Guest Post: On Clop, Bronies, and Furries

In my ongoing quest to avoid watching/talking about “One Bad Apple” adjust the timing of posts so that I start writing about Season 4 after it finishes airing, Charles Dunbar of Study of Anime–and recently minted brony–was kind enough to provide a guest post about his encounters with Derpibooru and clop.

Clop: noun- 1: the sound a hoof makes hitting the floor. 2: a specific style of Rule 34 focusing on My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. 3: (c/o Urban Dictionary) to masturbate, as used by bronies.

There is an old internet adage known simply as “cannot unsee.” This term, often used in conjunction with horrific or graphic images, refers to the impossibility of the subject to forget what they saw, often by clicking on an unnamed, or unlabeled image. Some browsers often link it to wishes that they had never found the aformentioned image, or regrets that they will be thinking of it for the forseeable future.

Sure Charles. “Classiness.” That’s
why you included this picture.

I bring up these two “internetisms” because recently I became very, VERY well acquainted with the former, while developing a strange view of the latter. Suddenly possessed as I was with some free time to kill, decided to indulge one of those little voices in the back of my head. This is hardly rare for me- my brain spends most of its time thinking of this or that, and sometimes goes off on its own, much to my chagrin, or dismay. But for this outing, I had something very specific on my mind: Rarity, or more specifically, human Rarity, preferably in a swimsuit. Given how appealing some of the images I found on general Google and Deviantart sweeps were, this search held a lot of promise, notably when I began stumbling upon the pinup galleries and watercolor art buried deep within those engines. Humanized Rarity tends to be one of the more sensualized of the Mane 6, with even her most understated images possessing a certain classiness that does her character justice.

(Mind you, this is also how I justified seeking out these images in the first place, which should key the reader in to how I both had an interest in finding them, and also a certain concern that my interest might not be entirely acceptable in my own eyes. Despite being a strong advocate for embracing one’s fandom unapologetically, even I find myself occasionally torn between social mores and personal fulfillment. I blame the lack of hon-ne in America, despite that being a copout on my part. But I digress…)

At roughly 11:45, I discovered Derpibooru, and that changed everything. For those unfamiliar, the Booru engines are among the largest, and best structured, of the various image hosting sites online: meticulously organized, with enough tags to make Macklemore and Wanz happy beyond their wildest dreams. They have become a sort of wikipedia for image hosting, with well over 4000 sites- both active AND inactive- associated with the suffix. Navigating them, while fundamentally simple, is also something of an undertaking, as many posters to those sites begin hyper-tagging everything, in hopes of getting the art seen by as many people as possible. It’s a wonderful way to promote one’s own art to a giant audience, but at the same time, it can make browsing something of a challenge- occasionally tags are posted that have nothing to do with the image, or the image itself has only a superficial relationship to the search, but it pops up anyway. This is a real challenge when trying to select out NSFW images many times, and also makes browsing the random R34 hentai boards even worse, as some images are simply listed as “tagme,” which appears to be shorthand for “I didn’t bother tagging these, I just uploaded them for lulz.”

A quick browse of these Booru engines also reveals a healthy amount of them being labeled as specifically “NSFW,” devoted to various pornographic, fetish, and Rule 34 based endeavors. The largest booru deposits contain a host of images, both clean and explicit, and often catalogued side by side, with little in the way of filters for content. My Little Pony is itself well represented- a quick search turns up about a half dozen sites, most of them labeled as NSFW and disclaimed as being pornographically-based. I’m sure many more exist outside the “official channels” as well, as yet another casual search on Yahoo revealed shortly afterward. Derpibooru, the site I spent my time on, was the first that popped up, and was the one I spent the entire night browsing through, as I altered tags and filters, in search of some elusive image I never quite came across.

The sort of image you might get with the NSFW filters on.

Over the course of the following three hours, I found myself engrossed by the site, mostly because it opened my eyes with regards to a lot of the clop, anthro, and humanized Rule 34 that’s floating around out there. The larger booru engines usually have enough of it buried within page after page of questionable content (and yes, I’m aware of the irony in using those words when describing clop), but what struck me about Derpibooru was the general “feel” of the site as I was browsing it. It was almost downright classy…or at least the tags I was using were downright classy, which is more than I can say for the other booru sites I have been known to browse. The filters have default settings, which initially kept the NSFW off my screen- a rarity (ba-da-bump) in the usual R34 searches, which I used for the first hour or so, until my curiosity finally got the better of me.

There’s a general opinion out there when it comes to things like clop. Fans who know of it are polarized about the experience- some are fine with it, some hate it, some don’t care, usually structured around the nature of the image or its place within the fan database. Fans who do not know, usually do not want to know, owing to the bizarre nature of feeling sexual attraction to a non-human character. Despite the longstanding tradition of creating sensually explicit or gratifying scenes and stories from popular texts (which is itself subject to its own questions–see Jenkins’ Textual Poachers for more), when it comes down to crossing the line between human and non-human, there is a great deal of controversy associated with the practice- from moral objections to social protests, and a general typecasting of practitioners as suffering from a perversion or delusion. A quick search at some of the press and popular coverage and treatment of Furry fandom in particular yields a great amount of exaggerated practices and a general distaste towards the community as a whole, despite the active practitioners of yiff (the Furry associated term for what would eventually be labeled as clop) being identified as community outliers, or more commonly a small fraction of the Furry fandom as a whole. Much like bronies, furries also have to spend time defending themselves against stereotypes when it comes to these aspects of a the fandom, usually disproportionately to other communities that practice similar concepts like slash and shipping.

Now, nonhuman/anthro and ‘transformation’ kinks are ostensibly more common than one might think (or less common, based on the specific fan’s views). As with commentary based around hentai and doujinshi culture in both Japan and the US, the idea of creating erotica works has often been embraced as a means to creative endeavors, exposure for the artist and fandom, and as a means to more financial success in the beginning of a career. Comics festivals often contain a healthy amount of erotic imagery (and pornography, let’s not be high-minded here), which sits alongside the “clean” works, as a means of growth and creative expression. Finding anthro-focused works along these lines isn’t hard either–much of it is mixed in with human works, and often is viewed as something extremely fetish, much like bondage or more limited expressions of erotic subjects. And for the most part, these images are viewed as acceptable- a legitimate part of the fandom with its own appeal and consumer base, which often crosses boundaries with regards to genre or world of origin.

“Primarily, anthropomorphism does not belong to any subculture, fandom, or independant group of people. it is simply a base form in itself that we stem different (more or less) cultural foundations from. Perhaps I’ve used cultural as too big of a sense. The obvious example of this is the furry fandom. Anthropomorphism and the fandom are in fact not one and the same. Anthro is like the base, the crust of a planet in which life sprouts from. Now furry would be like a tree. It needs the crust to survive as an anchor point and a source of everything that makes it physical. To lessen this metaphor down to a small mouthful, furry needs anthro to survive, anthro though does not need furry. A connection, but a distinction between the two.” 

-Steam Community

But in the worlds of fandom, sometimes an idea gets corrupted in the eyes of certain folks, and sometimes a community develops a bad rap. We have all witnessed such transformations- some of us might have even been swept up in them- and often the fallout can be devastating for people simply looking for a place to belong. This is one of the cases that pops up frequently when examining communities like the furries, and the bronies- communities that cross the “invisible line” between human and animal, and are portrayed as somehow “wrong” for doing so.

Members of the furry communities, which have been active for a long time (the term Furry was coined around 1980, but the enthusiasts of the art and literature had been organized for far longer), are often highly visible, and are understood as those who elevate the idea of anthropomorphized or animalian traits as being worthy of emulation, or who derive positive interactions and identities through these traits they have a solid emotional connection to, have faced backlash from other facets of fandom (not to mention the non-fans) that find their interests questionable at best, and demonized at worst, despite the fact that their practice is rooted in the idea of community, cosplay, and association with characteristics that have strong meaning for the participants- something that all fandom groups derive meaning from.

Indeed, in social chatter on My Little Pony fandom during conventions and social gatherings (usually by non-fans towards visible fans), comparisons between brony culture and furry culture often overlap, with criticism levied at both communities for supposed “degenerate practices,” usually based on misconstrued visible stereotypes and exaggerated claims. Such types of intra-fandom stereotyping is itself commonplace, and rooted in the same social mores that non-fans often levy at fans- the idea that misinformation often becomes fact at the expense of fair treatment.

Try to ignore for a moment the ideas that fans often lament such treatment from non-fans with regards to anime or comics fandom- some are still willing to levy the same type of behavior at fans who practice something they identify as “alien.” What becomes of it is a moment of hypocrisy that strikes all-inclusive fans (like myself) as counter productive and harmful to fandom in general. But again, I digress, as I wish to not present everything here as a rant.

(A survey conducted by the furry community site Flayrah.com in 2012 highlights some of these ideas, and also connections between the furry and brony communities. I highly recommend giving it a read, as it shows that these two communities often share a lot of traits, and mutual respect.)

Within the community, this controversy itself is set within physical parameters as well–the character traits and personality assigned to the Mane 6 are exempt from this criticism, and often are viewed as sensually acceptable once those traits are reconciled with a humanized form for the character. It is perfectly fine to feel connected to the character of Rainbow Dash, so long as the character is presented in “morally acceptable” terms. (Or, “it’s okay if they’re human. Just not as ponies.”) That the Mane 6 are themselves very archetypal characters, complete with their own personalities, means that this line between acceptable and questionable is both very clear, and also very easy to cross. Clop rides this same line, and as it is associated with a highly popular fandom and property, it also has the potential to polarize more of the fandom participants than other modes of expression. Add to that the fact that a sizable chunk of My Little Pony fans are children, and it adds yet another level of concern towards gathering together all these images of the characters under a single URL.

And that is what the Derpibooru site was: a gigantic collection of MLP fanart. Both clean and explicit images were displayed on the same pages once the filters were removed, again not odd on many R34 sites, but somehow striking me as a bit off given the subject matter. But what I found most fascinating is how many artists used the rubric of Rule 34 to showcase their work online. Images on other booru engines are often anonymous, unless the artist is well known for their style or subject matter. But most of the searches I found on derpibooru were tagged to specific artists, and often contained links to that artist’s DeviantArt or tumblr pages. Following through on those same searches led to galleries full of the same tasteful material, occasionally tagged as belonging to clop or R34, despite perhaps containing one reference to a specific interest of fetish point, while keeping the rest of the image fairly clean.

For this fan, that had a certain significance to it. Fan art often relies on the internet to circulate, and fan artists utilize social media to increase their profiles. I once was told by a fan artist that she drew hentai and other more risque images as a way to boost pageviews for her more serious work. My time on the Derpibooru engine showed a certain emphasis on this: artists labeling their work as “clop” in order to increase exposure. The more tags I clicked through, the more I noticed that Derpibooru is more focused on creating an online index of MLP fan art, using the tags and classification systems that the R34 sites use, for the purpose of creating a large database for people to browse. The inclusion of filters and content flags allow for fans to highlight their searches to what they want, while still using the same tag-based system that R34 is known for. But the fact that the site effectively polices itself stood out to me- much the other MLP fan communities, it focused on the community side, as opposed to the sexual side.

To demonstrate: “awwww”

While I doubt I will find the desire to delve deeper into this aspect of the fandom, my brief time exploring this one engine did yield results: a new background image for my phone, some images of Rarity in truly remarkable outfits and situations (including one of her practicing White Crane kung fu), and a whole lot of Fluttershy images that could be tagged simply as “awwww.” There was a visibly proportional number of clean images to NSFW ones, usually focused on exploring the character as they are, rather than how a certain sub-sect might view them as being behind closed doors. And that was surprising to discover, to say the least. Even in a site populated by explicit imagery, there were still those who were interested in legitimate fan art and character exploration that did not require a filter tag. It also keyed me into some of the popular artists within the meta-fandom, and showed me their public and private galleries full of more images to choose from. All told, it was a less grinding experience than my usual forays into R34- still a bit awkward at times, but also not as “creepy” as I thought it would be.

And he apparently did find that pic in the end.

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 FF.net, 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.)