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Welcome to the Herd: A Feminist Watches My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic

Posted on Thursday, August 25th, 2011 at 11:18 pm

Author: GlobalComment Editor

Gc contributor: Emily Manuel

I admit it, I was skeptical when I first the buzz about the new My Little Pony show. I like a My Little Pony as much as the next fully grown woman–usually if it’s been modded to look like Star Trek’s Borg or something–but the offerings sold to young girls these days are fairly uninspiring at best, horrible at worst. It’s hard to walk through the girl’s department of a toy store without getting an eye-strain from all the pink, and even harder to imagine a spinoff shilling Hasbro’s evergreen toy series being particularly engrossing for a five year-old – let alone an adult viewer.

But at the prompting of Aishwarya Subramanian, Global Comment’s resident expert on children’s literature and matters wondrous, eventually I managed to sit down to watch an episode. And what I found was a delightful, well-written, funny show with strong characters, helmed by a woman (Lauren Faust) to boot. So then I watched another episode. And then I forced my partner to watch one with me, and another, until we were finished with the first season quoting the characters (Pinkie Pie’s hissed “foreverrrr” is a particular favourite) and scanning Equestria Daily searching for fan-created works to get us through the long wait until the next season. Welcome to the herd.

There’s a lot going on with MLP:FiM, including a sizable adult male viewership (of which, more later), but the most important thing to me about the show is this: it presents a world in which the normative position is female. The five main characters of the show are female, as is the ruler of the show’s setting in the kingdom of Equestria, Princess Celestia. In fact, so many of the show’s characters are female that among the show’s fans the assumption is generally that even non-speaking characters are female–an interesting change from the default male setting that still dominates most areas of culture (try mentioning your doctor and see how many times you get a “she” assumption… not many, in my experience).

The show offers a wide range of types of female characters–from the conscientious scholar Twilight Sparkle, the fashion-conscious Rarity, the farmhand Applejack, the brash Rainbow Dash, the softly-spoken animal-loving Fluttershy and the hyperactive, frequently nonsensical Pinkie Pie. Each has her own talents, desires, and personally quirks. They’re active, not passive. Even better, many episodes demonstrate a layered, even wise, approach to character; appearances are never quite what they seem to be. In “Swarm of the Century,” Pinkie Pie’s decidedly uncommon sense is dismissed by the other characters, right until she saves the day with a one-pony polka.

And the action doesn’t centre on girl’s relation to men and boys, it primarily focuses on their friendships, their relationships with one another. Conflicts arise naturally, from misperception, selfishness, arrogance, thoughtlessness… but not by the horizontal pitting of girls against each other in kyriarchical narrative fighting for male approval. There’s only two minor plotlines centreing on romance – Spike the dragon’s crush on Rarity, and Rarity’s Prince Blueblood at the Grand Galloping Gala in “The Best Night Ever.” Neither is a very central storyline, and in the case of Rarity, the Prince is shown to be selfish and rude, a poor substitute for a night with her friends. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of romance in children’s stories (though I suppose it’s too much to ask a mainstream show to have canonical queer children), but there is often a disproportionate emphasis on it. In contrast, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic doesn’t just pass the Bechdel test, it shatters it.

There is only one male regular character on the show, the aforementioned baby dragon Spike, and he’s relegated to a marginal sidekick kind of role. This is a clever reversal of what feminist essayist Katha Pollitt two decades ago called “the Smurfette Principle,” the way in which male characters dominate, with a lone female character rounding out the cast.

Pollitt argues that:

The message is clear. Boys are the norm, girls the variation; boys are central, girls peripheral; boys are individuals, girls types. Boys define the group, its story and its code of values. Girls exist only in relation to boys.

Sadly, this remains as true now as it is then. For adults as well as children, texts in which men dominate are still largely considered “neutral,” whereas those which feature a similar female predominance are relegated to the chick-flick bin, watched only by women. The logic goes: men won’t watch shows or films about women, they can only identify with other men.

Yet MLP:FiM, of all shows, puts the lie to this well-worn, if nonsensical, cultural dogma. To the surprise of all concerned, MLP:FiM has managed to attract a huge adult male fanbase dubbed “bronies” (adult female fans are called pegasisters), who’ve become figures of fascination and derision in equal measures. Despite this, the number of bronies seem to be growing by the day, shrugging off the disdain for their culturally inappropriate fandom with their trademark “I’m going to tolerate and love the shit out you” rebuttal.

Ironically, of course, the bronies’ own behaviour en masse in the fandom reinforces the same old male-centre/female-margin dynamic, as does much of the media coverage. Female fans are squeezed from the frame as objects worthy of consideration of their own. Some have proposed the male-centric term “brony” be applied to applied to all adult MLP fans, an unreflexive marking of the male as universal. This is indicative of a broader claiming of the text as normatively the domain of men, a far from unique dynamic in fandom – just one of a million reasons why a feminist narrative like MLP:FiM is still so sorely needed by girls and women.

Still, that there are large numbers of male fans of a traditionally “feminine” text is significant and important in its own right, and should be taken as a challenge to parents. As we saw recently with the overblown furore over J. Crew’s boy-wearing-pink-toenails “toemaggedon” advertisement, there are serious kinds of anxiety directed at assumed-male children, afraid of any sign of femininity, so much so that some parents will attempt to beat it out of their children. It’s hard to see many parents letting their boys embrace My Little Pony like their older brony brothers.

But they should, because boys would learn a lot from being allowed to identify with female characters, to see more than just the princess stereotype. For as our own Arwyn Daemyir has said:

The point of gender-diverse parenting, and the goal we can keep in mind when evaluating each choice before us, is not our children’s coercion into uniform unisex-ness, but freedom to figure out gender for themselves: what gender they are, what being that gender means to their society, and how, and to what extent, to perform it.

My Little Pony gives children of all sexes–and adults too–a broad range of meanings to draw from on what it means to be a girl, what it means to be an individual, and what it means to be friends. And for that, I love it. Foreverrrrrr.

Front page photo: Showrunner Lauren Faust at Comic Con in 2008, by Ewan Roberts, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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  1. I’ve never heard ‘pegasister’ before, so maybe I’m out of the loop. I’ve always heard females bronies referred to as ‘bronies’. Although I admit than when you hear ‘brony’ you immediately think of a man.

  2. It’s not like there haven’t been male fandoms for franchises with all non-sexualized (in canon) female characters, this isn’t new in the anime fandom. The other most notable example that comes to mind is the doujin game series Touhou.

  3. I happen to be a girl who watches My Little Pony: FIM, and everybody online almost always assume I’m a guy. XD
    But in fact, my five year old brother, who loves cars, dinosaurs, and wrestling with our father- love My Little Pony.

  4. I love this article. :) I feel like everything you said was spot-on (except for the pegasister thing, see below), and as a fellow feminist, I’m so glad to see someone making an article that ISN’T all about “WOW MEN LOVE MY LITTLE PONY, HOW FUNNY AND QUIRKY, LET’S WRITE MORE ARTICLES ABOUT MEN OKAY?” Because heaven knows we need MORE discussion about men, and less about women – about a woman-dominated and created show/product, no less!! It feels like My Little Pony should be the one venue that is absolutely intended for women, and men have somehow managed to appropriate that, too. (Which is not to say that men shouldn’t be allowed to like girl-based properties; I just feel that a lot of the publicity/articles/attention given to the show has been based around the adult male contingent, completely ignoring the long-standing adult female fandom.)

    My only dislike of the pegasister thing is that by denying girls the right to be called ‘Brony,’ it sets us apart, and in a certain sense, places us as ‘lesser.’ Brony is the nickname everyone uses, everywhere; the female equivalent will never be as popular, unless it is also Brony. (For example, have you ever seen mock-up images of “My Little Filly” or “My Little Pegasister”? Nope. Everything is Brony-based.) That said, I also agree with what you said about using the masculine name as a catchall for all genders – it definitely sucks, especially since it automatically makes everyone assume you are male, if you identify as a brony, as well as placing an unspoken emphasis on the male part of the fandom. Not to mention all of the gender policing that comes if you dare to admit you’re a woman – “You’re not a brony, you’re a pegasister” and the like. It’s a catch-21; if you’re a Brony, you’re being masculinized in order to fit in. But if you’re a Pegasister, you’re essentially ‘outside’ the fandom.

    Hell, my own name says more about the dynamics of the founding days of the fandom than anything else – 4chan, obviously, is a den of iniquity and hate, as well as a pit of misogyny. I originally chose this name so that every comment I made wouldn’t be immediately responded to with “TITS OR GTFO.” Only by posing as a man was I able to feel completely safe in contributing to the fandom. How sad is that? I feel like any fandom that is originally founded on/in 4chan has a long way to go regarding gender sensitivity and misogynistic tendencies, and the Bronies are no different. I still receive comments that are misogynistic, even today, with the fandom now well away from 4chan. Take from that what you may.

    Thank you again for a lovely, well-written article. :) I hope you enjoy your time in the fandom, misogynistic idiots aside.

  5. Hey, a man here.

    I watch the show because it’s probably one of the better shows on TV. I like it because it has references to D&D, and other nerdy things that normal people probably wouldn’t pick up on. If anything, the message behind the show isn’t about woman empowerment, or any sort of empowerment. It’s the exact opposite. Love and tolerate your neighbor, you don’t need a religious book to do this. You don’t even need ponies, but sometimes ponies help the message shine a bit more.

  6. I’m just a little bit new to all of this and didn’t realize the term “brony” could be so controversial. I’ve been running all around the interwebs to get more information on the term when I stumbled across this article. This is the first I’ve heard the term “pegasister” (which I think is very cute by the way). One of the things I found on another website was that the word “brony” was a blanket term for all fans outside of the original target audience, and that if you wanted to specify gender (whether for yourself or others) you would use terms like “filly” or “gentlecolt.” In one of the comments I see something about how “filly” is the ponified equivalent of “chick” which I don’t believe. I am of the opinion that it’s more the equivalent of “lady.” I also saw a comment about why there needs to be a gender specific term for fans of the show, and why can’t we all just be called “fans.” While I do agree to this point to an extent, I have to say that I like the idea of a term that feels more special and less generic than “fan.” Personally, I like the term “brony” because it rolls off the tongue, and it’s very easy to modify into other words and phrases that fit the fandom. I also like the idea of, when the person feels it to be necessary, specifying what gender you are by using terms like “filly” and “gentlecolt.”

    I am a filly.

    Aside from the nitpicking about the term “brony,” I enjoyed reading the article. It was nice to see an article about the show from a feminist point of view and see that it was researched a bit more thoroughly than another that Ive seen.

  7. WOOOOOOOOOW. Really? Bronys are evil male centric girl haters? Im gay and couldnt give two shits, it’s just better than everything else on tv these days

  8. You’re looking at this from the point of view that men watching a girl’s cartoon is nothing out of the ordinary, and that’s why you’re disgruntled about the male fanbase receiving so much publicity. By refusing to acknowledge how this deviation from the cultural norm accords with the feminist ideal you’re only reinforcing the perspective that there’s no pleasing you woman folk. There’s more to this show than a contrived ego massage if you can open your eyes long enough to look for it. I’m not angry with you, but I am disappointed.

  9. I loved your article until the pegasisters part. Most female fans seem to not even be aware of the term and many of those who do don’t like it. Some female fans call themselves pegasisters, but it is not the norm. :-(

    Otherwise, I really loved reading this. Thank you.

  10. I am personally a pegasister and i do feel like an outsider around all my bronys. I love bronys to death but i feel like its odd for a girl to love mlpfim as much as a guy and im sad because i live in a small town where i have yet to find a single freaking brony or pegasister! Id even settle for sumone who hates mlp!

  11. Lol just to add to my last comment i dont mind being called a brony cuz its really not that bad and it is pretty gender free i mean i call all my gal pals bros so honestly people chill but i prefer pegasis because i want to be known as a girl who loves mlp fim yet with everyone being called brony everyone trolling on the bronies on the internet will know its not just ” gay guys and creepy old men” who like mlp maybe theyll get the picture its a show for everyone i mean me my little sister and brother calll eachother bronys! And all my mlp fim fan galpals! Yay bronies!

  12. Mmm i love commenting so heres another one my fellow bronies and pegasisters we must stretch our grasp to every corner of the world but remember our moto is love and tolerate not yell and call vulgar names(ive seen alot of it on youtube) so rememver every time your on the internet or commeting add something mlp! Oh and btw you are an amazing person this article is sooo right but i dont see males as giant overpowering jerks as long as ther nice and are a fan accept them! All mlpfim fans are amazing lets agree on that!

  13. The five main characters? You mean the Mane Six?

    Also, Celestia is coruler of Equestria alongside Luna.

  14. MLPFiM is a very good show, everything in this article matters, except for the feminist comments which were obscure. I believe that women do matter in shows, movies, etc. It is just that romance flicks and love movies are very boring and lack creativity, I can’t sit through a movie that makes me fall asleep, (Godzilla 2000 is a good example) me being a male, constantly want there to be a female protagonist because playing as a male in a video game or watching a male hero in a movie gets rather old. Ms. Faust made each pony a great character with a rest of the girly nature of the previous show and made it funny. That’s really what guys want in a show. We want creative writing, creativity, and a bit of humor. You do that and you pretty much got us figured out. As for feminist, can’t you be promoting something important, like a the petition to go against ACTA? I don’t like feminists, and I think they should be abolished like racism and slavery in the South. Ou do not sound smart or inspiring, you do not do anything good for the world. More than 3 quarters of us men worldwide are not against women, seriously WTH started this?

  15. In the third paragraph you put “The five main characters of the show are female, as is the ruler of the show’s setting in the kingdom of Equestria, Princess Celestia.” I would like to point out that their are six main characters. Including: (1) Rainbow Dash, (2) Pinkie Pie,(3) Twilight Sparkle, (4) Rarity, (5) Fluttershy, and (6) Applejack

  16. My female friend told me about the term Pegasister after I put on Facebook that I finally got around to watching MLP:FiM and loved it. (I had no idea there was this huge following, or about the term ‘brony’). After finding this out and becoming obsessed with the show (and watching the first 40 episodes in 4 days XD) I took a tour around Google and found out about the Brony community/ BroNYCon, etc. It was my understanding that brony was bro + pony. Bro being short for brother, which is a male family member. Pegasister = pegasus + sister. Sister always being a female. I do not understand why a female would be offended by being called a female. I feel that a female saying that they are a brony is saying “Hey, I want to go by the male equivalent name to be more accepted.” (I feel the same way about waitor/ waitress or steward/ stewardess. Though I am also for having a completely gender neutral word like server or flight attendant respectively as long as the “general” term is not presumably male.) And I feel that the general term for any adult fan should NOT be brony, because it implies that men are the norm, and females are the underlings.

  17. Feminism has never been about more than equality to me. Women still don’t have equal rights in some things, as men don’t in others. To me this is not right. As a feminist I only want to be treated as an equal.

    That said, I don’t watch Friendship is Magic because it breaks all the rules, I watch it because it’s excellently written, animated, funny as hell and makes me laugh. The fact that it features female characters who aren’t just love interests is the extra shiny, rainbow coloured icing on the cake! :D

  18. Look, the REAL reason ppl want Brony to be a gender-neutral term is that “Brony” is a *clever* neologism, while “Pegasister” is a painful, forced neologism.

  19. I call myself a pony fan.

    I dont see why gendered terms are necessary in fandom, especially in a fandom for a show that flouts gendered tropes so consistently in the way MLP:FiM does.

    Anything so divisive seems to run contrary to the spirit of the show — and lets not forget that as adult fans, we have a responsibility to create a space for and support the intended audience of MLP: children, especially girl children, who benefit most from the messages carried in the storytelling.

  20. …. Hmmm…. Yet the washing continues, cursed show.

    Glad to see pegisisters startin to make a stand and stuff, not much needs to be said on my end though: as both an outsider, an dude, and also an hater.

    Keep up the good fight and all of that, or loving?…. Tollerating? ….. Love and….. Nevermind, I’m out.

  21. I think ‘brony’ is a male-specific term because it was meant to refer to an unlikely periphery demographic for the show (teenage and adult males). It’s deviation for a male to like a show about ponies and friendship so they coined ‘BROny’ to refer to themselves.
    Because ‘brony’ was originally used to refer to these deviant MALES, ‘pegasister’ was coined to include females in their own cutesy way, keeping in theme with the horse puns used in the show and among the fans.

  22. Hey. :)

    I liked reading your article very much. I myself haven’t been a Pony fan for very long, but I was hooked after the first episode of FiM. Like you, I love the strong characters and the storyline. And I very much like the fact that it indeed doesn’t have any leading male characters.
    I’ve come so far in my fandom that I have a huge big Pinkie Pie sticker on my wall, and I collect the little figures from the blind bags. So far I have 3 of the main characters: Pinkie Pie, Glow-in-the-dark Rarity and Applejack. :D

    You also mentioned Star Trek. If you haven’t watched it yet, I recommend Star Trek Voyager. I’m not fond of Star Trek in general myself, but Voyager has a female captain. :D

    Girl power! ;)

  23. 6 main! You stated “The five main characters” in the 3rd paragraph, then named the 6 main in the fourth.

  24. I have to say I’m a little disappointed. You started out well in the terms of bronies, but then you lost me. The entire idea behind the majority of the movement is to tolerate everyone, regardless of race, nationality, and least of all sex. And the way the term ‘Brony’ is used in a male centered way is not entirely our fault. Its the fault of the countless people who hate on and bash the male fans, calling them various things to numerous to list. In all honesty, be glad your not part of the ‘Brony part’. You won’t get attacked nearly as much as we do.

  25. I cast resurrect on ye dead and forgotten blurb!
    The feminem up in this here article sounds like she looked for textbook uninspired interpretations that can be found in any 1st year 3rd rate college humanities and women’s studies students notebook. PLEASE for the love of actual feminism try to have a original thought and convey it so that it is of actual benefit.. NO OFFENSE of course but you are the reason that real women with women’s needs at heart throw up collective facepalms when purported feminists like without even the time or effort involved to know what they are talking about decide to make their voice heard, so to speak.
    -with love and regard
    =NAME REDACTED=

  26. Leave it to a feminist to make it a sex issue. If I’m not mistaken children are a little too young to pick up on such subtleties even if they were present to begin with. This isn’t about empowering the fairer sex ladies, it’s a cartoon and it needs to be treated as such. I’m a man and I watch it because it’s about the cutest thing I’ve ever seen, period end of discussion. But just because I watch the show doesn’t mean I support feminism or any of this new age gender bending garbage that society tries to stuff down our throats. People like you are part of the problem.

  27. I wasn’t aware of bronies until last year, when I discovered one of my friends was a brony. I wasn;t aware of the term pegasister until about a month ago.

  28. I so agree with all of this.

    And it’s a shame how men are still not “allowed” to get involved in “girly” things. Because, you know: men getting interested in feminine things will clearly lead to them not wanting to be with a woman later… [/sarcasm]

    And I think the reason “bronies” get so much coverage is because girls getting interested in musculine stuff is accepted by now, but not the opposite. So when this becomes an internet phenomenon, displaying something society still hasn’t come to accept, of course they’re going to focus on the male viewers, because they’re “strange”. nobody wants to hear about the female fans of a show for girls on the news, you need something “outragious” for that.

    But either way, I hope this trend will be another step towards equalism and tearing down the wall between genders.

  29. I’m a 23 yr old grown woman & I love my little pony but it’s stupid that themale fans think they have their own subculture .Female fans are called Ponies not Bronies cause bro is for men.I call myself a pony not a (shudder ) Brony .

  30. “Some have proposed the male-centric term “brony” be applied to applied to all adult MLP fans, an unreflexive marking of the male as universal. This is indicative of a broader claiming of the text as normatively the domain of men”

    Huh? I think you’re taking things a bit ridiculously there. It’s because we’re all bros. Brother shortens to a monosyllabic form which can be pluralized more asthetically.

    Sure sister shortens to “sis”, but when you pluralize it (and you kinda have to, since “pegasis” doesn’t sound very different from pegasus), it’s like sis’s or sisses or something weird like that which is just frustrating.

    Brony is also less racist. Everyone knows there are 3 central breeds of ponies: earth ponies, pegasus ponies and unicorn ponies. Then some other weird breeds got added later like crystal ponies, and pegasus/unicorn crossbreeds finally got the official ‘alicorn stamp’…

    But basically “pegasister” just sucks because it only refers to 1 of 3 breeds. You’re only getting Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy out of the Mane 6. It’s discriminatory against the earths (Pinkie and Apple) and the unis (Rarity and Twilight).

    I’m all for approaching more gender neutral terms, but only if it works aesthetically.

    Ignoring the species problem, “pegasus” is already 3 syllables, more than pony/brony. Since you can’t even shorten it to “sis”, you make it 4 syllables as “pegasister”.

    That’s just not efficient, which is why it’s better to just call girl MLP fans bronies too. I don’t even view bro as a male-centered term these days, everyone is a bro.

    I mean if we track back the etymological roots I don’t even think they were male exclusive anyway. Consider:

    http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%CF%86%CF%81%CE%AC%CF%84%CE%B7%CF%81#Ancient_Greek

    Merely meant a community member, and that’s what it is here.

    I suppose if there was some way we could merge some more neutral modern term (sibling? friend?) into ‘pony’ or a related term in an aesthetic way that’d be fine but I’m not sure how…

  31. Interesting read, I have been a Brony for one and a half years now and my life did a complete 180, in a good way ofcourse. With the whole “Brony” “Pegasister” thing, most Bronies that are female get a tad annoyed at being called a Pegasister but some prefere it. I personally would just like the term “Brony” meant universally for any Brony no matter the gender.

  32. mlp was one of my favorite movies (the shmooooooze) when i was a little kid having to deal with everybody thinking i was a boy. i was heart broken that i couldn’t have a flutterpony toy……. and the only time i ever got to pick one out was as a present for a friend…. so now i have gone crazy and have soo many mlp:fim toys it’s awesome.

    i’ve always been frustrated and sad that bros have hijacked the fandom the way they have. and it’s especially sad when they refer back to their 4chan roots when you call out any problematic behavior/content on their part. as if 4chan is a bastion of “love and tolerate” or whatever their brony battle cry is.

    and i was already mistaken for a boy for long enough. and have to deal with transphobic violence and harrasment based on people assuming i’m a boy…. so i will never under any conditions ever call myself a brony. why can’t we all just be ponies? and not have to make it all about the boys… again… ugh i fucking hate cis guys so much! they ruin everything. can’t we all just agree to ignore them for a while? maybe they’ll get bored and just go away.

  33. I am one of the male fans of the show, who got sucked in despite initially ridiculing it:

    http://files.sharenator.com/memes_it_has_begun_brony_memebase_10-s500x1022-152558.jpg

    Hasbro’s marketing staff aren’t stupid, and clearly crafted a program that appeals to adults, including the big brothers and dads who are compelled to watch children’s programming. There are male-friendly storylines (action sequences, references to movies like The Big Lebowski, etc.). And this includes making the characters appealing to men, on an emotional as well as physical level. The Mane Six are archetypes of the most desirable female personalities: intense intellectual, zany party girl, tomboy country gal, haughty independent business woman, sweet animal lover and gamine athlete. And, without condoning clopping, one has to admit that Ms Faust and her team of animators knew what unconscious buttons to push with straight men (a hilariously serious anthropological analysis follows):

    http://pastebin.com/rYKSXGAT

    This is why one sees so many straight males fantasizing about having adventures with the characters, like these clips:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Km1YqjzIsJE

    And if one peeks at the various firearms fore, you will find gun nut bronies galore, some of whom are into customizing firearms and creating fan art:

    http://img689.imageshack.us/img689/4876/bronyak.png

    http://www.thetruthaboutguns.com/2012/06/daniel-zimmerman/obscure-object-of-desire-my-little-pony-iwb-holster/

    http://th04.deviantart.net/fs70/PRE/i/2012/050/b/2/aac_honey_badger_rifle___fluttershy_edition_by_thebadpanda2-d4qbtnp.jpg

    I where can I get the StareMaster reflex sight…?

  34. As a brony myself, I’m just glad MLP:FiM came out when I was an adult rather than a kid. I would have NEVER given the show a chance when I was younger. I was resistant to giving it a chance even as an adult. But I’m sure glad I did. I don’t mind the female-centric nature of the show. In fact, I see the show as neutral because they don’t fem it up too much. It still has it’s girly parts including makeovers, spas, tea parties, etc. And it sounds really bad (for an adult guy that is). But the show doesn’t make that the main focus. They focus on problems that could happen to anypony….mare or stallion. And the girly stuff is kind of funny the way they portray it. Especially Applejack’s and Rainbow Dash’s aversion to it and Rarity’s obsession with it. LOL.

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