Research is Magic: An Interview with Ethnographers Jason Nguyen & Kurt Baer

Jason Nguyen and Kurt Baer, PhD students in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University, drawn in the style of My Little Pony Friendship is Magic

Jason Nguyen and Kurt Baer, PhD students in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University, drawn in the style of “My Little Pony Friendship is Magic”

The following is a guest post from Julia Fernandez, this year’s NDIIPP Junior Fellow. Julia has a background in American studies and working with folklife institutions and worked on a range of projects leading up to CurateCamp Digital Culture in July. This is part of a series of interviews Julia conducted to better understand the kinds of born-digital primary sources folklorists, and others interested in studying digital culture, are making use of for their scholarship.

When Hasbro decided to reboot their 1980s “My Little Pony” franchise, who would have guessed that they would give rise to one of the most surprising and interesting fan subcultures on the web? The 2010 animated television series “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” has garnered an extremely loyal–and as a 2012 documentary put it, “extremely unexpected”–viewership among adult fans. Known colloquially as “bronies” (a portmanteau of “bro” and “ponies”), these fans are largely treated with fascination and confusion by the mainstream media. All of this interest has resulted in a range of scholars in different fields working to understand this cultural phenomena.

In this installment of the NDSA Insights Interview series, I talk with Jason Nguyen and Kurt Baer. Both PhD students at Indiana University in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, Jason and Kurt decided to study this unique subculture. Their website is where they both conduct their field research, blog about their findings and invite feedback from the community.

Julia: Can you tell me a little bit more about bronies (and pegasisters)? How do they define themselves? How long have these movements been occurring and where are they communicating online? Do you have any sense of how large these communities are?

Jason: An important starting premise for us is that bronies attach a wide variety of different values and identity markers to the label of brony, imagining and experiencing their relationships to one another in multiple ways–sometimes even conflicting ones. Nonetheless, there are some shared histories that nearly all bronies will describe as specific to this community. Specifically, bronies as a concept unique from My Little Pony fandom arose out of the relaunch/reboot of the Hasbro franchise as My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic in fall 2010. Lauren Faust, particularly known to this group for her work with her husband Craig McCracken on Powerpuff Girls and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, developed the idea and wrote for the show through its first two seasons, and her gender politics has a lot to do with the complex and often non-normative characterization of the ponies. Because of that, bronies will generally start with the content of the show as reason enough for being a fandom: it is smartly written and portrays a positive, socially-oriented world view. Some bronies will portray this oppositionally to other, more negative media, but at the same time, many are involved in multiple fandoms and are often fans of “darker” work as well.

In any case, the label of “brony” has a pretty specific starting point, arising out of the show’s popularity in 2010 on 4chan, which was to some extent ironic, i.e. “Haha, we’re grown men watching a little girls’ show,” though I think the irony of that moment is always overstated (since irony is a useful footing to allow a grown man to watch a little girls’ show if he so desires). Over the following year, the bronies started to overtake 4chan and were kicked out; 4chan eventually opened /mlp/ for them, but the conflict lasted for a few months and was an impetus to organize elsewhere on the web.

At this point, things get more complicated, because people who like FiM search for other fans online, but the cross-demographic appeal means that reasons for being a fan and even ways of being a fan are not necessarily shared in the way you might expect of a more homogenous group. For example, fans coming from other “geek” fandoms are used to the convention scene and fandom as a sort of genre (keeping in touch with friends online, then getting together a few times a year at a convention), but for many bronies, this is the first time they have participated in this kind of mass-mediated imagined community.

Kurt: As far as numbers go, it is really hard to tell how large the brony community is. This is partly due to the varying definitions of what makes a “brony.” However, the brony community (or communities) is quite large and very active both online and off. For instance, Bronycon, the largest brony convention, brought in over 8,000 people last year, Coder Brony’s 2014 herd census received over 18,000 responses from all around the world, and Equestria Daily is, as of now, rapidly approaching 500 million hits on their website. There are brony communities all over Facebook and Reddit (which even has multiple subreddits devoted to sorting out all of the MLP subreddits). There are very active 4chan, Twitter, SoundCloud and DeviantArt communities; brony groups on other online games ranging from Team Fortress to Minecraft to Clash of Clans; over a dozen 24-hour streaming radio stations for Brony music; and major news sites such as Equestria Daily and Everfree that link bronies to relevant information from all over the web. What’s more is that these “communities” are not discrete from one another. People bounce between platforms all of the time, sometimes between different online personas, making coming up with specific numbers very difficult.

Julia: How is your approach to studying bronies similar or different from approaches to studying other fan cultures, and for that matter, any number of other modes of participatory culture?

Jason: In a lot of ways, I don’t think the work we are doing is all that different than many ethnographic studies insofar as the basic process of participant observation is concerned. As for the field of fan/fandom studies, we have thus far not cast our work in that light, though not because of any strong feelings either way. Fandom studies has a strong thread of reception and media studies coming from a more literary and cultural studies perspective that we enjoy but it’s not our theoretical foundation (I’m thinking of Henry Jenkins’ early work, for example).

That emphasis on broad cultural production that I think is heavily influenced by the legacy of the Frankfurt School is perhaps one difference, since we are strongly ethnographic and thus more granular in our approach. That said, many scholars we might read in a fandom studies class have used ethnographic and anthropological methods as well, such as Bonnie Nardi in her great “My Life as a Night Elf Priest” about the “World of Warcraft” fandom.

Kurt: Ultimately, while we might be one of a few people researching about people and brightly colored ponies on the internet at the moment (that number is always growing), the questions that we are looking to understand and the ways that we are trying to understand them are quite similar to research coming from a long line of ethnographers dating (in the anthropological imagination, at least) all the way back to Bronislaw Malinowski. Perhaps one relatively substantial difference that we have at least been trying for, however, lies in the fact that we are trying to use the blog format to allow for more back-and-forth interaction between us and the people who we are studying/studying with than the traditional ethnographic monograph allows. While many ethnographers (such as Steven Feld in his ethnography “Sound and Sentiment”) are able to get feedback from the people they study with and incorporate that into the writing process (or at least their second editions), we have been trying to find ways to speed up that process of garnering feedback, learning from it, and using that knowledge as a means for further theorization.

Screenshot of the Research is Magic blog, which serves as a space for dialog with research participants.

Screenshot of the Research is Magic blog, which serves as a space for dialog with research participants.

Julia: You’ve stated that your blog “represents an attempt at participant-observation that collapses the boundaries between academic and interlocutor.” Can you expand on this? What are some of your goals with this blog? Why start your own blog as opposed to gathering data and engaging with bronies on their own virtual “turf,” like websites like Equestria Daily?

Kurt: One important bit of background information that I feel is important to bring up here is that Jason and I both come from fields that focus primarily upon ethnographic research, and in fact, the blog itself was started as part of a course in creative ethnography taught by Dr. Susan Lepselter that Jason and I took at Indiana University. In approaching this research ethnographically, we wanted to be able to ask questions and elicit observations from bronies themselves in addition to analyzing the various other types of “texts” such as the show itself, other websites, and pre-existing conversations. We also wanted to be clear and open about the fact that we are researchers conducting research. We figured that starting our own blog would give us the space that we needed to be able to ask questions and make observations while still being clear about our research and research objectives. Through our interactions with people on social media sites and on places such as Equestria Daily, it has been our hope that the blog becomes a space that is part of different bronies’ “turfs,” where they can go to interact with us and each other and discuss different aspects of being a brony.

As far as our attempts to collapse the boundaries between academic and interlocutor goes, one of the things that drew us to the brony community in the first place is that they are already very involved in theorization about themselves and about the show. They talk about what it means to be a brony, provide deep textual analyses of the show and its themes, and grapple with the social implications of liking a show that some people think that they shouldn’t. Rather than us going into the “field,” collecting data about bronies, and then returning to write that information up in an article to be published in an academic journal, we hoped to create a space where we can theorize together and and where all of the observations and ideas would be available in the same space to serve as material for more conversation and theorization.

Jason: Another way to think about this is that there is nothing more brony-like than to start a space of your own online. As Kurt has recounted above, bronies have been quite prolific in their production of cyberspaces for communal interaction, and not all of them are big like Equestria Daily. Of course there are always the YouTube stars and Twitter celebrities of any mass-media fandom, but the more mundane spaces are equally important, and the process of making a website, maintaining a Twitter profile, etc.–in short, creating a presentation of self as brony researchers amongst other people similarly engaged in a presentation of self as bronies–has been invaluable in our experience of the “participant” part of participant-observation. We both have web presences, as most bronies do before they join the fandom, but many choose to create fandom-specific identities, and that means anchoring those identities somewhere; we’ve in part chosen to anchor our brony-related identities on the website.

Photoshop of the MLP:FiM villain Discord with the intellectual hero Michel Foucault by Jason

Photoshop of the MLP:FiM villain Discord with the intellectual hero Michel Foucault by Jason

With all that said, we do spend a lot of time investigating bronies in other spaces and in less explicitly theoretical ways. We live-tweet (tweeting comments about something as it occurs) new episodes from time to time, which is a really fun experience that lets us interact with both fans and show staff alike. I have drawn fan art and Kurt has made fan music that we have shared via Twitter, Reddit and our site.

So we like to think that we are doing both things at the same time. Of course it is important for anyone doing anthropologically informed ethnography to meet people where they are and explore their lives as they lead them, but at the same time, many fans have shown an interest in a space where they can read about and join in conversations that marry explicit theorization with personal observations of their fandom, and the “Research Is Magic” blog produces a hybrid narrative framing that we found was not previously existing in either academic or brony fandom spaces.

Julia: One of the reasons bronies as a group are so interesting is because they appear to subvert both gender and age norms. But you argue that “an analytical orientation that positions bronies as resisters trivializes their rich social interactions and effaces complicated power dynamics within and peripheral to the fandom.” That’s some dense language! Can you unpack this a bit for us?

Kurt: Essentially, our argument here is one against the tendency to find resistance and subversion and then get carried away insisting on interpreting everything about the group in that light. There is certainly some very interesting subversion of age and gender norms going on in the fandom, but bronies are not only, or even (I would argue) primarily, resisting. Most bronies that we have talked to don’t think of themselves as being oppositional, but instead as simply liking a show that they like. While it is both productive and interesting to look at the ways that bronies are resisting gender norms, it is also very easy for academics to fall into the trap of casting everything in that light, limiting the rich and complex social interactions of bronies to a romanticized narrative about bronies rising up together and resisting the gender stereotypes of larger society.

Jason: Resistance as a concept works because of a binary opposition: X resists Y. However, multiple competing discourses may be at work and are probably not all aligned to one another. For example, earlier this year, a North Carolina school kept a nine year old boy from bringing his Rainbow Dash backpack to school because it was getting him bullied by other students. On one level, the reasoning on all sides is obvious. To the other boys, a boy wearing “girly” paraphernalia is ripe to be bullied. The school counselor wanted to ensure the boy’s safety, so removed what was believed to be the problem. Some parents were concerned that the boy was being punished for simply expressing himself, and that the bullies should have been punished instead. …

So, while each person appears to act in resistance according to a particular discourse of meaning, and each person may have a particular narrative, the entire scenario is complicated by these competing ideas of masculinity that intersect with ideologies of personal freedom and liberty. Rainbow Dash (the character on the backpack), for example, is clearly written as a “tomboy” character–good at sports, adventurous, daring and 20 percent cooler than you. If a boy was going to pick a character to identify with that does not break existing standards of masculinity, she would be the one; thus, insofar as male fans identify with her, they’re also identifying with characteristics that don’t challenge their heteronormativity. But she is also the one covered in rainbows, and that has a particular valence as a form of non-heteronormative imagery (e.g. LGBT rights symbolism). In short, there is a density of meaning attached to Rainbow Dash that complicates people’s responses, though I would argue that it’s that complexity and density of meaning that allows different groups to be drawn to MLP in the first place.

Kurt: The ways in which people are using the show in relation to gender norms further complicate things. While in many ways bronies are challenging gender norms through their liking the show and re-defining ideas about masculinity, in other ways many bronies are super heteronormative. While they like a show that some people think is for girls, their argument is less about the fact that gender norms need dismantling than it is about the fact that the show is written in a way that is appealing to heteronormative men and that men can still be manly while liking MLP. The World’s Manliest Brony, for instance, while going against gender norms in some ways by embracing MLP and re-enforcing the manliness of giving charitably, also reinforces them in others–leaving many ideas of masculinity intact but drawing MLP into the list of things that can be manly.

Julia: Psychologist Marsha Redden, one of the conductors of The Brony Study, stated in an interview that the fandom is a normal response to the anxiety of life in a conflict-driven time, saying “they’re tired of being afraid, tired of angst and animosity. They want to go somewhere a lot more pleasant.” Likewise, a lot of what you talk about on your blog has to do with the positivity of the actual show, how each episode has a positive message and emphasizes the importance of friendship and other values.  It feels very rare that we hear something positive about bronies from the mainstream media. Can you talk a bit about this? What draws adults to the show, and to the community? What do you make of the moral panic surrounding Bronies in the mainstream media?

Jason: At the risk of sounding a little persnickety, I’d like to suggest that we invert the way we think about such causal explanations. Explanations similar to Dr. Redden’s–basically, some version of the idea that the world is a rough and cynical place and that MLP presents an alternative space, no matter how delimited or constrained, that is more trusting and open–are pretty common within the fandom as part of people’s personal narratives for why and how they became bronies (obviously, this is not true for everyone, but it’s clearly a fandom trope). In anthropology itself, scholars like Victor Turner and Max Gluckman have suggested that certain carnivalesque (to borrow Bakhtin’s term) rituals act as a kind of “safety valve” for a society to release its pent up frustrations and conflicts without destroying the order of things, and some version of that idea is laden in Redden’s theory and that of many bronies. There are many bronies who see involvement in fandom and watching the show as that safety valve.

But there are many others who narrate their experience as simply watching a show that they like–just like any other show–and, to their surprise finding outside resistance. Indeed, we don’t expect people to explain their affinity for most elements of popular culture. You need not justify why you watch “Breaking Bad” or “Game of Thrones.”

The fact that causal explanations that answer why you are a brony are central to the narratives of many bronies does not really indicate too much about their truth value, but they are a useful indicator of where society draws its lines and how people who find themselves on the wrong sides of social lines create meaning based on their situations. Here, I’m drawing heavily on Lila Abu-Lughod‘s ideas about resistance as a “diagnostic of power” that points us to the methods and configurations of power (“The Romance of Resistance: Tracing Transformations of Power Through Bedouin Women,” 1990). In this case, bronies (and researchers) find themselves having to produce narratives that can explain why they have crossed norms of gender and age appropriateness, even if they don’t live by those norms themselves. Jacob Clifton in “Geek Love: On the Matter of Bronies” does a great job arguing that, being the first generation raised by feminists, of course these young men don’t see any difference between Twilight Sparkle or Han Solo being their idols.

Kurt: Ultimately the fact that bronies have to justify why they like the show is in many ways coming from the fact that they get such negative press and draw such negative stereotypes. We haven’t done too much to tease out what actually draws people to the show, although we’ve seen many people give many different reasons as we’ve gone about our research–the good writing and production, the positive themes, the large and thriving fan community, having friends and relatives that like the show, that they just somehow liked it, etc. I’m not sure that there is necessarily one, or even a few, things inherent in the show or the fandom that draw people to it any more than there being something inherent in basketball that makes people want to watch it. There are a lot of really complex personal, psychological and socio-cultural things at work in personal preference and the reasons people give usually seem to explain less about why they like something (I couldn’t tell you why I like Carly Rae Jepson or George Clinton) than they give culturally-determined reasons why it might be okay for them to like it.

Julia: Right now you have the benefit of both directly looking for source material on the open web, and having it come to you (through participation on your blog). Given your perspective, what kinds of online content do you think are the most critical for cultural heritage organizations to preserve for anthropologists of the future to study this moment in history?

Kurt: That’s a tough one, as even with our research on bronies I feel like everywhere I look, I see someone joining the Brony research herd with a new and different focus. Although we try to do a lot of our work by talking and collaborating directly with bronies, we’ve dealt with Twitter exchanges, media reports about MLP, message board archives, brony music collections, the show itself and just about anything that we can find where people are exchanging their ideas about the fandom. Others have dealt with collection of fanfics, sites dedicated to discussing MLP and religion, fan art, material culture and cosplay, and just about anything else you can think of. I’m always finding people who focus upon and draw insight from archives (both in the sense of actual archives and in the super-general sense of “stuff people use as the basis of their research”) that I would never have thought to use.

This being said, as someone that primarily studies expressive culture (my degree is from the department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology), I tend to place a lot of importance on it. The amount and quality of the music, art, videos, memes, stories, etc. floating around within the fandom has never ceased to astound me and was one of the primary reasons that I became attracted to the fandom in the first place. I feel like these bodies of creative works–from “My Little Dashie,” “Ponies: The Anthology,” and “Love me Cheerilee” to the Twilicane memes and crude saxophone covers of show tunes –are very important to the fandom and to those that want to understand it as scholars.

Jason: Broadly speaking, anthropologists have taken two approaches to describing the lives of others to their audience. The first is like a wide-angle lens, allowing someone to get a sense of the full scope of a social phenomenon, but it has trouble with the details and the charming little moments of creativity and agency–like fan-created fluffy ponies dancing on rainbows or background ponies portrayed as anthropologists studying humankind. Archival work needs that little-bit-of-everything for context, but it also needs a macro lens that can capture more of those particular and special moments. In anthropology, it might be akin to the difference between Malinowski’s epic “Argonauts of the Western Pacific”–a sprawling work that tried to introduce the entirety of a culture to us–and something like Anthony Seeger’s “Why Suyá Sing,” which performed the humbler, but no less impressive, task of letting us experience the nuances of a single ritual.

Since we can’t archive every little thing to that level of detail … we have to make choices, and that’s where bronies themselves are the best guides. What moments mattered to them, and “where” in cyberspace did they experience those moments? For a concrete example, the moment Twilight Sparkle gained her wings and became an alicorn princess (she was previously just a unicorn…thanks M.A. Larson) was particularly salient in the community, suggesting for some fans Hasbro’s stern hand manipulating the franchise. While there are some other similar instances, the unique expressions through Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, Tumblr, etc. during and immediately following the Season 3 episode “Magical Mystery Cure” (when that transformation occurs) provide a really important look into what holds meaning for this fandom.

On a technical level, I think that means being able to follow links surrounding particular events to multiple levels of depth across multiple media modalities.

Julia: If librarians, archivists and curators wanted to learn more about approaches like yours what examples of other scholars’ work would you suggest? It would be great if you could mention a few other scholars’ work and explain what you think is particularly interesting about their approaches.

Jason: One place to start is to consider what the cultural artifact is and what it is we are analyzing, interpreting, preserving, archiving, etc., because it is not, ethnographically speaking, simply media that we are studying. As Mary Gray has insisted, we should “de-center media as the object of analysis,” instead looking at what that media means and how it is contextualized. For the archivist or curator, I think that means figuring out how people come to understand media and how they attach particular ideologies to it. Ilana Gershon’s “The Breakup 2.0″ and her work on “media ideology” broadly are great examples of shifting our attention so that we can hold both the “text” and “context” in view simultaneously.

Another example is danah boyd’s recent study of young people and their social media use, “It’s Complicated,” in which she inverts older people’s assumptions that teenagers’ social media use is crippling their ability to socialize, instead arguing that the constant texting and messaging indicates a desire to connect with one another that is born out of frustration with the previous generation’s (over-)protectiveness: truancy and loitering law, curfews, school busing, constant organized activity, etc. She arrives at that conclusion not only by studying teens’ messages, but by analyzing the historical conditions that produce the very different concerns of teens and their parents.

Kurt: As far as our approach goes, we’ve also been influenced by scholars working creatively with ethnography as a form or working just outside of its purview. We’ve brought up Kathleen Stewart’s “Ordinary Affects” in our blog and academic papers several times because it has been extremely influential upon both of us through its attempt to understand and express the ordinary moments in people’s lives that, while not unusual, per se, seem to have a weight to them that moves them somewhere in some direction–the little moments that are both ordinary and extraordinary, nondescript and meaningful. Susan M. Schultz’ “Dementia Blog” also comes to mind. While it isn’t necessarily an ethnography, per se, Schultz utilized blogging and its unique structural features (namely, that newer posts come first so that reading the blog in order is actually going backwards in time) as a means of looking into the poetics and tragic beauty of dementia while also expressing and understanding her own feelings as her mother’s mental illness progressed.

Jason: We are not too familiar with scholars who are interacting with fans in precisely the way that we are (or whether there are any), though it is important to be aware of the term “aca-fan” (academic fan) in fandom studies and some of the works being produced under that rubric. Henry Jenkins titles his website “Confessions of an Aca-Fan,” for example, and writes for an audience that includes both scholars and people interested in fandoms in general. The online journal Flow is another example that is somewhat more closely related to our blog, expressly attempting to link scholars with members of the public interested in talking about television. I’m also personally influenced by the work of Michael Wesch and Kembrew McLeod, both scholars who attempt to engage their students and the public in novel ways using media and technology.