by Jason R. Nguyen
Kurt and I have worked with this community for about six months now, and one of the questions that is most interesting to me from a scholarly perspective is what exactly to consider the unit of analysis and its boundaries: what is the configuration of human beings that we are trying to understand and who gets included or excluded? In the scholarship in my area—cultural anthropology and sociological theory figure most prominently, though my influences reach across disciplines—there have been a number of different ways of defining groupings of people and how one might study them: the ones I’m going to pay the most attention to today are public, cohort, and community. I’d like to continue with a few more next week: fandoms, networks, and networked publics.
Each word has a slightly different history and means something slightly different, providing strengths and weaknesses in terms of what it can describe and what sorts of connections and bonds it can make sense of. I hope showing you a little bit of these scholarly perspectives and how bronies can be considered as representative of each can give you some sense of why the fandom is so interesting to me!
So without further ado…
Who counts as a brony?
In my dissertation research, I study people who self-identify as Vietnamese and how they form connections with one another in local communities, on national and continental levels, and even transnationally. I’ve purposefully avoided categories like “Vietnamese Americans” or “the Vietnamese diaspora” because they tend to presuppose certain sorts of relationships that people may or may not have with each other (citizenship in the former, homeland relationships in the latter). Therefore, I have often used terminology like ‘self-identify as Vietnamese” because the identification of oneself as Vietnamese means that a person is self-consciously engaged in identity work of a sort that produces potential links to other people who also self-identify as Vietnamese.
That desire to self-consciously give yourself an identity is really crucial to the whole “brony” thing (though, of course, there’s always some identity assignment created through others’ interpretations)1. Being a brony means, on this level, calling yourself a brony, either explicitly through words or through actions that are undeniably those of a brony.
But you can see how that provisional definition is already becoming a slippery slope: if a person never says he’s a brony, but he goes to BronyCon, isn’t he basically saying that he’s a brony de facto? And there are some actions—wearing a 20% cooler shirt, watching the show religiously and live-tweeting, buying figures of the entire cast, etc.—that seem like they pretty much suggest that this person is a brony. Yet, one can also imagine a person doing each of those things in isolation, unaware that there are others like him or herself (except the live-tweeting…well then again…). Or you can imagine supportive people tied to the self-proclaimed bronies who are just along for the ride. Supportive parents and friends who don’t consider themselves bronies, for example. You could do those things and not identify as a brony, after all.
So what of it? At best, such delimiters help identify for us a group of people whose attention is drawn by a particular cultural text—what we sometimes call a public—but they don’t quite seem to get at what the identity/label does in people’s social lives. Still, the idea of the public is worth exploring.
In his essay “Publics and Counterpublics,” Michael Warner famously defines a distinct meaning of “public” that refers to the collective of people that “comes into being only in relation to texts and their circulation”2. Such an idea helps to constrain the boundaries of who exactly we are talking about, because we are talking about a very specific text here. A “brony” as an entity clearly comes into being via attention to the “cultural text” that is My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. So as a description of a historically-bounded moment, that much is clear: there is a particular grouping of people, a public, constituted as the viewership of MLP:FiM, and that grouping at least constrains in some empirical way who can be considered “bronies.”
But there’s a complication. My Little Pony itself has a genealogy that outlives MLP:FiM, producing a public of the broader cultural text that is MLP that spans decades. Indeed, whenever we see discrepancies between bronies as they understand themselves and how non-bronies understand them, it’s often based on disparate understandings of that public and what it means now or historically meant. That’s part of the knee-jerk reaction: “I watched this show when I was a kid…but I was a kid.” To that, this person may also add, “And I’m a girl.” There is a narrative here of knowing oneself to constitute part of a group, but also of growing out of that group, which produces the incongruity of (a) a male and (b) an adult or almost-adult watching this thing you personally—and thus people like you—grew out of. Our expectations of whose attention is to be held transforms unintended attention into a performance of deviance.
This is where Warner’s second idea, the counterpublic, comes into play. A public is addressed by the text: the text is made to speak to them. Yet there are also those who are not addressed, either because the text has been constructed to exclude them (MLP is a product of a company whose profits and marketing strategy are driven in part based on its abilities at market segmentation), or at least that their attention is peripheral. As time has progressed and the entrenchment of the bronies as a known quantity in the show’s viewership has solidified, it seems to me that “bronies” sometimes describe themselves as a group while moving back and forth between these poles of public (intended attention) and counterpublic (unintended attention). Whatever the core of a brony identity might be, assuming there is such a thing, one important part of it is its vacillating insider/outsider-ness relative to certain expectations of the normative public.
“It’s still a show for kids,” a brony might argue, suggesting that a shift to being the main intended audience would tamper with something of the essence of the show. Yet at the same time, we revel in Discord, a nod to our geekiness. Clearly the fine details, his John de Lancie-ness, are entirely for us.
The tension there is even part of the inspiration. Lauren Faust wanted “a respectable show for girls” but the presence of the bronies as the unintended counterpublic is, ironically enough, a powerful affirmation of her work: “I never dreamed adult men would be into the show […] because I didn’t have any faith that you’d give it a try. Now I know better. It gives me the courage to continue.”3
Of course, the moment you or Lauren Faust realize that you are part of a group, the moment you realize that there is another person, perhaps many people, that you identify as being like yourself and also invested in this thing, that group begins to consolidate. It starts to gain a cohesion beyond its rapt attention directed toward a particular cultural text. It starts to feel like more than just an audience or public.
Cohorts and (imagined) Communities
The onlooker, insider or outsider, quickly begins to see that this group constituted as public/counterpublic probably has a few things in common, shared to greater or lesser degree across the entire group. One might even say that these people share a culture, or at least share something cultural. This is why the ethnomusicologist Tom Turino likes to use the term cultural cohort to refer to “social groupings that form along the lines of specific constellations of shared habit based in similarities of parts of the self.”4 After all, that a bunch of grown-ass men are watching My Little Pony is an improbability, but it’s not an accident. There are probably some similar life experiences, understandings of the world, relationships to gender, patterns of pop culture consumption, etc. that link together across this “cohort.”
Yet, this fact, if obvious to the onlooker, is probably also clear to more than one person in the cohort itself. The arrows don’t just point from cartoon to brony and brony to cartoon: from the beginning, being a brony has been constituted through a connection, imagined or otherwise, from brony to brony, and not just the self-identification. It’s never enough to just say “I’m a brony.” Saying so states a belief–that there are some other people out there willing to admit the same thing.
In our individuality-centric society, we tend to think of identities as things that distinguish us, as something that sets us apart, but identities only ever mean anything when they set up relationalities of people to one another, under the assumption that there’s a type that this identity speaks to. Nobody is ever a category unto herself: at best, she is a superlative example of something else. The most hardcore soccer player in the entire world. The lamest joke teller in all the land. Best pony.
In short, the cohort will eventually come to understand itself as a cohort, and the recognition as such indicates a set of relationships…a community. The folklorist Dorothy Noyes notes in the aptly titled essay “Group,” from which this post draws inspiration: “One must first of all recognize that the performance of community reinforces its own social base by fostering dense and potentially multiplex interaction” (468). In other words, while a public will not necessarily, of its own accord, either increase and find other members to be part of the collective or do things specifically to maintain itself as a public, a community can and will. People who understand themselves to be linked with perform that linkage through their interactions, reaffirming it and also strengthening it.
Furthermore, this includes not only direct brony to brony interactions (bronies do not only include people with direct lineages tying them to those early 4chan threads, after all), but an imagined group of people with whom one share the relationship–the famous “imagined community” that Benedict Anderson explained as being a central part of building a nation.
Nations are not preexisting things, Anderson reminds us. There was a moment in history when people were wandering around in tribes. And for a long time there, we organized ourselves as kingdoms, fiefdoms, empires, whatever. The “nation,” as natural as it feels to (some of) us now, was produced as the effect of a particular grouping of people that made them feel as if they were comrades, he argued: “it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.”5
And so it is with bronies that their technologically mediated interactions, and conversations about them produced across converging media forms, all narrate a broad conceptualization that there is this unique group of fans of My Little Pony, the imagined community of bronies. Peopled who actually talk to each other, online or off, teach each other the behaviors of this community. The bro-hoof. The use of memes. The #bronies hashtag. And in other circuits, across YouTube and in private conversation, people teach one another the performances of—at its worst—ridicule, bigotry, and bullying (“gay horse fuckers!”)—at its best—a kind of charmed exoticism (“it’s so weird! but whatever floats your boat…”).
The awareness of difference stabilizes the boundary and allows other differences to accrue. As those ideas circulate, they reinforce the sense of community, because if you do happen to run into a stranger brony, you know that you’ve got at least that much in common. And if you’re not a brony, you learn to understand how a brony is different from you. In this case, the imagined community is an inside/outside construction.
But I don’t want to leave this at such a neat, uncomplicated point, because then I’d be a shitty academic. So let’s think at the edges a little…
Kurt and I say often, “I’m not sure I’m a brony,” and we have both wondered about what keeps either of us from taking the plunge, so to speak. I would venture a guess that our anxiety stems from an incongruity between the moment we started to construct for ourselves an idea of a brony community and its relationship to our other affiliations. For me at least, I had been a casual viewer of the show for a long time. Even once I heard that bronies were a thing, I did not feel a need to reevaluate my watching of the show in those terms. I was part of the public/counterpublic in the sense we began with—of a kind of rapt attention to a cultural object—but since there was no utility for me in identifying with others, I felt no need to do the associated identity work.
Once Kurt and I decided we were going to do research on bronies, then the community became a “thing” for us…but it also meant that we at that same moment already had identities vis-a-vis that thing: brony researchers. Having produced the relationship with the fandom as one of a scholarly gaze, it’s been difficult to take on the brony label, even though we’re often doing exactly the same thing bronies are. The way the imagined community is imagined, the moment at which it is imagined, and a person’s relationship to that imagined thing all become important considerations.
In short, one is a brony if performing being a brony serves a social end. One is part of the community if being part of the community gives one certain benefits. As a researcher, one of the most interesting questions for me is how bronies construct that sense of being a part of something for themselves and why they find it valuable as opposed to, or in relationship to, other identity possibilities. What are the conflicts and negotiations? What are the creative cultural expressions and performances that sustain the sense of community. The question is no longer “who counts as a brony?” as I insinuated at the top, but “WHY count as a brony?”
Check out part two next week!
Work on self-presentation like that of Erving Goffman (Presentation of Self in Everyday Life 1959) comes to mind. ↩
Warner, Michael. 2002. “Publics and Counterpublics.” In Publics and Counterpublics. Page 66. ↩
Turino, Thomas. 2008. Music as Social Life. Page 111. ↩
Anderson, Benedict. 1983. Imagined Communities. Page 7. ↩