A few years ago, Canadian filmmaker Brent Hodge was at dinner with friends when one of them, Ashleigh Ball, started talking about a curious side-effect of her job. Ball is a voice actor and she had landed two roles on a cartoon series called My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. The show was getting popular, but not in an expected way. She was getting emails from adult male fans. The Brony phenomenon had started and Ball, who plays both Applejack and Rainbow Dash, was at the center of it. Hodge's reaction was immediate - "We have to start filming this, Ashleigh, this is unreal!" he recalls saying. The story he found, though, wasn't what he expected.
"I thought the whole thing was so weird," says Hodge by phone. "The more I got into it, I realized, it's not so bad. It's like any fandom."
A Brony Tale, which screens at Cinefamily on Sunday night with digital and VOD release to follow on July 15, spotlights a small handful of male fans of the show. There's a guy known as the "Manliest Brony in the World." There are high school and college students who formed Brony clubs. There's also a former soldier who was inspired by Friendship Is Magic to get his life on track after returning from Iraq. Mostly, though, this is a story about Ball's trip to BronyCon in New York, her first major venture into the Brony universe.
Over the past few years, adult My Little Pony fans known as Bronies have received a lot of attention from media, including L.A. Weekly. A Brony Tale isn't the first documentary on My Little Pony fans either. A Kickstarter-funded film, Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony, came out in 2012. When Hodge's friend alerted producer Morgan Spurlock to A Brony Tale, the Super Size Me director already had Bronies on his radar.
So what is it about Bronies that is so interesting? The focus in this film, as well as much of what is written about Bronies, is about the male fans. There are, however, lots of female My Little Pony fans as well. Some of them also refer to themselves as Bronies. Is it simply the fact that this is a male-heavy fan community surrounding a show that is marketed towards young girls? In a word, yes. "If you're a middle-aged woman and you have a My Little Pony collection, it's not really that crazy," says Hodge. "It seems pretty normal."
My Little Pony, though, was always marketed to girls. Hodge points to the Happy Meal toys given away at McDonald's during the 1980s. " They probably wouldn't even question you. You would just get My Little Pony if you're a girl," he says. Of course, things have changed since then, particularly in the My Little Pony franchise. Hodge, like many others, points out that it is a well-written show, more in the vein of Power Puff Girls or Sailor Moon. He also notes that this is something that goes bigger than the show.
"They're challenging the face of masculinity, what it means to be a man," says Hodge. "A lot of these guys have really great qualities, being kind, thoughtful, putting friends and family first. They're also very brave and confident."
Dustykatt, the previously mentioned "Manliest Brony in the World," touches on this in the film. He talks about all of his pursuits - building motorcycles, playing college football, working as a bodyguard and ranch hand - and adds that he's a My Little Pony fan. "We're supposed to chug beer, ride motorcycles, degrading the women and like explosions," he says. "That's what's ingrained in our brains from the minute you're born and put into a blue crib."
There's something radical simply in the fact that Bronies exist. Hodge points out that the rise of the Bronies coincides with other social phenomena: The show hit as war fatigue had settled in the U.S. and the struggle for same-sex marriage came to prominence. Society is changing and Bronies are part of that and the community has grown massively since Hodge shot the documentary two years ago. "They broke a status quo," says Hodge. That's something that could have consequences in the pop culture world for years to come.
"My Little Pony is not going to last forever," says Hodge. "This notion of what they're doing and what they did and what they broke, there is going to be a reaction to this action." Hodge doesn't know that that next step could be, he surmises that it might be another TV show that breaks gender divides or maybe a new social movement. The point is that the Bronies did, and are continuing to do, something major. "It has nothing to do with a kids show," he says. "It has to do with our look at masculinity in cartoons and in pop culture. I truly think that."
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