Cupcakes – so sweet and tasty/Cupcakes – don’t be too hasty (Guest post by Charles Dunbar)

If you have any involvement whatsoever in the East Coast anime convention circuit, even as an attendee, then you know Charles Dunbar a.k.a Study of Anime. A cultural anthropologist who studies both Japanese culture and American fandoms, he attends on the order of 20 conventions a year and typically presents five to ten hours of programming at each, ranging from the history of Doctor Who to an overview of the academic study of fandom to ninjas historical and legendary. He’s been a friend for a number of years now, and edited the book version of My Little Po-Mo.

A couple of months ago, he admitted to me that he had finally become a brony. This is his story of how. 

Hello all, my name is Charles, and I like My Little Pony.

I can’t tell you how long I’ve been waiting for those words to escape my mouth. I’m pretty sure a lot of folks have been also (including the writer of this blog). Since what seems like forever, friends, loved ones and fellows met at cons have all tried–unsuccessfully, I might add–to get me to join the “herd.” Or, at the very least, get me to watch Friendship is Magic.

But I resisted. Oh, how I resisted. It wasn’t because of the maligned reputation of the brony community at large–I’ve appreciated “marginalized” fandoms my entire life, from Star Trek in the 90s (when it was still seen as “nerd stuff”) to gaming (I’ve been called a satanist before for liking D&D and Magic) to even anime back before Pokemon gave it mainstream attention. Honestly, all my impressions of the FiM community have been positive: the welcoming atmosphere that reminded me of the otaku crowd I first wandered into in the late 90s/early 00s, the vibrant creativity, the quirky “in-jokes”–all of it was firmly rooted on the positive side of a fandom that had appeared and grown right under my nose, while my attentions had been diverted to looking at con culture and fandom dynamics. The fact that the same community managed to cultivate and externalize itself was worthy of even more respect, given the cosmopolitan nature of modern fandom, and how so many prospective groups never evolve beyond their nascent stages. I’ve watched as so many anime rise and fell, as webcomic fandoms began to pop up during those long weekends, and watched as group memberships fluctuated rapidly based on whatever was popular–but at each junction, the brony community expanded and steadily consolidated its fan base, with some notice from the attendees at large, but still generally “under the radar” when compared to the highly visible Hetalia and Homestuck fans.

It also wasn’t the idea that MLP:FiM is a show for children, either. I had actually watched most of G1, and enjoyed it, back when I was but a wee one, sitting in front of the TV on Saturday mornings and weekday afternoons. I never subscribed to “gender stereotypes” growing up (didn’t even know what they were, to be honest) I just watched what I liked, and I knew She-Ra was cooler than He-Man, and that the Ponies were on right after something else I enjoyed, so I stayed put. I still remember some random scenes, and I can say with some definitive authority that I scribbled down the bare bones of what would become mental “fanfics” featuring the characters. That alone would negate the “stigma” of watching the series now, because for me it would be first and foremost a nostalgia act.

(Plus, most arguments about age-appropriate entertainment fly past me because I’m also a massive Poke-holic, even as I live through my third decade of life. I’m one of a few Westerners who can seriously say I’ve made actual money talking about Pokemon.)

I knew I would enjoy the show, I knew I would appreciate the fandom, I even knew I would have friends there to help me navigate the complexities of it once I took that first step down the road to Equestria (I can’t believe I just wrote that, btw. Equestria.) No, there was another reason I was holding out, resisting the pull with every fiber of my being. It was rooted in personal experience, reflected by my introductions to every fandom I’ve ever been a part of since I came to understand what being a fan really was. I was aware of myself and my actions, moreso than ever before in my life. I KNEW what would happen.

Once I started down that path, it would be full speed ahead.

People who know me know I disdain doing things half-assed, especially when it comes to my fandoms. And when I discover something new, I make sure I’m versed in as much of it as possible. I acquire the fan art, I read the fictions and the blogs. I discuss it with my friends. Sometimes, I even write about it. I take being a fan very seriously, and while I might never throw myself into a fandom to the same degree as the truly devoted, I still manage to devote enough of my time to not be superficial in my practices.

When I first saw friends becoming interested in FiM, I knew immediately that, should I get involved, I would spend at least the next month or two becoming thoroughly familiar with the material, spending more than a few hours browsing YouTube and Google, and generally obsessing over the show with anyone who will listen. That happened when I got into Doctor Who in 2008, happened again when I rekindled my love of Star Trek and Star Wars, and had a lesser manifestation this past year as Psycho Pass and Attack on Titan restored my faith in anime. It’s how I function in most aspects of my daily life, in fact–the enthusiasm with which I approach fandom isn’t itself unique to fandom, and when I get excited about something, I get EXCITED about it. And it’s not all that much of a challenge to become excited about something, so long as it tickles my mental fancy, makes me laugh, or indulges my creativity.

(FiM stoked a few of those fires earlier this year, as I was becoming acquainted with some of the fanfiction (namely Fallout Equestria) during another one of my periodic binges on, but it shared the stage with a brilliantly written Harry Potter AU fic series, and was summarily forgotten a few months later.)

And so I resisted. I was doing a pretty bang-up job of it, too. I knew enough of the fandom to insert some random practices into my “daily speech:” I would say “brohoof” from time to time, and remark how certain things could be “20% cooler.” I even threw some fan-made pony videos into my Anime Openings panels, much to the chagrin (and horror) of friends sitting in the audience. I was fully aware of the fandom and the show, and while I made no attempts to ignore/deny it, I also made sure not to indulge (beyond when I was sitting in a room with people watching it, as happened during Halloween 2011, when “Luna Eclipsed” was being screened while I was sitting in a basement, waiting to leave for Nekocon). I held out during Dr Bill Ellis’ wonderful exploration of how bronies and otaku can learn from each other at AnimeNEXT 2012. I held out after watching some truly horrid “documentaries” about brony fandom that even I knew were fatally flawed in their thesis and execution. I even held out while editing Mr. Blue’s manuscript for My Little Po-Mo, constantly repeating my need for objectivity as I read through draft after draft, and became familiar with the same characters I now know quite well.

And then I discovered Cupcakes, and it was all downhill from there.

For those unaware (and from what I gather, that means nobody really. If you’ve avoided Cupcakes, you must be living under a rock, or have completely ignored the MLP fan-content community for the past two years), Cupcakes is what happens when you mix FiM with Silence of the Lambs and an Eli Roth movie. I won’t try to explain the plot here, that’s what Wikipedia is for, but needless to say, it’s a (literally) bloody mess of a story centered on Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, sharp implements, and the aforementioned cupcakes. It’s a bit crude, a bit base, and completely over the top in terms of gore and stretching the limits of one’s disbelief.

I loved every minute of it.

I enjoy horror. A lot. It doesn’t need to be cerebral (one of my favorite “gore” films is Hostel pt. II), it just needs to be entertaining, bloody without being excessive, and if it makes my skin crawl, it’s done its job well. Cupcakes succeeded on that front–not only is the fic (and associated comic, videos, and sequels) generally “in-character,” but it’s such a departure from the tone of the show, that I could not look away. (Though admittedly, upon watching Feeling Pinkie Keen, I can completely see Ms. Pie acting out that way.) And I didn’t–I spent the subsequent week absorbing everything I could about it, all while starting my much-delayed foray into the series proper. Along the way, I also found “Rainbow Factory,” “Forensics in Magic,” “Sweet Apple Massacre” (which I will go on record as saying NOBODY SHOULD EVER READ. Seriously, it’s the “A Serbian Film” of MLP darkfic, sans “political commentary.”), and even began sharing notes with a friend for one of my own, which as of now will get written up “eventually.”

Not exactly the typical “how I became a fan” story, is it? Or maybe it is?

That’s something to be said about meta-fandom, isn’t it? How something completely outside the scope of the show and its content could be so appealing to some folks, that they are drawn in because of it. I’ve met other fans who found FiM through Cupcakes (including one on the streets of Chinatown, who was wearing a Derpy shirt, which was how we got to talking), and people who appreciate the impact the fic had on the community at large. It’s not all that well-written, nor all that revolutionary when you think about it (it seriously is Silence of the Lambs), but it touched off a huge wave of sequels and copycat fics, which in turn inspired other writers, artists and designers to “take a stab” (pun intended) at contributing to the fandom. How many of these folks would have done it otherwise?

As much as I enjoy the show (and enjoy it I do, as I knew I would), it’s the meta-fandom that keeps me there. Fan songs, fan mixes, some truly lovely fan art, and welcoming fans in general, enhance the appeal of FiM more than the show itself manages. Let’s be honest with ourselves, the show isn’t THAT great, groundbreaking, or revolutionary. It’s a quirky, self-referential program meant to impart positive messages to a young generation, rarely allowing itself to indulge more serious moments, and erring on the side of humor when the going gets tough. Essentially, a kid’s show, with easter eggs thrown in for any adults roped into watching it with their children. But the fandom has managed to co-opt the show in ways that allow them to satisfy their own wants, and exercise their own creative impulses within the framework of a world that they know, understand, and love. They add to the prevailing “mythology” of Equestria in fully unorthodox ways that are themselves more satisfying. Any depth they find/add to the show, they do fully on their own, for their own gain, and under their own terms. They are aware that their contributions are not “canon,” but also receive little-to-no pushback denouncing their efforts from the controllers of the canon. They appreciate both the show and expanded content as interlocking entities that revolve around, influence, and enhance the other, not unlike Celestia and Luna in that iconic image from the pilot. And they fully embrace the fact that some of the fans might skew meta, while others prefer canonical, and do their best to not judge the other “side.”

I can appreciate that, as I’ve appreciated otakudom, Trekkies and wannabe Jedi (three things I already am). It might be a bit presumptuous of me to say at this point (I’m only a month in), but seeing as how aware I’ve been of the community these past few years, I can see this becoming yet another solid interest of mine. Like I said before, I saw this one coming a mile away.

Oh, and before anyone asks me: Rarity. (You were all right.)

0 thoughts on “Cupcakes – so sweet and tasty/Cupcakes – don’t be too hasty (Guest post by Charles Dunbar)

  1. I also got brought into the show by a fanwork–specifically Friendship is Witchcraft. I had already glanced at a few minutes of the first episode of the show and concluded that it was well-done and worthy of respect relative to other children's programming, but just because I acknowledge that Call of Duty is well done doesn't mean I'd ever enjoy it as much as any number of alternatives and I assumed the same about MLP. Ok, and maybe a little bit of stigma aversion.

    But a dark satire with a budding time travel plot arc? I could totally get behind that. So I watched several episodes, and then during Sentient Social enough of the original show bled through that I could plainly see I would have enjoyed watching directly it without tiptoeing around it. So watch it I did, and then read some of the fanworks, and then the rabbit hole just keeps getting deeper forever.

  2. I like some grimdark fics… just the ones that have some other purpose besides eliciting a gut response from the reader. This is why I liked the Ask Pinkamina tumblr, but didn't like Cupcakes. I like Fallout: Equestria, but the three most well-known shockfics just bore me.

    (actually this is sort of how I feel about clop, as well)

    That's my taste, anyway. Moving on.

    As for the second-to-last (long) paragraph in this post, that's an interesting angle. It's true that the show isn't really as amazing as its reputation warrants… when gauged in terms of raw quality, outside of context. However, I maintain that it is revolutionary in terms of what it represents in the cultural context, in that it proved that girls' cartoons don't have to be godawful, AND it also presented us with a diverse cast of well-rounded female characters who aren't defined solely by their relationships with men and/or children… and doesn't pass judgment on the character types and personalities.

    Really, it just depends on what you evaluate as making a work of art “good.”

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