“20% Cooler”: Bronies, a Documentary

A discussion of the documentary Bronies: The Extremely Unlikely Adult Fans of My Little Pony, and the fandom that inspired it

bronies: the extremely unexpected adult fans of my little ponyMy Little Pony: Friendship is Magic

by REBECCA, January 13, 2014

The adult male fandom of the 2010 show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has been fairly well documented in the last few years, with early mentions of the brony (a portmanteau of “bro” and “pony”) phenomenon treating it as creepy and embarrassing. This evaluation mirrors precisely the perception that many bronies are afraid their love of My Little Pony will spark if they discuss it outside chatrooms and BronyCons.

bronycon 2013The insults, jeers, and genuine sense of creeped-outness displayed by many uninitiated, however, have been totally de-fanged in the last few years, blasted to cynical smithereens by the sheer power of joy, delight, and genuine caring that is the brony fandom. Now, the documentary that has been floating around the internet for the last year is on Netflix instant and we can all wrap ourselves in the rainbow-colored manes of its positivity (and its cosplay!).

my childhood MLP puzzle (with one piece missing)Like many, I came of age with the original My Little Pony movie, tv show, pony toys, and even a puzzle that I did over and over (right; thanks for the pic, mom & dad!). I wasn’t super into it, but I liked the bright colors and the sparkles; as far as I know, though, there wasn’t much to recommend it to an adult audience. The new incarnation of My Little Pony, created by Lauren Faust, on the other hand, is notable for having a solid ethos: the concept that “friendship is magic” underlies the whole show, and with its positive outlook, bright worldview, and varied characters, it’s easy to see why Friendship is Magic has attracted a very different audience than that for which it was originally intended.

official_bronycon_poster_by_timon1771-d4aqm7xThat many people find an adult fanbase for a show purportedly marketed to children surprising is one thing, but that is clearly not the real issue at the heart of Laurent Malaquais’ documentary. Though it is titled Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony, it isn’t the fact that these fans are adults that makes people uncomfortable, of course; it’s the fact that they’re men. And, further, that the show marketed to kids stars five female characters, even if they’re ponies.

Why this is confusing to people is simple: sexist and patriarchal culture that assumes:

1.) that only females would ever be interested in female characters.

2.) that men do not value friendship, caring, and sensitivity as positive character traits.

3.) that, therefore, if a man enjoys watching a show about female characters that does value those things then there is something abnormal about him.

But that’s patriarchy 101, and those are assumptions that most of us run up against every day. They are, however, merely the backdrop of Malaquais’ documentary, givens that the featured bronies understand as part of the world they can leave behind when they enter My Little Pony’s land of Equestria. There are some shout-outs to explaining the place of bronies in the post-9/11 world and its concomitant traumatic masculinity by a talking head professor, sure. But the majority of Bronies is dedicated to a celebration of the ways in which My Little Pony fandom has touched the lives of several bronies.

bronies paper magazineThere’s Alex, a teenager from rural North Carolina who had his back windshield smashed in once he put custom My Little Pony decals on it; Lyle, a guy from Bar Harbor who is afraid to come out as a brony to his hyper-conservative father; Daniel, a guy from Northern England whose Aspergers prevents him from socializing until he attends a BronyCon, and Benjamin & Nadine, a German couple who met at a My Little Pony meet-up. The documentary follows each of them around and shows the ways that My Little Pony changed their lives and their experiences with learning that there was such an active fan community surrounding the show. (This is definitely one of the times when the internet is a huge win for humanity!)

These folks (and other interviewees) discuss the way My Little Pony has been a positive force in their lives and how other entertainment doesn’t make them feel nearly as good. Nearly all of them have had to come to terms with, first, their own internalized notions that their enjoyment of the show is somehow abnormal, and, second, decide who they are going to tell about their love of the show. Some are sheepish, some defiant, and some proselytistic, but all of them are distinctly aware that most people will find their fandom weird, and every one of them acknowledges that admitting it runs the risk of being thought of as “girly,” “gay,” “wimpy,” and “unmasculine.”

bronycon_summer_2012___025_by_rjth-d55m0phLauren Faust (creator of Friendship is Magic), Tara Strong (voice of Twilight Sparkle), and John de Lancie (voice of the Discord and the one with the idea for the documentary) are also featured. As documentaries go, it’s nothing terribly special, but it’s done with such positivity and appreciation for the bronies and their fandom that it put a huge smile on my face. Anyone familiar with fandom will be familiar with the cosplay, fanfiction, fan videos, and fan art that Friendship is Magic has inspired, and Bronies feature several of the fandom’s most popular creators—a musician, a laser lightshow creator, and an artist. That was one of the most inspiring elements of the documentary, as it is one of the most inspiring elements of fandom in general—seeing people with a passion for something creating things for other fans to appreciate. 

No single look at a culture can ever capture all its facets, of course, and Bronies is mainly concerned with hitting the high points: military bronies who believe the show’s values are similar to those of the armed forces’; fundraising bronies who contribute to the health care of a young brony with a brain tumor; etc. There is nothing said about the elements of the fandom (and they exist in all of them) that are of a less family-friendly nature, but that’s clearly not the documentary’s goal. It’s sure to make the fans who ponied up (sorry) the funds for its production on Kickstarter thrilled, and as for the rest of us, well, everypony could do with a little more magic in our lives! 

My-Little-Pony-Friendship-is-Magic-littlest-pet-shop-and-my-little-pony-35863812-1600-1092

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Chronicle (de una muerte anunciada)

Chronicle
2012
Dir: Josh Trank
Writer: Max Landis (son of John Landis!!!)

review by Tessa

Chronicle  opens on a black screen. The buzz of something electronic.  A hard bump against an unexpectedly closed door, the rattle of a doorknob, and a man’s voice, already angry, barking “Andrew?  Andrew! Open this door.”

Andrew appears behind a camera mounted on a tripod, pointing at the mirror mounted on the locked door.  He refuses to open it, accuses his father of being drunk, and tells him that he’ll be taping everything from now on.

And he does, starting on his ride to school the next day with affable cousin Matt, through the hallways where his camera gets made fun of for being too old, and on the bleachers where he eats lunch alone.  He introduces each scene to an imaginary audience, sounding proud and unsure at once. “This is where I eat. . . This is my school. . . “ But we can see on his face as he reviews the footage that he is happy to be involved in the filming and creation of something:

Until his dad comes in the room. Andrew’s face immediately closes off.

And his dad slaps him around, pushing him off his chair – payback for not opening the door the night before.  Later we hear his dad pleading with the pharmacy to give him a discount on the pain pills that Andrew’s mother needs – she’s painfully dying of cancer in the next room.

It appears that this is a representative capsule of Andrew’s life. His Matt semi-reluctantly invites Andrew to a party in an abandoned building and advises him to leave the camera at home.  Of course Andrew doesn’t, accidentally films the wrong girl’s butt, gets spit on by her meathead boyfriend, and ends up crying in the grass.  It’s more touching filmed than it sounds, less stereotyped.  The documentary style, deft editing, and above average acting skills have already  elevated this beyond a cautionary bullying tale.

And then, Andrew’s camera provides him with an in. The extremely popular Steve Montgomery

Steve

has found something, along with Matt.

A hole in the ground, filled with a weird buzzing energy.

Inside the hole, something that glows and pulses and messes with the camera. Something overwhelming.

The next time we see Andrew, Matt, and Steve, they’re goofing around in the backyard throwing baseballs at each other. . .  from impossible angles. Andrew stops one right in front of his face, using only his mind.  Not only is this an incredible secret, it’s Andrew’s ticket to having real friends and feeling like he can be himself around two other people on Earth.  Soon the boys are hanging out all the time, making fun of how often Steve’s girlfriend calls him and leaves angry, suspicious voicemails, and eventually taking their powers from Legos to parking lots and toy stores.

Until one day, this happens:


The thing to remember is that this isn’t a Marvel Universe. These are teenage boys, and like all teenagers, their brains are still growing – particularly in the prefrontal cortex, where good decision-making happens.  So instead of getting costumes, thinking about responsibility, and fighting crime, these guys just goof around.  The only problem is that even though Andrew now has friends and some confidence, he still is suffering from abuse, probably PTSD, and grief.  And when the world continues to show him uncaring and injustice, he reacts like a teenager would.  But now he’s not just a teenager anymore.


Rent for the great effects and stay for the emotionally resonant story.

Keep your eye out for Chronicle 2, as well.

Watch/Readalikes

Project X / Jim Shepard

Shepard nails the weirdness and sadness and  funniness in the voice of two middle school boys obsessed with a Plan, and masters the yawning gap of reason as well as the push of invented reason behind inevitable violence.

Attack the Block

Group of prepubescent London thugs finds themselves in the middle of an alien attack and must find out what courage really is – more great, old-school effects, and FUNNY.

Carrie / Firestarter

Stephen King knows from telekinetic rage. Read the books AND watch the movies.

Slices of Life: No Crystal Stair and The Watch That Ends the Night

No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

illustrations by R. Gregory Christie

carolrhodaLAB, 2012

The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic

Allan Wolf

Candlewick Press, 2011
review by Tessa

Characters

No Crystal Stair

Lewis Michaux, headstrong, driven man who wanted to make sure African-Americans knew the history of their people

Lightfoot Solomon Michaux, Lewis’ brother, a famous preacher

Mary Michaux, wife of Lightfoot, disapproving of Lewis

The FBI, wants to keep tabs on this bookseller in Harlem

Malcolm X, a friend of Lewis

The Watch that Ends the Night

The Captain, the Businessman, the Refugee, the Shipbuilder, the Iceberg, the Dragon Hunter, the Immigrant, the Navigator, the Gambler ,the Telegraphist, the Socialite, the Lookout, The Stoker, the Tailor the Tailor’s Son, the Junior Officer, the Violinist, the Baker, the Ship Rat, the Undertaker, the Postman, the Cook…

Hook

The most world-changing bookstore you never knew about, told by the people who were there. The most well-known disaster at sea, told by the people who were there.

Worldview

I chose to review these two books together because they take a similar tactic in dealing with their particular historical investigations. No Crystal Stair calls itself a “documentary novel”, and so I’d call The Watch That Ends the Night a “documentary novel in poems”. Neither are billed as non-fiction, but both explore real historical figures and events. And neither are straight novel or straight poetry, but rather novelistic in scope and varied in voice and structure.

a photo of Michaux’s store, via Harlem World Mag

One of the fun and frustrating things about history is that there’s always another way to look at something.  Even if you were there, a witness to an event, it would often be difficult for you to authoritatively say what happened.  Nelson and Wolf exploit and expand on this aspect of history by breaking their narratives up into voices.

Nelson’s are very much in the talking-head style of a documentary, except written down in paragraphs on the page: “All those black books! I’ve never seen anything like it. The Howard University bookstore had some black books but mainly textbooks. When I walked into Lewis Michaux’s bookstore and saw all these histories, biographies and autobiographies, fliers and posters, it was mind-blowing.” (96).

Wolf’s voices speak in poems. Some are letters and telegrams. Some are free-verse and could just as well be prose.  Some are free verse and let the poetry work for them, playing with imagery, slipping into concrete poetry, and even using lack of capitalization and punctuation to underline the lost voice of a toddler:

“the barber shop is a razor.

the barber

he wants to shave at papa’s mustache.

so i cry.

too many things are gone.

papa is a mustache.

and papa is pockets.

with biscuits. with bullets.

and a pistol. bang. bang.” (180).

Some (the iceberg) have actual rhyme schemes: “James Dobbins (last to die), not jumping clear, / while he himself Hail Marys and huzzahs, / is crushed by timbers as the people cheer.” (14).

What was the book’s intention and was it achieved?

Each author’s use of the documentary style lets the reader into history without letting history fade into the background. Unlike a historical novel, where a character just happens to be at the right historical place in the right historical time, whether by working for a famous historical figure or being the right age/sex to get drafted into war, in these books the characters are there because they already had a part to play, and that is being documented.  The narrative is helped by the leeway that fictional interpretation can give.

it’s the watch that ended the night! get it?? photo by flickr user digiblue

This is most apparent in The Watch that Ends the Night and less so in No Crystal Stair. Any filigree of yearning, ambition, light romance, or life that Wolf gives to his characters serves to make them mourned should they not survive the night. The book would be propelled by a sense of doom whatever Wolf did, but he plays it up in his poems, too, doling out foreshadowing judiciously like a stoker would manage the coals in the furnaces of the ship.  Wolf’s not playing around with any of the facts of what happened,  he’s using his poetic license to play with our emotions.  And in doing so, he’s making the facts stick.

No Crystal Stair is similarly researched and it includes historical asides, photographs, and news clippings.  Better that it does, because it’s telling a story that should be more widely known, but isn’t.  Earlier this year, the New York Daily News published an article about East Harlem getting its first bookstore.  It failed to mention Harlem’s original bookstore (located in the Mount Morris Historical District, as far as I can tell from Wikipedia), which was built and run by Lewis Michaux, despite much struggle on his part.

This was the National Memorial African Bookstore on West 125th Street. It was an institution dedicated to informing black people about their history and the works of their forebears and peers.  Malcolm X frequented it and spoke in front of it.  And it was eventually forced out of its home by developers. The story follows Michaux from his childhood, where he was outshone by his famous brother, a preacher, through his first idea of having a bookstore, through the long years of getting the project off the ground, to its success (leading to a thick FBI file on his activities which was forced to conclude that he was no threat to national security).

photo by flickr user aoyenda

Although Michaux and his family are sometimes not easy to like, he didn’t let anyone give him any guff and it’s plain to see that the man did admirable work and was an admirable person.  And boy, did he know how to speak in a memorable soundbite: “Until the neglected and the rejected are accepted and respected, theres gonna be no damn peace… nowhere! Only a tree will stand still while it’s being chopped down.” (127).

Lewis Michaux was the great uncle of the author, Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, who says that she “visited the store only once, when I was fourteen and, regretfully, didn’t realize the store’s significance until years after it had closed and my uncle had passed away” (166).  While Wolf’s research on the Titanic proved challenging because there was too much written on it too soon, allowing for a wealth of rumor, research on No Crystal Stair had the opposite challenge for Nelson, with “nonexistent and conflicting information complicat[ing] the project” (166).  It’s easy to see why Nelson turned to the format that makes up No Crystal Stair, leaving room in the imagination for what could not be verified in research.

However, the research she did do became marred, in my reading, when I found that one of the most affecting personal stories of a bookstore customer was revealed in the endnotes to be a full fabrication.  There was so much to be impressed by with the story of the bookstore that I found myself wishing that it had been left to stand on its own.  The extra story ended up feeling like too much manipulation, a failsafe in case the story couldn’t speak for itself.

Despite that small letdown, No Crystal Stair is a work that should be read and enjoyed by people who have an interest in the history of New York, bookstores, black power, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps stories, or any student that wants to have an especially interesting Black History Month research project. And The Watch That Ends the Night is a great suggestion to fans of the film Titanic, fans of stories in poems, or morbid-minded people who want to get a little weepy.  After these two reading experiences, I hope more authors explore the documentary novel as a form.

Readalikes

 

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village

Laura Amy Schlitz, illus. Robert Byrd

A Newbery Medal winner from 2008, this book uses poems to illuminate the world of medieval England, using 22 distinct voices.

Crossing Stones

Helen Frost

Helen Frost is the MASTER of the novel in poetic voice. This particular book is set during World War I in the American heartland, and has four main characters who do the speaking. Its poems are deceptively straightforward, but trust me, don’t skip the explanation of their structure at the end.

World War Z: an Oral History of the Zombie War

Max Brooks

So, this is a history of things that have never happened.  But it sounds just like what oral histories sound like – a little dry, but exciting because it really happened (please read some Studs Terkel if you don’t know what I’m talking about)! Only this never happened. But there are zombies!

Disclosures & Digressions

I wish there were more R. Gregory Christie illustrations in No Crystal Stair, and more Jon Klassen in The Watch That Ends the Night.  Illustrations 4-evah!!!

First Position: A Delicious Dance Documentary

A Review of First Position, a documentary by Bess Kargman

By REBECCA, May 21, 2012

First Position: a dance documentary   First Position: a ballet documentary

The Red ShoesWe all love dance movies, right? Center Stage, Dirty Dancing, Step Up, The Red Shoes—the interpersonal competition, the amazing costumes, the tawdry dance-sex, and the use of dance to express the characters’ innermost dreams! Well, I just saw First Position, the ballet documentary that I’ve been looking forward to seeing, and it did not disappoint! But . . . not for any of the reasons that I love over-the-top dance movies.

First Position follows six ballet dancers between the ages of 10 and 17 as they compete in the Youth America Grand Prix, the biggest award- and scholarship-granting competition for young dancers. The documentary follows a dramatic form similar to elimination competitions and the delightful documentary Spellbound, which followed eight kids during the 1999 National Spelling Bee: we meet the dancers, learn their back stories, and follow them through the semi-finals around the world, and the finals in New York City.

First Position: a ballet documentary

Michaela!

The film was totally charming! There are the sweet 11 year-old Aran, the son of a naval officer living in Italy, who trains all day and feeds goats on a mountainside, Joan Sebastian, the 16 year-old Colombian dancer living in Queens who hasn’t seen his family in over a year, Miko and Jules, a brother and sister with a hilarious coach and a very involved mother, and the 14 year-old Michaela, adopted from Sierre Leone as a child, who dances through intense pain, and 17 year-old Rebecca, a blonde high schooler whose car and room are emblazoned with “princess” in glittery pink letters. Then there’s the amazing Gaya, Aran’s Israeli friend who drops in about halfway through the film and kind of steals the show.

Unlike most dance movies, which highlight the drama among dancers,First Position focuses entirely on the personal journeys of the dancers and their individual relationships with dance. I know that I, like many other YA enthusiasts, appreciate when young adult characters are portrayed as the inspiring, amazing, flawed people that they so often are. It was really inspiring, for that reason, to see these teens (and younger) showing such totally wicked commitment and dedication to their art! They were so poised and focused, so mature and just . . . joyous about dancing.

First Position: a ballet documentary

Miko!

The dancers come from all different backgrounds, so we get to experience many different approaches to ballet, from Miko, who is home-schooled to allow more time for dancing, to Rebecca, who was a high school cheerleader. (Also, some of the dancers’ back stories are amazingly poignant, but I won’t spoil them.) Along the way there are snippets of hilarious dance instructors, clueless/very invested parents, and, best of all, a bit of commentary about the roles of race and gender in the ballet world.

What sticks out the most, though, is the inspiring dedication that these young adults are putting into their dance! My sister and I basically stumbled into the movie stuffed full of an indulgent Amada tapas dinner and a few cocktails and we left weeping with admiration and dancing in the subway.

read/watchalikes

Bunheads Sophie Flack

Bunheads by Sophie Flack (2011). This dance novel by a former bunhead follows a year in the life of one dancer in a New York ballet company who has to choose between dancing and having a different kind of life.  You can read the full review here.

Say Goodnight Gracie Juie Reece Deaver

Say Goodnight, Gracie by Julie Reece Deaver (1988). Shy Morgan and outgoing Jimmy have been best friends since they were little kids. Now, in high school, they support each others’ dreams—Morgan’s of acting, and Jimmy’s of dancing. Say Goodnight, Gracie follows their friendship through auditions and skipping school—but can Morgan survive without Jimmy?

Every Little Step A Chorus Line

Every Little Step, a documentary by Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern (2008). This amazing documentary follows the casting of the Broadway revival of A Chorus Line. Again, I saw it with my sister and if I made an infographic representing the way we spent the movie it would look like this:

weeping: 50%
laughing: 20%
staring in slack-jawed awe: 25%
sobbing/clutching each other to stifle our sobs: 5%
 

So, have you seen First Position? What did you think? What’s your favorite dance movie/book?!

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