My Little Pony as an agent of culture shift in gender identity

Yes, really.

Let me work up to this slowly.

Turns out Github, a major open source code archive, has gone all “brony” on us.

Github goes Brony (502)

“Brony? BRONY?” you might ask, “What the heck kind of word is ‘brony’?”

What is Brony?

Um, yeah, about that. Brony is one of those made up words generated as part of the unique communication of a particular generation or culture, sort of secret code words, but not really. Brony is a combination of “bro” (short for “brother”) and “pony” (as in “My Little Pony”).

Yes, that “My Little Pony”. The Hasbro “My Little Pony” infamously associated with pink and perky and flowery and princesses and (did I say pink already?) all the things “little girls are made of”.

Yes, REALLY. Don’t believe me? Check it out at the Urban Dictionary, where even they can’t quite keep a straight face while talking about it, although it is completely serious to the actual Bronies.

Urban Dictionary: Brony:

It isn’t just Brony. There is a complete vocabulary of related terms, including but not limited to Bronyphobic, Brony-rage, bronycon orgy, bronyism, Brony King, Brony Nazi, and Brony the Tiger. Have you giggled yet? Then there are the related terms for the opposite gender, starting with Pegasister. You can do your own digging if you want to know more.

Bronyism and Community

Hopefully, this has persuaded you that this is a real and genuine phenomena with a substantive community gathered around the ideas. They even have their own social network, PonySquare!


And conference!

Bronycon Screenshot

What sort of person is part of this type of community? You might be surprised.

Most of the people in the room seemed similar: friendly but shy, a little awkward yet likable. A number were science or technology college students, and several were in the military. The group is a respite for otherwise reclusive people looking to make friends with people similar to themselves. “It’s a nerd thing,” said AJ King, an Arizona State University student.
Sebastian, Vandana. Bronies: ‘My Little Pony’ adult fan legion grows. Asheville Citizen – Times 22 Aug 2012.

The Brony phenomena is an utterly intriguing example of a commercial show explicitly designed for a particular audience (young girls) that has experienced the surprising result of going viral in a much broader audience. I was in the mall last weekend, and in with the Halloween costumes with blood and gore were mixed My Little Pony tshirts. If I hadn’t already been working on this post, I would likely have thought some incompetent store clerk had accidentally mixed the young girls outfits in which those for teen boys, not realizing that the store knew perfectly well that the gory blood-spattered tshirts and the cute purple pony carrying a sonic screwdriver in its mouth were targeting the same folk.

Jonny Manz. Doctor Whooves and his sonic screwdriver.jpg 18:50, June 8, 2012

Doctor Whooves and his sonic screwdriver

My Little Pony Fan Art Wiki: Doctor Whooves and his sonic screwdriver.jpg by Jonny Manz, June 8, 2012

Why Do Bronies & Bronyism Matter?

When I asked my local Brony about this, I was told, “Why? Because, as surprising as it might seem, the new My Little Pony is a REALLY GOOD SHOW!” He then waxed eloquent about plot lines, character development, relationships with mythology and symbolism, high quality animation, complex rich characters, and other intricacies. This, of course, may make the content appropriate to integrate into educational approaches to some concepts.

Now, working in medical libraries, there is a higher than usual awareness of gender identity norms, variations, as well as support for the LGBTQA communities. Working in social media and online communities I’ve been quite impressed by the ways in which marginalized communities such as LGBTQA groups have used online collaboration technologies to build safe spaces for their communities, build relationships, shared health and wellness information, lifestyle resources, and more. Similarly, I’ve been riveted by the transformative impact of social media in advocacy and activism, such as that in the Arab Spring events.

What I’m witnessing with the Brony movement is something potentially as transformative as Arab Spring in the area of gender role assumptions, but vastly quieter and more subtle. I was tipped off to this idea through the video from PBS’s Idea Channel.

Are Bronies Changing the Definition of Masculinity? | Idea Channel | PBS:

If you haven’t seen the Idea Channel it is an absolutely must see series, mostly online through Youtube, but with it’s own official Youtube space. The series looks at trends both old and new from unique slants and perspectives. Highly creative, mentally stimulating, it asks questions that I, for one, am unlikely to have come up with on my own but which are challenging and worthy of further consideration. Just watching this regularly helps my mind stay flexible and nimble, ready to look at things from new directions.

PBS Idea Channel
– Youtube:
– PBS:
– Twitter:

Why should we be tracking bronyism, Idea Channel, and other sources of emerging culture trends and their permutations? Because of the opportunities they present.

* Research

Brony Study
The Brony Study:
– Researchers:
– Study Results:

Did you see that sample size? 24,000 spontaneous responders to a survey? Whoa. What percentage is that of the real total number of Bronies? I’m guessing it’s higher than the usual 25% response rate, and that this would be because of the fandom community adopting the researchers as one of their own. Still, it does illustrate the potential for doing research on an issue when a community of this sort exists around the topic or a related topic. Now, if only we could design communities this engaging and active around topics that are important to study.

* Health Promotion & Literacy

Anytime there is a community, there are health issues and opportunities to communicate about them. Either the usual generic health issues that apply to the general public, or specific health issues prominent in that community. I don’t know which slant they were thinking of when they wrote this article, but they did a lovely job of taking symbolism significant to that community and using it to hook into information to promote health, in this case a healthy diet by eating “the rainbow”, a range of colors of fruits and vegetables.

Listen up Bronies! A rainbow is good for you. Daily Herald [Arlington Heights, Ill] 18 Apr 2012: 6.

* Sensitization, Support, & Stigma

Bronies in particular, because of its blurring of the stereotypical gender behaviors and boundaries, is an excellent community to mention when discussing sensitive issues, and which may serve as a model for explicitly designing communities to sensitize people to the complexities of issues that have become polarized. There actually was some intentional design going on in the creation of My Little Pony, as has been described by Lauren Faust, the visionary behind the show.

Lauren Faust: “Being girly is the ultimate insult, and it’s unfair to both men and girls.”
Faine Greenwood. Bronies: My Little Pony reboot finds a passionate grown-up audience. GlobalPost October 1, 2012 12:37.

It is interesting, just in the little bit I’ve read, to observe different strategies for how stigma is acknowledged and addressed by members of the Brony communities.

Michael Rice, an Air Force veteran of Afghanistan, disagreed about acceptance by his comrades in arms. “I find it necessary to hide,” he said. “The military is full of the alpha males who love looking for excuses to pick on others.” But his military service is a primary reason why he’s a Brony. “My experiences in Afghanistan made me realize the value of humanity,” Rice said. “Phoenix Bronies is a close-knit group, bound by friendship. And they’re all wonderfully sweet people.”
Sebastian, Vandana. Bronies: ‘My Little Pony’ adult fan legion grows. Asheville Citizen – Times. 22 Aug 2012.

Last but not least, there is the idea of these types of communities spontaneously arising or being developed as a form of gentle and subversive social rebellion, harkening back to the previously mentioned Arab Spring example.

Bronies are a diverse group of adults that enjoy a show that makes them want to be nice to each other. Maybe the fact that any man gave My Little Pony a try is the most important point here. Having interests that go against what men are supposed to embrace is the sneakiest kind of rebellion. Pony on.
Angel, Rebecca. Adult male My Little Pony fans? Bronies are true rebels: There’s no reason a quality cartoon about love and tolerance shouldn’t inspire passion in young straight men. Guardian Monday 1 October 2012 06.43 EDT

Pot of Gold at the Rainbow’s End?

Screen Shot 2012-10-31 at 3.42.50 PM

Shows like My Little Pony and the Powerpuff Girls may or may not have been designed specifically to break gender boundaries, but they have functioned in that role quite successfully. One of my fascinations has been to look at how musicals and operas and other historic popular culture memes used storytelling to transform the attitudes and perspectives of the culture of which they were a part. Think of South Pacific and its impact on racial boundaries, for example. Try to think of any major influential popular musical that did not in some way do this. I haven’t found one, myself, but then I’m looking for it.

There has been considerable discussion within the Brony and Petasister communities about how foolish Hasbro has been to neglect their passion for the show as a possible money maker. Obviously others have no problem filling this gap.

About Github? Come on, you weren’t really surprised, were you? It’s practically de rigeur for geeks to break the mold whenever and wherever possible, or at the very least to selectively ignore a variety of social norms. Lord knows, we need people we can count on to not let the human race lock itself into little boxes that don’t actually serve a useful purpose. And it helps, IMHO, if the box breakers happen to be really smart.

I hope this has been both entertaining and perhaps a bit thought provoking. Now, go forth and genderbend a few costumes? Happy Halloween!


One response to “My Little Pony as an agent of culture shift in gender identity

  1. Pingback: Weekend Reading: What Do You Mean, It's November? Edition - ProfHacker - The Chronicle of Higher Education

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