When the cartoon show My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic debuted in 2010, no one could’ve imagined the subculture of obsessed male fans that would bloom around it. A series about colorful, cutesy ponies going on adventures and learning lessons on kindness wasn’t exactly the most “traditionally” masculine bit of pop culture — but apparently, that was exactly the draw. Soon, the male fandom was a bigger story than its success with the young female demographic it was intended for.
And media depictions of so-called “bronies” ranged from incredulous to heartfelt, with a number of documentary programs depicting the community as a sign that men were embracing more feminine aesthetics and a gentler form of bonding over themes like friendship, loyalty and acceptance.
Of course, it’s more complicated than that. Brony culture is nothing if not diverse, partly due to it being influenced by 4chan and other online spaces full of problematic worldviews, humor — and men. And what researcher Zachary Palmer found when he attended more than half a dozen brony conventions was a curious mix of ideologies. Indeed, there was a genuine, softer kind of masculinity at play, he says. But he also found that many men who love My Little Pony used it to perpetuate ideas of male victimhood, misandry and the failures of feminism. Curiously, too, he found many subversions of My Little Pony — including portrayals involving aggressive pornography and explicit violence
I recently spoke to Palmer, now an associate professor of sociology at Texas A&M Commerce, to unpack his 2021 study on the men behind “Brony culture,” the decline of MLP over the last half-decade and why a TV show for young girls became a landmark for understanding complex masculinities.
How did you first come to explore My Little Pony fandom as something you wanted to study critically?
I was looking for projects that would be about masculinity and what’s going on with men for my master’s program final project. This was 2013, and My Little Pony was becoming popular. I was really active on Tumblr, and I saw people who were both really pro-brony, but also very anti-brony. Particularly, a lot of feminists who were anti-brony were saying, “These grown men are invading this space for little girls, and they’re making porn out of it.” And I found that really fascinating,
It’s not like I was looking at it and thinking, “Oh, these guys are weird.” It was more that I felt the issue was more complicated than people thought. There was a lot of exposure of this fandom in mainstream media, and they were taking this one-dimensional stance on it, whether pro or anti. What really started to click with me was seeing a lot of the blending of what we would consider “hypermasculine” traits with MLP. When I started the research, I kinda thought, “Okay, it’s just a regular fandom, but it happens to be guys who are into something stereotypically feminine.”
But when I got to attending brony conventions and talking to men, it was obvious there was more to the story. Like, I saw bronies with guns. There’s a picture I have of these two guys in purple camo, holding big rifles decorated with My Little Pony cutie marks. And I thought, “Huh. What is that all about?”
The idea of multiple masculinities can be a bit challenging to understand, because the discourse is often on things like “traditional” masculinity or toxic masculinity. How would you define the concept of hybrid masculinities, which you use to frame the world of bronies?
Hybrid masculinities is this concept that’s most associated with the scholars Tristan Bridges and CJ Pascoe. It’s basically the idea around how straight men can take on some other kind of marginalized type of masculinity — perhaps something more feminine, perhaps gay, so on. The way I think of “hybrid masculinities” is that it’s often the appearance of being progressive or challenging masculinity, but without any of the actual effects.
To that point, you argue in your study that “while some men utilize My Little Pony to construct a softer masculinity, the dominant group in the community reinterprets the symbols of the show to assert hegemonic masculinity.” What kind of examples did you see in the conventions that you attended?
I interviewed both men and women in the community, and almost everybody would say, “Oh, there are bad bronies, but they’re a minority.” Or: “There are people who do toxic stuff, but they’re a minority.” And what I found is, they weren’t as much of a minority as people thought.
I did see men for whom My Little Pony was expressing or speaking to some emotional need that they had. And there were guys that were really using it to process their emotions. I’d hear things like, “My mom was sick, and this is what got me through that,” or “I didn’t have any friends, and this is what got me through that.” That’s that softer type of masculinity that I referenced. These men had learned that MLP is a space where “it’s safe for me to express my emotions.”
But the media blew that out of proportion in some ways. These bronies exist, but the people who are doing a lot of the programming for some of the conventions — and the voices who are the loudest in the room — are the other type. The gun guys would be in this group — not because guns are inherently toxic or anything, but because it’s an expression of aggression in an [unexpected] place.
I saw a lot of things like MLP porn rooms, or fan fictions like Fallout: Equestria, which blends My Little Pony characters in the dystopian world of the Fallout video games, with this violent edginess in feel. There’s nothing wrong with porn, but it certainly says something that men are like, “Oh, look, an empowering show for girls. I think I can make this hot.” And it’s not some tiny minority. I saw on one Twitter poll of bronies where 50 percent of respondents said they’re into “clop,” which is MLP porn. Again, just because you’re into that doesn’t mean you’re a toxic man. But it’s an obvious and major part of the community.
What did you notice in the programming and some of the narratives that men were sharing with each other? Were they saying certain things about gender inequality or women, etc.?
Some of the conventions were much more family friendly, with whole families, moms and their kids, and a lot of adult women who are fans. But others, including the one themed around Fallout: Equestria, were mostly men — college-aged guys hanging out, with a much more nerdy-frat type of atmosphere.
BronyCon, which has been shut down since 2019, had programming for kids and families but also for recovering alcoholics, for people with disabilities and even a session on unlearning toxic masculinity. But there were also a lot of events where a focus was on “after-dark” content, especially this fratty joking about sex, violence and violent acts like rape and incest.
That’s how I noticed a lot of MLP porn content was not about sexual arousal. It was very much about domination and joking about dominating women, and using that to alienate people who wouldn’t be okay with that. Unsurprisingly, a lot of women disappeared after about 9 p.m. The messaging had made it clear that it wasn’t going to a comfortable space for a lot of fans.
Something that caught my attention in your study was that some bronies frame gender inequality as the result of other men, not “good men” like themselves. How does this relate to some of the broader tensions that we’re talking about now?
This is one of the key things with hybrid masculinity. A lot of it is saying, “Oh, wow, I’m not like them.” It’s a way of denying privilege. And that was certainly going on, as I heard men say, “Well, bronies care about women.” But they’d also say, “Well, yes, the world is sexist, but the brony community isn’t sexist.” Another perspective was, “No, the world is already equal, but feminists are the bad ones out there trying to make things unequal.”
One of the questions I asked men was, “Do you think of yourself as masculine?” And there were many guys who replied, “I don’t know what you’re asking.” They’d never reflected on masculinity, despite their fandom of MLP and the complexities of that. When I asked them about masculinity, it was completely alien to them.
I would ask other things like, “What is it like to be a man in society today?” The only thing that many men could respond with was, “Are you asking about how hard it is to be a man because of feminism?” So, that’s where people’s minds would go.
In a similar vein, did you hear narratives about victimization over their My Little Pony fandom?
Yeah. I think back on it as appropriating victimhood in a way, because people would say, “Well, I can’t be oppressing anyone because as a brony, I’m oppressed.” That’s typical of people who don’t think about intersectionality, and don’t think about the fact that just because you’re oppressed in one way doesn’t mean you can’t be privileged in another.
And look, there were guys who said, “People think I’m a pedophile. I have to keep it a secret.” And that framed their understanding of gender inequality. One convention was in the South, and guys there felt strongly that they’d get beat up if anyone in their life found out about their MLP fandom. I don’t deny that’s true — and a problem. But it was interesting that for them, it meant they couldn’t be a part of the problem with gender inequality.
Some men used the characters on the show to talk about this victimhood. There’s a male character, Spike, who’s a little baby dragon, and men made a point to note that: “Oh, the girls walk all over him.” It’s a strange kind of, I dunno, incel narrative that’s put on Spike, and a lot of men would relate it to themselves and say, “Women also walk all over me, even though I’m a nice guy.”
Ultimately, what do you think brony culture says about how we, as men, unpack masculinity — or fail to do so?
A lot of people who know what I studied would say, “Oh, he’s a My Little Pony researcher.” But ultimately, I don’t care about My Little Pony all that much. I just see how it connects a lot to my other research on the men’s rights movement. For example, I’m doing research right now on cisgender allies and how they comment and interact with trans content creators on TikTok. What I see as an overarching theme is this: How do people in power react to shifting trends when their power may feel eroded?
And I see a lot of this connection to these allies on TikTok who are allies in name only, patting themselves on the back because consumption has become activism. Some people similarly think, “Oh, if men watch this cartoon, that must mean they’re challenging masculinity.” No, that’s not how it works. We’re not going to solve gender inequality by watching a cartoon in the same way that we’re not going to solve transphobia by watching TikToks.
But we have this idea that if we buy the next book, if we consume the next thing, then we’ll become anti-racist, anti-misogyny, anti-transphobia. Nope. We can’t consume our way out of this.