One group likes a cartoon about brightly colored ponies with distinctive personalities. The other has a broad interest in animation and comics from Japan. Still, Bronies and anime fans are more similar than you might think. Both occupy relatively small pockets within the greater nerd universe; they may turn up at general events like San Diego Comic-Con, but they have their own conventions and their own way of expressing community. (Those MLP t-shirts that read “20% Cooler” and at least 50% of the costumes at Anime Expo won’t make sense to people outside of the scenes.) On top of that, both Bronies and anime fans also face challenges and stereotypes that might not affect other so-called geeks. In fact, sometimes, they’re misjudged by their own.
Bronies – the subject of the new Morgan Spurlock-produced documentary, A Brony Tale – are a relatively new fandom, having only existed since the launch of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. The anime fan community in the U.S. has been around for decades, although its evolved a lot in that time. Though it might seem weird to compare them – “apples and oranges,” you might say – they often seem closer connected to each other than, say, Bronies and sci-fan fans or anime and horror fans. After watching A Brony Tale and spending four days at Anime Expo, I found the similarities even more apparent. Here’s why:
1. We’re Adults Who Still Watch Cartoons.
Whether you’re a Brony or a grown-up anime fan, we have something in common. We love cartoons. Granted, the notion that cartoons are just for kids has faded a lot since The Simpsons, but it hasn’t completely diminished.
My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is for kids. There may be a lot of adult fans, but the intended audience is children. There’s a stigma to that. People talked about in A Brony Tale. Tell someone that you’re into a show for kids and they think you’re having problems with embracing adulthood.
Anime is much broader. We’re not talking about a single show, but years of completely different genres of films and series that happened to be made in Japan. If you tell someone you’re an anime fan, they might immediately think of one of the popular shows for kids, like Pok?mon. Maybe you’re into that, maybe you aren’t. Either way, you might have heard someone ask, “Aren’t you too old for that?”
There are a lot of ways you can respond to the naysayers. Cartoons are art, oftentimes spectacularly beautiful art. Plus, have you watched Looney Tunes or Animaniacs as an adult? There are lots of cartoons that were marketed towards kids, but have a much broader appeal. Or, you could just ignore them. People suck.
2. If You’re a Guy, People Might Think You’re a Creep.
There are a lot of misconceptions that affect both men and women who are into anything remotely geeky. A few of those only pertain to the dudes, like the stereotype that nerds are guys who can’t get laid and live in their parents’ basements. As shitty as that is, the misconceptions get worse if you’re delve into My Little Pony or anime. It’s not that people think you have no life, it’s that they might think you’re a perv.
In A Brony Tale, the misconception is addressed head-on. “The pervert alarm went off in my head, for sure, when I first heard about it,” says Ashleigh Ball, who voices Applejack and Rainbow Dash. She learns otherwise throughout the course of the documentary. The creep stereotype is mentioned and essentially debunked in A Brony Tale. When I interviewed director Brian Hodge about the documentary for our sister site L.A. Weekly, he mentioned that women wouldn’t get the same reaction for admitting they’re My Little Pony fans. That’s probably true. I’m a female in my 30s. If I said I collected My Little Ponies (I don’t), it would be no more unusual than a guy my age who collects G.I. Joe figures.
With anime, the creep perception is a little different. Tell someone that you’re an adult, male anime fan and they might think you’re into tentacle monsters or have a fetish for high school girls and panty shots. That’s not necessarily the case, but knowing otherwise won’t stop the masses from wise-cracking. Sometimes, though, the creep assessment is based on recent incidents at conventions. Last year, I went to a panel at Pacific Media Expo about harassment. A male photographer on the panel was talking about people who have been harassed by other fans while taking photos and that’s creating problems. Don’t want to be that jerk? Treat your fellow convention-goers with respect.
3. The Fans Aren’t Stuck in the Past.
I remember conventions by what anime were big that year. When I first started attending Anime Expo, Death Note was all the rage. Last year, it was Attack on Titan. This year, it’s Kill la Kill. For years, Bleach cosplayers were inescapable at the cons. This year, I couldn’t recall seeing a single black Shinigami robe, a green and white striped hat or anything else that was unmistakably Bleach. Anime changes with the times and anime conventions follow the latest trends in the industry. You might see references to a few classics, like My Neighbor Totoro, but overall, the emphasis is on the new releases. It’s kind of hard to keep up with anime fans. I’ll spend a lot of time asking them, “What show is this from?” at conventions and then playing catch-up with Crunchyroll. I don’t even want to mention that my favorite manga is Nana and favorite anime is The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Even those references are too dated for this crowd.
My Little Pony has been around for a long time. Hell, I used to play with MLP toys when I was a kid and that was a very, very, very long time ago. The ponies that once lived in my bedroom are like my old L.A. Gear sneakers, Expos? cassette and bottle of Electric Youth perfume: relics of the ’80s. My Little Pony is on the fourth generation of toys now and those are largely influenced by Friendship Is Magic. That’s the focus of the Brony community, so we’re talking about MLP as it has evolved from 2010 to the present. This is not an old-school scene.
4. These Fandoms Grew Because of the Internet.
On some level, you can say this about any fan community in 2014. The line between our lives in the physical world and the online one is barely existent at this point. With Bronies and anime fans, the fan communities are so tightly tied to the Internet that they might not exist as they do right now without it.
Say you’re into comic books or science fiction. You’ll connect with other fans online. You’ll share cool fan art or the latest movie news on Facebook and Twitter. But, you’ll still make plans to see the big releases in an actual movie theater. You might still head down to your local comic book shop to pick up new releases. With anime, the dissemination of the main media product often happens online. You can watch subtitled versions through sites like Crunchyroll not long after the shows air in Japan. It will take months, maybe longer, for the show to hit a U.S. TV station (if it does) or get a DVD or Blu-ray release. Could the fan community have swelled enough to sell out Anime Expo if people were still trading VHS tapes?
Brony origin stories, like in A Brony Tale, often start with 4chan. Even though this is a show that airs on cable television, the adult fandom grew through online chatter. 4chan may have been the beginning of it, but the community spread out to Reddit, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and virtually any other site where you can bump into someone who likes the same media you do. If the Internet didn’t exist, My Little Pony may have remained a kids thing that became a nostalgic thing when the kids became adults.
5. Remixes Make the Fandom Stronger.
In grad school, I would stay up all night reading while watching anime. Then I would get on the computer click back and forth between my thesis and the anime music videos that sucked me into YouTube. I got obsessed with AMVs, so much so that one of my first convention stories was about them. Those remixes introduced me to a lot of anime that I hadn’t seen. I would catch a video and then go out and marathon another series.
There’s a remix angle to the Brony fandom as well. In A Brony Tale, a DJ named Silva Hound talks about sampling pieces of the show. There are fan-made, mash-up videos online and other projects that will help draw people into the Ponyverse and keep them active once they’re there.
6. The Cons Can Get Rave-y.
The rave-iness with My Little Pony goes beyond my favorite pony, the vinyl-spinning DJ Pon-3. There’s a scene in A Brony Tale, which is set at BronyCon in 2012, where a bunch of fans are gathered in a dark room, pumping fists with glow-sticks attached. It looked a lot like a dance at an anime convention.
When I first started going to Anime Expo, I thought the dances would be like prom, but with everyone in costume instead of formalwear. Instead, there were tons of people waving glow-sticks and jumping up and down to really fast dance music. Last weekend, I stopped by a dance at Anime Expo and it’s still pretty PLUR. The props had that psychedelic Alice in Wonderland look, like something you would see on a party flyer. Most of the crowd was packed into the center of the room, still dancing with glow-sticks as a DJ played tunes that sounded closer to what you might hear at HARD Summer or some other electronic dance music event. I would have started dancing myself, but I was probably the oldest person there and that would just be awkward.
7. They’re Girl-Friendly Scenes.
The attention surrounding Bronies is unusual. The show and toys are marketed towards little girls. Older guys got into it and then there was a slew of stories about Bronies, almost all with the same angle – “Look! Men like My Little Pony!” I wouldn’t fault anyone for thinking that the adult MLP fanbase is entirely male; that’s how it’s presented. However, there are girls in the fan community. I’ve seen them at various Brony events, including a convention in Anaheim, CA and a major MLP art show in Los Angeles. I’ve seen them hanging around the Hasbro booth at San Diego Comic-Con and dressed as human versions of their favorite ponies at all sorts of conventions. Grown women are as much of a part of the MLP community as grown men are.
Before I went to an anime convention, I didn’t know any other women who were into anime or manga. After that, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the fan community was heavily female. In the beginning, there was a difference in the crowds I saw at anime and regular comic book conventions, where there were still significantly fewer women in attendance. It may not seem like a big deal, but it is. When you see women heavily participating in the fan community, when it’s more than just “Women in _____” panels, it will encourage more female fans to get involved in the community.
8. They’re Niches Inside a Niche.
To the outside world, we’re all nerds. We’re a bunch of weirdos who somehow got a modest amount of cool cred once superhero movies started making bank and cosplayers turned up on TV screens. Inside the realm, though, there’s a hierarchy amongst our kind. From what I’ve seen, the attitude seems to be that anime fans are nerds amongst the nerds. Getting into anime means staying on top of a string of shows as they hit the web. If you’re hardcore, it may mean studying Japanese, making a pilgrimage to Akihabara and drinking a lot of Ramune.
In the documentaries, Bronies appear as a completely separate community. In real life, we see Bronies at anime and comic book conventions with some frequency. I’ve heard people in the nerd world make passing comments about Bronies, like appreciating My Little Pony was some line that they couldn’t cross, and a lot of times, that sounds like it’s tied into the gender-based misconceptions about MLP fans. People just need to get over it. Guys can like My Little Pony. Girls can like Transformers. Nerds are nerds. Just be cool with each other. Princess Celestia would want that.
Previously by Liz Ohanesian