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!
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’slast 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.
Joshua A. Reyna is a 1st year sociology Master’s student at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He received his undergraduate degree in sociology with a minor in women’s studies, and his research interests include culture, death, theory, criminology, and deviance. He became interested in bronies during the early 4chan days but has only recently had a chance to look into the fandom. He began his field study on bronies this year during his maymester class, “Special Topics: Pierre Bourdieu,” which revitalized his interest in the fandom.
Jason [JRN]: Can you briefly describe what you have been working on in your brony research?
Joshua [JAR]: I am currently working on the habitus, or in other words the habits of the bronies. How they are formed, when are they used, and why they are important. I have found that by watching and partaking in the fandom of My Little Pony the bronies have made an entirely new habitus that rejects the usual male habitus (showing no emotion, being rough and tough) for one that embraces love, affection, and friendship. That is what fascinates me, and how they combat the negativity produced by the media and close minded people. Note the next part of my research might cause a little bit of anger in the group. While studying the habitus, I noticed that there were in turn fields or (areas of struggle for resources) in the fandom. Now I understand the weight of what I am saying but from general observations there does seem to be a struggle. I have generated at least 6 economic, prestige, cultural, artistic distinction, gender, and media. The problem with using field as a concept is that there can be an indefinite number of fields, so I tried to concentrate on what I thought was the most important. Now each of these fields has struggles over different types of resources. Economic being money, cultural being goods, and knowledge, prestige being status, artistic distinction being between what is obscene and what is sacred, gender is self explanatory, and media being who is viewed, and who has the most degree of freedom. Although there might not be a struggle that is seen, it is taken for granted. But like I said this is merely an explorative study where I am merely exploring the conflict, it is still up for debate on whether I am witnessing this or just making something out of nothing which is a critique of Bourdieu himself. Either way by doing this little paper for class I was able to take my first steps into the bronies!
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!
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. ↩
The idea for the paper has been heavily influenced by our recent conversations with the community, and we hope that shows through below. As with the previous abstract, I did my best to annotate the academese of the abstract, but here’s a tl;dr version: when analyzing a situation where people claim they are resisting some kind of power, we should be careful to realize that (1) there are many power relationships at play in addition to the one people focus on; (2) people may not be the underdog in all of them, and (3) a focus on resistance tends to ignore other sorts of community labor that may be equally important.
“Resistance is futile, hugs inevitable”: Discourses of Resistance in the My Little Pony Fandom
Fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, or “bronies” (a portmanteau of ‘bro’ and ‘pony’) often profess an ideology of “love and tolerance,” which they feel is in opposition to perceived injustices from society at large. Often singled out as “sexual deviants” or “childish,” many within the brony community have taken an explicitly oppositional stance toward the normative biases that have led to their stigmatization1 . Given that, it would be relatively straightforward to describe their actions as resistant to hegemonic orders of gender, sexuality, and age2 , but we argue that an analytical orientation that positions bronies as resisters trivializes their rich social interactions and effaces complicated power dynamics within and peripheral to the fandom3 . Drawing upon resistance as an analytical frame dangerously privileges acts of resistance to societal norms over other meaningful acts (e.g. creating a safe space within the fandom). Positing a unified fandom against larger societal norms also obfuscates the complex power relationships at play within the fandom itself, where the discourse of love and toleration can mask oppressive behaviors as opinion or diversity4 . In this paper, we draw from our ethnographic work with the brony community to describe issues of identity latent within broader, binary discourses of resistance and hegemony. In doing so, we argue for an understanding of resistance as a discursive strategy that indexes power relations but which must not be mistaken for a schematic of them, particularly because ideologies of identity do not identically reflect the social hierarchies in which they function5 .
Put otherwise, some bronies clearly take an FU stance to people who make fun of them ↩
Cultural hegemony is the idea that, given a certain power hierarchy, the powerful in society produce cultural expectations and normative behaviors that maintain the status quo and which are accepted by everyone else. Antonio Gramsci is the go-to scholar for this concept. ↩
This critique of the value of the idea of “resistance” draws heavily on Lila Abu-Lughod’s article “The Romance of Resistance.” ↩
We’re referring to ways in which “tolerating other points of view” may allow harmful perspectives to continue to perpetuate ↩
In other words, referring to something as resistance or making something appear to be resistance is a strategy available to people regardless of whether they are “actually” resisting anything. The fact that they do it “indexes” or signals to us that there is a power inequity, but it may not be the same inequity that the people involved say it is. ↩
We (Kurt and Jason…and Dom, I guess) had a really good time doing the last conversational-style blog, and it garnered a lot of attention on the blog itself as well as some on other sites like Equestria Daily. One critique that we found really useful, however, was that we were probably a little flippant in our treatment of questions of gender in the fandom. Of course, that’s the very definition of male privilege–the ability to be flippant about gendered experiences that aren’t your own–so we really wanted to do something about that.
We invited Michelle to write a post a few weeks ago that proved to be a hit, and it raised even more questions about gender in the fandom, so I asked Michelle if she would dialogue (trialogue?) with us about those issues and share with us a different set of experiences about this and other fandoms. Thanks for being a great sport Michelle! -j&k
Check out the entire conversation below the break!
We know it’s been since before Christmas that we posted anything new on the blog, though @ResearchIsMagic has been super active on Twitter, and we’re starting to get Reddit…I think.
Anyway, it’s time for another viewing party! This time, it’s Ponies: The Anthology 3! We have a few dates and times in a Doodle scheduling poll, and we’d like you to fill it out so we can make a decision about when to make it happen!
It was a while ago, but we had a lot of fun watching Equestria Girls with the folks who came out. It’s interesting to see how each of us performs and indexes different parts of our identities in the sorts of references we make. A few shout-outs:
Danny, you are a freakin’ encyclopedia of MLP trivia.
Benjamin, MC Hammer and Dragon Ball refs? It’s like we just pulled you out of the ’90s with your Starter jacket and backwards cap.
Diceman, without you we would have missed the closing Derp.
Dom, don’t ever stop shipping Scootadash.
Also, sorry folks, the transcript of the first 25 minutes or so got lost, unfortunately. The following starts from when Twilight goes to the library onwards…intermittent screenshots should give you some sense of where we are.