If you’ve been reading the likes of Jezebel and Wired over the past year or so, you’ve probably heard about the “brony” phenomenon: adults, particularly adult men, who love the latest incarnation of My Little Pony, called Friendship is Magic (which wrapped up its second season April 21st, but you can find the episodes on Netflix and iTunes). It’s not every day that you hear that a bunch of straight men are fascinated by a show with female protagonists, but especially one aimed at prepubescent girls and that has a reputation as the height of the sugary-pink, sparkly kind of femininity. Heck, it’s hard to find a show like that with adult women watching.
So, what makes the new My Little Pony so compelling to fanboys (and fangirls)? Well, for starters, unlike some previous incarnations of the franchise (such as the infamous “third generation”), the characters aren’t prissy flibbertigibbets who care for nothing but tea parties and pretty clothes. The show’s six protagonists run the gamut in their interests and styles, showing that, as show creator Lauren Faust put it, “there are lots of different ways to be a girl.”
MLP features tomboy characters, fashionistas, and characters who fall somewhere in between; all of the characters are shown as having depth beyond initial stereotypes, and each has her own “passion” that drives her life and is reflected in her “cutie mark” (a symbol that appears on each pony’s flank when s/he “comes of age”). Even Rarity is portrayed not as a shopaholic trend-follower, but as an artist who creates her own clothes and aspires toward a career as a designer; many of her focus episodes hinge on her running her boutique and how her designs are received by the Equestrian fashion elite (winding up in some hilarious jabs at fashion icons like Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld –- in pony form, of course). Another episode has Applejack and Rarity fighting over what to do at Twilight’s slumber party; the lesson ends up being that both extreme tomboys and hard-core girly-girls can find common ground and be friends.
Clockwise from center: Twilight Sparkle, Applejack, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, Rarity, Rainbow Dash.
The show also has real conflict, you guys! And real villains. Among the biggest ones are Nightmare Moon, a former princess turned evil, and Discord, a chaos-loving chimera based on Star Trek’s Q (and voiced by the same actor, John De Lancie). With so much going on, it’s no wonder that the show has developed such a huge adult fanbase, even without the sexual innuendos, constant celebrity references, or trippy moments more typical of cartoons with crossover appeal. (Not that My Little Pony doesn’t have a few pop-culture refs, as seen here.)
And with any adult fanbase comes a whole world of fan works, from fanfiction to fanart to even fan music (which ranges from original works celebrating ponies to existing songs rewritten with pony lyrics, such as this YouTube channel full of “ponified” Beatles songs). The hub for that is Equestria Daily , a My Little Pony fan blog run by and targeted at teenage and adult fans of the show. If you take some time to browse through the fanfiction posts, especially the ones with “shipping” (fan-speak for focusing on romantic or sexual relationships), you might notice something interesting, and unusual: The majority of My Little Pony shipping centers around relationships between mares.
Bronies have their own ways of talking about shipping, referring to mare/mare relationships as “fillyfooling” (and relationships between stallions as “coltcuddling”). The amount of fillyfooling equals or outnumbers the amount of heterosexual shipping on many fansites. What is also surprising is how non-fetishistic these stories are. While sexual fanfic – called “clop” in the brony fandom – certainly exists (it’s Rule 34, after all), the majority of sapphic pony fanfiction I found was fairly chaste, and more focused on romance than titillation. In many respects, it was basically just a gender-flipped version of a common fanfiction phenomenon known as “slash.” Slash refers to fanfiction that focuses on homosexual relationships, usually between men (the lesbian equivalent is often clarified as “femslash”). You can read more about it in this very informative article from Bitch magazine, about the evolution of slash over the decades, from its humble beginnings in print fanzines to its movement online. Compared to the often-fetishistic depictions of girl-on-girl make-out sessions we see aimed at men in the media, women’s depictions of male/male slash pairings in fanfiction tends to focus as much on the emotional side of those relationships as on the sexual side.
It’s interesting to ponder why My Little Pony lesbian fanfiction follows the same pattern, despite being mostly written by men. In order to investigate this, I took a survey of members of various “shipping” groups on FIMFiction to gauge their attitudes about fanfiction.
Of the 74 responses I got, 59 who responded were men, the majority of whom said they were attracted to women. One of the more interesting parts of the survey was where I asked them why they liked their favorite pairings so much. Most, again, focused on emotional attractions or compatibility between the characters.
About Fluttershy/Twilight Sparkle: “They’re both nerds. As a nerd myself it’s fun to identify with that, and as a socially awkward person myself it’s even more so.”
About Rainbow Dash/Twilight: “Opposites attract and complement each other’s personalities and provide work skills balance.” Another wrote: “One of the things I really like in this ship is the playful attitude of Rainbow Dash and Twilight’s reaction to it. She tends to be brash and insensitive maybe, but Twilight can take a lot of it. I don’t think it’s because she doesn’t care, but rather, doesn’t want to make a big deal out of it. Quite interesting if this gets elaborated on.”
About Fluttershy/Rarity: “I think they would simply make the best friends and romantic partners. Both of them are soft spoken and kind to everyone (element of kindness and element of generosity just go together so well), In addition, Fluttershy has a canon ‘freaky knowledge about sewing’ (said by Applejack in ‘Suited for Success’) so she would be able to help Rarity with her work. All in all, I just think they’re the best together.”
That didn’t mean there weren’t some more, ahem, “predictable” responses from the guys in the survey, though, like one who wrote about his shipping of Rainbow Dash with Wonderbolt captain Spitfire: “Lesbians are awesome, they are a lot like each other, furacious and fast, and that’s how I like it, giggity.” Another one wrote that he liked the idea of “human x Rainbow Dash” because it was a “personal fantasy” of his.
The last one gets at one explanation for the less-fetishistic nature of many femslash fics in the My Little Pony fandom: A lot of fans are simply grossed out by the idea of the characters having sex, for obvious reasons: they’re horses, and, well, bestiality is one of the last big taboos for a reason. In addition to that, My Little Pony is a children’s show where only a handful of plots even focus on the kissing and holding-hands (er, hooves) type of romance, and a lot of people get upset at what they see as the “pollution” of a children’s show by fanfiction featuring graphic sex scenes. The fandom has a similar reaction to stories with violence and gore; take, for example, the widespread Internet outcry against “Cupcakes,” a well-known fanfic featuring Pinkie Pie brutally murdering Rainbow Dash. Lastly, “clop” is a weapon that many non-bronies use against the fandom – thinking the only reason a grown man could be into a little girls’ cartoon is because he finds the characters arousing, so it must be the case that all bronies like it. This will, naturally, lead bronies who aren’t into clop to go on the defensive.
That said, the majority of the survey respondents said they were at least somewhat open to read clop, including with same-sex pairings, though most were careful to say they didn’t actively seek it out so much as wouldn’t be opposed to reading an otherwise-good story that included a sex scene, and that they stayed away from stories with stuff like rape, pedophilia or human/horse sex.
One other factor may be that My Little Pony fans tend to be a group that is more open to LGBT relationships and rights than average. As a result, that might lead them to view lesbian relationships as more than just fetishes. The survey also included questions on how the respondents viewed gay rights issues. A majority supported same-sex marriage, even those who said they did not have any close LGBT friends or family members. A majority said they enjoyed TV shows and movies that included same-sex relationships. And a number of the respondents were LGBT themselves. While it’s hard to draw anything conclusive about the fandom as a whole from 74 respondents mostly culled from same-sex-shipping groups, it is what I have seen to be mostly the case from my own experience with the brony fandom. Bronies have taken the motto of “I’m going to love and tolerate the shit out of you” as their response to the sexist and homophobic abuse they frequently get from outsiders, in tune with the show’s message. This can be seen in the mostly-supportive response that popular pony musician Not A Clever Pony received from fans when she came out as trans on her deviantart account.
But I’ve also heard plenty of instances where people did not feel that the brony fandom was quite as accepting. Making the brony fandom a paragon of tolerance and open-mindedness is one response to homophobic outsider commenters, but others have responded in less-savory ways, feeling the need to reaffirm their masculinity by making their brony communities less friendly to women and queer people. One of my close friends who is active in brony groups offline says he’s heard plenty of homophobia from other bronies, and feels like the fandom often isn’t very welcoming of male homosexuality compared to female homosexuality. This is something I heard again and again from fans of “coltcuddling” fics (who tended to be a fairly even mix of queer men and straight women) who responded to my survey, that there was a “double standard” in the community where male homosexual fanfiction was automatically voted down by straight male bronies who hadn’t even read it (something even acknowledged by the staff of Equestria Daily in posts about M/M fics), while those same bronies would give enthusiastic thumbs-up to lesbian-themed fanfiction. The reactions go beyond simply stating their own dislike of M/M (which was common for the straight male bronies in my survey), to actively discouraging other brony sites from posting it.
One of the other topics I discussed in the survey was the issue of subtext. Children’s cartoons have a long history of sneaking potentially “objectionable” material past the censors through the use of subtle hints, the kind only those looking for them would see. But homosexuality is still one of the most taboo topics in kids’ media; anyone who is familiar with the history of American anime adaptations knows the lengths to which networks will go to cleanse them of queer elements. As a result, many shows are afraid to even hint at it. Yet, more than a few of the bronies whom I surveyed felt there was at least some deliberate lesbian subtext in My Little Pony, and given the evidence, it’s hard not to agree with them. For instance, in “Griffon the Brush Off,” Rainbow Dash’s friend from flight camp, Gilda, is irrationally jealous of Rainbow’s other friends, and many fans felt Gilda’s behavior more closely resembled that of an ex-girlfriend than an old friend. In other episodes, the relatively minor characters Lyra and Bon-Bon are often interpreted as a lesbian couple, because they’re never seen apart. The show has occasionally responded to the fandom’s interpretations in the past, and in the episode “Hearts and Hooves Day,” about the Equestrian version of Valentine’s Day, Lyra and Bon-Bon are seen walking together in a clip with other couples celebrating the holiday. Then, in “Putting Your Hoof Down,” Bon-Bon is seen carrying Lyra’s cutie-mark bag during a scene where the characters visit a farmer’s market. Later in that same episode, Lyra is seen sitting alone at a table, looking sad, but is instantly cheered up when she sees Bon-Bon approaching and pulling out a chair. Little things, sure, but the fans sure seemed to enjoy it.
But we can only take so much subtext, right? If you want to see some actual lesbian relationships playing out, then you’ll need to read some fanfiction. If you’re scared off by what you’ve heard about how terrible fanfiction is, don’t be; while there’s a lot of bad stuff there — like with any art form — when it’s good, it’s really good. Life-changing, even (as one of my friends recently discovered). And as Jarrah Hodge writes at the Bitch Magazine blog:
“If people are expecting Pulitzer-caliber writing, they don’t understand what fanfic is about. There are some really great fanfics and some not-so-great ones. The most important thing is the opportunity it gives people…to explore gender identities, build a sense of community, practice writing, and express themselves without fear of censorship.”
My fanfiction recommendations (heavily biased toward my favorite ships):
1. Following a Rainbow by malikvamp: Rainbow Dash confesses her love for Applejack, and then runs away. It is up to Applejack to find her friend, and on the way, examine her own feelings on the matter.
2. Swayback Mountain by butterscotchsundae: Applejack and Rarity begin to reevaluate their feelings for each other as they take shelter during a fierce storm.
3. Secret Admirer by Thecrazyrabbidfangirl: Rarity’s imagination runs wild after she receives a series of anonymous love letters.
4. How Lyra Met Bon-Bon by butterscotchsundae: What the title says, and it doubles as the story of how Lyra and Bon-Bon got their cutie marks.
5. The Prince and the Workhorse by fellstorm: While it’s not the main plot, there is a cute side-plot involving Rainbow Dash coming out as a lesbian and exploring her feelings for Fluttershy and then Applejack, and the larger story (about a body-switch between Applejack’s brother Big Macintosh and the snooty Prince Blueblood, and the hilarity that ensues) is definitely worth reading, too. Basically, it’s the most interesting fanfic I’m following right now, and I’d recommend it to anyone as a good introduction to My Little Pony fanworks.
And if even that isn’t enough? Check out the Fillyfoolers group on FIMFiction for all your femslash shipping needs.
Enjoy, everypony! And recommend some of your favorite fanfics in the comments!