Thursday, April 24, 2014

On Bronies and Responsibility

I came across this post recently on the subject of bronies, male fans of My Little Pony. This is my lack of Tumblr knowledge showing, but I find it hard to parse exactly who said what in that conversation, so I'll sum up the whole thing (and trigger warnings for sexual assault in a situation that involves the potential for that, though it doesn't happen):

The original poster is relating the events of a My Little Pony Convention, where she met an 11 year old girl full of MLP enthusiasm. The same girl came to her the next day, scared, because she was being stalked by an older male brony who was trying to get her alone in his hotel room. The poster and her friend rallied around the girl, hid her, and pushed the brony away for the rest of the convention. And she concludes that she's angry she is that this space for kids was being turned into something gross and sexual and entirely about the bronies involved. And she is absolutely right; that's absolutely gross and wrong.

The responses start there, mostly involving a debate over whether the poster should have gone to the police, and whether any good would have come out of that. The general consensus is that both the convention holders and the police would be very reluctant to take any action until something outright criminal occurs, which is incredibly depressing and probably accurate. What I wanted to emphasize, though, is the first sentence of the last paragraph: "I’m going to lay it on the line here: If you identify as a Brony and you do NOT call out this behavior when you see it, you are a piece of shit. ... You’re a dude who likes MLP? That’s awesome! I hope you get much joy of it. But if that joy comes at the harm and expense of little kids then fuck you. Seriously."

So in light of that, it's time to talk about what My Little Pony means to me, and what responsibilities that gives me.

First: I totally get the obvious objection, that the whole point here is that an unwanted group is taking a show affiliated with a fandom and warping it all to be about them, and by centering this discussion on what MLP means to me I'm doing the same thing. I can only ask that you hear me out; this post is about working through what the show means to me in order to build for myself how I can support it. With that proviso...

 A lot of the specifics here don't apply to me exactly. I *like* MLP, in the sense that I'll go out of my way to watch it, and there's a lot it does that I'm a big fan of, which I'll probably get into later. But I don't consider myself a brony, on the basis that the concept of brony has become so toxic to me that I want to go out of my way to avoid that label and because I'd never go to a convention for it, both because my level of fandom isn't quite that high and because I don't like going to conventions in general; whenever there's a situation where there's a large number of people I don't know and my own role in that group is undefined, unless I have a very compelling reason to attend, I'd rather stay home. My anxiety issues don't handle crowds well. (The difference, in case you were wondering, between that and a conference situation is that at a conference, my role is defined, especially if I'm giving a paper.)

And all of that is equivocating nonsense. The issue here isn't to measure exactly what kind of fan I am. The issue is whether I'm willing to stand against those who would warp MLP into something that comes at the extent and harm of an audience that can't defend itself. In the past, I've deliberately avoided the brony question because I didn't want to get involved; I thought if I avoided putting a clear label on my own interest on the show, I could get away with just enjoying the show on my own terms. Well, as I've said elsewhere online today, escapism is a political statement, and a choice in itself. Saying I'm just here to enjoy myself and not hurt anyone stops being enough when people who do want to hurt someone show up.  The tl;dr version of this post is that I want to be someone who would stand against the people described in that tumblr, and I want the writing of this post to be a first step towards that.

I think the sexualization of MLP characters is absolutely gross because it's alienating to an audience that shouldn't have to worry about that, and it's so antithetical to what the show is about. As for what it is about, that's not hard--it's right there in the show's subtitle, "Friendship is magic." It is a show about six friends with very different personalities and interests, and how they stay friends both in spite of and because of those differences. At its best, it stays true to those characters and those friendships above all else, and that's what I personally find appealing about it. That it does so with humor and long-term world building, that it's presenting these characters to young girls who are bombarded with media messages about how they should be competing in terms of looks and shunning those who are different, that, for the most part, it respects those fans and doesn't talk down to them---all of that is icing on the friendship cake, as far as I'm concerned. (That "talking down" point is a little iffy; in the early seasons especially the episodes tended to end with the lead character literally writing a letter that told what lesson she learned from the episode. But hey, it's miles ahead of the "The More You Know" GI Joe thing.)

It's important to me that I make clear that watching MLP is not a blip in my personal media history. As a kid, I read a lot of Babysitter Club books. When I got older, it was Judy Blume. And older than that, I spent a summer reading the works of Maeve Binchy. Usually, whenever I tell anyone that, I add that it was because I'd ran out of sci-fi and fantasy books in my local rural library. And that's a lie, or at the very least, a sin of omission, and one with a sexist core. It was something I said because I didn't want people to think I read "girly" books because I actually enjoyed them. (And, if we're going for total honesty, as a teenage hetero male, books about female desire was kind of a turn on.) For most of my childhood, I felt like reading itself was considered an un-masculine past time--I had wonderfully supportive teachers, but to my own peers, books--and any level of effort in school in general, beyond the bare minimum--were weird and uncool. And being caught with the latest Ann M. Martin was just going to make things worse for me.  That doesn't excuse not owning up to it in the past decade, though; my only excuse is that a childhood is a hard thing to put behind you, as my collections of dreams in any particular week could attest.

I've also been a fan of certain TV shows that unfold on similar lines: Gilmore Girls, Nashville,  Gossip Girl. I have a very, very high standard for rom-coms, but when I find one I like, I'll praise it for ages, like My Best Friend's Wedding or Fever Pitch (okay, high but eccentric standard). The first 30 minutes of Frozen rocked my world.  Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane was one of my favorite titles Marvel ever published. What all of these things have in common are, for me, the reason why I turned to those "girlie" books to get something that the YA sci-fi of Heinlein or Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy just weren't supplying for me: emotional depth. A large portion of Western fiction is centered around action, around characters who are trying to get something accomplished above all else. These other stories that attracted (and attract) me aren't about that, not primarily; they're more about just being. They're stories that recognize that people are filled with these strange, overwhelming impulses, and they focus more on how we can relate to those impulses and relate to others through them. And that mattered to me. It's not that the other stories don't do that--Dan Harmon's shows, Community, and Rick & Morty, are both examples of shows that tend more towards zany meta-narratives, but also keep a core of emotion to them. (His big complaint about rom-coms, incidentally, is basically the inverse of this, that they're all the emotion part with no discernible action.) But so much of Western masculinity seems to be tied up in hiding the fact that we're all dealing with this inner turmoil. Shows that are overtly about characters working their way through these emotions, trying to become better people in the process--all that matters to me.

Granted, it's not something I'd want to watch exclusively, or read exclusively; heart-wrenching can become over-wrenched, with too much exposure, and this type of story can lend itself to melodrama very quickly (I'm looking at you, The Notebook). But experiencing media where people openly struggle with their own inner depths appeals to me--and, this probably goes without saying, gives me impetus to express my own. Now, I'm not saying every episode of MLP is a deep journey into the inner psyches of magical horses. But it certainly isn't a show about a positive set of role models from young girls and turning them into sex fantasies. Rather, it is a show about how friends can explore who they want to be in the comfort of other friends. And I want to defend the right of those who aren't in a position to defend themselves to be able to do the same. I don't know if this post is a step towards that, but it is a step towards me realizing that I have a responsibility to do so.

Later Days. 

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