Right now there are 30 Bronies gathered outside the doors to the halls of this convention, and they’ve surrounded a guy with an acoustic guitar. They’re all singing songs from the cartoon show My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. Some dudes are reading lyrics from their phones, but most of them know the words by heart. This all happened spontaneously. There’s no other way to say it: this is some abnormal shit, right here.
Bronies can be summed up in one sentence: they’re grown-ass men who love a little girl’s cartoon show about the adventures of a group of magical ponies.
It’s Easter weekend, and I’m in an airport hotel in San Francisco attending the second annual Bay Area Brony Spectacular Convention, aka BABSCON. I have absolutely no idea what to expect. I just really want to see this scene for myself. I gotta know: What the hell have Bronies found in My Little Pony that the rest of us dudes missed?
Growing up, a lot of my friends were geeks, nerds, gamers - the kinds of guys who purchase ninja stars. I played D&D with miniature metal figurines. I played table-top games that friends invented. I may not be one, but I know geeks when I see them. Bronies are, for the most part, a deep geek culture. Yet, a very different sort of geek than I’ve ever known.
My little sister used to play with toy ponies. She’d lovingly brush their rainbow manes. But the Bronies don’t play with them (well, some do). These guys identify with the ponies. I’m just being real, but you and I both know it’s super-funny that dudes want to gather together, get all pretty in pink, and prance around like girl ponies. It doesn’t help that the cartoon show is called Friendship Is Magic. Before you laugh, that series just started its fifth season. It’s a huge success. And it’s all thanks to Bronies.
One thing is immediately apparent at BABSCON: Bronies are the most hardcore fans since Trekkies. The big difference is Bronies are way friendlier. Many are quick to smile. This is rare for geek culture. Also, as I later learn, one of the characters, Discord, a dimension-hopping trickster, is very similar to the character of Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation. If you’re wondering if that’s an intentional homage, both parts are played by the same actor: John de Lancie. The creator of this latest generation of My Little Pony, Lauren Faust, has created a universe that fans can fill in with their imaginations. She cut her teeth as a writer and director on Power Puff Girls. She knows what she’s doing.
Strolling through one of the vendor halls, what’s most impressive to me is how the Bronies have built an empire of fandom that completely surrounds and deepens the appeal of Faust’s show. The fan-made art is inseparable. And much of it is incredible. There’s one fan-made parody called Friendship Is Witchcraft that’s so well-made it’s nearly indistinguishable from the original.
To keep its fans happy, Hasbro, the toymaker that pays the bills for the official cartoon show, has entered into an uneasy relationship wherein it doesn’t vigorously protect its intellectual property with lawyers. This is a smart move on its part.
For now, Hasbro allows the artists at these conventions to make money off the brand’s intellectual property. And this seems to grow the brand and help the bottom line. Plus, why would you want to piss off someone who loves your product?
Waiting in line for the lecture presentation “My Little Pony and The Symbolism of Tarot,” I spot a dude wearing wings, a two-tone lavender and purple wig, and an all-purple outfit. After the Tarot talk ends, I catch up with him on his way out of the convention. He tells me his name is Frank.
“How long have you been involved in the My Little Pony fandom?”
“About a year-and-a-half,” Franks says, softly.
“Have you been in other fandoms prior to this one?”
His friend decides he can better answer my question. He jumps in our conversation, “This more resembles the anime fandom and furry fandom, but combined in a new way.”
His name is Dave. I ask Frank and Dave how their lives have changed since they found My Little Pony. Dave speaks with the confidence of a shy metalhead.
“I was kind of—I was friendly, but I was running the risk of becoming a social recluse. And then I found the fandom and I started going to meet-ups and meeting people. And I became more friendly.” He says this with the pride of someone who’s solved his own problems. “There’s two main conventions I go to—this one and the BronyCon that’s in Baltimore. I paid $1,000 for my ticket out here.”
“Holy shit. You flew here, from where?” The surprise shows in my voice.
Dave tells me they’re both in the Navy, both stationed in Virginia Beach. They met on a Facebook group for Bronies who are in the military. When I ask for the name of the group, they both decline to answer.
“Don’t people make fun of you guys for being so genuine about your love of a little girl cartoon show—and how you dress up like ponies?”
As they remember people making fun of them, I feel like an asshole for even asking the question. There’s an awkward silence.
Dave says, with a hint of sadness, “Honestly, people do make fun of us outside of here.”
I recover. “Well, dude, I’m super-impressed by how genuine everyone is. It’s pretty fucking cool. Bronies are kinda like punk rock but with pink ponies.”
Both Frank and Dave nod and laugh softly.
As I walk away, I think about how I came to this BronyCon fully prepared to laugh at these dudes and their pretty little ponies. I’m one of the jerks who might make fun of them if we were outside the convention.
Walking among the Bronies, I spy a tattoo artist with a blue mohawk. She feels like one of my people. As with everyone else I speak with over the next two days, Kelley the tattoo artist and the friendly-faced guy whose shoulder she’s tattooing are both eager and willing to play along.
Kelley fills in the color for the tattoo on the dude’s shoulder. She rarely looks up from her work. As she wipes away his blood, I ask how many tattoos she’s done.
“At least a couple dozen. Yesterday, I did a Rainbow Dash cutie mark but in Rasta colors—the red, yellow and green—y’know, the One Love vibe. That was awesome,” she says.
A cutie mark is the symbol a pony has on its flank. It’s like a birthmark, only they’re more magical. Getting a favorite character’s cutie mark is a popular tattoo among Bronies.
“Are you a fan of pony culture?” I ask Kelley, expecting a sarcastic answer. But she surprises me with earnestness.
“Yeah. I was a fan of the first generation of ponies when I was a kid. And then I found the Bronies in, um, 2011? At first I was like ‘What the hell?’ I didn’t really understand it. I thought it was kinda creepy.” She wipes away the trickle of blood running down the dude’s arm. He’s a bleeder.
“So, what changed your mind about Bronies?” I ask.
“I guess it was the whole aspect of, y’know, men my age enjoying a little girl’s cartoon. And then, I actually watched Friendship Is Magic, and I was like ‘Holy crap! This is amazing!’ It’s the characters. The storytelling. It reminded me a lot more of the ponies I grew up with—that were adventurous, fun, and crazy—and then I understood. I was like ‘OK, I get the appeal.’ The whole adventure aspect drew me in. I love that they brought that back.” Kelley looks up from her work, wipes some blood and smiles.
There’s one part of life missing from this convention. Sex. That makes sense. It is for a children’s show. But there is sex in the pony fandom. It’s called “clopping.” (See: Rule #34.) If you want to read about My Little Ponies having sex, it’s out there. But in this convention, I see few sexy ponies. Some women in cosplay do look cute as fuck, but that’s just because I’m a horny bastard and not because they’re trying to look super-sexy. There’s an almost pre-pubescent, sexlessness to all this pony-inspired friendship. Almost.
I spot one of the head organizers of the convention, a young guy wearing a suit and tie. His cheeks are a little rosy. He looks like he wants to tell me about the Book of Mormon. He shakes my hand.
“Dude, you’re wearing a suit. You look like you have a regular day job. Like, why are you a Brony, man?” I ask, hoping it doesn’t sound like a free-floating insult.
He grins. He’s been asked this question a thousand times before.
“This fandom has the strongest bond between community members. There’s something more to it. It was born on the Internet. We have all these technology-based fans. Social media exploded. Music got made. Art got made. Animations that rival the show quality got made—it’s really about the content creators. I’m also the associate director of Ponyville Live. We’re a pony media network. We actually have 24/7 online radio stations that play just pony music.”
My jaw falls open. “There’s enough music you can play nothing but fan-made pony songs 24 hours a day?”
For a second this seems kinda insane. Then I remember there are a ton of 24-hour satellite radio stations. Pony music sounds like a way better choice than 24/7 polka. That much polka can make a man violent towards the Polish.
“How has your life changed since you became a Brony?” I ask after I notice his wedding ring.
“Oh, man. I find myself with less free time. For a lot of people, myself included, to be a Brony … often you’re a little socially awkward. Sure, this does take up a lot of time. But I still work a day job. I bought a house. I got married—I actually got engaged at a Brony convention. I had a second wedding for my pony friends at a pony convention. ” He laughs at himself.
“Is your wife a Brony as well?”
“She’s … let’s say, she’s tolerant,” he laughs. “She, uh … she’s actually more into Harry Potter than My Little Pony. But, she’s very supportive of everything I do.”
“It feels like you happily identify with your femininity. Is that a fair assessment?”
“In my house—my house is pretty pink right now—I got a lot of merchandise and fan-based stuff. Does it help me get in touch with my femininity? Absolutely. There are a lot of people here that didn’t feel necessarily comfortable with their feminine side, or with themselves, period. The show is about embracing what makes you unique—and how that makes you stronger together. These guys are not sticking to stereotypes. I think it’s not only great for them, and for the fandom, but for everyone in the world.”
He hopes I enjoy the rest of the convention and tells me about bands playing later. I end up checking out the pony bands. One sounds just like Blink-182, which makes me stoked. Right now, somewhere out there in America, there are kids in a garage making pop-punk pony music.
For many of the fans and vendors, it seems like half the fun is the chance to hang out with their online friends IRL. A soft laughter is the background sound wherever you go. In the same way that hipsters use brunch as something to get them up and away from their laptops for a few hours, geeks go to conventions. There are rooms and rooms of dudes playing tabletop games, My Little Pony/Street Fighter mash-up video games, and on the carpet they huddle in clusters showing each other vids on their iPods and phones. Soft laughter everywhere you go.
I take a stroll through the vendor booths. All the fan-made art looks incredible. There are laser-cut wood etchings, handmade custom ponies, plush pony hats, big Pegasus-inspired wings and, of course, furry tails. There are booths full of collectibles.
I pause to talk with a vendor, a digital artist named Dan. I point at one of his posters.
“I keep seeing this ‘Love and Tolerate’ mantra in a lot of the artwork. Is that like the core of Brony culture?” I try to hide my cynicism.
“Well, ‘Love and Tolerate’ is something that was invented by the fandom as kind of a joke. The people who use it, often, they use it as a shield to cover bad things. I tend to have a dim view on certain parts of the fandom.”
I’ve waited for this, for someone to show me the dark heart of humanity hidden underneath all the pink and lavender playtime. “Is that a risk you run in a community that’s so inclusive that you have to tolerate things you don’t agree with?”
“To answer your question: can the fandom do a better job policing itself? Yes. But I think everything could always do a better job policing itself. On the other hand there’s a lot of people here at this show who are good people, just trying to get by. If this convention allows someone who may be a little anti-social to open up a bit and become a better person, then I’m all for it.”
Dan’s life experience shows through when he reserves his criticism for himself rather than others. I like that about him. It’s a very admirable trait. He seems like a good dude, so, I ask him about women.
“Do you enjoy this chance to identify with a female character and your own femininity? Like, acting feminine is not something American men get many chances to do.”
“I’ve always enjoyed the Power Puff girls. I loved Jem when I was a kid,“ he says. "The problem is … aspects of society often view the feminine as ‘the other,’ as the bad, or lesser. As a man, I’ve certainly benefitted from those aspects of society. If you took me 10 or 15 years ago, I would’ve probably had some pretty backwards opinions. My views have changed over the years as I’ve met a lot of amazing people. I’ve learned to broaden my views, not just about women, but on gay people, trans people, all of the stuff you don’t realize when you’re growing up in an isolated community. This media influences people.”
Dan’s words stay with me as I wander through a second hall of vendors.
When I see a woman who looks like the human equivalent of a hug, I smile and approach her. I’m super-curious what a woman makes of all this. So, I ask a vendor named Mari for her opinion. Like everyone else, her answer surprises me.
“Because of My Little Pony I met that one true best friend that you see in every Disney cartoon and movie. I always thought when I was a kid, ‘Man, I want a friend like that. That’s just something Disney made up. That doesn’t exist in real life.’ And through My Little Pony, I met this girl, and it was like ‘Oh my god, you’re my long-lost soul sister! We are gonna be best friends!’ And she’s done so much for me—helping me through my divorce, helping me set up my business, helping me re-establish myself. And I’ve been helping her, too. We do everything we can to help each other out. It’s all because of My Little Pony.”
I ask Mari how far she traveled.
“I drove here from Columbus, Ohio. Thirty-six hours. About three thousand miles. And I drove here without the money to get me home,” she says with a reckless grin.
“Yes. I was counting on this show to make enough to pay for my trip back.”
I shake my head, impressed with her fearlessness.
“Are women Bronies? Like, do you consider yourself a Brony?”
“I do, indeed.”
“Well, I do find it intriguing how upset some Bronies will get when someone else is like, ‘Oh, that’s for girls.’ Because as a girl, that’s what I’ve heard my whole life when I wanted to play with Thundercats and Ninja Turtles and X-Men. They’d say, ‘Oh, that’s for boys. You’re not allowed to play with that. What kind of girl are you?’ Now, it’s guys experiencing what girls have experienced for decades.”
“Do people like to make fun of you, and Bronies, and the pony community in Ohio?”
Mari laughs, then grows thoughtful, “I’ve lived in very rural parts of Ohio, where it’s very religious, right-wing, men always on top, men always act like this and women need to always act like this, homosexual people are terrible people. So, imagine when they hear about Bronies. They’ll say things like, ‘You know they’re secretly gay, right? All of them. There’s just something not right with those people.’ And it’s like, no, you don’t know them. You’re judging them but you have obviously never met a Brony.”
“I have to admit, you guys are nothing like what I imagined before I got here.”
She smiles like sunshine. “When I was at Baltimore last year at the BronyCon the union locked all of the vendors in the hall,” she says. “They wanted us to each pay $80 to bring our car or truck into the venue to load up. Word of this got out to the convention attendees. They started to sneak back into the vendor hall, and they said, ‘Alright, we’re taking your stuff out of here. Where’s your car?’ I had 15 people come in, pick up all my boxes and say, ‘Alright, where are we going?’ They carried it out of the convention hall and the two long blocks to where my car was parked. Why would I not want to identify with Bronies? You can’t just walk up to someone and say, ‘Hey, I need help.’ But you can at a Brony convention. People will be like, ‘Sure, what do you need?’
I drove nearly 400 miles to be amused by “men who love girly things.” The idea that there are men who enjoy girly things was totally odd and humorous to me. But these dudes are brave. They do what they want. And to hell with what you think. Besides, what exactly makes something a “girly thing”? These men who love to play together like little girls seem to be some of the happiest people on the planet.
Leave it to geeks to figure out a way to become better men by embracing the feminine. They’ve hacked the code of masculinity. And now they’re rewriting it. Bronies are the flip-side of geek culture, the opposite of the ugly sexism often on display. While some gamers feel threatened by women entering their space, Bronies are inspired by femininity. They’re using a little girl cartoon show to learn how to build communities together. They’re good people just trying to get by, and loving ponies seems to help.
During the closing ceremony the crowd erupts into a chant, "Fun! Fun! Fun!” And my cynicism totally vanishes. It’s gone. The Bronies have won me over. As I leave the convention, I feel like the happiest asshole in the world.
Later, as I drive south on the I-5, I have just one regret: I didn’t buy that plush light blue hat with the dark blue mane that looked like a pony’s head. It seemed fun. But I know I’m no Brony. I’m just a dude they inspired to be less of an asshole.
This article was originally published on April 21, 2015. It was republished on July 4, 2015.