Bronycon Retrospective: A Preview

Hi everyone, it’s Jason here!

A bunch of things have changed in my life since I last wrote a full post on the blog: I passed my PhD qualifying exams for both departments I’m in (Communication & Culture and Folklore & Ethnomusicology), I got married, and I moved to London where my wife is currently working and where I’ll continue my research both on bronies and on the Vietnamese diaspora. Whew!

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Yeah, it was just like this, but with more bhangra

I have a bunch of things I want to say about Bronycon that I’ll be going into in more depth over the following weeks, but Kurt and I thought it would be good to use this week’s last week’s belated update to hit the highlights and preview some of my analysis and give you a sense of what’s coming. Anybody with thoughts on any of the things I touch on today should totally email us or comment below as it will probably make its way into my analysis.

Towards the same end, I’d like to schedule a Google Hangout for sometime two weeks from now to just get folks together and chat Bronycon. Everybody’s welcome…just fill out this form for me by the end of this week:

Talk Bronycon w/ Research is Magic!

The Vocabulary of Brony

The first time I freestyle rapped, I was a teenager in a dorm room with a bunch of dudes who’d been doing it for years. For the next few years, all through college, I rapped continuously–either freestyling with friends or scribbling written verses in my journal–but at that moment, it was completely foreign and just a little terrifying. Rap, like any other communicative form, has its patterns and themes, and even though you can use it to speak to just about anything, the genre itself urges you towards particular ways of speaking and understanding. And if you don’t know that’s the case, you sound freaking stupid.

Like I surely did that day.

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Luckily for me, the veterans were open and gave me the space to experiment with my bad flow and my often ill-conceived topics and lame ways of talking about them. Once I and the other n00bs got it, though, the freestyle session became a powerful place for us to communicate in ways otherwise inconceivable.

Bronycon, and perhaps the MLP fandom as a whole, reminds me of those experiences because it produces a space in which people experiment with communicative forms that may otherwise be foreign to them, but which become ideal ways of expressing what they believe to be fundamental truths about themselves.

What does that communication consist of? By and large, it includes the range of life experiences of bronies, often moments of personal social adversity, expressed through words, phrases, and ideas that are directly or indirectly linked to Friendship is Magic. Though not all bronies or Bronycon attendees are socially alienated or awkward folks, being a fan provides a shared base of knowledge by which people situate one another on more even social footing than in society at large. Thus, at least within the context of the space of Bronycon, the social capital accrued by inside jokes based on MLP does not so heavily inscribe the axis of popular/unpopular. Or, to say it another way, all our silly jokes about the Church of Rainbow Dash or Dr. Hooves or our memorization of the lyrics to both show tunes AND fandom songs (how the hell do you guys know the words to all of Mando’s songs?) don’t really do much to differentiate the hip bronies from the socially awkward ones, though it does tend to separate out the adults and teens from the kids (even that’s not usually a problem, though, since people largely want to keep the con kid-friendly).

I know there are a number of fans out there who believe that the fandom at large and Bronycon have some unappealing aspects, and I think it’s important that those voices don’t get drowned out, but, by and large, my experience of Bronycon 2014 indicated a group of people trying really hard to be inclusive of difference across multiple social markers, successfully or not. One way that happens is through the fandom ideology of openness and social inclusion, “love and tolerance,” that is meant to mirror the show’s plot and uses the show as a dictionary for social and emotional vocabulary. Before my panel with the other scholars, for example, I spoke to a guy about being a fan and about interacting with others at the convention, and he used “Fluttershy” and “Rainbow Dash” as ciphers for different aspects of his personality. Saying that you have social anxiety may carry unwanted stigma or may simply not register as a meaningful expression, but in this crowd, saying that you feel like Fluttershy indexes a patterned but rich array of social situations and responses originating from the show that the person across from you is likely to understand because they’re a brony too.

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One of my favorite such examples: at the panel with Dusty Kat, Brony Chef, and a number of other fandom celebs, one of them noted, “the person that is bullying you could be a Babs” which registered as a deep, meaningful statement about the humanity of the bully (Babs bullied the Cutie Mark Crusaders as a response to her own insecurity). For that sort of narrative metaphor to connect, everybody involved needs to process the pattern of usage and the particular way in which characters stand-in as fuller descriptions of scenarios in our social lives. That’s a lot of shared knowledge of MLP:FiM as well as shared experience in a “community of practice” based on that knowledge.

In the coming weeks, I want to take this observation in two directions. On one hand, at least among bronies that are connected to one another online, at meetups, or through various media, there is a clear and unique pattern of discourse that, even if not used by everyone involved, is recognizable to most. For example, formulaic phrasings like “MLP has changed my life” can be understood on one level as people expressing the profound effect the show and fandom has had on their lives, but what I want to argue in a future post is that the formula is learned by being in the fandom. I know The Brony Study has a new study, “How the Fandom Has Changed My Life,” which has some really great data, but coming out of Bronycon, I believe it is even more important to understand such verbal formulas–or as I might say academically, “patterns of oral discourse”–as also arising from the learned expectation that this is how one talks about being a brony. I don’t mean to discredit or discount that effect in any way, but I do want to think carefully about how bronies learn to talk about themselves as bronies, and consequently, whether scholars with large influences on the fandom like The Brony Study might be shaping the discouse based on the sorts of studies they choose to do. Not too many fandoms talk about how the object of their interest changes their lives: the fact that bronies do might indicate that MLP actually does change lives and/or it could mean that bronies talk about fandom this way whereas others do not.

On the other hand, I want to analyze a really specific thing that Bronycon did this year that I tweeted excitedly about during the con. The convention handed out little green, yellow, and red tags that you could attach to your convention lanyard that indicated your receptiveness to social interaction at any particular time. So, if you were comfortable with talking to anybody, you displayed the green card. If you only wanted to talk to people you knew, you displayed yellow. And if you were at that moment really not receptive to social interaction, you could display the red card. My personal opinion upon finding out about these cards was complete support, and I was surprised when Ben Turner, one of our blog regulars, pointed out that there was some heated discussion about them. The debate is an interesting window into beliefs and common-sense ideas that may bronies may have at odds with one another; the albeit minor rupture shows what understandings about socializing and social life are normative and privileged even amongst bronies, e.g. “what’s the point? you’re at a convention to meet people, so why wouldn’t you want to meet people?”

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At the Margins of Brony

That leads me to the other broad theme that came together over the weekend: groups that were a minority at the convention. One of the central narratives of many panels was that being a brony itself was often marginalizing and made one the object of ridicule in society at large, and thus the fandom was a support structure for bronies. Nothing in my research contradicts that idea, and I personally believe that it is true, but I also believe that the fandom has an opportunity, and perhaps a responsibility born out of the fandom itself being stigmatized, to pay attention to its margins and the ways in which marginalized groups might be neglected or even wrongly treated. The boisterous cheers of approval when I talked about LGBTQ bronies during the academic panel and my conversations with queer-identifying bronies during the convention all suggested to me that while bronies are certainly way more accepting than most people, the normativity of male heterosexuality privileges certain views and ways of life.

What do I mean? The citation of statistics from the various studies that bronies are largely straight males was a regular attendee shorthand for the “normal-ness” of the fandom, i.e. “look, we’re normal, the numbers say we’re straight guys like everyone else.” It obscures the vibrant community of LGBTQ fans who are also using the show’s storylines, characters, aesthetics, etc. as raw materials for their own personal meaning-making and their own journeys of self-discovery, which are in fact not the same as “average” heterosexual, male bronies. A brony who uses “shipping” between the Mane 6 to understand their own homosexual feelings is doing fundamentally different social and personal work than the rest of us playing the Twilight Sparkle shipping game (which is hella fun, btw) just for kicks.

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In short, bronies can do better than “love and tolerate” when it comes to gender and sexual identity, they could love and understand. This would put bronies at the leading edge of social justice rather than squarely in the middle of the millennial generation, who are cool with gay people getting married but perhaps still find queer identities and sexualities “weird.”

The fandom’s defensive shorthand–“we’re as straight as anyone else”–is of course a response to the accusation that bronies are a bunch of queer effeminate weirdos, but there are other responses that don’t justify the fandom by sidelining important members of its community. Instead, the fact that this is the kneejerk brony defense (and, unfortunately, some scholars’ defense of their brony research to other scholars) shows how most bronies, to greater or lesser degrees, repeat the normative views of gender and sexuality of the broader society. To be sure, I think bronies are way more sensitive to actions that marginalize others and deserve credit for that, but their sensitivity is typically individual and does not often acknowledge structural inequalities and social privileges. As a scholar of culture, things like power relations, social structures, and the circulation of discourse are my bread and butter, so you’ll see me digging deeper into this territory.

The other margin is something hardly anyone ever talks about in this fandom: race. At Bronycon, I met an awesome guy who was walking around with a little whiteboard that he would continuously update with the number of other black bronies who had run into. It was done lightheartedly, but the action underscored the fact that while bronies can be welcoming to people of all races and creeds, the fact that the fandom is mostly white is always going to influence its consensus view of the world. I interviewed him and we’ll see some version of that interview in the coming weeks. And as an Asian American myself, I find the intersection of brony and otaku interesting (Bronycon and Otakon were back-to-back, after all), as it often means strong views of things that index “Asian culture” often with little input from Asians and/or Asian Americans.

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So, while I intended that as a brief wrap-up, it ran a bit long, but I wanted to clue everyone in on the things that I’m thinking about intellectually and also to invite you to join me below with your opinions on what I’ve said thus far or where you think I should go next. Feel free to disagree…I’ve had wonderful conversations on Twitter that were total disagreements, but they helped me to understand even better where people were coming from.

I’ve been gone a while, but it’s good to be back!

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4 thoughts on “Bronycon Retrospective: A Preview

  1. Man… I felt terrible because I had not been here in ages and thought that I missed a lot of updates. Here I found out you guys just haven’t updated since I last checked…

    I do hope this blog isn’t just being abandoned because I love the kind of topics and commentary on this website. I’ve been intrigued by some of the most fascinating topics and conversations about the fandom here and I would hate for that to just stop…

    As for the subjects brought up, I never really thought too much about the verbal formulas you brought up but they can be very distinctive. As somebody who can be a bit of a grammar nazi I found some of the common phrases such as “who is best pony” to be annoying. I’m not too ridiculous over things like that though. I’m certainly not perfect grammatically myself and I very much realize that our language changes over time. Even so, I eventually found myself using a lot of those verbal formulas despite how they bothered me early on. They were often just easy to do and I sort of saw them as proper eventually despite the errors they had.

    In regards to LGBTQ issues and race I don’t think Bronycon is really the best place to get a grasp on how these issues play out in the fandom. It’s still fairly public despite being all for the community so some fans might still be defensive, especially towards the media or outside observers.

    For LGBTQ rights I find the fandom to generally be overwhelmingly in support. Like you said, due to the stigmatization that the fandom gets for defying gender stereotypes the fandom is often pretty sympathetic or at least aware of deviations from them. I’ve heard or at least seen many a conversation about gender roles including from people I really didn’t expect to hear it from like older fans, kids, and even a guy who went into the military and didn’t seem to defy gender roles too much. A LOT of fanfiction I’ve seen taps into the debate on gay marriage despite not being serious stories and I think it does have an effect on the fandom. I’ve personally seen, and heard multiple accounts, of pretty young girls having discussions of the possibility of certain characters being in a homosexual relationship like it was the most natural thing in the world. I can’t help but think that a lot of those open attitudes come from their experience with art and stories from the brony community.

    In fact I think they support it almost to the point of jumping the gun sometimes. For example there was a discussion on EQD recently about how people would react to bisexuality in the show similarly to how Korra did it. There was pretty much overwhelming support with the exception of a few virulently anti-gay commenters and others (including myself) who thought it would be too controversial to happen or that romance just isn’t a good fit for the show (which was my reaction). Pretty early on there was already some pretty extreme rhetoric against anybody who might object on religious grounds (basically to separate them from the rest of society or that religion should be exterminated). This was said despite very few negative reactions of which they spoke of and even a few religious people saying they had no problem with the idea.

    As for race I think part of the problem might have just been the cost to go to the con or another major social event for the fandom. I think the brony study crew had some hypothesis about how many people feeling comfortable about sharing their interest in the show due to their family’s socioeconomic status. Something like that may restrict many fans who aren’t upper middle class (which often skews towards the WASP crowd). I know that the majority of fans tend to be white, heterosexual, and all that stuff but I’m still surprised by the diversity online and even in my local meetup group. Despite the variety of people I’ve met it’s often the same few (wealthier) people who go to various cons or other events.

    Jeez… wrote more than I thought I would but I hope to see more content soon ^-^!

    1. Hi Baraclough! We really have no intention of abandoning the site and have been talking about getting back to work in the near future. We’ve just had a very busy schedule recently (Jason moved out of the country and is in the midst of fieldwork and I am prepping for my exams) and have had a bit of trouble getting into the swing of things from a distance, hence the multiple “we’re starting things up again” posts that have kind of petered out. There are a few conferences coming up that Jason and I hope to submit to, so I’m hoping that the need for new work for those papers will serve as a nice way of kickstarting everything back up. I know I miss doing work in the fandom and hopefully will be able to start things up again now that Jason and I are getting settled down and should be able to start figuring out what we are doing again.

      Kurt

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