When Audiences Collide: The Fractured Fandom of My Little Pony

This post comes from a presentation I will be giving at the Popular Culture Association conference in Chicago on April 18th, 2014.  This presentation comes from the beginning of the research I am doing with the help of my research assistant, Elizabeth Robinson.  It is also an expanded version of the presentation I gave at the Central States Communication Association in Minneapolis on April 3rd, 2014.  The presentation is the first to come from my tracking of the release of the animated feature Equestria Girls and what it means for the idea of a fractured fandom.

This project explores the tensions in the fan discourse surrounding the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic movie Equestria Girls.  Producer Hasbro operates an official Facebook page for My Little Pony that was used to market the movie.  With each post, fans’ comments demonstrate the tensions within the fandom and to this film.  These tensions demonstrate the range of subsets of the fandom due to its cross-gendered and cross-generational nature.  The discourse and resulting fractured fandom highlights the issue of “appropriateness” in reception of children’s programming.

When I was doing my dissertation, I talked to some young adult men about their experiences with media meant for women.  Several of them mentioned “girlie cartoons” they had grown up with, such as My Little Pony.  According to one man, “90% of the characters were girls and the characters were adorable ponies…it was practically a living girly-girl stereotype.”  But that was decades ago.  And in 2010, Hasbro, the license holder of the product, reimagined, revamped, and rereleased the cartoon series as My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic on cable network Hub.

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In this new series, Twilight Sparkle, pupil to Princess Celestia of Equestria, is sent to Ponyville to learn some very important lessons, in the guise of performing an important, world-saving quest.  In Ponyville she meets Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, Rarity, and Pinkie Pie, and they join together in the quest to find the Elements of Harmony in order to defeat the villainess Nightmare Moon.  Each Element of Harmony represents a specific facet of friendship, and this turns out to be Twilight’s very important lesson.  She had to learn the true meaning and power of friendship to save the world.  The focus on lessons of friendship would continue to be the central theme of the show, now in its fourth season.  Yes, the colors are still warm and pastel.  Yes, the main characters are all fillies, with few stallions as named characters.  Yes, the themes all focus on friendship.  And because of all of these traits, the series retains its label as a ‘girlie cartoon,’ meant to be watched by girls under the age of 13.  However, as the series rolled out, it became clear that while Hasbro was primarily interested in developing a girl fanbase, they were catching the attention of other demographics.

These ancillary audiences of young boys, older women and men, have been receiving scholarly and public scrutiny due to the apparent cross-generational and cross-gendered nature of the modern My Little Pony fandom.  Now, as we have heard, a “brony” is a self-applied term for many of those who belong to the older faction of this fandom.  While there are those who say the term applies to any fan of the series, it is commonly used to describe older male fans, who would be the most demographically distant from the target audience.

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Bronies will argue many reasons for why they are fans of the cartoon.  The theme song is rocking. The humor ranges from slapstick to post-modern gags that utilize intertextuality.  The animation is very modern, showing the spirit of Cartoon Network cartoons from the turn of the century that these older audiences grew up with.  Indeed, Lauren Faust, who served as a writer and director on PowerPuff Girls, is responsible for developing the relaunch of My Little Pony, which she has said she intended to be a family show.  Faust serves as a bridge between the two shows, and seeing her with the ponies may have helped the PowerPuff fans feel more comfortable following her into the new show.

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Furthermore, the stories, while framed as lessons about friendship, are strongly written and character-driven narratives.  Each character is unique, well-acted, and immensely funny. Additionally, the lessons about friendship are neither sappy nor overly feminine in nature; according to many bronies, they represent universal truths about loyalty, honesty, kindness, generosity, and laughter; these characteristics are lessons anyone could learn and appropriate, regardless of age or gender.  And yet, despite the complexity of the text and the friendliness of the message, there are differences of agreement about the ancillary audiences that mirror the reactions those outside of the fandom have to these fans, and can be seen as fractures among what should be friends.

The cartoon series stresses friendship, tolerance, acceptance, understanding, and being yourself. These themes repeatedly appear in fan activity related to the series.  We have seen these themes appear in how fans, especially the bronies, will discuss their affection for the series, as well as in how they respond to instances of backlash to their being fans of the series.  The phrase “love and tolerate” is almost a mantra which fans are expected uphold, and a desire fans have for the public when it responds negatively to them.  However, no fandom is perfect because no person is perfect.  So what happens when your fandom does not live up to the ideals of the text to which it owes it’s existence?

A fandom is not a cohesive subculture; it contains within it various communities of interest and practice that may be in agreement or disagreement with one another other reception, interpretation, and/or appropriation.  As individuals have different motivations for engaging with an object of affection, the differences may create tensions within the fandom.  These tensions can manifest in a number of ways, and I will discuss two specific dimensions.

The first dimension separates fans from one another based on assumptions of superiority.   These are the fans who might consider themselves better than other fans within the fandom for any number of reasons.  ”I was here first.”  ”I was here before it was cool.”  ”I know more than you.”  These are the fans who may look down from their assumed high perch in the fandom on those newcomers or less ardent or, as has become an issue lately, may not even be true fans, as in the case of the “fake geek girls.”

In the second dimension you will find clusters of fans within the fandom who differ from one another in terms of their affection: what aspect of the object they love and how and why, and how and why they express their affection.  You see these fans who form factions based on different shipping: who they believe should end up in a relationship in the canon.  They identify their specific interest in the object through labels that represent who they ship:  Harry/Hermione, Buffy/Angel, 10th Doctor/Rose, Spock/Kirk.  And with that last pairing, you get an even more specific subset within fandoms: the slashers, those who seek to develop homosexual relationships for heterosexual characters.  These slashers are pitted against others in the fandom who may be adamantly non-slashers, to the point of wishing to segregate themselves from such activities.  Along this dimension, we can see many different audiences for the object all within one fannish umbrella.

We can locate such fractures by considering fan discourse and activity.

Lionel Boxer, (2005) "Discourses of change ownership in higher education", Quality Assurance in Education, Vol. 13 Is: 4, pp.344 - 352
Reference: Lionel Boxer, (2005) “Discourses of change ownership in higher education”, Quality Assurance in Education, Vol. 13 Is: 4, pp.344 – 352

According to positioning theory, how people converse in any given situation can reveal the beliefs and practices they are acting upon; that is, the positions they are undertaking during the situation reflect their endorsement of certain “storylines” that frame how they make sense of the world or the topic on hand and act accordingly.  What a person says during a conversation reflects the role(s) s/he is taking on in any given situation, and the positionings people take during a conversation are their maneuverings between storylines, or discourses.  Positionings can be self-reflexive, where in a conversation a person positions himself or herself.  Or these positionings can be socially constructive, as people position others.  Positions can only be understood in relation to one another, and in the context of some discourse or storyline.  Positions can be generated from a discourse, and/or work towards shaping the context and thus the discourse within which one is positioned.  The analysis of positioning can also reveal the tensions and conflicts that occur within the conversation and thus the community of speakers.

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One epicenter for these fractures appears to be in regards to the first feature film from this new series, Equestria Girls.  The movie received a limited theatrical release on June 16, 2013, and its domestic video sales brought in $2.4 million last year.  In the film, Twilight has to travel to an alternate dimension in order to retrieve her Element of Harmony from the thief, Sunset Shimmer.  In this alternate dimension, she is no longer a pony, but is instead transformed into a human, albeit one with interesting color tones.  Indeed, all of the ponies of Equestria have their human counterparts in this world, and all are clearly identified as teenagers attending high school.  According to press releases for the film, Hasbro desired to target teenage girls by anthropomorphizing the characters into adolescent girls, who could portray a story with more resonance to this older target audience.  However, the message remains on the power of friendship, as the reuniting of the human-ponies saves the day, and even allows them to gain their pony ears and have their hair lengthened to resemble tails.

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When I first learned of this movie, I decided to track the marketing for this movie by Hasbro on their official Facebook page. I collected several such marketing attempts, as well as all the fans’ comments in reaction to these postings.  With each post, fans were allowed to comment, and these comments demonstrate the tensions within the fandom, in general, and in regard to this film in particular.  Even in just reading the comments as I saved them, I could see that the film was polarizing the fans, from the marketing through the film’s release and even to this day, as Hasbro prepares to release a sequel.  The more systematic analysis is ongoing, but so far my research assistant and I have analyzed four comment threads, with over 2200 comments.  For a beginning, we are focusing on four codes that represent two dimensions on which fans are polarized.  Our initial analysis utilizes positioning theory to demonstrate people who support the movie, people who do not support the movie, supporters who attack the detractors, and people who sanction the attackers.

On one dimension, we are looking at how the fans are reacting to the movie itself.  Here we have people discussing the movie specifically or the producers behind it.  On the one hand, we have fans who are supportive of the movie, expressing how happy and excited they are that it is coming out or in some way discussing the value of the final product.  On the other hand, we have fans who are openly critical of the movie, as they do not see it as resembling the series they love.  There are quite a number of comments that could be coded for either side, and they were posted from people around the world. This polarization was sustained across all of the comment threads, and continues to this day.

The same can be said for the polarization on another dimension, which is in respect to how the commenters reacted to other fans, either those posting on Facebook or to those in the fandom in general.  As with the other dimension, we can code these comments as being critical or being supportive of other fans.  For those who are more supportive, they indicate solidarity with other fans, are happy to see other fans expressing their opinions on the movie, or may even be defending other fans by saying everyone has a right to like whatever they like and thus have their own opinions.  However, for those who are more critical, they think people should see the movie before critiquing it, or they may consider those fans, often identified as the bronies, as acting too superior and forgetting that the series is, after all, a cartoon for girls.  In one sense, we see attempts at solidarity, which could be across the entire fandom, but could also be just within the one faction to which the commenter belongs.  Additionally, there are at times comments derived from perceptions of gender appropriateness, as those who are identified as not the target audience – or are the most distant from the target audience, such as the bronies – are discursively treated as “outsiders” whose opinions on the topic do not matter as much as those commenters who more closely resemble the target audience.

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By starting to look at the overlaps in these codes – that is, to examine those comments that contain more than one code – we can begin to see patterns in how people are positioning themselves not only in relation to the movie but to each other.  In this sense, the overlaps can help us to see where the factions are within the fandom, as the fans discursively position themselves within certain groups.  For example, in looking at the first comment thread discussing the announcement of the movie’s upcoming release, we can see instances of people who are simultaneously supportive of the movie as well as critical of other fans.  Through their comments, they are identifying themselves as pro-movie, anti-critics.  Thus they have identified as within a specific subset of the fandom, and for some, it is a subset that is superior to others, since they are critical of those fans who are not willing to embrace this canonical spin-off of the series.

Picture9Much of the tension in the discussions appears to be focused on the role of bronies in the fandom.  There are those fans who position bronies as bad and improper for the fandom, given the perception of brony hostility and exclusivity in how they enact their fandom.  There are others who seek to position bronies as being inclusive.  There are beliefs that bronies should not be so critical of these movies given that they are external to the target audience.  Within this brief section of all of the comments recorded, the community demonstrates their desire to negotiate what is the most applicable definition for this subset of fandom that is furthest from the targeted audience.  Here are fans attempting to define themselves and others, to determine the boundaries of the sub-communities.

The tensions become even more apparent when looking at specific conversations.  When examining a subset of an entire comment thread, in this case from June 15, 2013 for a posting on the world premiere of the movie, we can see how the fans are positioning themselves and others through their conversation of what constitutes a real fan or a good fan.  Mostly this conversation comes down to being critical of other fans by labeling those other fans who are against the movie, and thus are not good representations of the real fandom, as bronies.  There are others who defend the bronies by reacting against the ways the others are positioning those fans as inferior.

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One last interesting analytical point brings us full circle to the venerable crowdsourced collection of pop cultural knowledge, Urban Dictionary.  These comments even bring up the issue of a lacking of “love and tolerate” within the community. Such commenting on the fandom again seem to be targeted the most at bronies who are critical of the movie.  Given that the phrase is highly linked to that subset of the fandom, these commenters are highlighting the perceived hypocrisy of bronies so as to further position them as being improper and inferior fans.  What is of interest is that we can also see this occurring in reaction to the release of the movie, as at last one fan appears critical of Hasbro, feeling as if the company betrayed the morality of the series by producing this spin-off.  These comments demonstrate how the messages of the series have circulated and become part of the identification of the fans, allowing them to use this discourse to position themselves and others in a self-reflective manner.

The comments from these Facebook posts demonstrate how fans of My Little Pony are actively and discursively positioning themselves and, at times, others, in relation to Equestria Girls.  These discursive tensions demonstrate the range of subsets of the fandom due to the cross-gendered and cross-generational nature of the fandom.  The positioning in relationship to these tensions highlights the issue of “appropriateness” in reception of a girlie cartoon, and how people negotiate their fandom when they are not the target audience.  The fans are actively positioning themselves and others in an attempt to socially construct what is the appropriate fan for this fandom.  What seems to result is the illumination of a fractured fandom, as the tensions indicate the factions and positionings within the factions that occur when you have so varied an audience and fanbase of this series.  While on the one hand it is good to know that the series has a draw for people other than young girls, the fractured nature of the fandom indicates its fans may not be embodying the “friendship is magic” lesson from the series.

3 thoughts on “When Audiences Collide: The Fractured Fandom of My Little Pony

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