Yes, You Can Be Fired for Liking My Little Pony

My Little Pony

My daughter loves My Little Pony. So does this guy. And that, apparently, is a problem. Grown men are not supposed to like the same things as young girls.

The guy—though Gawker has done a story on him, he remains anonymous—is a dad in his late 30s. He calls himself “a fairly big fan.” He made the picture of one of the show’s characters the background image on his desktop. He talked to the boss’s 9-year-old daughter about the show. His co-workers, and the boss, got freaked out. According to the guy, the boss told him that “it’s weird and it makes people uncomfortable that I have a ‘tv show for little girls as a background.'”

Now he’s been fired.

After talking to several folks, I’m still not clear why people are freaked out by this guy. Is it the gender non-comformity? If so, you better revise your sense of what’s normal because, as the Washington Post reports, an increasing number of dudes are loving the show. There’s even a FB page called “The Christian Libertarian Brony.” (The creator of the page writes: “On this page I post stuff about Austrian economics, Christian libertarianism/Christian anarcho-capitalism, MLP:FiM & GMOs!”)

Or is it the hint of pedophilia? If so, would you be nervous if a grown man had a passion for Little League or superhero comics? Enough to fire him?

Others have told me it’s the Peter Pan syndrome: guys like this just seem like they’ve never grown up. Unlike, apparently, every other dude on the internet.

Regardless of what buttons are being set off by this guy, the story just confirms a point some of us have been making over and over again: the American workplace is one of the most coercive institutions around. It’s a place where, whatever the niceties and pieties of our allegedly tolerant culture may be, bosses and supervisors get to act out—and on—their most regressive anxieties and fears. It’s a playground of cultural and political recidivism, where men and women (but more often men) are given the tools to inflict and enforce their beliefs, their style, their values upon their employees.

Chris Bertram, Alex Gourevitch, and I have tried to use these extreme cases to point to a more systemic underlying problem of power and domination in the workplace. It’s not merely that bosses are intolerant assholes, though clearly many of them are. It’s that they get to be intolerant assholes because the workplace is set up that way. Not by accident, or in the exception, but by design. In the typical American workplace, you can be fired for good reasons, bad reasons, or no reason at all. By law.

And so we come back to the Gawker piece. As Nathan Newman pointed out to me, every time a story like this comes out, there’s a frenzy of commentary, where people wonder whether or not this kind of thing is illegal, why doesn’t the employee sue, and so on. Most people seem to think that First Amendment-ish freedoms—the freedom of not merely speech but of expression, of personal style, etc.—apply in the workplace. They don’t. And while there are a host of protections for protected categories of workers, those constitute a limited number of cases.* The vast majority of cases of workplace coercion are simply not covered by federal or state law (though see this article by Eugene Volokh for a counterpoint; his focus, however, is on exclusively political speech). Unless you have a union, which ensures that you can only be fired for just cause, you’re often screwed.

Here’s the bottom line: in most American workplaces, the boss can fire any brony who loves My Little Pony. It’s totally legal. And that’s the problem.

* I asked Nathan, who’s an expert on labor and employment law, whether or not this guy could make some kind of claim based on gender discrimination, i.e., that he was fired for being insufficiently masculine, along the lines of a woman claiming she was fired for being insufficiently feminine. Here’s what he wrote back:

That’s the only plausible argument but few lawsuits on that basis have been successful, even for women arguing they are insufficiently feminine—unless they can show it’s part of an overall bias against women in general. But where no clear bias against women and men in hiring and promotion, differential dress codes and other biases based on gender that do not burden their performance of work would generally be legal. That’s one reason why state (and ideally federal) gay and transgender anti-discrimination laws are needed.

He then sent me to this article—“Sexual Orientation, Gender Nonconformity, and Trait-Based  Discrimination: Cautionary Tales From Title VII & An  Argument for Inclusion”—by Angela Clements from the Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law and Justice, which I have not yet read.


  1. Paul Rosenberg (@PaulHRosenberg) September 30, 2013 at 4:56 pm | #

    Not to belabor the obvious, but it’s precisely *because* there are socially approved ways of dudes not growing up that such animosity is directed at someone like this. If none of his peers was still hooked on Ironman–or Monday Night Football–then they’d probably only be amused, not horrified, by his “My Little Pony” thing.

    Would workplace repression be possible in such a world? Who could possibly say? But it’s certainly a whole lot easier in the world we do live in.

    • Corey Robin September 30, 2013 at 5:01 pm | #

      Yes, I agree. Which is why I try to flaunt my love of musical theater in the face of every dude I know.

  2. Will Shetterly September 30, 2013 at 5:02 pm | #

    Let’s be fair: bosses only fire people for reasons. Which include “because”, “cooties”, and “I dunno”.

  3. Jeremy Weiland September 30, 2013 at 5:03 pm | #

    I do not agree that the problem is that a boss can fire anybody for any reason and it’s totally legal. I think the problem is that we have bosses and employment at all. Wage slavery — where you rent human beings — is not really too far of a step up from the ownership of human beings in chattel slavery. Seems to me the administrative bureaucracies that require such a large managerial class are going the way of the dinosaur; instead of a legal bureaucracy to rein it in, why not simply get rid of boss culture and have a more cooperative, democratic workplace, one that really empowers people?

  4. Christopher Harlos September 30, 2013 at 5:39 pm | #

    I did Title VII cases in the 90s, and they were tough then, and have gotten worse (for plaintiffs) since,thanks in large part to a federal bench stacked with a significant number of highly conservative “pro-business” GOP judges. The remedies are practically non-existent (I also worked for IBM, and knew of a fellow with brain cancer who got fired, apparently on the bet he would die before his case got heard).

    Sure, Just Cause laws and workers councils (see Germany) would help a lot. Even if the US merely enforced the labor laws on the books, workers would get more power. But the immediate and short range prospects for those temporarily displaced millionaires selling their labor in the US is awful. So, expect more abusive managers, and more abused workers.

  5. joanna bujes September 30, 2013 at 6:35 pm | #

    Yes, yes to all the comments. Wanted to add one thing though. The imposition of gender stereotypes on men starts much earlier and is much more tyrannical than on women. I say this as the mother of a son and a daughter. Women get to cross dress all their lives, and it’s ok if they’re athletic and if they like guy things. Boys, on the other hand, are poured into a mold by age five and never let out after….unless they’re gay, which until lately could be a death sentence. I suspect this is one reason why male sexuality is so repressed/infantile.

    • Em Chappell-Root September 30, 2013 at 10:56 pm | #

      Exactly. My boys (6 & 4) love MLP, my husband has a brony shirt (Shadowfax as a Pony) and when my boys are the least bit gender non conforming people freak the heck out. If my brother in laws see the boys playing tea with their sister, or watching MLP or Dora or whatever. People give us looks like we’re crazy when our oldest is like, “Let’s go look at the Pony Toys” in the store or when the boys help their sister pick out doll clothes. I’m grateful to have a husband very dedicated to equality who the second he hears “but that’s a GIRLS” whatever, or anything that would make the boys think girl things are lesser or bad or not allowed, he stops it quickly. It’s nice not being on the battlefront of this one alone.

      As for the article and what it addresses, Yes. Yes Yes Yes, a thousand times. We sell not just the labor of our minds and bodies, but our time, which we will never get back. It seems not only now do they want to take our time and labor, but for us to strip away our individuality and very selves while we work.

    • Harald K October 1, 2013 at 3:44 am | #

      It’s ironic that Nathan calls for anti-discrimination laws to protect gays and transgender people in relation to this. Worthy as that may be, the hate for “bronies” is precisely because they aren’t “deviant” in the pre-approved ways. They cheerfully embrace masculine-flavored camaraderie, as the self-applied brony label suggests.

      I suspect this is one reason why male sexuality is so repressed/infantile.

      Ironic that you should come with such a gross generalization, which you would never get away with against women’s sexuality, after making your good point. If men or male sexuality seems infantile to you, bear in mind that both in traditional and modern gender roles, women have the greater social power to define what constitutes mature behavior. Women make up 87% of all primary school teachers in the US and near 100% of all mothers, that is not without consequence.

      • Jonny Butter October 1, 2013 at 8:44 am | #

        Ironic that you should come with such a gross generalization, which you would never get away with against women’s sexuality, after making your good point.

        It is a facile characterization. It seems like there ought to be a grain of truth in it somewhere, but its location is not obvious. My facile characterization is this: male sexuallity is indeed repressed/infantile – and so is female sexuality. In practice anyway.

        If there is a strictly male infantilism at hand, it is legacy of the idiotic, little-boy magical thinking-idea that it is possible to repress one half of humanity, which is like trying to repress gravity, or trying to press down on one side of the ocean. It’s ridiculous, pointless, and so expensive for the male that it can’t possibly be worth it. That *is* infantile.

      • Will Rubenstein October 2, 2013 at 11:48 am | #

        No need to take offense at joanna bujes’ comment on behalf of the Y chromosome — if anything, the argument is that the social unacceptability of men wearing dresses or liking My Little Pony (as opposed to, say, women wearing jeans or liking Transformers) is an injustice being done *to* men. Whatever its other attributes, the fundamental point is every bit as compatible with MRA as with Dworkin or Firestone.

  6. Roquentin October 1, 2013 at 11:01 am | #

    While I think it is strange for a 30 year old man to be a fan of My Little Pony (although I could kind of see it if it was done in an ironic, hipster sort of way), it shouldn’t be an offense that cost him his job. If every coworker you had that did something a little weird got fired, the office would basically be empty. It seems like an extremely petty thing to fire someone for, even by the standards of 2013 corporate America.

    I work a mundane 9 to 5 and I’ve felt the alienation that comes with being a male in the US who has no interest in spectator sports plenty of times. I’m fond of saying that a corporate job is 2/3 office politics and 1/3 work. You have to figure out how to play the game if you want to keep getting paid.

    Also, I agree completely that the modern workplace is profoundly unfree. In some ways, I prefer the simple honesty of a military style system, where the hierarchy and power relationships are open and public. In some ways, these attempts to wallpaper over that with “fun” offices are far worse. The kind of ugly, soft domination, which usually ends up a lot like the pieces of flare in Office Space. They can’t bring themselves to tell you what to do, so instead they force you to become a willing participant in your own domination. We won’t tell you to wear 30 pieces of flare, but there will be consequences if you don’t make exactly that choice. It’s the same mechanism which makes people stay 60 hours a week, even though they are only required to do 40. We won’t tell you to work 60 hours, but you will suffer and eventually be fired if you don’t.

    At least in a military style system, they have the common courtesy to tell you what the score is…..

    • Jonny Butter October 1, 2013 at 12:52 pm | #

      If every coworker you had that did something a little weird got fired, the office would basically be empty.

      Some variation of this is the joke that tells itself. ‘Weirdness’ is what Americans do among the best in the world, so disallowing it would cause the economy to screech to a halt in about an hour!

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