Confound these ponies!
If you spend much time on internet forums, be they devoted to scifi or gaming or sports, you've likely noticed a curious development over the past few months.
If you're like most people, your first reaction was probably along the lines of, "My Little Pony? WTF?" If you're like me, you dismissed it as some kind of ironic appropriation. The truth, however, is even stranger.
My Little Pony (MLP) has undergone several incarnations over the years. The current version bears the full title My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. It was headed by Lauren Faust, who previously worked on the well-regarded cartoons Powerpuff Girls and Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends. She was a fan of the toys as a kid, but realized the limitations of the show. As she said in an article on the Ms. Magazine blog (responding to a previous article denigrating the show):
I was extremely skeptical at first about taking the job. Shows based on girls' toys always left a bad taste in my mouth, even when I was a child. ... Some of the more well-meaning, more expensive animated productions for girl audiences may look better, but the female characters have been so homogenized with old-fashioned "niceness" that they have no flaws and are unrelatable. They are so pretty, polite and perfect; there is no legitimate conflict and nothing exciting ever happens. In short, animated shows for little girls come across as boring. Stupid. Lame.
This perception, more than anything, is what I am trying to change with My Little Pony.
Fans would say she succeeded. MLP is a surprisingly good show, with engaging three dimensional (not literally) characters. The six main (or "mane six") characters are well realized individuals, with equally well realized faults. It's hard not to identify with at least one of them, from the loyal yet stubborn Applejack to the cheerful, but possibly insane, Pinkie Pie. While friends, they are frequently in conflict with each other in believeable ways. While it may be "relentlessly cute" (as the Onion's AV Club put it,) it avoids being saccharine. It is certainly not boring, stupid, or lame.
The show is also technically excellent. The animation is better than most comparable shows. The soundtrack by Daniel Ingram is very catchy, with several songs that are built off of Stephen Sondheim tunes.
"OK," you're saying, "it's a good show, but why are the fans so fierce about it? Game of Thrones is a good show, but you don't see GoT stuff in every web forum."
I'm glad you asked.
The show first garnered a sizeable following on the internet by way of 4chan.org. While best known for its infamous /b/ board--responsible for various internet memes from LOLcats to Anonymous--it has a variety of other boards. One of these, /co/, is devoted to comics and animation. Members there noted that Faust was heading the new incarnation of MLP and decided to check it out. The converts to the show started pasting images and urging others to check it out. The varied personalities of the cast and above par animation lent itself to 'image macros' (those ubiquitous pictures often combined with text--think LOLcats,) that are used to make a statement or response. Soon entire threads were filled with images of ponies from a girls' show responding to each other.
This advocacy for a show targeted at young girls, along with the sheer volume of new image macros, drew a lot of negative reaction. That in turn served to spur on the fans (who had dubbed themselves colts or, more commonly, bronies.) This spilled over to /b/ and other websites. Eventually the 4chan mods outright banned MLP posts.
You read that right. MLP was banned from 4chan (they quickly relented, apparently due to intervention from the site's founder.)
Ten Seconds Flat
In a pattern that would be repeated in other online communities, the bronies set up their own imageboard, Ponychan. When the forum Something Awful banned bronies, they set up Ponygoons. Facepunch refugees set up Pony Central, etc. The persecution solidified the resolve of the bronies and roused the curiousity of bystanders. (Any comparison to nascent religious movements I'll leave as an excercise for the reader.)
I suspect that the very portmanteau 'brony' contributed greatly to the spread of the fandom. The cognitive dissonance of bro culture and MLP's target audience seems key on a couple levels. First, it's a sendup of bro culture. The fans are aggressively nice, and like to juxtapose macho posturing with the show's themes. "I'm going to love and tolerate the SH!T out of you" is the default response to trolls, for example. Second, and almost conversely, it allows one to maintain a masculine self-identity. "I love this show, as any manly man would," is a common posture. Whenever it is mentioned that young girls watch the show it is invariably met with mock surprise. (I should note that the term 'brony' usually refers to all fans, and not just the male, or even adult, ones.)
It should be stressed that the bronies really do take the message of the show to heart. The closest recent analogy is Harry Potter fandom, which is based on another work that transcended its target audience. Like Potterdom, the MLP fandom is ultimately a positive one. The pony version of sites are genuinely more loving, tolerant places than the originals.
Also like Potter fans, the bronies are fiercely creative. Entire sites are devoted to fan fiction, images, and even fan-made games. Bronies have started podcasts and uploaded episodes to YouTube with their own commentary tracks. Images, mashups, and remixes of the video and music from the show are posted frequently.
However, while the adult Potter fandom is slightly majority female, bronydom is overwhelmingly male according to polls that have been featured on Equestria Daily (one of the major fan sites.) I suspect that this is because embracing the show requires rejecting some stereotypical masculine behaviors (specifically, Thou Shalt Avoid 'Girly' Things.) This rejection, and weathering the subsequent reaction, may reinforce the solidarity that male bronies feel with other fans. Female fans have no real issue there so they may, counterintuitively, find less attraction to the fandom. For many of them it's just a show.
Finally, the fact that it is (ostensibly) a show aimed at interesting young girls in toys has allowed it to spread unchecked across the internet. The show airs on The Hub, a channel Hasbro partially owns, and so far only in the US but it is readily available on YouTube and various other places online. Hasbro thinks of it as advertisement, so it hasn't made any effort to take it down. There are no products specifically aimed at the adult fans yet, but that may change. An extended web-released commercial for the show specifically mentions 'bronies' and refers to one of the unnamed ponies by the fan's moniker for her, DJ P0N3.
The Hub has even taken to courting bronies on Facebook. This is interesting because, according to Facebook's terms of service, MLP's target audience is too young to join.
It bears mentioning that the show is quite suitable for young girls as well. The spectrum of personalities is much wider than in comparable cartoons, and each one embodies some aspect of feminity in a positive way. The clothes-obsessed one is a designer rather than a shopaholic, for example.
If you want to delve further into bronydom Know Your Meme has a good overview of the subculture. This MetaFilter post, and the subsequent comment thread, is a good roundup of links. If you'd like to explore the show itself, I recommend starting with this playlist, which contains three of the episodes frequently recommended to those new to the show (about an hour long all together.)
Church (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Republibot's fan film reviewer. He has no desire to argue about which pony is best. It's obviously Fluttershy.