What’s going on for adult fans of children’s culture? Some thoughts about the bronies, and other adult fans of My Little Pony.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended my first ever fan convention: the UK My Little Pony Convention, or UK PonyCon. Thankfully, the event was held online, so I didn’t have to wear my luminous pink wig and my plush purple pony suit out in public: that will have to wait for another day. But the convention did offer an opportunity to think further about an issue that I’ve written about in previous posts (for example here and here), and which runs through the project I’m working on for my Leverhulme Trust Fellowship: namely, the nature of adults’ investments in children’s culture.
My Little Pony ‘n Friends was an animated children’s TV series, which originally debuted in the US in 1986. It was one of a wave of toy-based series that can be traced back to Hot Wheels in 1969, but which really took off in the early 1980s with shows like The Smurfs, He-Man, She-Ra and Thundercats, among many others. These series were mostly produced or commissioned by toy manufacturers, especially the US market leaders, Mattel and Hasbro; and they were clearly intended as a form of advertising. Like so many children’s cultural products, My Little Pony was a cross-media brand. Initially developed as My Pretty Pony by Hasbro, the toys actually preceded the TV series, along with a first feature-length film; but they were followed by a vast range of other merchandise, including comics, books, clothing and computer games. Each element in this kind of ensemble effectively advertises the others.
Such programmes were condemned by media campaigners at the time as little more than ‘program-length commercials’; and there were calls for television ‘tie-ins’ of this kind to be banned. These criticisms were reinforced by claims about cultural value: the series were widely dismissed as trashy and worthless, and accused of peddling saccharine and sentimental messages. In the case of My Little Pony and several other such series, there were also arguments about gender: the franchise was seen to be perpetuating exaggerated feminine stereotypes, confining girls to a narrow set of scripts about caring and being ever-so-nice.
At the time, very few critics pushed back against these arguments, although Ellen Seiter’s 1993 book Sold Separately was a rare (and brave) exception. Seiter accused the critics of applying inappropriate and elitist standards of cultural value; and, importantly, of refusing to acknowledge the importance of creating girl-focused media in an environment that was heavily male-dominated. (I wrote about these issues at the time here.)
Like many of these original series, My Little Pony has been ‘rebooted’ several times over the ensuing decades. While the original ran for only two seasons, 2010 saw the debut of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, featuring the fourth and most successful ‘generation’ of characters, which ran for nine seasons until 2019. A further generation is due to launch later this year with another full-length feature and a new CGI-animated series, along with the associated merchandise.
The trouble with fans
What has proven particularly troubling, however – both for critics and commentators, and to some extent for the producers themselves – has been the fandom that has grown up around the show. Many current fans are adults, and (even more shockingly for some) many of them are men – the self-declared ‘bronies’, an amalgam of ‘bro’ and ‘ponies’. There have been at least two full-length, professionally produced documentaries about the bronies – Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony (available here on YouTube) and A Brony Tale (trailer here) – and there have been countless press and media reports about the phenomenon (typical examples can be found here and here).
Of course, it’s not unprecedented to find adult fans of children’s media, although in practice this tends to relate to instances that are intended for a ‘family’ audience, such as Disney, Star Wars or Doctor Who. This cross-generational appeal may also apply here: fans of the later series of Friendship is Magic have argued that the intended audience is not confined to young girls, and that the series has a psychological complexity that is shared with so-called ‘quality’ television. Some academic studies have suggested that the show has evolved to take account of its adult male fans, perhaps at the expense of girls themselves.
Commentary on this phenomenon has been quite divided, not only among outsiders like journalists and academics, but also within the fan community itself. Media coverage tends to begin from the assumption that bronies are bound to be geeks or weirdoes, if not perverts – and even the most positive coverage seems intended to reassure us ‘normal’ people that this is not in fact the case. (This kind of concern was recently fuelled by reports of a self-professed brony who perpetrated a mass shooting.) By contrast, within the fan community, there is a concern that these adult male fans are somehow muscling in and appropriating little girls’ preferences. Sherilyn Connelly’s book Ponyville Confidential, for example, is mainly an exhaustive (and exhausting) defence of the show against the many criticisms people have made of it; yet she also seeks to defend the ‘real’ fans against the brony incomers.
This adult fandom was certainly apparent at the online convention I attended. All the fans who appeared on screen running events were adults, mostly in their late teens and twenties – although despite the attention that has been given to male fans, I would say that less than a quarter were men. Of course, children would be unlikely to participate in an online convention (or even a face-to-face one) or in online fan forums in the first place, so it’s hard to conclude anything from this about the child audience. Unlike in some other fandoms, the age profile would suggest that this adult interest is not primarily driven by nostalgia. There seem to be very few older women fondly recollecting the enthusiasms of their own childhood (indeed, there seems to be relatively little interest in the original ‘Generation 1’ series). Yet on the other hand, I see very little evidence of a kind of postmodern irony here either – which is perhaps surprising among self-professed male ‘geeks’ in their teens and twenties. These people are not participating for the pleasure of taking the mickey. While there are occasional criticisms of particular elements of the show – uninteresting characters or unsatisfying storylines – these are few and far between.
The UK Ponycon was relatively small – there seemed to be no more than 100 people online at any one time – although it did attract some international participants. The online format was obviously inhibiting in some respects, although there was a considerable amount of sharing and chat on a dedicated platform (as well as on mainstream social media) in the weeks before the event itself began. Across the two days, there were bingo games, quizzes and personality tests; pony-themed baking videos, crafting and drawing challenges; instruction sessions on making and repairing toys, and on creating fan art and photography; interview sessions with a fan podcaster and an MLP voice artist; and copious amounts of music (mostly techno-pop, although there was also a solitary accordionist). Fans participated remotely (via photographs and video) in cosplay sessions, wearing home-made costumes, while others showed off My Little Pony ‘shrines’, collections and displays in their own homes. Most of these activities were conducted in a relaxed and supportive way, with copious amounts of chat about likes and dislikes (both in the series and in fan activities themselves). Even so, the talk was laden with in-jokes, imitations and detailed references that would have been quite incomprehensible to newcomers (or indeed to lurking outsiders…).
Meanwhile, around 40 vendors were selling their own fan-produced wares via the convention website: custom-made merchandise, clothes, stationery, illustrations, stickers, greetings cards, cosplay suits and accessories, jewellery, and of course toys. ‘Rehaired’ or restored toys and items of clothing were on sale for up to £20; vintage collectables and charms for up to £30; while commissioned drawings and prints were going for £50 upwards; and commissioned plush toys could cost as much as £300 for tiny versions and up to £2000 for the largest items. While some of this was small-scale ‘amateur’ production, several of the vendors were decidedly professional, with ranges running to hundreds of items.
The UK convention has been held around fifteen times over the years, but it is very much the tip of an iceberg. There are around a dozen My Little Pony fan conventions worldwide every year (at least in non-pandemic times), many of which attract several thousand participants; and there are also fan websites and forums, YouTube series and channels, TikTok and remix videos, mountains of fan fiction and art, and a daily fan publication and website, Equestria Daily.
This level of fan activity entirely overshadows Hasbro’s official website. However, the boundaries between the work of fans and of the producers themselves are somewhat blurred. As in the UK PonyCon, personnel associated with the show frequently make guest appearances at fan conventions, and are typically greeted with mass adulation. The Extremely Unexpected documentary mentioned above was executive produced by Lauren Faust, the creative developer of Friendship is Magic, and by John de Lancie, one of its voice artists, who also plays a major role in the film itself as a kind of benign defender of the bronies. And as the early controversy about ‘program-length commercials’ made clear, what may appear to be creative or editorial decisions made by producers can also reflect the intention to maximise merchandising potential: the endless proliferation of characters in a show like My Little Pony is clearly designed to generate greater ‘collectability’ on the part of fans.
Academics and fans
Many academic researchers would take all this as evidence of the active nature of media fandom. There is a well-established tradition of research in this area, which dates back to Henry Jenkins’ influential book Textual Poachers, published in 1992 (there’s some useful material on this, including links to contemporary interviews with Jenkins, here). It’s important now to place this book in the context of a wider movement in academic media research at the time. Jenkins’ primary focus was on Star Trek fans, and he told a compelling ethnographic story about the kinds of fan activities I’ve mentioned above. However, his aim was not just to defend fans from their critics, but also to make a broader argument about media audiences. The ‘rediscovery’ of the audience in the early 1980s (beginning with David Morley’s book The ‘Nationwide’ Audience) had led to a fundamental shift of emphasis. Audiences were no longer seen as passive dupes of popular culture, but as active and powerful makers of their own meanings. By the end of the decade, some critics were already arguing that this was much too celebratory; but the ensuing work on media fandom took this to the next level.
Fandom has now become a staple aspect of academic Media Studies. Publishers are turning out 500-page ‘companions’, primers and encyclopaedias on the topic (though probably the most useful introduction is still Mark Duffett’s Understanding Fandom). Fandom is academic big business too. For fans themselves, this might appear to offer a degree of respectability – yet they might also be forgiven for seeing it as another kind of appropriation. Do fans really want or need academics to advocate for them?
Personally, I think there are quite a few reasons for questioning the prominence of ‘fan studies’. One fundamental problem here is to do with defining fandom itself. Who counts as a ‘fan’? What, if anything, distinguishes fans from ‘ordinary’ consumers or media users? Is ‘fannishness’ something that can be generalised across different domains? For example, what are the similarities and differences between this kind of TV fandom and sports or music fandom, or film star fandom? As researchers increasingly point to the diversity of fandom, does the term cease to have any meaning?
Another problem is to do with what is typically included or excluded when we talk about media fandom. Much of the research and debate in this area focuses on quite particular types of texts – mostly fictional rather than factual, and mostly fantasy or ‘genre’ fiction (sci-fi, horror, swords-and-sorcery). Why doesn’t it make sense to talk about ‘news fandom’, for example, or ‘documentary fandom’? And could we talk about fandom in relation to ‘unpopular’ media forms? Can we be ‘fans’ of conceptual art or avant-garde improvised music or structuralist cinema, and what would that mean?
This also applies to the types of engagement that we’re talking about. Fandom tends to refer to intense, positive engagement – although that need not necessarily imply that it is wholly uncritical. However, it could be argued that most media use is not deeply committed in this way, but casual and occasional. Most of the time, most people are pretty indifferent about the media they consume – and there is a risk that researchers may ignore this kind of mundane everyday media use. How typical are ‘fannish’ engagements, as compared with audience behaviour more generally? Or to put this another way, how intense does my engagement need to be before it qualifies as ‘fandom’?
In practice, most studies of fandom tend to focus on its positive dimensions. We are told stories about creativity and community, and about ordinary people somehow resisting the power of the media industries. Fandom often appears to have a unique claim to political correctness. Fandoms for things that might outwardly appear quite regressive or conservative are sometimes redeemed, especially in the name of feminism; although fans of media that might seem too problematic tend to be ignored. We don’t hear too much about fans of violent pornography or gun shows – let alone boringly mainstream media like TV property programmes or gardening shows. Furthermore, the consumerist dimensions of fandom – and the industry that has grown up to exploit it – are much less frequently discussed.
Finally, there are questions about the perspective of the researcher. As I’ve said, manyresearchers in this area are motivated by a desire to defend the fans – to push back against the stigma and condemnation they tend to attract. Many declare themselves to be ‘aca-fans’ – academics who are also fans. On one level, this is understandable: when it comes to specialised subcultures of this kind, it can be very hard for researchers to interpret what is going on if they are not to some extent participants themselves. But this ‘insider’ perspective can work against the critical distance that is also needed for research.
What does it all mean?
So what are we to make of the phenomenon of media fandom, and specifically of adult fandom for children’s culture? Enthusiasts often make a humanistic, psychological case for fandom. The Extremely Unexpected documentary, for example, tells a heart-warming story about how fans can achieve a sense of meaning and community from their participation. The film follows a small number of individuals, some of whom undoubtedly fit the negative stereotype of fans as misfits – as somehow socially inadequate, isolated and/or psychologically vulnerable. To the bewilderment (and in some instances against the resistance) of their parents, they come together at the conventions, finding acceptance and comfort in a cruel and uncertain world. And here, of course, this is amply reinforced by the pedagogical lessons of My Little Pony – its relentless celebration of loyalty, caring, friendship, kindness and generally being ‘nice’.
One significant danger here is that we neglect the downsides of fandom. As I’ve suggested in this case, it’s not hard to find instances of conflict and in-fighting within fan cultures: they are not necessarily any more cosy or egalitarian than any other communities. In some cases, fans attract ‘anti-fans’, or groups who are keen to assert their ownership, and to exclude others: instances like Gamergate (where male game fans attacked female game developers and critics) show that these conflicts can sometimes take quite brutal forms.
Another argument here is that the brony fandom is a manifestation of a much wider – and in some respects, quite liberating – blurring of identities, especially in relation to age and gender. In the Extremely Unexpected documentary, for example, both John de Lancie and the psychologist Dr. Patrick Edwards argue that the fandom is allowing adult men to display their gentler, more sensitive and caring side. (Edwards’ book is called Meet the Bronies.) Media Studies academic Bethan Jones argues that the bronies have proven to be so troubling for some of their critics precisely because they fail to conform to conventional masculine stereotypes. However, Ewan Kirkland, a self-declared ‘aca-fan’, is less enamoured: he fears that the bronies have appropriated little girls’ preferences as a vehicle for displaying their own ‘hetero-masculine’ fan behaviour, which is very similar to that of other ‘cult media’ fandoms.
A parallel argument that could be made in terms of age identities. It may well be that adult fandom for apparently ‘childish’ media enables people to get back in touch with emotions that they might have come to disavow or repress – and even to reconnect with their ‘inner child’. In some respects, this provides a positive take on the familiar argument that fans are just immature: what’s so great about growing up, it seems to ask. Yet it also points to the increasing difficulty of growing up in a world where the transition to adulthood increasingly seems to be both extended and precarious – although as Kirkland points out, this kind of adult enthusiasm is not entirely new or unprecedented, especially in relation to animation. Here again, we might regard the adult fandom as somehow symptomatic of a broader blurring of age-based identities within the culture at large – although that might well be to overstate its significance.
Meanwhile, there are some signs that the My Little Pony fandom is now in decline. The bronies appear to have hit their peak in the mid-2010s, and at least one major convention was cancelled in 2019, prior to the pandemic. The UK convention I attended was certainly a little thin on the ground, although a face-to-face UK PonyCon will be taking place later this year, if you’re interested. The appearance of the next My Little Pony feature film, followed by the ‘Generation 5’ animated series in a few months’ time, might give new impetus. But relations between producers and their fans can be delicate and unpredictable. Fandoms are sometimes unexpectedly born, but they can also die – and how and why this happens would certainly be an interesting topic for further research.