The college-age guy sitting next to me is wearing pink pony ears, a My Little Pony t-shirt, and pink, felt tail pinned to his jeans.
He’s not alone. At BronyCon, a three-day convention held last week in Baltimore for mostly adult fans of My Little Pony, many of the 9,607 attendees are male—and in costume. Some wear wigs. Many sport felt ears. Others dress in My Little Pony t-shirts decorated with a few pony-themed buttons. Among them are a few teenage and college girls, mostly wearing hand-sewn outfits.
People may assume that most fans of the My Little Pony television show are young girls, but that’s not necessarily true. Back in 2011, “Brony”—a combination of the word bro and pony—was coined in a discussion on a 4Chan message board online. Now, the subculture has an estimated 8 to 12 million fans. In 2013, an unaffiliated, unpublished online survey of over 50,000 Bronies found that 85 percent are male. Their average age is 21.
One of the researchers, Daniel Chadborn, who is currently enrolled in the psychology Ph.D. program at Southeastern Louisiana University, says Bronies have gotten a lot of attention over other fandoms because they violate a number of social norms. “There is a societal idea of what it means to be male or female, and they are going against that,” he said. “The show is predominantly marketed towards prepubescent girls. Bronies are saying, ‘We’re not only not prepubescent girls—we’re not girls.’”
Each time I told people I was taking my daughter to a Brony convention, I got a taste of some the misconceptions and prejudices that Bronies face when coming “out of the stable," which is the phrase fans use for telling people about being a Brony. The most common response was a blank stare. A few of my friends were genuinely curious to learn more and thought it was very interesting. Others tried to be polite and ask a few questions, but even after I tried to explain, they really never quite understood the appeal. Several people responded in a judgmental way—of those who were familiar with Brony culture, most assumed that all male Bronies are gay.
But another of the researchers, Patrick Edwards, an adjunct faculty member at the University of South Carolina Upstate, says this is not true. “There is a slightly lower percentage of gay men among Bronies than the general population. Male Bronies are actually less likely to be gay than other men.” His team has found that the opposite is true among women. “Female Bronies tend to be searching for the identity and exploring, so it makes sense that one of the things that they explore is their sexuality,” he says.
Walking into BronyCon 2014 for the first time was a bit nerve-wracking. As the mother of a tween girl, I didn’t know how I would feel about a room full of men dressed up in costumes typically seen on young girls. But surprisingly, it wasn’t creepy. My 12-year-old daughter and I never felt uncomfortable, and we didn’t see any deviant or perverted behavior. In fact, the atmosphere was accepting, light-hearted, and friendly. The men looked and acted just as masculine as they would at a sporting event or any other place where guys hang out—pony ears notwithstanding.
When I agreed to take my daughter to the conference, I was prepared for us to be among the few females at the event. But I was surprised to see many more girls and families than I expected. According to registration data, this year’s attendees were 65 percent male and 34 percent female, and 10 percent were younger than 14. Edwards, who spoke at two sessions this year and has attended four BronyCons, says he has seen an increase in the number of girls and younger fans at the conventions—this is an indication of the overall sub-culture becoming more diverse in terms of age and gender, he thinks.