Tag Blog is an idea inspired by TAGJournal and Dr. Susan Lepselter at IU. We write blog entries about the My Little Pony fandom, then ask someone else in the community to write a follow-up and tag the next person in the chain. There are currently two concurrent series, one started by Jason (Series 1) and another by Kurt (Series 2). This is the first post of Series 1 by Jason.
How do you teach the magic of friendship?
(featuring Sailors Uranus and Neptune)
by Jason R. Nguyen (ResearchIsMagic.org / Indiana University Bloomington)
People in the fandom talk a lot about the values of the show and about how it teaches people what friendship is and how it even helps the more socially awkward of us to have models for healthy socialization. But when we use the word “teach,” we can sometimes get tunnel-vision about how we actually learn behaviors in the world. We don’t learn how to be better friends because Twilight Sparkle tells us a one-sentence secret about what friendship is. Sure, the lesson reinforces something, but what exactly is that, and how?
A related story: long before I learned what “queer theory” was, the magical-girl anime Sailor Moon showed me through the lesbian pairing of Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune that gender and sexuality were fluid categories. The show didn’t provide me with a theoretical vocabulary for discussing those topics, but it helped open me to a possibility—to the very basic humanity of people with different sexualities and genders than my own—and that receptiveness would later serve me when those concepts were taught.
Everything about their relationship seemed familiar to me—their suaveness as a gorgeous pair of people, their genuine concern for one another, the occasional sexual joke—except that they were both girls. And since the fact that they were lesbians was the one thing that little Jason felt to be “unnatural,” it was less mental effort to shift my heteronormative worldview than to shift my positive inclination towards these two characters.
I intellectualized it later, but more importantly, their normalness—signalled by how their homosexuality was a non-issue to everyone else in that universe—justified them to me on a visceral level. More than teaching me how to act, Sailor Moon taught me how to react to and interpret sexualities different from my own. In other words, the best lessons of social behavior are ones that shift your ability to interpret social worlds—ever so slightly at first—to a different position that makes more sense with the people and objects from the world in which you’re invested, be that “real” life, Sailor Moon, or My Little Pony.
MLP:FiM’s underlying premise—that a group of young, four-legged, multi-colored women are interesting and fundamentally good and that they value their friendships despite obvious differences—permeates every other aspect of the show’s narrative. If one accepts that premise, just as I accepted that the Sailor Scouts were compassionate and good people, the conflicts within the group and the individual flaws of each of the characters become normalized as problems that good people/ponies have.
Twilight Sparkle’s obsessive personality and need for validation from authority figures become recognized as parts of a protagonist’s struggle. Rarity and Rainbow Dash have occasional bouts of vanity, but they are linked in the story to their skills and confidence in their respective fields. Fluttershy’s social anxiety is accepted by the characters and by viewers as a part of her personality and, while something to struggle against, not something to be ridiculed. Etc…
If there is any lesson about friendship and inclusivity here, it is less tied to aphorisms and end-of-episode lessons and more to 1) the ways these characters have complex personalities that remind us of real people’s emotional struggles and difficulties and 2) our acceptance that these struggles are the problems of fundamentally good people/ponies. As with my acceptance of homosexual romance in Sailor Moon, I imagine that MLP:FIM doesn’t so much teach bronies how to act as it performs on their screens the strong bonds between ponies across a wide emotional and personality spectrum.
We’re submitting an abstract for consideration for the 2014 Ray Browne Conference on Cultural and Critical Studies, meeting February 21-23 at Bowling Green State University based on the work here at Research is Magic. If accepted, our paper will discuss our approach to this blog/study as a research method and means of critiquing current anxieties within cultural studies about the internet and other technologies (and the conference theme). Check it out below (pardon the Academese…we did add some footnotes in this version for anybody who wants to wade through it) and feel free to post your comments and thoughts.
We’ll be sure to keep the paper/presentation updates coming.
Jason and Kurt
Knowing How to Live/The Magic of Friendship: Ethnographic Methodology and the My Little Pony Fandom
While technologically-mediated interfaces are often understood as producing a different order of anxiety about human socialization, we wish to denaturalize the notion underscoring this view: that media interfaces are strange, foreign, and mysterious in a particular way unique to modernity. Are current media ideologies categorically different an interface than the vernacularization of biblical knowledge spearheaded by the Gutenberg Bible1, the encounter between the colonial west and the non-west2, or the Cold War promise/nightmare of atomic power3? While historical and cultural specificity must be maintained, the encounters are surprisingly similar: early-adopters integrate and mediate the interface as part of their social habitus just as others have their ideologies and ways-of-being jilted by the very same possibilities.
In this paper, we counter Henry Jenkins’ notion that “[n]one of us really know how to live in this era”4 by insisting that people are remarkably adept at living their lives, technologically mediated or otherwise. Technologies result in new ways of doing old things—expressing oneself, forming communities, and interacting with others—and while these new forms can be troubling for some, they quickly become home for others. Using our collaborative ethnographic project with fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (or more affectionately, “bronies”) as a point of departure, we argue for an ethnographic methodology that emphasizes not the strangeness of media technologies to those in online communities, but rather their mundanity and everyday-ness. Our blog, Research is Magic, represents an attempt at participant-observation5 that collapses the boundaries between academic and interlocutor based on those grounds—that we need not “do” the Internet in different ways and places than our interlocutors, and that a more productive way to interact with ethnographic subjects might be to theorize, create, and write with them, in their midsts, rather than far away and long after the ethnographic encounter.6
As the first book printed in the West in any kind of major scale, the Gutenberg printing of the bible made church leaders anxious since it represented a threat to the church’s power in social life. ↩
The colonial gaze and colonial power changed the ways people on both sides understood themselves and others. ↩
Views of atomic power were utopian on one hand, since it meant this amazing new form of energy, and dystopian on the other, since the destructive power of the atomic bomb was scary for everyone involved. ↩
Participant-observation is a form of research that involves deep “hanging out” with the people you want to understand: both participating and observing. ↩
Anthropologists have traditionally had a tendency to go to some far-flung corner of the world, live with the people there for some number of years, and then return and write books that the people they study never come into contact with. ↩
A lot of our posts begin with Kurt or me waxing poetic and describing something that we’ve observed and eliciting your responses to our ideas. We love writing those posts and we’ll keep doing them, but it’s still pretty top-down, which runs counter to the reason we started this blog. To remedy that, I want to start a series of posts that flips the script, so to speak. We’ll probably reply in our usual long-winded fashion, but we want to begin with your observations of a broad topic.
Today, it’s “pony fandom news.” Anything you can think of having to do with news in the fandom. Some seeder questions:
Where do you go?
What do you choose to follow?
Do you submit news yourself?
Who/what makes the news? (both in the sense of creating/writing news and being the topic of news)?
…and whatever else you can think of having to do with the topic.
Looking forward to the places you go. Also, please suggest new Open Topics!
P.S. We’re on Twitter now, so follow us and we’ll follow you! It’ll help us dig deeper into the fandom and we can become friends along the way! (Like us on Facebook too!)
Today, we’re trying a different format — a conversation.
Warning: Contains Strong Language and Dumb Jokes
Kurt: So… Yeah. Female Bronies. They are a thing.
Jason: They are a [redacted]. But seriously, the way they are treated in the Brony documentary is as a parallel mirror image of the documentary’s brony typology of hipsters, moderates, and creatives — with vaginas. Also a minority.
Kurt: Parallel mirror image? WTFuck?
Jason: Oh fuck you.
Kurt: For those of us [me] that still haven’t seen the documentary [I’m workin’ on it]. What do you mean by mirror to the typology?
Jason: So basically, once the documentary established the three types of bronies, it made a point of showing how the typology only represented male bronies. In the doc’s animated segment, a number of female bronies — each a hipster, moderate, or creative — argues for inclusion in the fandom and the narrator is forced to amend his explanation to include them. When I refer to them as a mirror, I mean that, as represented in the documentary, there is no variation in the types of fans between the two genders. That’s weird to me, since I can count at least one type of fan over-represented among women and girls and all but non-existent among men and boys — the nostalgic collectors of G1-G3 MLP.
Kurt: You have a point there. That could make for some interesting dynamics, and certainly a new possibility for that typology—Nostalgists (what the fuck do you call someone with nostalgia?). I’m not sure I have heard much talk of this group of people, although I have trouble imagining that they do not exist within the fandom (or even, possibly, their male counterparts). I do like the documentary’s typology a lot… it seems like it might be useful.
Jason: It should be noted that nostalgia also plays a large part in male Bronies’ enjoyment of the series, though it seems to take on a more intertextual form1.
Kurt: Nostalgia for X show that FiM is reminiscient of… nostalgia for a specific time period or worldview or something that might be associated with this, mayhaps. Several people talk about the way the MLP shows a more positive outlook on life/way of being that differs from the ways that they see things before.
Jason: I think the parallels to Star Trek: The Next Generation that some blog commenters are making speak to this. But to get us back to the sistas, should we be distinguishing between these kinds of nostalgia along gendered lines, or is that unnecessary or even wrongheaded?
Kurt: I guess that is the problem with typologies… nothing is ever so neat. I’m inclined to make the distinction, as I am not sure how well it fits into any of the three categories you mentioned.
J: What would make the distinction clearer to me is whether there was some kind of friction or at least boundary work between fans of MLP from the “old days” and the fans brought in explicitly through FIM.
Kurt William Baer: True dat… I guess the issue might lie in the fact that this particular typology is focusing upon the main reasons that people are drawn into the fandom. I’d imagine that very few people fit neatly into the categories and, should our MLP Gen 1-3 fans be in this particular fandom, they might fit into other categories as well. Also, where would that friction be?
J.aegerbomb: I am thinking boundary work comes closer to what happens, since the underlying premise of FIM makes open conflict difficult to reconcile with fandom membership (in fact, I want to make a future post exploring fights in the fandom). For example, the lack of an engaging story in early MLP means older fans fall more into the category of collector of pony figures. This may also align with female collectors often being the craftspeople of the brony community, since they have the experience working with the figures. They aren’t fighting over the division of labor per se–but the fact of a roughly-gendered division of labor is significant.
***ENTER THE DOM***
K-Money: Ladies and Gentlemen, Dom Tartaglia—folklorist and pop culture deity who happens to be at the same Starbucks as the two of us.
Jrizzle: And guy I want to punch in the nuts.
Dom: Fun fact: Kurt fb messaged me “Fucking look left, dammit!”. Terrified, I looked to the left, and there were Kurt and Jason, now here I am.
Also, just goin’ off, I would just like to brag that I have that limited edition t-shirt of Pinkie Pie as Andrew WK with a nose bleed; that is my greatest brony accomplishment.
Kurt: So Dom, since you are now here. Female brony: brony or pegasis(ter)?
Dom: I find it hard to separate the “creatives” from the Bronies themselves, because Bronies have such an active creative side in the fandom. If the general rule of the internet is “pics or it didn’t happen”, I think the rule for internet fan communities is “fan-art, or it isn’t happening”. So I feel those early 4chan image macros were the first and most notable step in making a community out of a property. Those early creatives were in many ways, the “first real Bronies”.
Now, infamously, those first “mods are asleep, post ponies” bros were deemed, bros- bronies. That’s not to say they weren’t females; who knows who you are when you post as “anon”.
J: Oh come on! You know 4-chan is a bunch of dudes!
Dom: Well yes, Jason, it’s mostly neckbeards, but it’s impossible to say it wasn’t ladyneckbeards. What I guess I’m saying is, from behind a username, brony is both male and female, at least to me.
Kurt: That’s a good point, and one that I have seen argued before on several internet sites that I’ve checked out (that will remain nameless because I forget them now). I’ve also heard that brony is a gender neutral term because, apparently, the early 4-chan stuff was under [b]rony and thus it wasn’t actually “bro” somehow.
J: Of course dudes would refer to dude terms as the neutral ones.
K: Yeah… that’s what I was getting to. It is interesting how charged the term “brony” is in terms of gender. I think “pegasis” is clever, but a little awkward and divisive.
J: Also since we know what “pegging” is 😛
D: Can’t unsee
J: But seriously, I don’t think we’re gonna get away from everything that the word “bro” has attached to it. Frat boys, mostly. Brah-nies.
The difficulty for the inclusion of women in the ranks of bronies isn’t necessarily the word itself though, but rather the gendered habitus2 of precisely those 4chan fans from the early days (though the word is probably a good trace of the gendered origins). Those fans produced a strain in the fandom that celebrates a heteronormatively ironic adoration of the show that connects it to largely male interests and needs3. Furthermore, there’s a tendency to understand those male ways of inhabiting the world as being natural and UN-gendered, when they are clearly indices of heteronormative maleness.
K: Your mom is heteronormatively ironic.
J: She’s IRONic cause she’s [Fe]male.
D: K: Yeah. I’d like to talk a bit more about this “difficulty for the inclusion”… It feels like a really interesting kind of difficulty that is totally there, but, as you said, more at the level of habitus than anything else. There is a disposition toward things being that way, but a disposition is just that. I guess what I am saying is that there are female bronies, many of them thrive in the fandom, and many people are genuinely encouraging of women in the fandom. Mute point, perhaps.
J: But the existence of the term “Pegasister” or any other qualifier (even “female brony”) by itself suggests at least enough of a clash with the standards of the fandom that such a discursive move is necessary. Otherwise, they would just be bronies and not feel the need for qualifiers (as many do, I’m sure, but not all).
K: Yeah… gender is a thing that exists. Even on the internet.
J: That’s a bold statement on the internet.
K: Perhaps. YouTube comments tend to back me up though… unless everyone has a schlong on the interwebs.
J: This place is tits!
K: The viewpoints of people who aren’t dudes would be very beneficial here… this is a bit of a sausage fest (hint, hint, everypony). Hopefully our musings can get something going in this regard. Even numbers-wise, if y’all like that shit, “the” Brony Study (www. bronystudy.com) took a big-ass survey sometime around 2011 and found 14% of their participants were female. I’m guessing the percentage might have grown since then.
J: That means 42% of the three of us is female! That’s almost half a boob!
D: You guys, I have to admit something…
K: Are you 42% pregnant?
D: Yes, and I don’t know who the father is.
Anyway, some of the debate, at least on r/mylittlepony, indicates that:
female mlp:fim fans dislike the label “pegasister”
openly male bronies want to call all pony fans “bronies”.
a fancy brony should be called a “pegasir”.
I’m kinda unsure how the term pegasister came to be, if no one likes it.
Pegasister kinda feels like “dudette” to me: it only means “girl version of this guy term”.
K: And the term “woman”? The point is not that “pegasister” isn’t somewhat contrived, but that the male term is naturalized and is a male term4.
J: The politics of the term is somewhat complicated. On one hand, there are a number of people on Reddit who rail against it on grounds like Dom is saying, that it is the girl version of the naturalized boy term. On the other hand, there was at least one person who said: “To my fellow bronies: Why I’m A Pegasister ( and why that doesn’t mean that I’m a man-hating feminazi ).” She doth protest too much! The unprovoked denial suggests a pre-existing linkage between the term pegasister and “feminist,” at least in some circles.
But overall, I think it’s pretty bullshit that for an ostensibly female property, there’s a term for the female fans that is understood as the female version of the male fan and not vice versa.
K: Yea, verily
D: Well I think at the end of the day, this show/fandom is about love and tolerance for everypony. And I hope we get to a point where we can love and tolerate each other past gender squabbles and get to the real issues:
What are the actual rules of becoming a Princess? Do you just need a horn and wings? Speciesist much?
Trixie; who really wants more of her?
Remember when Pinkie Pie morphed her face into a gen 3 pony? Has she always been able to do that?!
Shit is speciesist… look at the zebras and bison. Problematic representations much? I do love them though.5
* * * * *
That’s all folks!
-Jason, Kurt, and Dom
“Intertextuality” is a termed coined by Julia Kristeva, linked to work by scholars like Mikhail Bakhtin. In short, it refers to the ways in which different “texts” — for our purposes, any cultural object that can be understood as a bounded thing — influence one another. ↩
We’re borrowing the word “habitus” here from the work of Pierre Bourdieu (see The Logic of Practice, p. 53), which refers to the embodied predispositions people have that structure how they understand the world and yet are themselves structured by the social worlds they inhabit. ↩
Kurt is referencing ideas of “patriarchy” –a social system in which men are deemed authoritative–and cultural “hegemony”–the idea that people in positions of power produce systems in which the values that keep them in power are naturalized ↩
Speciesism, like racism, is the assignment of different values to different categories of beings…in this case different values to different species ↩
Okay, we’ve got a confession to make: neither of us have seen Equestria Girls yet.
We’re planning to remedy this situation though and we thought that it might be a good opportunity to interact with everypony in real time.
Here’s what we’re imagining. We’re planning on watching it this Thursday, 5 December at 8:30pm (EST) and we’d like you to join us in a viewing/discussion if you are interested. On Thursday at showtime, we’ll post a link on this post to the video through Sync-YouTube, which will allow anyone tuning in to watch the show in sync with us and talk about it with their chat feature. We will then talk about the movie and whatever else comes up and post the discussion to the blog.
We’d love it if you would join us! (Leave a comment if you’re planning on do so!)
Nothing super important here, but now that I’m back from India (I’ve been there since Nov. 15th), I’ve gotten a chance to check off some site stuff that I’ve been wanting to do:
Bug fixes. There were occasional error 500s. Those should no longer be a problem.
Post Subscriptions via email. You can now subscribe to new posts with the “Subscribe to Posts” widget box (on the right on the full site) and we’ll email you when new posts go up. You can also import our RSS feed wherever you’d like (like Feedly or Feedburner).
Comment Subscriptions. At the bottom of the comments, you can subscribe to the comments for an individual post by email. There is also a separate RSS feed for comments too.
Facebook and Twitter. I started Facebook and Twitter accounts for the blog. Gonna decide what to do with them later, but for now, they’ll definitely be ways to find out about new posts if you don’t like the email options above.