An Unexpectedly Spiritual Culture in Spite of Itself
By SUSAN HURRELL
“It’s not what you think.”
I asked my co-worker, “Why are there a row of plastic pastel ponies lined up along the edge of your work cubicle? You’re a grown man without children. What’s up with that?”
And so began my education on the Brony/Pegasister phenomenon rooted in the animated children’s program: My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Based on the decades-old Hasbro toy line, MLP:FIM is the fourth generation of animated programming centred in the My Little Pony universe. Men who are fans are “Bronies” (Bros who like Ponies). Women are also Bronies, though many prefer the term “Pegasisters.”
After some research, I have been thinking about how this is an emergent spiritual movement for all genders, even though the Brony community is 85 percent male. Why do people – especially men – love the Ponies? My response is: Why shouldn’t they?
Where Are the Gentle Men?
At the Women in Power conference in 2007, Jane Fonda talked about the impact of a bifurcated culture on the emotional health of today’s young men. Gender roles are assigned almost from birth. In her work with youth, she meets many young men who have become emotionally disconnected between their head and their heart. Often bullied and confused, they don’t know how to feel, safely. Ms. Fonda says in closing: “We have to raise sons who are emotionally literate…who are capable of intimacy, love and compassion.”
It is a time in society where we are both breaking away from stereotypes and reacting to the fear and tensions in the political landscape. The daily news reports on world events that harden our hearts, numb us to carnage, teach us that we need to fear that which is different.
To every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The rise of Brony culture may be in part a reaction to this testosterone toughness. It appeals to men who embrace the strength of a gentler outlook. They are the “others” that the cool kids mock (perhaps fear) – the clique of those nonconformists who have no other clique, yet are diverse in their interests, appearance, demographics. Where they are accepted is within Brony culture, where there is room for everyone.
Who Are the Ponies?
The six primary characters in MLP:FIM are archetypes that face down the evils that confront all of us and threaten our wellbeing, personified by Discord, the draconequus in Ponyland. He is not the only antagonist, appearing in selected episodes. A lot of the show deals with personal conflict). Each Pony has a distinct personality and personal challenge that we can identify with, which is the essence of great story-telling.
Twilight Sparkle is a well-intentioned know-it-all. Applejack is a hard worker but resists help even when she needs it. Fluttershy needs to be drawn out into new situations. Rainbow Dash wants to belong, but keeps spelling team with an “I.” Rarity is generous, to her own detriment. And Pinkie Pie is the life of the party who is always out in left field but radiates compassion and inclusion. Their world is gently ruled by Princess Celestia, the wise archetypal mother figure who ensures that adventures don’t get out of control and that her Ponies have learned this week’s lesson.
The episodes are charming. The animation is first rate, and the writing is suitable for its targeted juvenile audience, but rich in cultural references for the Bronies – smart, funny, engaging. The music is well-written and hook-filled, with more than its share of ear-worms. The package presents a powerful message in a highly digestible manner. Think of them as parables. Bronies often ask themselves “WWPD”: “What would a Pony do” in any given situation.
What WOULD a Pony DO?
What a Pony would do would be to do the right thing, because above all, Friendship is Magic. Overcome the things that hold you back. Find your life’s purpose. Support others as they find their life’s purpose.
For Bronies, that support is often demonstrated at the growing number of BronyCons worldwide – conventions that draw thousands, some of whom travel internationally to meet other Bronies and to create a temporary epicentre of Brony culture.
This culture thrives on the Internet, with numerous sites and forums that share fan-created art, music, film and crafted merchandise celebrating MLP:FIM. There is a wide base of acceptance of these creative works in Brony culture where creative effort is shared online, celebrated, and valued.
MLP:FIM is written “for young girls” up to age 11, and the character-driven storylines are based on the principles of conflict resolution and the discovery of your true purpose. After watching numerous episodes, I see the liberal integration of the noble virtues of courage, truth, honour, loyalty, self-discipline, hospitality, self-reliance, industriousness and perseverance. Who wouldn’t want their daughters learning the MLP:FIM Elements of Harmony: loyalty, kindness, generosity, magic, laughter, and honesty?
But what about our sons – especially the softer, gentler, artistic boys out there? Interestingly, our sons are being drawn to these teachings of noble virtue by the tens of thousands – publicly embracing pastel ponies as their animated spiritual teachers and creative inspiration.
Who Are the Bronies?
Bronies are geeks and athletes. They are members of the armed forces and scientists. They are labourers and professionals of all kinds. They are nerdy, geeky loners and party-hard musicians and artists. They are parents of little girls in the target demographic. They are bikers and mechanics and Hollywood actors. They are everyone, and they are everywhere, if you know what to look for; they literally wear their Brony-love on their sleeve, t-shirt, sweat-shirt, keychain….
Is all this a subconscious response to a world that thrives on force? Twentieth and 21st century male culture has been highly militaristic, increasingly violent, and exceptionally competitive in both the sports arena and the corporate workplace.
Inner-city gang culture is a spreading menace to the mental and physical well-being of our young men. Bullying takes its toll on both genders. Perceived “softness” or gentleness or creativity can lead to our more sensitive youth being outcast, derided, persecuted – for boys, being seen as “less than manly” can leave them emotionally illiterate, creatively withdrawn and unable to live up to their potential.
Our culture embraces women taking on traditionally male dominated careers, like being a doctor. But the opposite is not as true. The male nurse, primary school teacher or daycare worker and “stay-at-home-dad” may still encounter the raised eyebrow in some circles.
There is immense negativity directed towards Brony Culture when all people see are grown men (and women) so deeply involved in fan culture. “If grown men like something targeted at little girls, they must be pedophiles.” In a word, no. Adults often like fiction or programming aimed at children – Disney, Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, etc…
“If a grown man wears a t-shirt with a pastel rainbow Pony, he must be gay.” A psychological analysis indicates that 84% of Bronies identify as heterosexual, 1.5% as gay, 10% as bisexual and 4% as asexual.
“They need to get a life.” That could be said of anyone who is a hardcore fan of anything. Fandom is a strange and wonderful human behaviour that brings people together to collect things, share experiences and make new friends. From Star Trek to numismatics to Steampunk to philately – fandom is a mild form of obsession, and is an accepted part of our culture.
A Spiritual Culture?
What is my definition of a spiritual culture? It is a gathering of likeminded people around a core set of values who support each other in the embodiment of these desired qualities and who are inspired by something greater than themselves. For young men, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic provides a safe place for personal expression, creativity and connecting with those timeless noble virtues that are at best given lip service in our contemporary society. The worldwide Brony community is now that greater force for positive change in the world that binds all these things together.
MLP Creator Lauren Faust says: “We need to allow men to be gentle and to be sensitive and to care about one another and not label them as weak for caring.”
We all want to find our own tribe – a place where we are accepted, where our uniqueness is celebrated, where we can take creative risks and find a receptive audience to present our gifts to. We gravitate to those who share our values and make our world a better, brighter place. We crave guidance towards right action and look to songs, stories and parables to help us remember the right things to do.
By celebrating the Elements of Harmony, encouraging creativity, celebrating the magic of friendship, Bronies and Pegasisters have created their own Eden, both online and at their meetups and conventions. The disconnected, discouraged and disaffected have found inspiration and encouragement where – for men, in particular – it is okay to feel – to love – to show compassion, to heal the wear and tear of a world where they may feel they don’t belong. They’ve found their tribe. They live the principles taught to them in parables and seek the noble virtues. They create without fear, and bring joy and happiness to themselves and those around them.
And, given a direct question like “What’s up with the ponies on your cubicle,” they will evangelize.
Susan Hurrell sees the Sacred in strange and wonderful places in popular culture. Fascinated by new spiritual movements, she is a contributing editor to The Aquarian.