The term “brony” describes a male (often adult) fan of the recent TV childrens’ series My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. When I first heard about brony culture, I was just a little unsettled. Men of my generation have trouble growing up – much to the chagrin of many eligible women I know who have suffered at the hands of their prolonged adolescence – and to me this sounded like another instance of immature infantilism; I won’t exactly say that I was ready to pull a Mark Driscoll and tell them to “man-up,” but I will say that it made me wish there were more sensible guys around, if not for my eligible women friends, at least for the dignity of our sex. I may not have been ready to tell such men to man up, but I could at least insist that they grow up. To a certain degree, I still think this. But I have come to see that the actual process of growing up may be more complicated than I initially thought. Perhaps growing up is not simply a matter of becoming serious. Perhaps it is also a matter of becoming (as George MacDonald famously put it), not childish, but childlike.
You see, while I would not call myself a “brony” per se, My Little Pony happens to be my five year old son’s favorite show. As most parents will know, this means I have been witness to almost all the episodes multiple times. And the conclusion I have come to is that, at bottom, what appeals to a certain kind of male about the show is its representation of the kind of story we no longer tell. By this, I mean the fairy tale that does in fact entertain some idea of innocence.
In modern culture, we love fairy tales, but we always insist on digging up in them very dark twists and sub-themes. Almost all of them (we presume from psychoanalytic theory) are about sex. Hansel and Gretel must be witch hunters. That Prince Charming cannot be the protagonist has become something of a modern cliché. Snow white becomes a sexualized vampire figure. Etc. I do not mean of course to say that we should have no revisionist fairy tales; in my opinion, the recent Snow White and the Huntsman film did quite a good job of adapting the tale. But it is perhaps tragic when a film like Shrek – that was so humorous to us who were brought up on the original stories – can no longer be understood in a generation that no longer has these stories. Irony and complexity can only work when the basic building blocks are grasped, and we seem unable or unwilling to pass these on to our children. All we can see are the sarcastic adult versions, and even when we encounter an original, we still think that it masks something far more sinister than its literal vehicle suggests.
What I want to suggest, though, is that there is in us not only a deep desire and need for complexity, nuance and treatment of a sinister reality; there is also in us the desire for something beautiful, something innocent – older writers would call this an Edenic impulse. And what I want to suggest is that My Little Pony is popular among males precisely because they have no other cultural referent pointing them back to a certain kind of fairy-tale innocence that they were created to need.
The reason the show does this so well, I suggest, is because it is pagan in the best possible sense – it is a classical pagan story. I am not here using the word pagan pejoratively, but rather descriptively. As in classical philosophy, friendship in the series is one of the highest goods. The ideals – the seven elements of harmony that figure prominently in the show – are reminiscent of the classical cardinal virtues, with a nod to the theological virtues thrown in via the number seven. There are composite beasts that look like they could come from a classical or medieval bestiary, and dragons are penalized for their hoarding capacities. There is even a nod to the classical grammarian in us all, that insists on pluralizing “pegasus” as “pegasi” (this, by the way, is a far greater “take-home-message” than the ones I see on most childrens’ shows).
Considered all together, these elements make for a show that, in an imaginative desert, stands out as a mythopoeic beacon. It is sad, of course, that we are not at a historical point where children are being fascinated by the really great mythopoeic stories – the ones that held the likes of Lewis, Chesterton, Tolkien, and MacDonald in their thrall. Nonetheless, we must work with what we are given, and even if My Little Pony will not exactly outlast the Grimm brothers, it is a significant pointer in our culture back to the childlikeness for which my generation – and particularly the males of my generation – are starved. At least, culturally speaking, there is still some kind of space wherein girls can appreciate real mythopoeic innocence (or at least I feel it may be easier – but am willing to be corrected); in male culture, though, such innocence appears as “girly” against the backdrop of a hyper-violence channeling all the ferocity of past epics with none of the wisdom or the reasons these epics provide for fighting.
I think when we understand this we may be able to evaluate so-called brony culture in a different light. Rather than understanding it as a stunt or stutter in the “serious” development of an adult, perhaps instead we should understand it as a transitional space in culture for those on their way to becoming childlike. And such childlikeness is to be by all means encouraged, for it in fact involves a maturity and wisdom beyond the stiff and unimaginative thing we think of as adulthood. As T. S. Eliot liked to remind us (channeling I think Heraclitus), “the way up is the way down,” and perhaps we will find this true of the young men that we simply want to “man up”; maybe the problem is not that they have become children, but that they have not become children enough.