Over the last year or two, the mainstream American geek culture has been watching one of the strangest phenomena it's ever been witness to: nerdy adult males, mostly college-age, have been flocking to and passionately praising a TV cartoon made explicitly for very young girls.
The US cable channel “The Hub” is part owned by the toy company Hasbro. As Bandai funds anime and superhero shows to sell kids toys, Hasbro runs shows on this channel that sell their own long-standing product lines: GI Joe, Transformers (a co-production, of course), and of course My Little Pony.
Let me explain the My Little Pony toy before we proceed. It's a pastel-colored pony with a mane you can brush. That's it.
So The Hub has produced new shows to sell these lines to new generations of kids. The My Little Pony revival is titled Friendship is Magic. Created by industry veteran Lauren Faust, the show is a simple, gentle piece of work about ponies with different personalities getting along and having adventures in a magical fantasy land. I watched an episode and was glad that young girls had a cartoon that wasn't condescending.
But young girls aren't the ones who are most passionate about My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Unintentionally, the show also amassed an intense online fanbase, largely composed of college-aged males who call themselves “bronies” (“brother” + “pony”). These fans loved the show for its unironic positivity and the personalities of the ponies: for example, the sporty one is Rainbow Dash, the geeky one with hair like Stocking is Twlilight Sparkle, and the shy, soft-spoken character is Fluttershy. Pictured is Pinkie Pie. Of course, the bronies all have their favorites, and the extreme fans buy all the toys and cover their living spaces in pony posters.
In other words, the bronies are just like Japanese anime otaku. This is a really fascinating phenomenon to me, because just like with Japanese anime years ago, the fans sprung up by themselves.
I like to compare the phenomenon to K-On, a show western fans like to summarize as “cute girls doing cute things”. The TV anime is innocuous, and a lot of kids like it too, but it's definitely understood that the original comics and those character designs are directly aimed at the heartstrings of the otaku. Though I think the K-On fans and the bronies are on the same wavelength, the My Little Pony thing is different: the creators certainly weren't aiming at geeky twenty-something guys... but they hit anyway.
Ironically, the My Little Pony toys made for the new TV show haven't sold very well, as little girls don't care and the bronies mostly don't like them because they don't look anything like the characters on the show. It's just like when Clover made that first line of Gundam toys! However, Hasbro has made no attempt to cater to this audience to date.
Things have really changed for Western cartoons over the last fifteen years. Though adult-oriented animation is still not going to be successful. we do have strong, creator-driven shows with cult fanbases too now. Avatar is well-loved as a direct competitor to Shonen Jump anime, and Adventure Time is a kids' show very clearly aimed at the parents of those children. Is it too long before an American cartoon otaku age begins? Are we there already? And if so, has My Little Pony unintentionally become its moe anime? We'll have to wait and see...