Wandering through the Baltimore Convention Center during BronyCon, it's hard not to stare at everypony.
According to the official attendance tally, the gathering has attracted more than 8,000 bronies, primarily adult men who are fans of the cartoon My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (MLP:FiM), the fourth generation of the MLP juggernaut aimed primarily at little girls. Some are costumed like characters from the show, furry pony heads atop full-body fur suits, cutie marks stamped on their hips. Others are in T-shirts and jeans, only a patch on a backpack or a pin giving away their fandom. All are into a television show based on a plastic Hasbro toy first introduced in 1983. To an outsider, this subculture contains all the elements of something creepy. Grown men seemingly obsessed with a little girls' cartoon program, dressed in giant fur suits and engaging in some kind of "pony play."
But as I come to learn over the weekend, "brony" is a far more complicated identity, one that tells us as much about the mainstream culture that bronies resist as it does about what makes a man love a cartoon horse. Sure, there are plenty of adult men dressed in MLP-inspired fur suits ("fur-suiters"), but they are mostly posing for pictures with eager fans of all ages or knocking hooves with friends in a nod to shared costume excellence. There are also plenty of excited little kids, middle-aged women, heterosexual couples, whole families, mother-son and father-son pairs, and also lots of non-bronies (bronies-in-training?) attending the Con with friends, partners, family, or just to see what this (to the outsider) impossibly strange event might be all about.
As it turns out, bronies are not so much strange as they are open to strangeness, welcoming difference in themselves and in others. Psychologists and researchers Patrick Edwards and Marsha Redden recently completed a study of 40,000 Bronies and they found that, on the whole, bronies are more introverted than non-bronies, but they are not more likely to be gay or unemployed than a yoked control group of non-bronies. Bronies also showed higher levels of absorption, or the ability to get lost in something. The doctors also found that the "love and tolerance" message of MLP makes brony a safe identity and home for those who might have trouble fitting in elsewhere, and that bronies are more open to unique social experiences than non-bronies.
In studying non-bronies to gauge what sort of person might be interested in the subculture, they found that those who have a generally positive attitude toward bronies after viewing an episode and being told about brony fandom are also less concerned with social convention, more open to difference, less swayed by gender stereotypes, and generally just more curious than those who remain negative and even hostile about the community. Ultimately, the good doctors found that brony is a diverse community composed of open and agreeable people, setting it apart from many other fan groups. As Dr. Edwards noted, "A lot of fandoms aren't welcoming to people who are different."
And while bronies and the people who love them come in all shapes and sizes, what binds them all is a shared love of My Little Pony and a commitment to the ideals made plain in the show: love, kindness, tolerance, loyalty, and friendship. In the MLP cosmology, every pony has a special talent, something the group needs to survive. As I ask bronies who their favorite pony is, they invariably refer to the talent of their prize pony. Brony Isaiah Young, for example, has two favorites: Rarity and Applejack. Rarity, a purple pony who spends a lot of time on her makeup and hair, has dreams and the drive to achieve them. Applejack, a cowboy pony who runs an apple orchard, is strong and stands up for her family in the face of strife and danger. Both ponies demonstrate qualities Young admires in himself and in others.
Passionate arguments about the best or most important pony ran through the halls and meeting rooms; a panel discussion of the voice actors for the show was prefaced with impromptu chants in support of one or the other My Little Pony character. The ponies each have a primary personality trait that makes them an important member of the group. Applejack's honesty and dependability, Fluttershy's kindness, Rainbow Dash's loyalty, Pinkie Pie's laughter, Rarity's generosity, and Twilight Sparkle's magic are all essential to the larger friendship, and the ultimate message is that everypony is unique and everypony has value, a lesson in line with the major moral traditions of the world.
These positive messages are everywhere at the conference, and what that practically means is that there is space for all kinds of people to find a home here. Indeed, the friendship and sense of community draw many bronies to the fandom in the first place. I meet Young as he works his security shift at the Traveling Pony Museum, a collection of fan art that appears as a pop-up museum at BronyCon and other gatherings and conventions around the country. He first learned about bronies while hanging out on YouTube. A My Little Pony-related link popped up in his list of suggested videos, and he gave it a look. And then he looked more, and more, and then he found out about a meet-up of bronies in New York City. He made his way to the semi-secret gathering in a corner of Chinatown, and there he found a social world that made sense, that helped him feel at home.
As he explains his story, a tween approaches the table to ask about a piece of artwork.
"Is that a steampunk Applejack?" he inquires, pointing at a Pony figurine wearing tiny bronze-colored goggles and a belt around one leg. Young engages with the much-younger fan, showing him different pieces and talking to him fan-to-fan, brony-to-brony, in spite of the age difference between them. They are just part of the same community. Young turns back to me, and I ask him what he likes best about the brony life. Aside from the social aspects that he credits with helping him get through a tough patch in his personal life, Young likes the fact that bronies erase the misconception that just because something might be produced with a certain audience in mind-little girls-does not mean that the rest of us can't watch it too. We can all enjoy My Little Pony, he insists.
At a nearby table, people scribble away on tiny sheets of paper. They are doing quick fan-art sketches, and all of them will be scanned and uploaded to the digital fan-art archive of the museum. Creativity is another vital part of the brony lifestyle, and everyone is a part of it.
The cosplay (costume play) that the group is probably best known for is just one example of that creativity-but the costumes are impressive. Saturday morning features a cosplay photoshoot. A circle of shouting bronies gathers in the massive hallway. People cheer and dance and hold up their phones to snap pictures as people call out the names of characters they want to see jump in the middle and pose together.
"Flim, Flam, and Applejack!"
"No, all the Applejacks!"
I ask organizer Benjamin Haines if I might ask him some questions about what is happening here-to the untrained eye, it does not make a whole lot of sense.
"Yes," he says, but "please, please, no pictures." He has obviously been working hard and late to help make the convention happen, and he's tired. He explains that the photoshoot is led by a volunteer who coordinates the calls for certain character matches, but that everyone can get in on the action; it had been going on for over an hour and is still going strong. Getting a photo at this photoshoot was a bit tricky as it was easy to find oneself blocked out by the concentric rings of camera-phone shooters. He hurried away to the next task, and the photoshoot continued, everyone either in costume or in position to take pictures and admire the handiwork of their fellow bronies.
Costuming is just one aspect of Brony creative life. The Con hosts panels for bronies who want to learn how to write their own adventure stories and fan fiction (fanfic), make their own animations, create new pony characters, practice voices, produce music videos inspired by the show, and even learn to take critique of their artistic productions. The Baltimare Theater screened not just My Little Pony episodes but also original fan films, segments of the My Little Pony/Brony documentary-in-progress, The Brony Chronicles, and pony music videos, some of which set hit songs to scenes from the show. Saturday afternoon featured a Pony Video Award Ceremony from the PMVToday pony video contest.
BronyCon offered outlets for creative bronies of all cutie marks, and all creativity is valued. Quills & Sofas provided a quiet space for creative types to chill out and talk shop, write on the message boards, or contribute to the word-building board (a board with letters that can be moved to make connecting words). The Salt Block offered a cosplay repair station for those whose creativity revealed itself in costuming. The room also featured a blank canvas wall for anyone to draw or write on. The Blank Canvas Studio sponsored a special room to showcase some of the best fan art and to run an art contest. And there are enough Brony-inspired musical acts to fill two full nights-12 hours-of hoof-shaking and flank-raising fun at BronyPalooza, "the largest brony concert in the world." These conference spaces exemplified the fan-driven nature of the conference and Brony life more generally, one that, while dependent in some respects on Hasbro, My Little Pony's maker, has created a life and economy entirely outside of those bounds.
Official Hasbro merchandise is in short supply at the brony marketplace, which is entirely brony-driven. Fan artwork is sold at the Vendor Fair, where brony sketch artists share space with bronies who make and market all kinds of Pony swag: pins, magnets, sets of wings, prebraided tails, handmade plushies, jewelry, sparkly everything, and more. At other conventions, the vendor fair might be dominated by companies selling mass-produced goods to fans, but BronyCon is made by the fans, for the fans, and anypony can apply for booth space to sell art. There are, of course, companies that mass-produce for this market, but Hasbro is conspicuously absent. It's clear that whatever the intent of the producers of this show, Bronycon is all about the bronies themselves.
To be at BronyCon is to feel the unmitigated joy of the fans. From impromptu dance parties in the hallways to the fur-suiters posing with all comers, BronyCon is clearly a space of love and affection. For instance, can you imagine any other space where the youngest members of the crowd would be encouraged to jump to the front of the line because the youngest simply should go first? Bronies seem to assume the best of people, and many conference attendees were committed to doing social good while there, donating to or bidding at the charity auction of fan-created art or becoming involved with Bronies for Good, a group that organizes service projects for bronies all over the world to join and make a difference in their communities. Frank Kilpatrick, nervous for the reputation for open giving that characterizes bronies, even organized an awareness campaign for his fellow conference attendees, warning them of the dangers of those who might take advantage of the brony tendency to think the best of people.
All of this can sound rather Pollyannaish to an outsider, and that simple question remains: What do we make of grown men being so obsessed with a show meant for little girls? This stumbling block keeps many in the mainstream suspicious of bronies. For bronies like Young, this question misses the point altogether. The part where an unexpected group can be so engaged in the program just means the program has unexpectedly broad appeal-what's wrong with that? Asked if he gets teased for being a Brony, 16-year-old Harford County resident Ray Bell says yes, but he just shrugs it off. "It's my thing, whatever." Antonia LaRouche, 21, agrees that, sure, some may find Brony culture weird, but she argues that "the weirdness is what makes it cool." If part of what makes a brony is, at least in part, a tendency to resist social conventions, then calling bronies weird is more of a compliment than anything. And there are plenty of people calling bronies weird, and fans know that. In fact, brony Adam Davis' favorite pony is not part of the official Hasbro collection at all, but rather a fan-created pony named Klown King or Trickster; his special talent is making fun of people who make fun of bronies.
Why is there so much hostility toward bronies, who by and large are simply fans of a television show that bronies argue is simply good television-clever scripts, believable characters, great animation, and powerful messages? LaRouche loves the show partly because it is one of the few shows on television she finds herself watching without added, technologically aided distractions. LaRouche attended BronyCon with her boyfriend, Craig Iaboni, also 21. He does not identify as a Brony but was attending to support his girlfriend. He likes Game of Thrones, a show with plenty of ardent fans, none of whom are singled out for ridicule. There is a difference, however, and it has to do with gender, the giant elephant in the room. Game of Thrones is made for consumption by adults of any gender. My Little Pony is made for little girls, and for most people, the strong pull of gender norms means that any man interested in such programming is most certainly suspect. But perhaps this is BronyCon's greatest strength-carving out a space where boys and men, straining at the bit against the narrow norms of masculinity, can meet and share in aspects of femininity so often denied them.
And let's be real: norms of masculinity are incredibly strict and confining. Being a man in this culture means being strong, tough, violent, and sexually prolific. Even as new representations loosen these binds a bit, making way for metrosexuals to take pride in their appearance or for the Jersey Shore dudes to call "Gym, Tan, Laundry" a man's routine without getting painted with the "gay" brush, masculinity still means, at base, not being feminine and refusing most feminine attributes, the very attributes embodied by My Little Pony.
But why should these attributes belong to only one gender? Why should women be the only ones who are allowed to be gentle, kind, loyal, and generous with their friends? BronyCon allows men to express themselves in ways mainstream culture deems pure faggotry, the very worst thing one can say about a man. Bronies are challenging ideals of masculinity and, like Applejack tending her orchard, are breaking new ground and encouraging new ways of being to grow there. And bronies are everywhere, even in that most masculine of places: the military. BronyCon featured a panel presentation of "proud service bronies," and conference attendee Ivan Diaz found brony fandom a great way to unwind from the pressures of serving in the Navy. He reports that he is certainly not alone, and many of his shipmates are also bronies. It is perhaps this very challenge to the basic gender norms that structure so much of our daily lives-how we talk to each other, what we think we can be, what roles we imagine we will play in our relationships, what we do for fun, what we buy at the drugstore and grocery, the list goes on and on-that makes Bronyism so threatening and so potentially powerful in individual lives, and in a culture so deeply hooked on the drug of gender normativity.
The brony life skews gender for everyone, including women. BronyCon boasted many women attendees, and they were welcome, despite the presumption of "bro." Some call these women "Pegasisters" or "fillies," while others just call them bronies. Or, as LaRouche strongly stated, "I can be a bro even though I'm a girl!"
In this formulation, brony culture opens spaces for women, too, who challenge assumptions about femininity. The show itself, for example, offers one of the few representations of female friendship on television that is not about catfighting in the competition for men, but instead models close, supportive friendships built on listening, teamwork, and learning to forgive each other as relationships encounter conflict and grow deeper. That My Little Pony became a phenomenon not when it was a hit with the little girls who first loved it-we rarely care what they want-but only when men began to obsess over the show confirms that bronies don't operate entirely out of mainstream gender norms. BronyCon cannot stand outside patriarchy any more than any other subculture can; the difference is that the Brony life is committed to gender diversity in a way other fan cultures simply are not. Non-normative expressions of gender in a state-funded football arena can get you killed. At BronyCon, no one bats an eye, unless, of course, your fursuit is worth it.
As I approach Stephanie Langton, a sharply dressed woman lingering outside Quills & Sofas, I have a strong feeling that she is not a Brony; the slightly nervous look about where to go next and the eyes flitting up and down from her Guidebook give her away. I ask her and confirm: No, she's not a brony. She is here to support her son, a 22-year-old brony who writes fanfic. Langton is guarded when I ask if I can ask her a few questions; she does not want to be part of anything that will just rehash old stereotypes and stigmatize all bronies as gay pedophiles with an unhealthy obsession with little girl's things. Her son is not gay-though plenty of bronies are, Langton is quick to point out, and that is a really good part of BronyCon-but he is a writer. He has found a great community of fellow writers who support him, give him feedback, and share their work with him, and Langton is glad for that. Langton is at BronyCon because she wants to "get it."
I ask her if she actually watches My Little Pony, and we both relax as the questions have become less personal. She does, and although she is a grown woman-certainly not the audience for this little kid's show-she enjoys it.
"It is a good reminder to be kind to each other," Langton says. Indeed it is.