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 In 2013, an unaffiliated, unpublished online survey of over 50,000 Bronies found that 85 percent are male.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.
So what do you actually do at a My Little Pony convention? A lot, it turns out.
There were 105 different sessions involving topics like fan fiction, art, and the My Little Pony card game, along with presentations from producers, writers, musicians, and voice actors from the show. Contests included from cosplay, or dressing up as favorite characters, card games, and video games. Bronies filled up the auditorium for a live auction of handmade pony items, which raised $26,874 for a variety of charities. Each night, Bronies flocked to the basement of the convention for Bronypolooza, a six-hour concert featuring a total of 18 different musicians. Whether they knew you or not, BronyCon attendees would willing give out a Broohoof, the pony version of a fist bump, as you passed them in the halls.
Jesse Kendra, 22, a medical sales representative, was frequently asked to pose for pictures and complimented on his cosplay. In the weeks before the convention, Kendra spent his free time working with his grandmother to sew the giant Pinkie Pie mane that he wore on his head throughout BronyCon. As his picture was taken, Kendra had a huge smile on his face and hollered, “I guess I should call my Nana tonight and tell her it was a huge hit.”
Although Kendra attended the year before, this was his first year involving cosplay. For him, it was a totally different experience than just wearing a My Little Pony t-shirt to the convention. “When I went to the convention last year, I had a great time, but I was more of an observer,” said Kendra. “But once I put on my wig, I became my character and was actually a participant in the convention. I actually felt like a completely different person.”
For the second year in a row, Kendra traveled to BronyCon, caravan-style, with fellow Bronies from the Lehigh Valley Brony Group in Pennsylvania. When asked what exactly the group does at meetings, Kendra explained that it’s just the same as any other group of people with a common interest: “We watch episodes, go on hikes, and talk about the show.”
Many Bronies create original artwork based on the show—208 vendors sold their handmade artwork, sculptures, and hats throughout the weekend. One of them, 22-year-old Neil Wacaster, was particularly popular, but he made time to speak to every one of his 35,000 online fans from Facebook and other websites who came to the booth to meet him in real life. As a full-time Brony who has attended over 35 Brony conventions, Wacaster says he has attended more My Little Pony events than any other fan he has met.
“Before I became a Brony, I was barely making a few hundred bucks a month, but now I make a comfortable living selling online and at conventions. I even was able to hire two staff members,” he said.
As the convention winded down and Kendra carried his luggage out to the car, he was already making plans to attend BronyCon 2015. When I asked him his favorite part, he laughed, reminding me there were still two hours left and it wasn’t over yet. “It is incredible to get to meet people I have only talked to online and be around such inspiring people. There is so much positivity and acceptance here. It really was a surreal weekend for me.”