Not just for little girls anymore, My Little Pony draws in a new era of fans—including an obsessive legion of adult male ‘Bronies'
Carlos Alfaro—tall and bespectacled like a college-age Harry Potter—pauses on a shag of ugly carpet inside Sacramento State University’s student union to look upon the animated delirium he’s wrought:
Women in shock-color wigs and satin dresses wield empty wine bottles and other curious props like wands. Men in pony-themed earflap beanies debate the political correctness of a cartoon character named “Derpy.” Hundreds of wandering souls clad in bizarre, homemade costumes churn through the union’s conference rooms and gush over a kooky kids’ show that was never intended for them, but is now, irrefutably, theirs.
This is the colorful world of the Brony, the nickname adopted by the adult, often male, devotees of a syrupy little cartoon, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. (“Bro” plus “pony,” get it?)
In September, Alfaro realized a two-year goal of hosting Northern California’s first convention tailored specifically to this crowd. He raised nearly $2,500 through Kickstarter, booked notable Brony personalities from across the country, threw open his college’s doors to more than 500 fans and tipped a very large domino.
Another Brony-centric convention is now slated for April in Burlingame (Alfaro’s not involved in its organization, but he definitely plans to attend). Regular local gatherings also happen though Bronies of Northern California’s Meetup page, while Alfaro presides over Sac State’s My Little Pony and Interests Club.
“It’s amazing,” Alfaro enthuses. “I love this community.”
The soft-voiced art major has every reason to. After all, this cheery cult of obsessives represents the next evolutionary leap in how popular entertainment is consumed—and shaped.
No longer content to sit back and watch, a generation of passionate, social-media-trained fans blur the lines between creator and audience. But what differentiates these fanatics from your run-of-the-mill “shippers” is that the creators actually listen to them. The My Little Pony brand may belong to a multibillion-dollar corporation, but it’s co-written by diehards.
“The first season was all Hasbro,” says Jon, a Brony from Woodland who didn’t give his last name. “The second season was 50 percent Hasbro, 50 percent Bronies, so everything on there had some Brony stuff. The third season’s the same amount. … We gave them ideas and stuff.”
The result is an evolving, crowd-sourced cartoon that takes its cues from its eagle-eyed fandom—fans who are in it for the pure magic of friendship.Dolled-up baby horses and the men who love them
Like any modern pop-culture phenomenon, it all started with the desire to pump up shareholder profits. In 2010, mega toy maker Hasbro rebooted its musty 1980s-era My Little Pony franchise for the millennial generation.
The company’s film and television subsidiary, Hasbro Studios, tapped animator Lauren Faust, whose whiz-bang work on The Powerpuff Girls made her a kiddie-toon star, to develop the new version. And Faust did, imbuing the series with the touches she’s known for: squeaky-voiced, saucer-eyed characters that aren’t as damselesque as they appear; surreal, candy-collaged settings; and deliriously positive messages about being nice and stuff.
Hasbro and DHX Media cranked out 26 episodes that first season on the cable network The Hub, and the show did what it was supposed to, getting a new set of girly-girls addicted to its anthropomorphized pony crack. But then, something insane happened:
The cutesy little cartoon about dolled-up baby horses caught fire with adults. Primarily, male adults.
The show smashed several ratings records on Hub, while episodes catapulted to the top of the iTunes sales chart. The Interwebs exploded with fan pages and online discussion forums. Now, with the fourth season scheduled to begin in November, the magic only grows.
“The Brony community itself is an organic organism,” says Ethan Buchanan, a.k.a. Topkick.
Buchanan became a Brony after making fun of a young man watching the cartoon on a laptop. The littler guy stood up to Buchanan, earning both the latter’s respect and curiosity. While he warmed slowly to the cartoon itself, the fan community sucked him in. The same goes for Woodland’s Jon, who says he was initially put off by the saccharine sweetness.
“I almost punched into the wall to hold in the cuteness,” he cracks.
But Jon, who writes fan fiction that blends the My Little Pony world with video-game franchise Dark Souls, liked the creative departures he saw others take with the source material.
“I love it,” he says of the community, which lets its freak flag fly proudly—and graciously. Believe it or not, Bronies are crazy cool—warm, welcoming, creative and sarcastic in a way that is somehow still kind.
That’s evident throughout the convention: At the “Friendship Is Ebonics” panel, in a packed room with a pungent odor, attendees chuckle at the sound of a MLP:FIM script, filtered through Gizoogle, a site that translates text into “gangster slang.”
“Ah, Spike, you know we ain’t got time for that sort of thing!” a dark-haired woman in a white T-shirt sasses. She then stops, confused by a stage direction. “Do I have to whack him?”
Elsewhere, a frazzled man with a clipboard and red pen scribbles names like “Fluttershy” and “Rainbow Dash” with nary a smirk. He’s at the center of a psychedelic bazaar. Chilled by fluorescent lights, brightly costumed men and women huddle around him, waiting to be signed in for the cosplay contest.
A faceless man wears a dark suit and tie over a green, Lycra bodysuit.
He looks like he’s waiting for a different convention to begin, but someone explains he made himself up to resemble the avatar for anonymous commentators on Brony discussion forums. It’s an inside joke. There are many here.
“Oh yeah, lots of those,” giggles Meredith Ralston, clad in a bright purple wig, eggshell-hued gown and matching gloves.
Just then, a dreamy judge in violet contacts and a unicorn horn glides past. “Does anyone want a banana?” she sings, presenting the yellow fruit in a dainty hand. Everyone laughs.
Such references pinball through this hermetic community like gumballs inside a machine. Yet while nothing in the MLP:FIM mythology translates well to the outside world—as the craning glances from the plebeians in the University Union attest—competing interests make it in.There are Star Wars Bronies, gamer Bronies, EDM Bronies, even Doctor Who Bronies.
“For whatever reason, with this fandom, you can go so many ways with the source material,” says Buchanan, a military Brony who created an alternate universe in which My Little Pony characters navigate a 1960s military setting. (More on them later.)
One of the more popular—and subversive—offshoots is called Lil’ Miss Rarity. It plunks pony characters in a darkly supernatural world as demon hunters and zombie slayers. Its trippy creator, who calls himself Lil Miss Jay, boasts that he’s been booted from Tumblr at least four times for his art. He’s now back up to 10,000 followers.
“I have an incredibly crazy head,” he says from behind a well-trafficked vendor booth displaying his pieces.
But more impressive are the fan creations that actually make it into the cartoon.
In the show’s very first episode, legend goes that an animation error led to one of the background ponies being cross-eyed. Fans embraced the hinky gray Pegasus as an immediate stand-in for themselves, naming her Derpy. By the 15th episode, the show was intentionally animating the character with crossed eyes. The following season, one of the main characters referred to her as Derpy, and she got her first line of dialogue.
“Since she’s different because of her eyes, they teased her,” recounts Michiko Nacol, a fan and artist from Santa Rosa. “But, eventually, they accepted her.
“That’s how we are,” she adds. “We’re different.”Spare no meanies
Around the same time that the costume contest gets going, a less well-attended—but arguably more fascinating—panel starts. In an amber-colored room off to the side, five “military” Bronies quip with audience members as a video presentation queues up.
“Hoo-ah,” a jar-headed Brony by the name of Chris Sargent grunts by way of introduction. He tips his American flag-embossed aviator shades and points out a heavyset man in the middle row. “You, sir, you look like you’re of military persuasion.”
Sargent is right. The middle-aged man with the buzz cut and handlebar mustache is a Navy vet who traveled here from Monterey.
They’re a quippy bunch, these military Bronies, making funny voices from the shadows of their dimly lit stage. They’re all either active-duty or former military personnel—and they’re hard-core My Little Pony fans.
Sargent is a Marine. So is Track Beam, a lance corporal in the artillery division who runs a Facebook page dedicated to military Bronies. He describes the page as an “interface” for Bronies who are already serving or interested in joining the military. There’s also a fan page to just straight-up talk about ponies and share fan art, which depicts these anime-by-way-of-Bratz-dolls ponies dressed in hyper-realistic military gear. In one of the pictures, a pony character is on her belly, laying down a sheet of machine-gunfire. The caption reads: “That’s for hurting my friends you meanies.”
Waiting for the projector to warm up, the panelists egg Sargent into an impromptu performance.
“Do you like impressions?” he cheekily asks to whoops of applause. “What do you want to hear?”
Suggestions are shouted: “Skeletor!” “Morgan Freeman!” “Christopher Walken!”
The last one is greeted with clamoring approval.
Sargent approximates the sticky pauses of the great wacko actor, even warbling a line or two of “Ave Maria.” But it’s not until Sargent-as-Walken starts speak-singing the lyrics to another familiar song that the crowd loses it:
“I used to wonder what friendship could be / Until you all shared its magic with me.”
It’s the theme song to everyone’s favorite show about talking cartoon ponies. By the end, the whole room is singing along:
“You have my little ponies / Do you know that you’re all my very best friends?”
This crowd knows. Oh, how it knows.