After reading Kathleen Stewart’s book Ordinary Affects in the class that this study ultimately arose from, we’ve been very interested in the ways in which MLP and the Brony fandom influence and affect peoples’ daily lives. We caught up with Danny, whose earlier posts on this blog on these matters caught our attention, to talk about the ways in which being a brony has changed his outlook on life and served as a safe space to express emotion. We had to end the conversation a bit earlier that we would have liked to due to space and time concerns, but we are hoping to revisit for a Part 2 soon.
Check out the conversation below the break!
(D= Danny, J= Jason, K= Kurt)
J: Last semester, Kurt and I took a course with Dr. Susan Lepselter at Indiana University, which is what Research is Magic arose from. A book that got everybody really animated and which became important in some of our early theorizing was Ordinary Affects by Kathleen Stewart. Here “affect” refers to those social experiences that are not strictly discursive or rhetorical–senses, feelings, ways of being, etc.–and Stewart is particularly interested in the affects that are a part of everyday life: “Ordinary affects are the varied, surging capacities to affect and to be affected that give everyday life the quality of a continual motion of relations, scenes, contingencies and emergences.” (Stewart 2007, 4-5)
But on top of the affects themselves, I think there is something about our equally everyday performance of a response to them. And this is where I think your observations about your experiences as a brony, Danny, are really interesting. The idea that men feel a certain constraint–what you’ve called “emotional neutrality”–in their normative responses to everyday life is really compelling to me (I came from a family where dad said “men don’t cry”). Within that framework, perhaps this fandom offers something. It’s not that men can’t or don’t feel, but in what ways are they sanctioned to perform feeling?
D: I was sitting in an airport a few weeks ago and Sports Center happened to be on one of the TVs. The tagline at the bottom read “Emotion in sports?” and the guys were talking about how emotions should never be a part of sports for any reason. I found it to be an odd statement, isn’t the very nature of competition suppose to be emotional at least on some level? But it also made me realize something that I guess everyone knows deep down. There are no places where men can freely express emotions. There are very few exceptions. Men are allowed to be emotional about a child or spouse, but even then I’ve heard stories about fathers who don’t hug their children for fear of appearing overly emotional.
In our daily encounters we hear the phrase “man up” or “grow a pair” or “suck it up” whenever the group feels that a man is overstepping his emotional tether. Mostly those pertain to sympathetic emotions, but men aren’t even allowed to be angry without being sent to anger management. It seems to me that society is constantly trying to push men towards complete neutrality. We aren’t allowed to feel anything. That’s why I think MLP is such a special thing. It provides a place where men can actually express themselves in a safe and accepting environment.
K: There are certainly very strong restrictions about where, when, and how emotions can be normatively expressed. I am not sure so much that there are not places where emotions can be expressed—there are ways, places, and times that I think just about any sort of emotion can be expressed in a way that doesn’t seem weird or atypical (as your examples hint at). What is interesting is how regulated the different places and ways of expressing emotions are. Anger is a perfectly acceptable emotion in many situations and is often encouraged when applied in the right ways and toward the right ends, BUT there are definitely the right places and the right ends and those spaces are very highly regulated in different ways. I think your sports example is pretty revealing in this way. The issue isn’t necessarily not having emotion in sports, as you see with things such as Jimmy Valvano’s memorable speech:
“To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. And number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it. If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.” — Jimmy Valvano, ESPY Speech 1993
It’s more a matter of expressing those emotions in specific ways and at specific times. You are SUPPOSED to be emotionally involved in a football game—get mad, get sad, etc.—but the ways you can express this are often very much prescribed. The emotions that Richard Sherman expressed in his interview the other day (I’m guessing the source of the ESPN headlines) aren’t necessarily ones that I feel people are trying to do away with in football by any means. It is just that they were expressed in a manner that went against cultural norms.
J: So basically, because a dude expressed emotion in the “wrong” way (insofar as a black man is apparently not supposed to posture about his athletic prowess, and heaven forbid next to pretty blonde woman),
K: Who’da thunk
J: …it was suggested by some numbskull that we should do away with male emotions in sports altogether. I think that gets at Dan’s point and how it operates. In what situation would we suggest that women do away with emotion altogether (guys DO say “women are too emotional” all the time, which is the flipside of this convo)? So, keeping that in mind, I’m wondering if we might note the kind of negative and emotionally constrained spaces that clearly accompany masculinity while switching to the affirmative spaces for emotional expression provided by being a brony.
D: Damn, you guys really go big or go home don’tcha? I was just thinking about small day to day interactions. Everyone has seen the meme about “That post was so bad it gave me cancer.” But when you enter ‘brony space’ that meme disappears and is replaced by a tangential meme, “That post gave me diabetes.”
I’m not entirely sure what significance this has, maybe it denotes a different way of thinking or whatever, but its something I don’t see anywhere else. Even on pages dedicated to animal memes nobody uses that except for bronies. It comes into play whenever something adorable is posted. People use it in a positive way, not a negative one. It’s something I don’t think a guy could get away with in normal space. But we’re not talking about normal space, we’re talking about ‘brony space’ and in here it’s ok for a grown man to think that a filly version of Luna is absolutely adorable. Nobody will look at him askance. Try going into any other space online and doing the same, or try walking along the street and “squeeing” with glee at a puppy, people look at you weird. You’re not suppose to do that stuff in society.
J: This makes me think a lot about the unevenness of normative masculinities. Which is to say, I can imagine some circles in which the expression of affirmation towards something that is understood as “cute” or “adorable” is totally acceptable, whereas I can imagine other situations in which that isn’t at all true. I can also imagine situations where people see a man acting in certain non-normative ways and treat it as a personality quirk unique to that person. Is the fandom uniform enough in terms of accepted, unmarked masculinity that “squeeing” is a totally normal response across most of the fandom? Are there other performances of masculinity within the fandom that DO get a weird look?
D: I’m not really sure to be honest. In my experience bronies have always been completely accepting of almost any behavior. Some of the regular social limits still apply. People who deliberately stir the pot and cause trouble are frowned upon, as is needless drama, but barring stuff like that I’ve never seen the community look down on anyone’s actions. You also need to know your audience. You may not want to extoll the virtues of a SpaRity ship to a RariJack fan.
J: So, to get back to your interactions with the fandom, when you say that the fandom provides you spaces for the expression of these masculinities, how much are you interacting with other males expressing their emotions in these ways that are otherwise constrained? To tie this together with the everydayness of it all, is it a space for that sorta of self-expression even if you’re not expressing it to anybody in particular (like when a person is lurking and watching other people do things)? Is it enough to see others modeling behaviors that suggest or allow you to imagine alternative expressions of male emotion? In a nutshell: what’s the nature of the performance–a performance for oneself, for others, some combination thereof (and if so, what is the nature of the combination)?
D: I think more than anything that it provides a safe environment. More than that, an environment that nurtures and encourages emotion. I’m not really sure how to say this and not appear foolish, so I’m just gonna go in and to hell with it. Before I became a brony I had been in a job that wasn’t right for me, and conditions had deteriorated over a few years to the point that the only way for me to function was to forcefully deny any emotion at all, positive or negative. I had a morning ritual, every day before I left I would stop, breathe deep, and deaden myself inside. I would go through my day in a deadpan lull, being efficient and productive, but utterly joyless. After a while, it gets difficult to turn that off. After I started watching MLP, even before I joined the community, I noticed something starting to change. Things got better and little by little I regained emotions in my daily life. I remember watching Sleepless in Ponyville one evening and suddenly realizing that my cheek was wet. I was crying, for the first time in over a decade. It was a profound experience for me and quite a joyous one at that, it signified to me that I had finally begun to heal. I realize that example doesn’t really speak to the community, but I’m getting to that.
Around the same time, I had just started my very first trips into the brony community. This just so happened to be right in the middle of the Kiki Havivy thing. I was blown away by the outrush of emotion from the community. Thousands of people who had never met this little girl took to the internet to spread the word and grieve with one another at her passing. I had never seen anything like it before in my entire life. Near as I could tell the only connection the community had to her was that she liked the show, and she died far too young. That was reason enough to send the community into a massive shared mourning period for the better part of a week. I thought it was really touching and spoke a great deal about the community and the environment that it produced. Encouraged by this, I decided to keep exploring.
Today things are a lot more subdued. I hop onto Facebook or check out posts on EQD and I still see things that make me smile for no other reason than they’re cute or sweet. People have no reservations about saying what’s on their mind, even if regular society would consider it horribly unmasculine. Their sentiments are echoed through the community because all of us are thinking the same thing. Even the artists in this community often design things specifically to be cute or sweet, things that men aren’t suppose to aspire to be.
K: You’ve already started to get at it, but I’m really curious what your interactions within the fandom are, especially with regard to how you perform the emotions you are talking about. Is it enough to simply know that you are in a space in which people are expressing these emotions, or is it more about actually expressing and being able to express them to others within this space? Is it about expressing emotions like this, or simply a knowledge of being able to express them should one feel inclined to do so (I am guessing it is a combination of both)? How would a day in the life of Danny look in this case—where are you actually expressing these emotions publically versus just knowing that you are in a space in which it is fine (even encouraged) to have these feelings?
D: It’s most definitely both. I see people around me talking and doing, and it’s liberating to know that this environment allows for such things. It’s also freeing to know that I can join in whenever I feel inclined and my actions aren’t going to be outside the norm. I find that this behavior manifests prominently online, but also in smaller ways in my daily life with others outside of the community. The community is unapologetically enthusiastic about ponies, and it manifests in a whole bunch of ways. People post pictures of their new plush toy, or their new Funko figures, or cards, or this new sketch they made, and the community greets their enthusiasm and creativity in kind, commenting how awesome or cute their new thing is. This sense of shared enthusiasm and emotion is wonderful and quite liberating, and I find myself riding the wave as well, both by posting stuff of my own and commenting on that of others. Seeing it out in the open and knowing that it’s a place where this sort of stuff is embraced whole-heartedly is wonderful.
In my real life interactions things are a little more subdued. I still find myself being more enthusiastic about things than I normally was, and I have a more positive outlook than I had in the past. I’m also more open to new experiences and new people. I don’t go around advertising my brony status, but it definitely has had an impact in my life and how I interact with the world even when it isn’t about ponies.
K: The divide between brony space/life within the fandom and “meat space”/“real life” is one of the things that people talk about quite a bit when if comes to communities and interactions that primarily take place online. While this divide is something that people feel and talk about a lot, of course the divide between them is blurry at best (it’s someone interacting online, not dissociative identity disorder) and a lot of the most interesting things, in my opinion, come about where these two lives/worlds/etc. blend and merge together. Drs. Edwards and Redden—The Brony Study people—talk about the “WWPD” (What Would Ponies Do) “phenomenon” where lessons from the show inform bronies’ actions in life, and you started to touch on these issues above in talking about how the show affects you in your interactions with others outside of the fandom. I’m interested in hearing a bit more about that aspect of things. I’m also interested in how these dynamics have played out in any meetups or cons, where stuff is going on IRL.
J: In particular, I imagine that the worlds blend especially in our habits and “default” behaviors. If you, for example, don’t have too many models for expressing a certain set of emotions because you come from a background in which males are emotionally constrained, then it’s obviously not a habit for you to perform those emotions. Once you enter into spaces where those possibilities are realized, it’s not like you have to necessarily keep them separate in those spaces (though, granted, for some people, it’s a useful move to separate different sorts of emotional registers for different social contexts). Still, you’ve gained an emotional capacity, a set of expressive resources to which you didn’t previously have access, and that means you get to be creative about when you deploy them.
D: When I was a kid my parents use to encourage me to speak my mind and tell them how I was feeling. I’d like to think that’s a pretty normal experience for a child, but over time I think our day to day interactions try to push men towards non-expression. Not in any mean or malicious ways, but every one of us can remember being in highschool or college and having your friends rib you for doing/saying something a little too feely. It’s like a creeper vine, it grows slowly but when it gets too big you’re locked down. MLP seems to have the ability to reverse this slow indoctrination. I’ve heard so many stories about people (I’m not sure if learning is the right word for it, but its the best I have) learning how to feel again after they’ve been systematically shut down emotionally. There was an entire panel at BronyCon about this very thing, literally filled to capacity with young men and teens who had stories exactly like this.
My own behavioral shift came about partly because I realized that I was a brony, and realized how much vitriol society had towards bronies based on false assumptions. It helped me get a broader perspective on things and realize that a lot of the groups you always hear horrible things about (furries being a prime example) are probably not actually as bad as the things you hear. To that end, I find myself being way more accepting about the things other people say, do, and enjoy. After all, I spend way more of my free time watching candy colored cartoon ponies than I probably should, who am I to judge what anyone else does with their time?
That was only the beginning though, watching the show and seeing the lessons at the end of each of them helped me remember how the world is suppose to work. It had been a great while since my experiences had borne that out, but it reminded me that it was something that was possible, and worth seeking out if I could. I don’t want to say that it taught me how to behave, but it helped me remember how polite and kind interactions could be, and made me want to facilitate them. Going to meet-ups and cons only helps to reinforce this stuff, because the people there work so hard at exemplifying those positive interpersonal interactions. I can remember being in a panel at BronyCon and seeing a guy standing next to me wearing a hat made out of 3 drinking straws and some hay. I thought the reference was hilarious, so I told him that I really liked his hat.
He took it off and handed it to me, saying that if I liked it I should have it, just because. That kind of thing just doesn’t happen out on the street. I saw so many great examples of how bronies behave during those three days and I can’t possibly recount them all, but suffice to say that I saw countless actions of kindness, compassion, and generosity that I’ve just never seen from regular society. Especially on such a small interpersonal scale.
Unfortunately, this is where we decided to cut things off for the time being. We’re planning on continuing this conversation in a later post though, so be sure to comment below so we are able to incorporate them into part 2!