually a little excited about it, and not even just in a vicarious way (I would soon be disappointed, mind: the movie’s mediocre at best, but at the three-year-old I took to the cinema was impressed, at least, and the “proper” bronies – who brought cupcakes and costumes and sat at the back of the cinema – seemed to enjoy themselves, so maybe I just set my expectations too high). Clearly something in the TV show had sunk its hooks into me, at least in a minor way. It’s not that I’d ever watch an episode without the excuse of looking after a child who wanted to do so… but I also won’t deny that by the end of The Cutie Remark, Part One I wanted to make sure that I was the one to be around when the little ‘un watched the second part! How would Starlight Glimmer be defeated?

Box of cinema popcorn with My Little Pony advertising/branding on the side.
🎵 My little popcorn, my little popcorn… 🎵

At least part of the appeal is probably that the show is better than most other contemporary kids’ entertainment, and as anybody with young children knows, you end up exposed to plenty of it. Compare to PAW Patrol (the previous obsession in our household), for example. Here we have two shows that each use six animated animals to promote an ever-expanding toy line. But in Friendship is Magic the ponies are all distinct and (mostly) internally-consistent characters with their own individual identity, history, ambitions, likes and dislikes that build a coherent whole (and that uniquely contributes to the overall identity of the group). In PAW Patrol, the pups are almost-interchangeable in identity (and sometimes purpose), each with personality quirks that conveniently disappear when the plot demands it (Marshall suddenly and without announcement stops being afraid of heights when episodes are released to promote the new “air pup” toys, and Chase’s allergy to cats somehow only manifests itself some of the time and with some cats) and other characteristics that feel decidedly… forced. MLP‘s writing isn’t great by any stretch of the imagination, but compared to the other things I could be watching with the kids it’s spectacular!

PAW Patrol's Zuma
Seriously, Zuma: what are you FOR?

And compare the morality of the two shows. Friendship is Magic teaches us the values of friendship (duh), loyalty, trust, kindness, and respect, as well as carrying a strong feminist message that young women can grow up to be whatever the hell they want to be. Conversely, the most-lasting lesson I’ve taken from watching PAW Patrol (and I’ve seen a lot of that, too) is that police and spy agencies are functionally-interchangeable which very-much isn’t the message I want our children to take away from their screen time.

Rarity cries on the floor, from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic S01E19
Not all lessons are good lessons. I’m talking to you, Rarity.

It’s not perfect, of course. The season one episode A Dog And Pony Show‘s enduring moral, in which unicorn pony Rarity is kidnapped by subterranean dogs and made to mine gemstones (she has a magical talent for divining for seams of them), seems to be that the best way for a woman to get her way over men is to make a show of whining incessantly until they submit, and to win arguments by deliberately misunderstanding their statements as something that she can take offence to. That’s not just a bad ethical message, it also reinforces a terrible stereotype and thoroughly undermines Rarity’s character! Thankfully, such issues are few and far between and on the whole the overwhelming message of My Little Pony is one of empowerment, equality, and fairness.

Mr. Labrador tells Mummy Pig that women are useless at archery.
If Mr. Labrador had a Twitter account, this episode of Peppa Pig would have put him at the receiving end of a whole Internetload of feminist complaints.

For the most part, Equestria is painted as a place where gender doesn’t and shouldn’t matter, which is fantastic! Compare to the Peppa Pig episode (and accompanying book) called Funfair in which Mummy Pig is goaded into participating in an archery competition by being told that “women are useless” at it, because it’s a “game of skill”. And while Mummy Pig does surprise the stallholder by winning, that’s the only rebuff: it’s still presented as absolutely acceptable to make skill judgements based on gender – all that is taught is that Mummy Pig is an outlier (which is stressed again when she wins at a hammer swing competition, later); no effort is made to show that it’s wrong to express prejudice over stereotypes. Peppa Pig is full of terrible lessons for children even if you choose to ignore the time the show told Australian kids to pick up and play with spiders.

Toy Princess Luna with a book on IT Governance
Princess Luna knows what I should have been doing instead of writing this post.

I probably know the words to most of the songs that’ve had album releases (we listen to them in the car a lot; unfortunately a voice from the backseat seems to request the detestable Christmas album more than any of the far-better ones). I’m probably the second-best person in my house at being able to identify characters, episodes, and plotlines from the series. I have… opinions on the portrayal of Twilight Sparkle’s character in the script of the movie.

Dan in Not Dogs wearing a Dune/MLP crossover t-shirt.
Also, it might be the case that I own more than one article of geeky My Little Pony-themed clothing.

I don’t describe myself as a Brony (not that there’d be anything wrong if I did!), but I can see how others might. I think I get an exemption for not having been to a convention or read any fanfiction or, y’know, watched any of it without a child present. I think that’s the key.

Right?

3 replies to How I Became A Brony

  1. See, as regards ‘A dog and pony show’ I don’t think it actually undercuts Rarity as much as it appears to, I think they just bungled the explanation.

    Thing is, all that bursting into tears and whining and being insufferably vapid is a ruse Rarity cobbles together to engineer herself out of the situation (indeed, by the time the rest of the Mane Six arrive, with Spike Whiteknighting the bejesus out of the scene, she’s basically about to waltz out of their with cartloads of gems).

    She even says something like “A lady should always be able to get out of any situation” – it’s intended to be far in the ‘unflappable Lady Penelope’ than ‘airheaded Penelope Pitstop’. I think where the problem comes from is that the fact it’s deliberately contrived high-maintenance isn’t made clear until that point, so until you hit the one line intended as a payoff there’s no indication that Rarity doesn’t genuinely believe an appropriate response to being asked to pull a cart is to burst into tears.

    What it needs, I think, is a couple of cutaway scenes where she pauses from whinging to check the effect the plan is having and then reacts accordingly: they were probably going for a “gotcha” reveal which would leave the audience equally surprised and amazed at Rarity’s resourcefulness and they missed because society conditions people to assume that a woman playing up to the high-maintenance gender stereotype must actually be an empty-headed bimbo because at the point when she bursts into tears at being kidnapped and insulted, she’s clearly too hysterical to do anything but whine about it.

    But the following section of the episode script is really interesting:

    Rover: Enough! Search, pony!
    Rarity: Well, since you insist… But I must say the working conditions in here are simply dreadful. Musty and damp, it’s going to wreak havoc on my mane. And this air is stifling, suffocating. And when I try to take a deep breath, the stench of all you dogs makes me nauseated.
    [Two puzzled guard-dogs sniff their armpits and pass out]
    Rarity: You look and smell like you haven’t bathed in weeks. Have you never heard of soap? You could all do with a good round of soap and water. Oh water, oh water, I’m terribly thirsty. Could I please have some water?
    Spot: Good gracious, I can’t take this anymore. Be quiet, pony!
    Rarity: And that’s another thing. I would appreciate if you stopped calling me “pony”. I am a lady and I wish to be addressed as such. So you may call me “Miss” or “Rarity” or “Miss Rarity”.
    Rover: Enough! Your whining! It-it-it hurts!
    Rarity: Whining? I am not whining. I am complaining. Do you want to hear whining? Thiiis iiis whiiining! Oooh, this harness is too tiiight! It’s going to chafe. Can’t you loosen it? Oooh, it hurts and it’s sooo ruuusty! Why didn’t you clean it first? It’s gonna leave a staaain! And the wagon’s getting heeeavy, why do I have to pull it?!
    Spot: Aaah! Make it stop!
    Rover: Stop whining!
    Rarity: But I thought you wanted whiiining!
    Rover: Geh! We’ll do anything, pony!
    Rover: Oh, uh, uh, we’ll do anything, “Miss Rarity”. [nervous laughter]
    Rarity: [dreamily] Anything?

    Because the first three times I watched this episode with the Bobbin I just took it at face value, and it doesn’t seem to be teaching a good lesson.

    But a very minor rewrite – literally a find-and-replace of ‘Rarity’ with ‘Applejack’ completely flips it on its head: the problem is the way we, as viewers, interpret Rarity not because of how she reacts in the diamond mine, but because outside the diamond mine we know she’s into fasion and takes pride in her personal appearance… so we have an automatic and possibly unconscious bias which encourages us to assume she means every word she says. Whereas, we know Applejack isn’t afraid to get her hooves dirty or pull a cart, so we can instantly she if she was saying such things in the exact same situation then she must be up to something.

    I still think there’s better ways to make her ruse explicit (if you’re teaching someone something, or hope to teach them something, you need to be clear what you’re trying to teach, and the episode clearly falls down there), but I don’t think the episode is showing a failure in Rarity’s character so much as a flaw in the way society conditions us to interpret her character and Jesus fucking wept I’m deconstructing the identities and portrayals of pastel-coloured children’s toys on the fucking Internet and I may actually have to leave the country and go live in the wilderness until I can bear to live in a place where there are mirrors that might accidentally make me meet my own gaze…

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