Cuteness, friendship, and identity in the brony community

Theo A. Peck-Suzuki

University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, United States

[0.1] Abstract—I examine the practices of fan productivity and gender negotiation in brony fandom, the community of primarily college-age men who are fans of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic (2010–). I examine the contours of brony textual and material practices, noting how productivity within the fandom plays a role in the negotiation of identity and community ethos. I also consider the implications of cuteness in the fandom and discuss how this aesthetic and its corresponding narrative have led to the development of a unique discursive mode among bronies, which I term the discourse of friendship. Drawing on Matthew Gutmann's theory of contradictory consciousness, I argue that the discourse of friendship is an innovative framework that encourages new ways of taking part in existing social institutions that destabilize hegemonic masculinity.

[0.2] Keywords—Consumption; Contradictory consciousness; Fan fiction; Fandom; Gender; Masculinity; Material culture; My Little Pony; Nerd

Peck-Suzuki, Theo A. 2016. "Cuteness, Friendship, and Identity in the Brony Community." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 22.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Bronies, adult fans of the television show My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic (2010–), have garnered substantial publicity in recent years. This is primarily because the majority of bronies are men, while the show itself was clearly developed for young girls. Conventional wisdom about what men should and should not find appealing offers little to explain the emergence of this community, with the result that bronies are often associated in the public imagination with sexual perversion and antisocial behavior, among other things. In this paper, I aim to articulate some of the sociocultural negotiations that are at play in brony fandom, seeking ultimately to reconsider the fandom as a site where individuals can disrupt commonly held assumptions about masculinity, nerdiness, and sociality.

[1.2] This essay draws from ethnographic work conducted in both online and off-line settings, as well as from interviews with self-identified bronies and pony fans. Pursuing this kind of research demands critical reflection on how online and off-line socialities intersect; in the My Little Pony, or MLP, fandom, I have found that while certain distinct forms of social interaction do emerge through the Internet, they cannot be fully understood without considering how they modify off-line behaviors and vice versa. Therefore I present evidence only rarely as exclusively "online" or "off-line," seeing it rather as, in some respects, both. Most of my online research involved spending time on Equestria Daily, a Friendship Is Magic blog that is widely recognized as a nexus of fandom news and media and that features sections for discussion of a range of MLP-related topics. Other Web sites I visited include YouTube, DeviantArt, FIMFiction, and the professional gaming Web site Team Liquid. This digital fieldwork is supplemented by my experiences at Trotcon 2014, a brony convention that took place in the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Columbus, Ohio, during the summer of that year. While small in comparison to the better-known Bronycon, that year's Trotcon nevertheless boasted about a thousand attendees, with much-loved scriptwriter M. A. Larson and voice actors Andrea Libman and Peter New appearing over the course of the weekend. Whereas online ethnography provided me with important insights into the day-to-day activities of "pony" (a shorthand some bronies use for the MLP scene generally), Trotcon afforded me the chance to see what it is that bronies do with each other in person and the ways in which they bring the values of the show to those interactions. Being in such close proximity also meant that I could speak directly to bronies and other attendees (pony fans who did not adopt the brony label) about what the fandom means to them.

[1.3] In this paper, I seek to articulate the distinctive set of practices and values that have emerged in the brony community. I refer to this as the discourse of friendship: specifically, the negotiation that exists among bronies between the show Friendship Is Magic, the established conventions of nerd behavior and hegemonic masculinity, and the needs and aspirations of individuals. I begin with the production, sharing, and consumption of (primarily) cute, pony-themed media. Drawing on authors such as Matt Hills (2014) and Benjamin Woo (2014), I trace the contours of this exchange, taking note in particular of the ways in which participation along material and textual axes of production is central to the constitution of the fandom as a whole. With reference to Arjun Appadurai's "tournaments of value"—social institutions through which the values of cultural goods are determined (Appadurai 1986, 21)—I argue that material and textual productivities serve distinct roles in the negotiation of individual and communal identity for bronies.

[1.4] From here, I attempt to clarify how the narratives embedded in Friendship Is Magic and the presence of cuteness intersect with brony identity, with a particular focus on how this intersection impacts brony masculinity. I adopt Matthew Gutmann's concept of "contradictory consciousness" (Gutmann 1996, 14–15) to frame the interplay between male nerd culture and hegemonic masculinity within the brony community, with the aim of showing how the discourse of friendship inspires bronies to renegotiate their own gendered practices. Contradictory consciousness describes the dialectical relationship between dominant and popular gender ideologies. According to Gutmann, one cannot understand why men "do what they do to be men" by only considering hegemonic gender guidelines, which are "largely and uncritically accepted," because individuals often make decisions that contradict, or at least do not cleanly overlap with, those norms. Instead, Gutmann argues that dominant ideologies exist in a dialectical relationship with alternative practices and beliefs that unite "individuals with others in the practical transformation of the world" (Gutmann 1996, 14–15). I argue that the brony community navigates this dialectic, and I support this claim by highlighting cases in which bronies deploy the discourse of friendship in their day-to-day lives.

2. Brony material and textual culture

[2.1] Bronies, like members of other fandoms, produce a large volume of media. The importance of this productivity to the fandom was evident at Trotcon, where the second-largest room was set aside for artists to sell their creations. From dozens of personalized stalls, artists sold prints and drawings, plushies and figurines, keychains, T-shirts, and wireframe sculptures. Across the hall, another room was set aside for the Traveling Pony Museum, which appears at conventions across the United States and exhibits objects created by some of the fandom's best-known artists. This abundance is not limited to conventions—fan fiction, music, original songs, and other digital creations are a constant part of the day-to-day life of pony fans. Equestria Daily regularly posts the day's or week's best drawings, PMVs (pony music videos), and stories on its homepage. Artists take commissions on their DeviantArt or Tumblr pages, and the purchasers upload pictures of themselves with their new merchandise to Facebook group walls and the subforums of other online communities. Bronies unconcerned with the sideways glances of other customers sometimes even make trips to the Hasbro aisle of their nearest Wal-Mart or Target to pick up official My Little Pony toys for their collections.

[2.2] Several authors have written on the importance of fan productivity in defining community identity and institutions. Karen Hellekson, for example, has written both with Kristina Busse (Busse and Hellekson 2006) and separately (Hellekson 2009) on the social functions of fan fiction and other textual media, while scholars like Matt Hills (2014) and Benjamin Woo (2014) have given substantial attention to material practices such as replica making and collecting. In the brony community, both textual and material productivities are common, and they usually inform each other directly. However, it is important to differentiate between these two broad categories, as the forms of participation they entail define different aspects of the fandom. Hills has written on the importance of "mimetic fandom" in other fan groups, observing that fan-made replication is compelling because it makes real something that otherwise exists only in the source text: "the fan-made replica…is a physical object that nonetheless relies on absent or noncoincident media for its meaning" (Hills 2014, ¶2.13). In addition, making and owning part of a fandom's material culture has interpersonal implications. As Woo notes, ownership is exclusive, since objects belong to one person and not others; through this limitation, owning a piece of material culture becomes "the price of admission to a social world" (Woo 2014, ¶4.10). By owning and occasionally displaying pony merchandise, individuals can accomplish a number of crucial social tasks. In particular, they can constitute themselves as bronies and establish an immediate social connection with anyone who shares their interest.

[2.3] At Trotcon, I learned of a military veteran of the war in Afghanistan who had revitalized his struggling marriage when he and his partner developed a mutual interest in Friendship Is Magic. One of the couple's friends, another military brony and the person who told me this story, made them a custom Shining Armor and Princess Cadance plushie set with magnetic noses (so they could kiss). The creation and exchange of pony merchandise helped provide the couple with a mutually accessible social arena (the fandom), and also served as a physical reminder of a romantic ideal, the successful marriage on the show of Shining Armor and Princess Cadance. The experience of the storyteller is also significant: making the plushies affirmed to himself and others that he was a brony, and by giving them to his friend, he established himself as a community veteran offering a welcoming hand to a curious, potentially vulnerable newcomer. Offering newcomers a "welcome to the herd" is common in the brony community (Robertson 2014, 26–27), and I explore it further below.

[2.4] Textual projects such as fan fiction, movies, songs, and digital art are also highly relevant to the fandom's productive exchanges, though their social roles differ from those of material works. As noted above, material culture is generally limited by money and space (Woo 2014, ¶4.1). This is not the case for textual productions, because anyone with a computing device, an Internet connection, and network permission to visit a relevant Web site (e.g., Equestria Daily) can find and access them. Thus they belong to no one in particular but rather to the fandom as a whole (Busse and Hellekson 2006, 7). In contrast to Derek Johnson's argument that assigning authorship to bronies "attributes the creativity of participatory culture to exclusively masculine, adult, and heterosexual identities" (Johnson 2013, 145), I have found that the combination of accessibility and the ambiguity of digital creativity creates a situation in which no one possesses exclusive rights to fan fiction, just as no one owns the show Friendship Is Magic. As a means of participation and expression, fan fiction and digital media allow individuals and groups to explore and renegotiate the MLP source text in a way that has a tangible impact on how the community in general thinks about and draws from pony and its own history.

[2.5] I use the concept of "tournaments of value" (Appadurai 1986, 21) to help clarify the difference between the material and textual sides of MLP productivity. As Hellekson has observed, textual exchanges in fan communities revolve around gift economies that result "in a community occupied with theorizing its own genderedness" (Hellekson 2009, 114), that is, with negotiating issues of fan identity. What kinds of textual and digital media deserve public recognition in MLP fandom? This is the question that the textual tournament of value seeks to answer. When I have posted my own thoughts on MLP forums, I notice myself evaluating the quality of my contributions by their popularity. How many people quote or reply to my comment? Do they respond negatively or positively? Similarly, perusing DeviantArt or Equestria Daily makes evident the extent to which bronies themselves evaluate their more substantial textual contributions to the fandom by how positive the comments and creative follow-ups are. Particularly successful writers and artists may even see their work headlining an Equestria Daily news entry, an achievement that both affirms the work's high value and enables maximum exposure in the community. These textual reimaginings can have a permanent creative impact on the fandom and even spawn their own reproductions, as in the case of the enormously popular MLP/Fallout crossover Fallout Equestria. By contrast, forms of textual and digital media whose place in the fandom is contested—for example, MLP pornography, also known as "clop"—are kept out of many high-visibility places, such as conventions and Equestria Daily. Discussion of this taboo on forums likely to be seen by outsiders is usually discouraged as well.

[2.6] Bronies recognize and negotiate the value of MLP fan merchandise, unlike that of textual media, through ownership and limitation of access. A one-of-a-kind print signed by Tara Strong, the voice of Twilight Sparkle, is precious because it is so rare; more common merchandise may still be desirable but lacks the same splendor. Nowhere is this clearer than at the charity auctions that are often held at MLP conventions. Here, bronies compete for special pieces of material fandom, such as the aforementioned signed print, or the lanyard worn to the event by voice actress Andrea Libman, or a unique poster of the Trotcon 2014 mascot. In these cases, value is expressed in terms of the money someone is willing to spend on exclusive ownership of a given piece. The spectacle is a competition: attendees at Trotcon were allowed to view the items on offer before the auction, giving them the chance to plan a bidding strategy. While the "likes" and "retweets" of social media permanently enhance a piece's visibility, at the conclusion of the auction everyone but the new owners loses access to these unique pieces of physical merchandise. As tournaments of value, auctions identify winners through limitation, but this same limitation allows individuals to distinguish themselves from passersby as bronies. That a certain degree of privilege is required to attain this distinction bears mentioning, as well, though it deserves closer examination than this essay allows. Both participating in an auction and distributing one's handcrafted MLP plushies, paintings, and other paraphernalia serve to affirm to oneself and others that one is a brony, that one belongs to this community.

[2.7] The different tensions that emerge around material and textual productivities hint at their different roles within the brony community. On the one hand is the ambiguous question of one's own place in the fandom. Material practices work in part to clarify this ambiguity. By owning and competing for pony merchandise, the "price of admission to a social world" (Woo 2014, ¶4.10), one affirms that one is a brony; by creating and selling it, one establishes oneself as a certain kind of brony; by giving a newcomer a present, one constitutes oneself as a community veteran and welcomes a newcomer "to the herd." On the other hand is the question of how the aesthetic and ethos of the source text inform the community. They do not do so in a constant or unchanging way, but rather in a discourse contingent on ongoing processes of textual negotiation that occur through practices like brony fan fiction and fan art, as well as decisions about where and how to display these works. A story, comic strip, or painting that appears on Equestria Daily becomes the fandom's face; the themes, scenes, and fanon that artists reproduce become part of the lived experience of being a brony.

3. Cuteness on a personal level

[3.1] Brony textual and material cultures demonstrate how Friendship Is Magic is ethically and emotionally compelling to members of the fandom. More than the actual productions themselves, the intensity with which bronies act as producers and consumers and the dedication they must apply to both their crafts and their roles as owners of pony merchandise demonstrate just how important the show, its characters, and the fandom can be to individuals.

[3.2] Making and owning pony merchandise is not always a comfortable social occupation for bronies embedded in communities outside the fandom. Negative stereotypes of bronies are common, and the hyperfeminine brand of cuteness in Friendship Is Magic can make even the most tolerant of outsiders uncomfortable. In spite of this, cuteness retains a central place in the productive cultures of the fandom. Browsing through "Drawfriend" posts on Equestria Daily, one observes brony illustrators making a wide range of creative choices, but in almost every case, their works emulate or reenvision the exaggerated cuteness of the source text, to the praise of their followers.

[3.3] Disconcerting though it may be to some, cuteness is in fact well established in other fandoms and in consumer culture more generally. Granot, Alejandro, and Russell (2014, 71) argue that mass-produced cuteness originated in Japanese youth culture. They state that cuteness "lent personality to objects such that consumers could have relationships with [them] that they might lack with other people." The claim that these person-object relations exist to replace interpersonal relationships is problematic, as I hope this essay will demonstrate; however, the observation that cuteness enables personification, and that this in turn can make objects (and the characters they represent) more relatable, is highly relevant to the brony community.

[3.4] Many bronies have told me that the first thing about the show that drew them in was the artwork. Some outsiders I have spoken with have heard similar things and concluded that these were roundabout references to clop, but this is hasty. As Venetia Laura Delano Robertson has observed, the Japanese cute or "kawaii" aesthetic that Granot, Alejandro, and Russell discuss is "currently in vogue in the western world," and it is this aesthetic's influence that is clearly visible in Friendship Is Magic (Robertson 2014, 24). In fact, cuteness has a specific history of meaning and symbolism (Granot, Alejandro, and Russell 2014, 74–75) that Friendship Is Magic explicitly draws from. The aesthetic is not itself revolutionary; what is significant is that the show draws so effectively on its heritage that individuals who are used to kawaii characters have an easier time relating to what they see onscreen. This may be why so many bronies point to the art style of the show as one of the first things that drew them in: where the unorthodox, hyperfeminine character names and narrative themes could make watching Friendship Is Magic unappealing or uncomfortable, the recognizable influence of Japanese cuteness was reassuring, familiar, and reproducible.

4. Contradictory consciousness and the discourse of friendship

[4.1] By reenvisioning the show as something that is personally relatable, bronies can use it as a source of inspiration in their social and emotional lives. Invoking MLP, however, puts bronies into conflict with dominant gender ideologies that find adult, and especially heterosexual adult male, interest in the show inherently perverse. The strategies that bronies employ to negotiate this conflict form the basis of the discourse of friendship. I define the discourse of friendship as the negotiation between the ethos of the show, digital socialities, and normative gender practices that impacts both how bronies think of and relate to themselves and how they assert their place in the world. I draw on Matthew Gutmann's use of "contradictory consciousness" to articulate this concept more clearly.

[4.2] Gutmann argues that contradictory consciousness tends to emerge in settings where social or economic shifts have disturbed traditional ideas about gender (Gutmann 1996, 14–15). It is my view that the brony community, as a fandom existing largely in digital settings like message boards, possesses this kind of social ambiguity. That being said, it is a unique collision of social influences and expectations, and not just the presence of the Internet, that produces the discourse of friendship. On Equestria Daily and in Team Liquid's MLP subgroup, users engage in conversations that stem from but also oppose other, more typical online social settings. Ultimately, the discourse of friendship gives bronies an unusual but effective set of tools with which to confront the problems they face both on- and off-line, and it does so in part by rejecting some of the most frequent patterns of traditional nerd behavior.

[4.3] In her 2002 ethnography Hanging Out in the Virtual Pub, Lori Kendall argues that participants in computer tech chat rooms often deploy the term "nerd" self-referentially to both subvert and reaffirm hegemonic masculine ideologies. "Nerds," she argues, are themselves "disqualified from a more hegemonic masculine identity"; nevertheless, they retain a "connection to a reconfiguration of middle-class male masculinity" that is very much compatible with hegemonic norms. This compatibility is particularly visible when male nerds in chat rooms adopt hegemonic rhetoric in discussing women, whom they conceive of as unattainable sexual fantasies or objects of desire (Kendall 2002, 82). While the language they employ is often self-mocking, Kendall suggests that these linguistic maneuvers serve ultimately as a tool with which to "deflect the loss of masculinity connoted by the inability to get dates" (Kendall 2002, 84). Moreover, nerds still engage in rituals of dominance among one another. In the case Kendall examines, these usually involve programming skills; lacking them—or worse, incorrectly believing oneself to have them—is socially debilitating (Kendall 2002, 75). Similarly, Chad Parsons notes that players of the popular first-person shooter game Halo are well-advised to learn the relevant jargon—including terms like "noob," "pwnd," and "get owned"—because "speaking the language is evidence of experience and insider knowledge," a prerequisite of social membership (2007, 26). Thus nerd discourse operates against but also alongside hegemonic masculinity. Even as nerds refuse, or cannot attain, the traditional "macho" identity, they continue to find ways of asserting their own (gendered) dominance, thereby reaffirming heteronormative gender ideologies (Kendall 2002, 82).

[4.4] The discourse of friendship emerges from this tradition of nerdiness but does not always replicate it. For example, bronies articulate the "welcome to the herd" ethos in typically nerdy ways, such as posting memes on discussion boards in the style of 4chan, but the connotations of "welcome to the herd" constitute a break from the institutions of both hegemonic masculinity and traditional nerdiness (Robertson 2014, 27). The near-imperative of bringing others into the fold impacts not only how bronies interact with each other but also how they engage with the world at large. Many of the independent artists I interviewed at Trotcon rejected the brony label, not out of discomfort but because they simply did not see in themselves an appropriate level of devotion to the show or the community. Nevertheless, their stalls stood right next to those of the fandom's most well-known producers, and, more importantly, people who did call themselves bronies were just as enthusiastic about chatting with them and buying their work as about chatting with and buying the work of anyone else. One artist reported to me that, at non-brony conventions, attendees respond with hostility to signs of ignorance about the source text; by contrast, "no one questions your bronyness [at a brony convention]." During that conversation, a young man approached and, apologizing nervously for taking up the artist's time, confessed that he deeply appreciated her willingness to draw "anatomically correct and nonsexualized ponies" when so many better-known artists often fail to do so. While friendliness within fandoms is often expected, friendliness toward outsiders who are not interested in joining the community is less common. The discourse of friendship goes beyond brony-to-brony conversations to become something that bronies can also deploy in any number of other situations.

[4.5] One of the attractions of the discourse of friendship is that it gives bronies a way to adapt and thrive within an otherwise intimidating or inhospitable world. This can be seen in a range of situations, but I have observed it most frequently among individuals whose experiences with hegemonic and nerd masculinities were problematic for one reason or another. For example, a young man with the handle Scribble Mane told me that, when Friendship Is Magic debuted, he was twenty years old and spent twelve hours a day playing World of Warcraft in his parents' basement, the epitome (in his own telling) of a stereotypical, socially dysfunctional, unhappy nerd. As a child, he said, he was bullied, which he felt had driven him to close himself off from other people and from his own emotions—until, that is, Friendship Is Magic "snuck empathy back into [his] life." The show, he noted, is about learning to care for and stay connected to others, lessons that are addressed to younger audiences but that, it turns out, had ample resonance for him as well. Inspired by the experiences of Twilight Sparkle and her friends, he cut back on WoW and started reaching out to other bronies. In place of gaming, he tried writing MLP fan fiction, a project he found so enjoyable and rewarding that eventually he produced an entire novel. His newfound passion ultimately led him to seek connections outside the fandom by enrolling in an honors creative writing program at a nearby university, from which he recently graduated.

[4.6] Scribble's case offers important insights into the discourse of friendship. Before discovering MLP, Scribble engaged in an archetypal nerd behavior—binging on World of Warcraft—and he did so in part to avoid a social world that he had come to fear. Becoming involved with MLP fandom was not merely a jump from one nerd hobby to another; it entailed a radical change in his conception of himself, his productivity, and his ability to relate to others. These shifts reflect a change in his ability to negotiate the pressures and expectations of nerdiness and hegemony; whereas childhood violence had conditioned him to remain hidden and anonymous, the discourse of friendship was a form of contradictory consciousness through which he could establish himself as an active and productive member of society.

[4.7] For many, MLP prompts a major disruption of even the sturdiest assumptions about masculinity. The case of Swagger Tail, a brony and former US Marine who served in Afghanistan, captures this very well. He told his story during a military brony panel at Trotcon, flanked on either side by other members and veterans of the US Armed Forces. Waiting stateside for his first deployment, he downloaded the second season of Friendship Is Magic to an external hard drive on a whim and then forgot about it. While overseas, he worked at a base as a data technician. Living in a war zone took an intense emotional toll on him, and for weeks he survived on two hours of sleep a day and a diet of "Power Bars and Powerade." After his staff officer called him "a disgrace to the Corps" for making a serious mistake with the base's computers, he despaired of his ability to make it through the rest of his deployment—until, on the long walk back to his bunk, he remembered the episodes of Friendship Is Magic he had stored on his hard drive. He started watching, and soon felt as though the show was "vomiting rainbows" all over his bleak surroundings. The episodes were happy and emotionally comforting, but he emphasized that they taught basic leadership skills that he, as a Marine, found highly applicable to his own situation. The trials that Twilight Sparkle undergoes in the Season 2 premiere, he said, mirrored his own: the way the villain Discord twists her friends into their respective antitheses was, for him, an analogue to what was happening to him and his fellow soldiers. He knew right away that "this was how [he] would get through" his tour. The discourse of friendship inspired him to reinvent himself as a soldier; embracing Twilight Sparkle as a mentor-figure and becoming a "military brony" was an unorthodox way of coping with war and the strains inherent in normative military masculinity.

[4.8] Swagger Tail's story is particularly striking because the dominant and local gender ideologies between which he found himself appear, at first glance, to be entirely incompatible, and yet, by bringing them together, he emerged from an excruciating ordeal in better physical and emotional shape than many of his companions. Whereas his failure to live up to his staff officer's military ideal threatened to undo him, the discovery of a non-idealized alternative invigorated him and, intriguingly, gave him a form of agency through which he could actually accomplish more as a soldier. Thus participation in MLP fandom is not, as some might speculate, an act of rebellion or an outright rejection of heteronormativity; in fact, it catalyzes bronies' involvement in a variety of longstanding social institutions just as it draws them deeper into the adventures of Twilight Sparkle and company. But perhaps this is the underlying anxiety for those outsiders who find adults' fixation on cartoon horses perverse—that is, that by merging with and transforming patterns of dominance, the discourse of friendship can actually fill the roles traditionally held by hegemonic masculinity better than that hegemony itself.

[4.9] As troubling as brony-hood may be to some defenders of the status quo, its compatibility with external aspirations and values—a healthy and fulfilling social life, a successful career, the ability to lead oneself and others through a period of intense difficulty—makes it very appealing to those immersed in it. Whereas traditional nerdiness self-identifies as subordinated everywhere but in its area of specialization (Kendall 2002, 81), the discourse of friendship is self-empowering within and beyond MLP fandom. Thus it is not surprising to see the emergence of figures like the Manliest Brony, a large, bald, muscular fandom celebrity whose YouTube videos have achieved tremendous popularity within the community (Bronies 2013). The mere presence of the Manliest Brony affirms what is so distinctive about the fandom, namely, its capacity to unite dominant and local gender ideologies in diverse configurations of contradictory consciousness.

5. Conclusion

[5.1] As Woo notes, "In fan cultures, participants orient themselves to some object or set of objects" (2014, ¶8.5). In the brony community, they orient themselves to both material and textual cultures. Through productivity and consumption, bronies orient themselves to the source text, the television show Friendship Is Magic. In doing so, they reconsider themselves not only as members of the fandom, but as individuals within a system of complex and difficult gender expectations. Through exchanges at conventions and online, individuals constitute themselves as bronies and negotiate what being a part of the fandom means as they engage with the world at large.

[5.2] The brony community has an unusual capacity to bring together that which conventional wisdom dictates must remain separate, and in doing so it destabilizes the easiest assumptions about gender and catalyzes a potential for change within masculinity. The stories of Swagger Tail and Scribble Mane make this clear. In the former case, encountering the discourse of friendship inspired Swagger Tail to carve out an innovative place for himself as both a brony and a soldier during his tour overseas. For Scribble, MLP was a starting point for a full-scale reconfiguration of his aspirations and lived experience. There is an augmentative quality to the MLP fandom, one that can bring about changes even in the harshly enforced arena of men "do[ing] what they do to be men" (Gutmann 1996, 14). But really, this is just another way to say that the discourse of friendship does not define itself by suppressing tangential behaviors and aspirations; if anything, it more often defines itself by amplifying them.

[5.3] Situated between hegemonic masculinity and other nerd traditions while overlapping with and opposing both, the discourse of friendship offers new approaches to old problems. For both Scribble Mane and Swagger Tail, embracing MLP did not mean abandoning the daily practices they had known previously. Instead, it helped them enrich and balance those practices and to lead more fulfilling lives. The discourse of friendship reveals that hegemonic masculinity can, despite its privilege, be extremely limiting; that sometimes the real magic lies in practices not of dominance but of companionship.

6. Acknowledgments

[6.1] I thank Bhrigupati Singh for his guidance and support during the research phase of this project. I also thank Susan Burgess for her comments on earlier drafts of this essay.

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