This weekend, the city of Baltimore will welcome more than 6,000 attendees to BronyCon, the largest convention for My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic fans, most of whom are young adult males. Since the revamped series debuted on The Hub in October 2010, it has developed a devoted following outside its intended demographic of girls ages 2 to 11. These unexpected fans, known as bronies (bro + ponies), have grown into a diverse and impassioned community, united over one thing: a sincere love of ponies.
There's nothing ironic or perverse about bronies, though at first mention one might assume so. Many bronies themselves were reluctant to start watching the series. "I actually didn't like it the first time I saw it," explains a young man known as Sethisto, who runs the popular pony fan site Equestria Daily. But once Sethisto got to Episode 2, which featured a geek-tastic manticore, the Dungeons and Dragons fan found himself surprisingly happy outside his typical comfort zone. "At first, you rebel against the fact that you're watching something with cute ponies and big anime eyes, but eventually it grows on you," he says. "You just suck it up and say, 'Yeah, I like this.'"
Another brony, Alex Davidson, experienced a similar reluctance when he started watching MLP as a way to connect with a shy student. "I was expecting to hate it. I figured it would be along the same lines as watching Barney or something, but it turned out to be something totally different," Davidson says. He finally realized that "although I still felt odd about it, I was proud to admit that I loved a TV show made for little girls."
According to Hub CEO and President Margaret Loesch, who executive-produced the original My Little Pony series in the 1980s, male pony fans aren't a modern phenomenon. She recalls getting fan mail from young men throughout the '80s and '90s expressing their love for the series. But that previous generation of male MLP fans has nothing on the bronies, whose passion is fueled to new heights by the new series' high-quality animation, voice-acting and writing. (And don't forget: Today's bronies also have the camaraderie of an extremely active Internet community.)
Each episode of MLP follows The Mane Six, a group of young ponies based on traditional female archetypes. But MLP subverts these clichés and demonstrates that these characters aren't just girly ponies, but fully developed personalities with a genuine level of depth and believability. They have normal jobs and hobbies and use their unique talents to defeat evil and overcome obstacles, which can be as basic as Twilight Sparkle's first slumber party to outsmart the wily trickster Discord (voiced by Star Trek's John de Lancie). Much like Pixar films, the series is also sprinkled with adult humor and pop culture references (yes, there really were Big Lebowski ponies), which help attract an older audience.
Bronies are also drawn to the series' message of love, tolerance and friendship. In the current television landscape, riddled with Walter Whites and lovable psychopaths, finding an escape into a kinder, more idealistic world can be rare (and sometimes much-needed). "Probably the most special thing about it, though, is that it's just so positive and colorful and nice that I can't help but feel happy after watching it," Davidson says.
There are also those in the community who look to the series for life lessons and aid in overcoming social issues. The documentary Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Fans of My Little Pony (premieres Monday, Oct. 14 at 10/9c on Logo) has a strong focus on those fans, including the inspirational tale of one brony with Asperger's who went on his first unaccompanied trip to a U.K. brony convention. His story isn't representative of all bronies, of course. "The majority of people are smart enough and have enough life experience in this fandom to not really need the show to teach them how to live life," Sethisto explains.
Davidson agrees with Sethisto, saying that most of his brony friends debunk the socially anxious stereotype and are actually quite extroverted, communal people. "If I were to say the fandom was any one thing, I'd say we're nerds. Just like any other group of nerds, we have our extroverts, introverts, socially awkward, smart, silly and artistic members. If you had a group of Doctor Who fans, a group of Star Trek fans, and a group of bronies all together in the same room and told them they couldn't mention their respective fandoms, I'd say you'd have an extremely hard time telling them apart."
While not all bronies rely on the show for moral guidance, many have taken its message of kindness and put it to real use. Bronies are very active in philanthropy, including a designated brony non-profit, The Brony Thank You Fund, along with other organizations such as Bronies for Good, which raised more than $60,000 in 2012 for the Children's Cancer Association.
No matter the type of brony one identifies with, the fandom is groundbreaking in its approach to gender commentary. Detractors assume that male fans of a children's pony show must be some combination of gay, socially incompetent and perverted. "We live in a society that automatically thinks that because something was made for little girls, it is less than equal, that it should be looked down upon and those who enjoy it are not our equals either," Brockoff says. "The fact that a group of men feel comfortable becoming a fan of something made for little girls shows that gender norms and the lines between pink and blue are starting to break down." Of course, for women — especially those in geek culture — being forced to consume media through a male perspective is an everyday occurrence (and they often still face sexist backlash for doing so). But perhaps the idealism of bronies will shift the tide toward a more gender-equal media world.
Much of the media coverage of the brony phenomenon would have you believe that it's a cabal of sexual deviants with zoophile tendencies. That assumption is not without its basis. There are the more sensational stories, like the man who's "engaged" to Twilight Sparkle, or a disturbing cache of sexualized fan art. For their part, the bronies tend to ignore the sexual subgroup, accepting it as an unavoidable part of any online fandom, bear it no ill will and hope the media follows suit.
Despite these oddities, bronies have been fully embraced by the show's producers. Over the years, The Hub and the MLP actors, writers and artists have generated a close relationship with the fans, showing appreciation through brony shout-outs and keeping in touch through social media. "I was delighted!" Loesch says, recalling the first time that she heard of bronies. "I don't know what people conjure up in their brain about bronies, but it's a very wide spectrum of people, of adults and young adults ... It's men, it's women, it's all kinds of family people, soldiers," she says. "Most of them are just everyday people like you and I who have found something that sweeps them away and entertains them and that they connect with. And that's really all anybody is ever looking for in life, is just to connect with something."
Hasbro, the company that manufactures MLP merchandise, is also very appreciative of the bronies' support. Crystal Flynn, a rep for the toymaker, told TVGuide.com that while Hasbro will always market the brand for young girls, "we've found ways to strike the right balance by working with our licensees to offer our adult fans exciting merchandise geared just for them," including apparel and comics. Though Sethisto notes that bronies often endure a long wait before any new adult merchandise makes it to the shelves. "We're looking for the high-quality, show-style realistic pony toys and those are few and far between," he says. "I don't like the brush-y little manes or any of that." This could explain why many bronies have taken to creating their own memorabilia and tributes to the series, including impressively crafted fan art and surprisingly catchy pony music.
Check out "Discord" by Eurobeat Brony (remixed by The Living Tombstone) below.
There's no doubt that bronies are a talented and passionate bunch, but they are still a social anomaly and one many seek to explain. It has been suggested that bronies are a reaction to the fear instilled by 9/11 or the result of being the first generation raised by feminists, but it's likely that the answer is much simpler than that: Bronies are just people who enjoy MLP and, thanks to the Internet, are able to nurture this passion free from social barriers and inhibitions.
But no matter why so many adults are suddenly embracing a show for little girls, bronies are here to stay. This year's BronyCon is expected to be the largest My Little Pony convention of all time, with three days of non-stop activities, panels and performances. "This show has really exceeded anybody's expectations of when we started it years ago. And it just keeps on growing in popularity and it's quite astonishing to me," Loesch marvels. "I think it's truly going to become a classic while it's in pop culture."
Curious about My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic? Check out the first three seasons on Netflix and tune into Season 4 on The Hub Saturday, Nov. 23.