Seeking Friendship in a World of Cartoon Ponies

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People find friendship in the most unlikely of places – the TV show “My Little Pony.”

Fans of My Little Pony line up outside the “Cotton Candy Club” in Jersey City, N.J., on Dec. 8, 2013. Over 200 “bronies” and “pegasisters” attended Big Apple Ponycon’s December Holiday Party. Credit: Harry Stevens

 

There was little about the three friends’ appearance that betrayed their obsession with cartoon ponies. Sung-Young Trifault was dressed like an accountant on Saturday –khaki pants, blue windbreaker, grey tam – nothing to indicate that he recently spent five hours sewing his own My Little Pony stuffed animal.

Sure, there was Paul-Jon Sanna’s tote bag with the four-inch pony illustration surrounded by a dozen enamel pony pins, but even that could not convey the fierce devotion that last year compelled him to spend seven hours on a bus to Baltimore to attend the biggest BronyCon ever.

And what about Karen Wills? The little pony drawings on her yellow Chuck Taylor sneakers were cute, but they didn’t begin to suggest the scale of her My Little Pony toy collection – about 1,100 at last count.

The three of them had met outside Midtown Comics on 40th Street, where Sanna had just bought two My Little Pony comic books. He was showing them to his friends, who had all kinds of thoughts about Babs Seed, a school-age pony from “Manehattan” who speaks in a thick Bronx accent.

“Babs sounds like she’s older, doesn’t she?” said Wills.

“She’s at least one year older than the CMC,” agreed Trifault, using the acronym for “Cutie Mark Crusaders,” a team of young ponies trying to earn their “cutie marks” – the little icons like flowers or hearts or rainbows emblazoned on the older ponies’ flanks that embody their salient character traits.

“But Babs still hasn’t got a cutie mark yet,” said Sanna.

“So that means that she’s just, you know, a late bloomer,” said Wills.

Trifault, Sanna and Wills are members of a fervent and rapidly expanding cohort known as “bronies” – adult, mostly male fans of the TV show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, which first aired in late 2010 as part of the launch of Hasbro’s new television network, The Hub. The show premiered alongside a retooled version of Transformers, another of Hasbro’s legacy product lines that the company now sought to make fresh for a new generation of boys. Friendship is Magic, with its pastel-colored adolescent ponies, would target girls.

The bronies, most of whom learned of the show on the Internet shortly after its premiere, adore Friendship is Magic. Many have seen each of the series’ 75 episodes more than once. Some bronies will wake up at 6 o’clock Saturday morning to catch a two-hour marathon before the new episode airs at 8. Without fail, bronies will laugh every time Derpy clumsily causes an accident or Pinkie Pie shrieks with excitement.

Being a brony means replacing your wardrobe with pony-themed clothes; it means filling your bedroom shelves with My Little Pony dolls. For the earnest or the wayward, being a brony can mean embracing the motto WWPD – “What would ponies do?” – invoking the happy critters as the devout would the Son of God.

At its worst, being a brony means enduring ridicule from strangers and even friends who insist My Little Pony is for little girls and not grown men. But being a brony also means something more; it means to know you are not alone.

The first time Carlos Barragan, 21, watched Friendship is Magic, he was running a high temperature, and the ponies appeared to him like creatures from some saccharine fever dream. “Oh man,” he recalled thinking. “This is crazy.”

The episode was a rerun of “Luna Eclipsed.” It stars Luna, a princess pony whose terrifying gravitas makes her a social outcast. With the help of Twilight Sparkle, the show’s central protagonist, Luna learns to make friends with the other ponies. Luna’s triumph cuts to the core of what it means to be a brony. They are like Luna: a little lost and little lonely and, so many of them say, longing for friends.

When Barragan joined Bronies-NYC, the 800-plus-member Meetup.com group for New York-area bronies, he wrote on his profile that he hoped it would help him “communicate better with people in real life.” The bronies have since rekindled his social life. “It’s gotten me going out more now, since a lot of my friends are in college in faraway places,” he said. “When I feel bored or something, I go out to a meet up.”

The meet ups are organized by Wills, 40, and Kevin Barry, 22, who hails from the little Long Island coastal hamlet of Mastic. Barry has what he called “a very high functioning autism, like a lot of people in the community do.” Shortly after Friendship is Magic premiered, a handful of Barry’s former classmates at a school for autistic students – “for learning how to speak to people,” as Barry put it – had begun watching the show and were beginning to feel more sociable.

“They were like, ‘You know, I actually want to start talking to people now,’ when back in school they were all like, ‘Why would I want to talk to anyone? That’s stupid, I’m fine by myself,’” said Barry. Friendship is Magic, he explained, “teaches how to talk to people subtly, how to make small talk, how to look people in the eyes, different facial cues and things, in a way so subtle that even a lot of psychologists don’t realize its value.”

One psychologist who has grasped its value is Dr. Patrick Edwards of Spartanville, S.C. Two years ago, Edwards’s son Will, an Eagle Scout, told his dad he was a brony. Rather than discourage his teenage son’s startling new interest, Edwards decided he’d try to understand it. Thus began what has become a massive and thoroughgoing study of the brony phenomenon. In just over two years, Edwards has surveyed over 40,000 bronies.

Edwards explained that clinicians sometimes use cartoons to treat individuals with autism because cartoon characters’ emotions are easily identifiable. Once autists learn to identify cartoon emotions, they can begin to transfer those skills to the complex emotional vagaries of human beings.

“The ponies are so demonstratively expressive,” said Edwards. “I mean, you can read their emotions so well: if they’re happy, if they’re sad, if they’re scared. And I think that that is also part of what gives it that quality, that for some individuals it’s not just a good laugh, it’s a lesson in life.”

To be sure, most bronies are not autistic, and fans cite a variety of reasons – the animation, the storylines, the characters, the humor, the references to classical mythology – for loving the show. But to the uninitiated, the social protocols of brony culture could seem, if not autistic, then certainly foreign and perhaps even a little strange.

Dispensing with personal inquiries and observations about the weather, bronies instead talk almost exclusively about ponies. Their conversation is filled with acronyms like “CMC” for “Cutie Mark Crusaders” and “MLP” for “My Little Pony” as well as expressions from the show like “20 percent cooler” and “10 seconds flat.” Bronies sometimes lapse into the equine vocabulary used by the ponies on the show – “anybody” becomes “anypony,” “handmade” becomes “hoofmade.” When bronies greet each other in person, they pound fists, but they call it a “brohoof.”

Scattered across the 50 states and in countries like the U.K., Australia, Germany, Mexico and Finland, the brony community mostly mingles and grows in digital space. But when bronies do congregate in real life – or IRL, the acronym by which the non-digital world is known in Webspeak – they have been known to descend en masse upon major cities for days at a time. At the most recent BronyCon, for example, 8,407 bronies and pegasisters, the bronies’ scarcer female counterparts, packed the Baltimore Convention Center and Hilton Baltimore Hotel for three days.

That weekend, just a half mile west of BronyCon, Baltimore was busy hosting a much larger exhibition of tribal rapture at Camden Yards, where 91,937 fans gathered to watch the Orioles drop two out of three games to the Seattle Mariners. While media reports failed to mock the baseball fans, the same could not be said of the bronies. In a news segment that aired over the weekend, the anchors of a local Fox affiliate spent a full three minutes barely stifling their laughter at the thousands of men and women who flocked in droves to the convention.

If the conventions are the most visible examples of brony culture, they are far from the most common. “Our New York group is so tight knit,” said Wills, who works in a flower shop during the day. Wills just bubbles when she describes New York’s brony scene, where she is elder statesman and big sister rolled into one. “We get together almost every weekend and just go out on the town and just hang out. We go to the comic book store. We’ll go and get food. We’ll go to the movies. We’ll rent a studio and show our own movies, and then we’ll hang and exchange gifts, and we’ll go ice skating, and we’ll go shopping.”

So it was on a Wednesday afternoon in November that Wills, Trifault and Sanna, having traveled by train from Midtwon Comics to the Queens Center Mall in Elmhurst, strode towards the entrance of the Hot Topic, a retail chain that stocks a cornucopia of pony-related merchandise.

“All right,” said Wills, “let’s go hunting.”

The Hot Topic’s racks were covered with pony pillowcases, night slippers and pajamas (dubbed “lounge pants” by the manufacturer to avoid having to make them flame resistant). There were pony ankle-socks and pony no-show socks. There were hooded pony bathrobes and hooded pony sweatshirts. There were pony wristbands, loafers and t-shirts. There were pony panties with pink frilly lining. There were pony comic books, enamel pins, zip wallets and vinyl collectible pony toys for $16.50.

Bronies are eager consumers. More than half have bought My Little Pony merchandise, or “pony merch,” produced or licensed by Hasbro in the past year, according to a recent survey by Dr. Edwards. But bronies are prolific creators, too. A recent search of deviantArt, an online artists’ community, for “my little pony” returned 1,140,325 results, including paintings of fan-created characters, ponies reimagined in human form, pony costumes, and at least one geometric study of the ponies’ physical dimensions.

Wills operates a deviantArt space under the name Kar Red Roses where she showcases her custom-made dolls. She has sold several Luna dolls for $40, and she once sold a princess pony for $200. As she sits in her apartment painting pony dolls, she sometimes puts on Friendship is Magic in the background. If she works for three hours, she can watch six episodes.

Bronies also make music. Barry used to play mandolin, harmonica and keyboard in a brony folk-metal band called NeighSlayer. “Just like any other band,” he said. “Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, although we didn’t really have the sex part because in early brony community not a lot of women were as engaged in the community as they are now.” When the band broke up, Barry began composing pony-themed electronic remixes under the stage name Kezz.

In early December, about a month after the Hot Topic trip, Wills hosted a party for roughly 200 bronies and pegasisters in Jersey City at the Landmark Loew’s Jersey Theater, which to mark the occasion she renamed “The Cotton Candy Club.” An off-Broadway soprano performing under the name Lady Aria Phantasy regaled the crowd with operatic versions of tunes from Friendship is Magic. Later, Barry played a DJ set. Wills’s custom dolls were on display beneath plexiglass cases.

But the mother lode of pony art was located upstairs off the theater’s balcony, on display courtesy of the Traveling Pony Museum. The museum’s proprietors, mostly students in their 20s, have traveled together across North America’s highways, showcasing works of fan art at brony conventions. They’ve been to BronyCon in Baltimore and New Jersey, Big Apple Ponycon in New York, Everfree Northwest in Seattle, Sweet Apple Acres in Nashville, DerpyCon in New Orleans, Canterlot Convention in Toronto, and Trotcon in Columbus, Ohio.

The Traveling Pony Museum’s collection consisted of works by bronies and pegasisters from around the world. Several of the images on display were digital renderings of the ponies of such high artistic quality that they far surpassed any of the animation on the actual show. There was also an acrylic-on-canvas recreation of Ponyville as seen from a bird’s eye view, a pony-themed homage to René Magritte’s The Son of Man, a detailed and accurate scale model of Fluttershy’s tree cottage, as well as several hand-made stuffed animals, toys, pins and coins that could apparently be used as legal tender in Equestria, the kingdom where Friendship is Magic takes place.

The most coveted fan art can fetch sums well in excess of $1,000. Hasbro tolerates the sales as long as they comply with fair use law, though the company has sent cease and desist letters to fan artists trading on the names of actual characters from the show.

Ian Haken had come to the Traveling Pony Museum to see his own artwork on display. He had crafted a paper and foam three-dimensional diorama depicting a giddy Twilight Sparkle bounding through the rolling hills of Ponyville beneath a cumulus-cloudy sky. He guessed that the diorama took him between 25 and 30 hours to build.

Haken, 27, was slight and bespectacled and wore a tie. A Ph.D. candidate in mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley, Haken was in New York for a few days to interview for jobs at financial firms. “I didn’t really do art stuff before I got into ponies,” he said, “and it inspired me to start doing something.”

Haken was a member of a brony group in Northern California, but he liked to look up brony clubs when he traveled. He had been in Seattle at Everfree Northwest, where he served as the convention’s director of information technology. When he was studying in Buenos Aires for a semester, he managed to find a My Little Pony convention attended by some 150 Argentinian bronies. “That really surprised me,” he said.

The conversation turned to the improbability of it all, of defying both gender- and age-related stereotypes in order to build so much of a life around a make-believe world filled with ponies and designed for little girls. Haken admitted that, had someone told him three years ago that he would become a brony, he would have thought they were nuts.

“Pretty much no one that likes it,” he said, “thought they were going to.” He grinned as he looked across the dance floor of the Cotton Candy Club, where the bronies, gathered in a circle, had begun to dance.

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