"Brony" is the nickname given to the adult (mostly male) fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Their community—which is large, voracious and one of the most widely-ridiculed fan collectives this side of Equestria—gathers annually in a convention center to celebrate their enthusiasm for friendship, tolerance and MLP. This year, I joined them.
I theorize that my presence here is a part of a prank set up by my editors. Generally speaking, I don't like cartoons, nostalgia or things meant for children. Also working against me is my tendency toward being a misanthrope, so a convention—any kind of convention—is basically my personal hell.
Yet here I am, in a jam-packed vendor hall at the Baltimore Convention Center, attempting to work up the courage to talk to any of the 10,000 visitors of BronyCon, all of whom share a passion for My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, the fourth generation of the MLP franchise which—as I will be reminded of several times as I wander the convention floor—is very different from the My Little Pony that I was enamored with as a girl in the '80s. What hasn't changed, according to Hasbro Productions, is MLP's target demographic: little girls ages two to 11. Clearly, Hasbro is out of touch with the show's most ardent fans.
Beyond loving My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, there are only two other basic requirements for being a brony. The first is right there in the show's title: friendship. The crowd here at BronyCon 2014 is friendly, almost aggressively so. People walk around with "Free Hugs" signs hanging around their necks and, to my horror, strangers actually take them up on the offer. Friends who have previously only known each other through online message boards are meeting in real life for the first time and they couldn't be happier.
Tolerance is the other key tenet for bronies. Though mainly male, the group is surprisingly diverse. Roughly 35% of attendees are female (girl MLP fans have also adopted the "brony" moniker) and there's a wide array of races, ages and genders. Many of the young adults excitedly combing the halls have visible disabilities ("Coping with Disabilities Through Pony" is one of the weekend's largely attended panels) and some wear color-coded badges — available to anyone who wants one — that alert others to the wearer's social comfort level. A green badge indicates that you're happy to socialize with strangers, yellow means you only want to talk with people you already know and red tells everyone that you'd rather be left alone. It's a compassionate amenity for a community with a large number of members who manage varying degrees of autism and, from what I witness, everyone respects each other's boundaries. With the exception of a few red badges, all of the bronies have arrived ready to make friends.
In spite of this general openness, I'm having a hard time talking to people. My press badge seems to be working almost as well as a red badge in keeping people away from me and understandably so. Bronies have been burned by media before and they're sick of being painted as pathetic creeps simply for liking a show that, according to marketing, men (and boys for that matter) aren't supposed to like.
Yes, there is a dark side to the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic fandom: bronies who sexualize the cartoon (if you want some NSFW examples, here you go) are known as "cloppers." But, as one brony reluctantly tells me with a sad, little shrug, "It's a disappointing inevitability of any fan community." Cloppers are seen as niche and other bronies "don't like to focus on them."
Regardless of their scarcity and the brony community's unwillingness to talk about them, cloppers get frequently mentioned in brony press coverage (unsurprisingly, adult men who fantasize about fucking animated ponies are much more salacious to read about than adult men who simply happen to like clever, cute cartoons) and, as such, bronies tend to be a little jittery around journalists.
Even if I weren't here as a reporter, the fact that I'm so clearly an outsider would be enough to send up warning signals and, ironically, my choice to attend the con dressed as neutrally as possible has made me stand out like a sore thumb amidst the brightly dyed hair and loud outfits of the other attendees.
Much like the press, the public hasn't exactly been kind to the brony. At best, the subculture gets written off as extremely dorky—a group of fedora-sporting nerds who live in their parents' basements and spend all their time watching cartoons, making fan art and getting into pedantic arguments about My Little Pony on the internet. At worst, they're accused not only of clopping, but of being pedophiles because, really, who else besides little girls would be this interested in a children's show aimed at a young female audience? (A lot of people, as it turns out.)
In the three days I spend at BronyCon, I can honestly say that I never feel creeped out. I feel anxious, I feel irritated, I feel exhausted, but never am I worried for my own safety or that of the hundreds of small children in attendance. With a few exceptions, the fans' love of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic comes off as entirely wholesome.
But while the bronies quickly prove that they're not dangerous weirdos, they're far less successful when it comes to bucking the whole "extremely dorky" stereotype. Then again, they're not exactly trying to. This is their con, after all—the rare occasion they have to fully engage their passion for My Little Pony without judgment and understandably, they plan on taking advantage of it. Intricate cosplay, role playing games and random outbursts of songs that everyone but me seems to know the lyrics to are all common place. Lines to get autographs from the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic voice actors and other celebrities of the fandom spill into the hallways. Everyone is celebrating. Everyone feels at home. Everyone except for me.
It ends up looking like kids from opposing teams shaking hands at the end of a soccer game, only in this case, none of us are good at sports.
I can't and won't blame the bronies for my own discomfort. Although hesitant to speak with me, each person I encounter at the con is incredibly kind. They greet me with a fist bump—known in the community as a "bro hoof" or "hoof bump"—and patiently explain things that are utterly confusing to me as an outsider. But despite their friendliness and patience, I sense that many are disappointed when they discover the extreme limits of my My Little Pony knowledge. Having to justify being a brony is something they do all the time in the outside world and BronyCon is their vacation away from all that.
Or at least it was until I show up to disrupt everything with terribly unoriginal questions that can basically be summed up with, "So what's the deal with bronies?"
Here at the con, I am Madeleine Davies: Professional Interloper.
To say that I start to feel guilty about this is an understatement. It hits me the hardest as I wait in one of the many lines that I will get stuck in throughout the weekend (that's most of what a con is, by the way—waiting in lines), this time to get into the "Mane Hall" to watch the cosplay contest. The queue is set up like the security line at the airport, zig-zagging back and forth so that you end up walking by the same people over and over again. Every time you pass someone (which is constantly when the line isn't at a standstill), they hold out their fists in a show of camaraderie and, if you're a brony (or if you, like me, are desperately trying to get the bronies to like you), you raise your fist and give them a bump back. It ends up looking like kids from opposing teams shaking hands at the end of a soccer game, only in this case, none of us are good at sports.
I ask the man in line ahead of me what the origins of the fist bump are. He's in his mid-30s and from his T-shirt, the six main characters of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic—Twilight Sparkle, Rarity, Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, Applejack and Fluttershy—all gaze back at me with adorable condescension.
The brony responds to my question cheerfully: "You know, they're hoof bumps!"
I give him the polite-yet-confused smile of a open-minded mom who's desperately trying to understand her teenage son's newfound interest in something completely bewildering to her, like Norwegian death metal.
He continues politely, "From the show?"
My mom grin tightens.
"Pinkie Pie mentions it in ' Smile Song,'" he tries again.
When I still have nothing to offer, he sings a few bars.
"I like to see you grin (Awesome!)/I love to see you beam (Rock on!)/The corners of your mouth turned up is always Pinkie's dream (Hoof bump!)"
At this point, I'm starting to wish that this pleasant brony will see how hopeless I am and put me out of my misery by suffocating me with the My Little Pony stuffed animal that's sitting on his shoulder, but, alas, I'm not this lucky. Instead he just offers a pitying hoof bump, says, "Have a good con!," and shuffles away to get a seat on the other side of the hall, as far away from me as possible.
I imagine that the way I feel now—confused about the rules of the brony world, rejected and a little bit lonely—is probably how a lot of these bronies feel whenever they're anywhere but here. The key differences are that my circumstances as an outcast are relatively temporary and that the bronies, noticing that I'm different, treat me with sympathy and decency rather than spurning cruelty. Outside of BronyCon where the roles are reversed—where they're odd for liking My Little Pony and I'm normal for ignoring it—the bronies are in a constant struggle to receive the respect that they're so happy to give out. For all their kindness, they're rewarded with ridicule and abuse.
That's not simply speculation. Bullying is a very real concept to my fellow con-goers, especially the ones who are still stuck in elementary, middle or high school and are regularly facing ostracism, mocking and physical assault from their peers. Back in March, 9-year-old Grayson Bruce from North Carolina got national attention when he was bullied by classmates for carrying a My Little Pony backpack. "[They're] taking it a little too far, with punching me, pushing me down, calling me horrible names, stuff that really shouldn't happen," he told Asheville station WLOS-TV. The administration at Grayson's school dealt with his abuse not by punishing the bullies, but by telling him that he could no longer carry his book bag. (They eventually relented after receiving widespread, negative media attention.)
One month prior to the incident with Grayson, Michael Morones, an 11-year-old from Raleigh, attempted suicide by hanging himself off the side of his bunk bed because the bullying he was facing from schoolmates for liking My Little Pony had become too much to bear. At a time when Michael was still in the hospital breathing and being fed through a tube, his mother Tiffany Morones-Suttle said the following to ABC:
"I've heard a lot of people say you need to go after bullies and hold them responsible, but you know, I don't think that's what Mike would want. I would rather teach people how to do right than turn around and punish, because punishment doesn't always work."
(Michael survived, but is still suffering the effects of his suicide attempt.)
Grayson and Michael's experiences are not one-offs. It's terribly common for young bronies (particularly the male ones) to be harassed by classmates and unsupported by school administrations—two ugly facts that become increasingly clear to me when I attend a panel called "Brony Bullying" alongside a couple hundred teens, all of whom have arrived to hear a small group of older bronies discuss their own traumatizing adolescences and the strategies they used to survive their youths.
The content of the bullying panel surprises me a little. When kids are messing with you, you have to fight back is the point made over and over again. They'll never stop bothering you until you fight back.
There's no "go find a teacher" or "try to talk it out." The panelists have been in these teens' positions before and know better. They understand that teachers often won't help you and bullies will never listen when you tell them to stop whatever it is that they're doing. This isn't a celebrity anti-bullying campaign or an episode of Glee. It's real life and and the men here are dedicated to helping these kids learn how to cope.
"When I was in high school, I was the big sensitive kid, probably like a lot of you are," panelist Dustykatt, the man behind the popular MLP fan site Manliest Brony,tells the crowd. Following murmurs of confirmation, he goes on to describe an incident from his teen years — a time when a bully pushed him past his breaking point and he lashed back with such extreme force that he ended up putting his tormenter in the hospital.
His story isn't necessarily a directive to the people in the audience. He's not encouraging everyone to go beat the shit out of their bullies, but he is warning us about what can happen when no real help or support is made available to victims. Left alone, they might hurt someone else like he did or hurt themselves like 11-year-old Michael. Considering these options and the years of anguish that most of these people went through, well, it's hard to blame them for wanting to push back.
I wish I could say that the "Brony Bullying" panel makes me like being at BronyCon a little more, but it doesn't. It makes me respect and sympathize with the bronies, certainly, but it doesn't change the fact that I still find most of them unbearably annoying. At one point, while I'm stuck in yet another line, I even fantasize about shoving the two teens next to me—the ones who are singing Smash Mouth's "All Star" on repeat—into a row of lockers. It's a pretty gross thought for someone who left a discussion on school bullying a mere couple of hours ago, but in my defense, we're queueing to go watch brony short form improv, so my mood is already quite bleak.
Believe me: I'm well aware of how negative I'm acting and feel appropriately ashamed of myself. It's not like I'd go to a science fair and complain about there being too much science or visit Irish Fest and complain about there being too many bad arm tattoos, so it seems exceedingly dumb to whine about there being too much brony stuff (and, by extension, too many bronies) at BronyCon. Still, it's hard to feel gracious or reasonable after being stuck in a convention center for nearly 10 hours, and even more so if the people around you won't stop singing pop songs by one of the '90s' most horrible three-hit wonders.
I'm starting to think that while getting sent to BronyCon probably isn't a prank set up by my editors, it very well could be a social experiment to see how long it takes before I go absolutely crazy and try to eat the cotton heart out of one of the many plush ponies that seem to be everywhere. It's only a small comfort that, outwardly at least, I'm keeping my shit together pretty well. Sure, I have a headache and am probably visibly frowning, but at least I'm still doling out hoof bumps and maintaining some level of shame over my own bratty attitude.
In one of the moments when I'm quietly berating myself, I recall another theme from the bullying panel earlier that day—the comforting mantra that bullies only come after you because they're threatened by or jealous of you. It's an idea I questioned at the time (I think bullies act to exert power over people — which is why so many of them go on to become cops), but as I now stand surrounded by excitable bronies and insolent as ever, I start to wonder if there might be a kernel of truth to the idea and that maybe I am slightly jealous.
I wasn't always so different from them. As an adolescent, there were things I loved so wholeheartedly that my fanaticism somehow outweighed the worry of feeling embarrassed. Sure, I might now judge the young man dressed as My Little Pony's Pinky Pie, but no amount of judgement will be able to retroactively erase the fact that there was once a time when I could (and would) act out all the songs from Rent alone in my bedroom and that I used to be so obsessed with the movie Newsies that I had my very own Racetrack costume which I would wear out in public—and this wasn't when I was 10, but when I was a high school freshman.
Over the years, though, the ability to adore something that much and that fearlessly has become lost to me. Maybe it's just a sacrifice of maturing, but I can't help but feel desperately sad about it as I watch the bronies—the ones who somehow managed to hang on to that unadulterated excitement as they've gotten older—demonstrate their enthusiasm. It's then I realize that even if I wanted to join in, I probably wouldn't be able to—not because they wouldn't welcome me (I'm sure they would), but because the ability to feel a similar level of frantic earnestness is either no longer within me or is blocked behind several layers of embarrassment.
Funny enough, it's that very embarrassment that protects me (and wounds them) outside of the con. My shame keeps me acting normal even when I don't feel normal. And maybe that's not a good thing.
The queue moves—interrupting my turmoil—and I finally get to sit down to watch "Hooves Line is it Anyway?" The people on stage are good improvisers and the crowd —as indicated by the whooping and cheering— love every moment of it. Unfortunately, the headache that's slowly overwhelmed the back of my skull and the nightmarish flashbacks from my own short form improv days are starting to become unmanageable, so I leave early to walk back to my hotel room where I plan to settle in, drink wine from a bottle (my room is tragically cupless) and yell at the Real Housewives marathon that's blessedly playing on TV. Believe it or not, this is my idea of a good night which, taking a step back, is about the same level of cool as being into My Little Pony. Or maybe — two steps back — a level lower.
Back at the con, the bronies are having their Grand Galloping Gala, which — I'll confirm later — is basically Brony Prom. I'm not allowed to go — not because I'm press or because they've put a ban on bad attitudes (although maybe they should), but because I've failed to bring a nice dress and event specifically states that you have to come either in cosplay or formal wear. My failure to come sartorially prepared is my biggest regret of the con. I imagine that watching the brony couples (there are surprisingly big number of them and, yes, even my cold, hard heart recognizes this as just about the sweetest thing ever) dance and have fun could be the best part of my weekend. And who knows? Maybe I could get She's All That'd and be turned into Queen Brony (or runner-up) by someone who wants to prove to their friends that they could turn the least likely candidate into the most hardcore My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic fan in one short evening.
Unfortunately, my fantasy is not meant to be. No one offers me a brony makeover or is inspired by my outsider status, so instead I'm regulated to my room at the Lord Baltimore Hotel where I quietly slip on the blue plastic pony ears that I paid $15 (of non-expensable money) for on the first day of BronyCon. While wearing them around the bronies ended up making me feel like the world's most obvious undercover cop, I can admit that wearing them while alone gives me the tiniest of thrills (not "clopping" thrills, but thrills all the same).
Watching Bravo and accessorized with pale blue ears of Rainbow Dash, I exist in a liminal state—one foot in Brony World, one foot out—and, with nearly a whole bottle of wine coursing through my system, being part brony actually starts to suit me rather well.
I go into my third day at the con in the best mood that I've been in all weekend. Maybe it's left over from my surprisingly benevolent moment with the pony ears the night before. Maybe it's that this strange, lonely weekend in Baltimore is about to be over. Or maybe I'm still drunk. Whatever the case, I'm no longer dragging my feet along the route to the convention center and, shortly after arriving, my newfound good attitude is rewarded by friendship. It almost feels like a plot point of the show we've all gathered to celebrate: Madeleine, a cranky pony on assignment, gets sent to BronyCon to make friends, judges everyone, realizes her mistake and is finally given the companionship she's craved all along.
Through an odd stroke of luck, I get the opportunity to walk around the vendor hall with a brony named Seth. Twenty-one-years-old and visiting from rural Pennsylvania, he's relishing in being surrounded by other bronies because he knows that, as is the case with so many others, it will probably be a full year until he gets to see one again. Usually, his brony friendships are isolated on the internet where he maintains close bonds by creating customized fan art for his closest acquaintances. From the outside, the life sounds fairly isolating, but, as Seth points out, it both is and isn't. He has plenty of friends—it's just that none of them live in easy driving distance. Seth's even willing to guarantee me that he's the only brony living in his entire area. When I ask how he could possibly know that he's the only MLP fan at his small Christian college, he shoots me a look.
"Believe me," he says. "I'd know."
I genuinely like Seth. He's quiet, calm and happy to point out the craziest costumes that pass us by. He has the milk-fed look of a Book of Mormon chorus member and tells me that his favorite pony is Applejack because, like him, she comes from a farm. He's studying to be a teacher and spends his summers working as a camp counsellor.
"The other week, I mentioned to my bunk that I like My Little Pony," he tells me. "And next thing I know, all the boys are admitting to the 'girl' stuff they like. I talked to them about it, like, 'Why are we so ashamed of liking these things?'"
Seth's question reminds me of something said by My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic creator Lauren Faust in the documentary Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony:
"I just want to...thank everyone for supporting the show and thank everyone for showing that little girls and the things that they love are worthwhile."
This, I suppose, is where the bronies truly shine. While I still can't say that I've fully enjoyed my time around them (try not to take this personally, bronies—I don't fully enjoy my time around anyone), I do admire the brave and risky way that they like what they like, despite the rather rigid cultural expectations that dictate that men and boys either aren't supposed to/are not allowed to appreciate things made for a female audience. BronyCon is an oasis where those expectations seemingly evaporate. It's the Island of Misfit Toys, only instead of waiting to find homes in the real world, the toys are patiently waiting for the real world to catch up to them.
I express these thoughts—leaving out the Island of Misfit Toys remark—to Seth and he agrees.
"The truth is that MLP is just a really good show. The characters are good, the art is good and the stories are good and that's why we like it."
"Yeah, it would be nice if we weren't judged so much. There are a lot of misconceptions—like, people assume that we all must be gay," he says as we walk past a booth selling samurai swords and brass knuckles. (Bronies are people of varying interests, I guess.) "But the truth is that MLP is just a really good show. The characters are good, the art is good and the stories are good and that's why we like it."
Resisting the urge to respond with, "Yeah, but have you ever seen an episode of Mad Men?" I agree and a short while later, we amiably part ways so that Seth can go back to the con and I can leave for the airport.
Taking a moment outside the convention center, I watch as a female brony sings operatically into a confused street vendor's face, while, to my left, a girl dressed in electric purple laments to her friends that the weekend is almost over.
"We put on our costumes and have fun and then we take them off and go back to reality," she sighs.
Not all of us, I think as the singing woman—having moved on to an entirely different-but-equally-confused street vendor—does a particularly intense vocal run.
"I wish we could stay forever," the girl next to me adds.
For her sake (and for the sake of Seth, this singing lady and everyone else who's having the time of their life at BronyCon), I wish it could go on forever, too. That said, I'm getting the fuck out of here. I've learned a lot about tolerance and acceptance during my time at pasture with the bronies, but I've also been forced to listen to My Little Pony-themed techno, so—y'know—win some, lose some.
BronyCon is not for me (it never was), but it is for some people and that's just fine.
Illustration by Jim Cooke