This past weekend, I joined my son and over nine thousand other My Little Pony (MLP) Fans at BronyCon 2014 in Baltimore, MD. For those who might not be aware, a Brony is a male fan of the MLP show (Bro+Pony=Brony). Why the distinctive title? Well evidently, MLP is supposed to only be for girls. I guess these boys didn’t get that memo. However, what they did get was an appreciation for a show that focuses on friendship, love, and tolerance. Sadly, it is this appreciation for these wholesome values that often puts them at the center of teasing and physical aggression at the hands of their peers. Afterall, boys are supposed to be stoic, cold, tough…not full of feelings! BronyCon is their time to just be, and to be accepted. It is an opportunity for them to share their love of the show with other boys in a fun, safe, loving, and supporting space, free from ridicule.
From the moment we arrived, the energy was electric. People were shouting out, “Free Hugs!” Bronies were decked out in lots of great colorful cosplay. Musicians were making music. Fans were displaying their best MLP gear. Even, whole families came out to get in on the Brony love. These boys were riding high on cloud 9 and my son was more than happy to join in. I was overwhelmed because I had no idea this phenomenon was so huge. Who would imagine that a boy liking a cartoon was such a polarizing issue that it would garner this much attention and foster such a strong community.
As a Gender Specialist, I am often confronted with challenging gender norms in my work. However, my focus is almost always on women and girls. It is very easy to forget that the hammer swings both ways and the same forces putting girls in their gender box are also doing the same to boys. The first question people have asked me, when I tell them my son loves this show, is “Is he straight?” As if it mattered! Although I have no reason to think my son isn’t straight, so what if he is or not. What in the world does one’s sexuality have to do with what TV show he likes. That people can jump to such great leaps in assumptions based on the most trivial of things is alarming and holds extreme implications for Bronies.
Many of these kids endure pure torture on a daily basis because of the homophobia that this issue triggers. What’s worse is they often get little support from the adults who are supposed to protect them. Rather they get told to toughen up and that they should not be interested in a girl’s show in the first place. Talk about blaming the victim! Just being able to say that you like MLP (coming out of the stable) is a huge traumatic experience because of the fear of rejection and ridicule from family and friends. When we were on our way home my son cried for an hour because he knew that he was going to have to go back to a world where loving MLP had to be treated like a dirty little secret. I try very hard to nurture in my son a sense of self that is independent of what others think but, at 10 years old, ones peer group dominates and no child wants to be an outcast.
Attending BronyCon has really opened my eyes to an issue that I think too many parents take for granted, the pressure to conform to very narrow gender roles, roles that are suffocating freedom of expression and creativity in our children. I am going to investigate this issue further and the issue of gender-typing in play as it relates to the Brony phenomena. This is a multi-layered issue that really sheds light on the hetero-normative patterns in our society and how those patterns play out in the lives of our children.
One particular layer that I am most interested in, as it pertains to the Brony Fandom, is the issue of race. I’d like to learn more about the lives of Brony of color. It was not hard to miss that the audience at BronyCon was not very diverse. It certainly was not 12% African-American nor was it 14% Hispanic, which would mirror the ethnic distribution of our country. Why is this, I wonder? It is clear that for those who are already members of divergent communities, where individuality is not usually held in very high regard, being an outcast (or shall we say outcast among outcasts) can be devastating. If you are a Brony of color and you are reading this, I’d love to hear your thoughts.