It's always bothered me that we have a double standard that says boys are not allowed to like the media that is primarily created for girls, and men must be viewed with suspicion for admitting a penchant for media aimed at women. Girls can play with Hot Wheels cars and watch action movies without too much fuss, but boys are not allowed to play Barbies or read romance novels unless they want their sexuality questioned. I guess I shouldn't be surprised, as we're still living in a society where the innocuous act of painting a little boy's toenails pink can get "traditional values" watchdogs worked up into a lather. This ends up devaluing the media aimed primarily at women and girls, which often get characterized as having limited appeal because it seems like it's unacceptable for half of the population to think these shows and films could possibly have any appeal for them.
So I was happily surprised to discover that the new "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic" cartoon, created for Hasbro's fledgling Hub Network, has amassed a huge Internet cult following among young adult and adult males since it premiered last year. This isn't the first time that a cartoon for kids has found an unintended audience. "Spongebob Squarepants" was famously popular with the college crowd and Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim" block has found success programming nostalgic content in the late night hours. Animated features have been cleaning up at the multiplexes with all audiences. But wait, "My Little Pony"? The Hasbro 80s toy line was associated with the most pandering, hyper-feminized depictions of girly girlhood from day one, all cuteness and sparkles and light. I had a Princess Sunbeam and a So-Soft Sundance when I was a kid, who came with magic glitter wands and mane-and-tail-brushing accessories. What on earth could possibly be drawing grown menfolk to this?!
The new "My Little Pony" differs in some significant ways from the old. From what I've seen of the cartoon, it's a modernized revamp with many similarities to "The Powerpuff Girls" in style and humor. And no wonder, since series creator Lauren Faust worked on both "Powerpuff" and "Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends." There are six major characters, all female, big-eyed, candy-colored little ponies with names like Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, and Twilight Sparkle. "My Little Pony" still caters to a traditional feminine visual aesthetic, and vehemently so. Yet there's nothing overtly girly about the stories or the jokes or the show's messages. Popular tomboy characters like Rainbow Dash and Applejack balance out the lone glamor girl, Rarity. And with such a diversity of personality types, there's almost no gender stereotyping to speak of. The show comes off very positive and bright and fun, with lots of universal appeal. I don't see why cartoon-loving guys shouldn't be fans of the new "My Little Pony," except the mainstream American culture insists that anything cute and cuddly and aimed at little girls is absolutely verboten for their demographics.
Well phooey to that, I say, and I'm not alone. There's been a proliferation of male "My Little Pony" fans, who have been dubbed in some circles as "bronies." You still see a lot of self-hatred, a lot of mockery, and a lot of plain old fear of ridicule emanating from some male viewers. The naysayers can get pretty vicious. However the fansites have been popping up like daisies, the fanart has gone nuclear, and the Internet memes are everywhere. I haven't been able to get through a message board lately without seeing Rainbow Dash or Twilight Sparkle graphics. And what I find most encouraging is that this isn't ironic fannishness or trend following or some retro nostalgia thing going on. The guys who like the show tend to genuinely like the show for being exactly what it is. The sincerity, the lack of cynicism, and the sunny attitude of "My Little Pony" are taken as good points. I think part of the reason why so many guys are flocking to this cartoon is because these are qualities often lacking in the media aimed at them.
Pulling out the armchair psychologist for a minute, media folks often seem to forget that boys have protective, nurturing instincts and get warm and fuzzy feelings just like girls do. It's not a bad thing to encourage this. I mean G.I. Joe and He-Man and the Transformers have their place, and I certainly don't want to devalue the merits of a good Ninja Turtle martial arts battle, but I see nothing unmanly about getting some joy out of the adventures of a couple of cute, wacky little ponies too. It's always good to have some balance in your media consumption, and maybe it's time to broaden the ambit of masculinity, just a little. The new "My Little Pony" is really pretty darn awesome, and nobody should feel bad for being a fan.