Almost a year ago, I first discovered that My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is an amazing show that is capable of generating a fandom that crosses both gendered and generational lines. However, crossing and pushing these borders causes consternation about the bronies who organize because of it. However, bronies appear to welcome their challenge to social and cultural notions about what is appropriate to do with this children’s show.
So, move into the now, and Hasbro is about to release a MLP:FIM movie that kinda highlights some aspects of the brony subculture that not all of the bronies are comfortable with.
On June 15th, Hasbro will have a “purple carpet” premiere for the first MLP:FIM movie, Equestria Girls. The following day, June 16th, the film will open nationwide in theatres for special showings, with presumably a television premiere on The Hub soon to follow. The movie focuses on the events at the end of Season Three (SPOILER ALERT), which finds Twilight Sparkle becoming a princess. The movie’s villain steals Twilight’s crown, which has her Element of Harmony in it, and disappears into an alternate reality. Twilight must then journey to this alternate reality to save her crown — but, in doing so, she becomes, for all intents and purposes, a human teenage girl who has to deal with the challenges of, gasp!, high school! According to the trailer, along the way she runs into other humans that appear to be like the pony friends she left behind.
Hasbro has said that they want to expand their MLP brand out of the children’s market and into the more lucrative teenager market. But, the thing is, the market for the MLP is already pretty much expanded beyond the children’s market. The brony fandom consists of a large range of ages, and the show crosses both gender and generational boundaries. Their presence in the market may not be intentional, or perhaps even desirable from Hasbro’s perspective, but they do exist, and they are loyal consumers of both the show and its ancillary merchandise, such as the MLP app game.
And while the movie is clearly targeting a teenage girl audience with the focus on human high school experiences (which aren’t at ALL stereotyped…), the marketing of the movie appears to be targeting a specific subset of the brony fandom: the subset that likes to sexualize and fetishize the ponies.
If you are not new to the Internet, then you have probably heard of Rule 34: if it exists, there is porn of it. MLP, like so many other cartoons intended for an audience of children, is not exempt from this rule. A simple search on art sharing site Deviant Art can bring up numerous examples of people reimagining the ponies in an erotic posture, from the head strong Twilight to the soft spoken Fluttershy. In some of these images, the ponies are anthropomorphized into human representations, resulting in a range of possible depictions from animal to human. There is even a subset of MLP fanfiction called “clopfic” that is sexually explicit, ranging from tender erotica to hardcore pornography.
All of this exists, and Hasbro cannot be ignorant of it. A friend, who is a member of the furry community, has told me how the company has sent out cease-and-desist letters to those bronies seeking to — perhaps in some small way — capitalize on this subset of the fandom, such as through conventions. And I would be amazed if Hasbro had not heard about the Internet dust-up between a brony and a clopfic artist that was even covered by The A.V. Club.
Thus, when Hasbro released news of the upcoming movie with marketing material showing anthropomorphized ponies, it was hard not to see the marketing as targeting this subset. The following image comes from the NY Times.
Here the ponies are shown half-pony, half-human, at the mid-point of anthropomorphism that had previously only been seen in fan art. Naturally, there were those who, when I pointed out the apparent attempt at marketing to this subset of bronies, thought this image had to have been created by the newspaper. They could not believe Hasbro would release something that looked so representative of fanon, of what the fans themselves have created. And yet, the official website for the movie as well as its poster again show the image of Twlight Sparkle in this fanon form.
This official poster generated a quite robust conversation on Facebook of supporters, detractors, and those who were cautiously optimistic; in 6 hours there were 666 comments. Reaction to the idea of the film, as well as the marketing of it, appeared at The Daily Dot and in a Cracked article, the latter of which brought up the issue of fetishism around MLP:FIM and generated over 1500 comments. And all of these reactions are coming from the bronies, who are not the audience Hasbro is targeting with the movie. Whether or not that target audience will dominate the theatre showings on the 16th, or will be crowded out by the bronies, remains to be seen.
However, what is most interesting in this entire event is not who Hasbro is targeting and who is actually turning out for the movie. Rather, it is the process of anthropomorphizing the ponies in the fanon, which, when carried to a sexually explicit extreme, results in a fetishism of the ponies beyond the consumerism inherent in the toy line. Within the fandom, there are different opinions as to how the fans should treat the characters in their fanon creations. When looking at the erotic and pornographic, be they stories or art, there are those who support such production, even suggesting arousal to it — although it can be hard to discern if such sentiment is ironic or honest. At the other extreme are those who vehemently oppose such creations, citing concerns from bestiality to child pornography. The one side would argue creative license and Rule 34 (which itself is a philosophy of experimentation, of pushing the boundaries), while the other side would argue common decency and consideration for how those outside of the fandom view bronies.
Overall, there appears to be this concern about fans anthropomorphising the ponies, but technically Hasbro did it first by having them talk, wear clothes and act like humans. This process of humanizing our animal cousins has been occurring for a long time. As social creatures, we seek and even crave companionship from our pets, and even our gadgets. We have long sought the sense that we are not alone in the universe, and have turned the natural world into gods, goddesses and magical spirits to surround ourselves with aspects of ourselves. The fans are extending this process of humanizing the ponies to other domains of human behavior and appearance: giving them human bodies and/or engaging in human sexual activities. And with Hasbro putting out marketing for Equestria Girls that seemingly matches what the fans are doing, in some ways it seems that Hasbro is validating the fans’ activities.
Or, if it is not validating, then it is at least highlighting this subset of fandom that those inside and outside of the fandom are not comfortable with. Without the marketing campaign, the fandom could have kept this fetishization process tucked away, as it is with every other fandom that engages in Rule 34. What is essentially the hentai of MLP:FIM would have remained in the darker corners of the Internet to be sought out only by those interested in it. Here now it is brought to all of our attention, and we are forced to deal with its ramifications for what it means about the fandom and ourselves.
Overall, it reminds me of the talk about the uncanny valley and people’s comfort level with non-human entities appropriating human characteristics. The uncanny valley theorizes that as the appearance and behavior of a non-human entity more closely replicates human appearance and behavior, then we are more uncomfortable when we engage with those entities. If it remains clearly non-human, having some exaggeration or cartoonish nature, then we feel less threatened by it and thus more friendly towards it. The ponies on the show, although anthropomorphized, are clearly still cartoons, and thus no threat to us. But as fans work with these characters, bringing them closer and closer to us, in appearance and behavior, then we start to wonder, if only subconsciously, what is the difference between them and us.
For the most part, we answer this question by the clear realization that they are fictional characters, and respond in what is deemed an appropriate manner: one cannot be sexually attracted to a fictional character because there is no chance of sex with that character. While there may be people who have MLP stuffed animals or pillows and claim to be in a relationship with the character, we know it is not true. We are able to resolve our issues with the uncanny valley, even if we can never truly resolve that uneasy feeling we get because of it.
The fetishization of the ponies is part of the process of fans expressing their creativity and pushing the boundaries of the uncanny valley — to test how far our relationship with non-human entities can go. Right now, we know how far they can go: they can appear in art work, and in the performances or delusions of some who bring it into the real world. But all of these ponies have no agency or choice in how they are being treated. They are merely ways for us to work out the issues of the uncanny valley.
But what happens when we have non-human entities that do have agency? That are able to make choices that could lead to a consensual relationship? We are seeing research into companionship robots right now. What happens if one day a person engages in a consensual, sexual relationship with a robot? Will the uncanny valley prevent acceptance of such a relationship, or will the valley finally be overcome?