When it comes to superfans, few are as misunderstood as the Bronies — "bros" who unabashedly love an animated cartoon created to entertain little girls. My Little Pony fan Chris Aldous, 20, blames this mostly on the media.
"The media has noticed the Bronies and Brony community recently, and a lot of reports and stories have already been made," he said in a conversation we had over Facebook. "In every single case of someone from the media reporting on Bronies, it gave people horrible, horrible impressions. I'm not saying they intended it, but that's how it ended up."
Aldous, a Bay area native and recent junior college grad, began watching the show out of sheer boredom. Repeated viewings quickly had him hooked, and before long he had joined the ranks of the Bronies.
Naturally, he was hesitant to talk. "To be honest, I'm a bit cautious about helping you," he wrote. But after I assured him the goal was to clear any misunderstandings the public may have he quickly opened up.
My Little Pony largely refers to two things: a line of toys, and a show. The original Hasbro toy line came out in the early '80s, and spawned a number of animated specials, movies, and TV series.
The latest iteration of the brand, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, premiered in late 2010, on The Hub, a cable channel that's partly owned by Hasbro. Only then did Bronies become invested in the tiny, mythical creatures. Grown, tech savvy men, were drawn to the show's characters, animation style, and uplifting themes.
"I knew of the show (from YouTube), and just one day I said to myself 'Meh, why not watch it?'" said Aldous. "From then it was the typical, 'just one more episode, just one more episode, just one more episode.'"
Others used message and imageboard sites like 4chan.org to spread their love for MLP. (The New York Observer credits 4chan with giving "Birth to the Bronies.") Andrew Benage, Media Laison for BronyCon, the largest MLP fan convention in the world, is one such Brony.
"At first I wasn't that into [MLP], but when I started to get online and see these different fan made things, that really got me into it," he said.
Galvanized by the show's reboot, Bronies have quickly built one of the most passionate fandoms in the world.
From Message Boards to Massive Conventions
Initially scorned by the 4chan community, Bronies now have their own dedicated board on the website. But that doesn't mean they've confined themselves to the annals of a geeky Web bulletin. No, they've branched out considerably since 2010, organizing various meet-and-greets around the world. Which brings us back to BronyCon.
In June 2011, roughly 100 people showed up to the first annual BronyCon, held in New York City. This past June, over 4,000 superfans flooded New Jersey for the 4th annual event. (BronyCon had to change locations in order to accommodate the larger crowd.) My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic creator, Lauren Faust, attended, as did a number of voice actors.
"It's enormous growth," said Benage. "I've never seen it with any other fandom I've been involved in. This is Star Wars or Star Trek levels of growth. It's exciting."
And the Brony rise doesn't appear to be slowing down. Benage expects between 6,000 and 8,000 people (despite what the name suggests, an unscientific study found that only 86 percent of Bronies are male) to attend next year's BronyCon. "This last one we had tons of people from around the world attend," he said. "I think there will be even more international folk next year."
The Media's Effect
In July, Howard Stern explored the topic of Bronies on his radio show. It didn't take long for the shock jock to begin mocking the community. "It's a bleak life," he said. "You know how Comic-Con is sort of for losers, let's be honest. Comic-Con people are winners, compared to BronyCon."
Does the world need more Bronies? If an influx in adult men watching talking ponies can contribute to a more benevolent, loving society, then the answer's yes.Then there's Jerry Springer, who in July put out a casting call, via Twitter, inviting Bronies to join his show. Given the level of discourse on an average episode, most feared the controversial host would attempt to ridicule them.
Tara Strong, an MLP voice actress who openly interacts with the Brony community, was quick to denounce Springer's move. "Listen to your queen Bronies….NOPONY go on Springer," she tweeted. Self-proclaimed royalty, Strong is the closest thing to a leader Bronies have.
"Tara is basically the one who will fight the media to earn respect for the Bronies," Aldous said. "Every Brony will probably agree when I say the Brony community would not be the same without her."
Benage agreed Strong deserves credit for defending the superfans. But he doesn't believe the media has a vendetta out against the community. "For the most part, the media has been on our side," he said. "You've got Howard Stern and a few others that will always fester everybody and everything, but in general, it's helped."
Deflecting Hatred and Spreading Love
It would take an army of Strongs to stop people from misunderstanding the Bronies. Put simply, there's something intrinsically different about men who adore animated creatures named Applejack, Bubbles, and Bon Bon. But these guys aren't blind. Nor are they naive. Aldous knows the show was designed for little girls. He just doesn't give a crap.
"WE COULD CARE LESS," he wrote, suggesting this was a topic he's had to deal with before. "Despite what people say, MLP is completely legit."
Benage channeled his inner Libertarian when asked how he deflects the flack that comes with being a vocal male fan of a little girl's cartoon. "Is it necessary for people to control what certain people can see or do? What business of mine is it what you do or watch?" he said, before addressing the economic value of a college educated, adult fan base.
"Demographics are not meant to exclude. They're meant to include specific groups. I can tell you that Hasbro's definitely not upset [about Bronies]. We buy their stuff. It benefits a lot of people, it stimulates the market. I don't see it being negative for anyone, except for those who are bothered by the fact that grown men watch a show that has ponies in it."
Some are bothered by Bronies. Others, like rock star Andrew W.K. admire them. Admittedly unfamiliar with the show, he nevertheless accepted an invitation to speak at a recent Brony convention in New Jersey.
"I can relate to the idea of excitement, of happiness, of joy, of friendship, and of magic, so it's been a privilege to learn about this, to be invited to learn more about it and then to go and share whatever insights I have about happiness in general with these folks that clearly are very dedicated to that emotion," he told us during a recent interview.
It's tough to find fault with a show that champions happiness, joy, love, and friendship. You don't have to watch the cartoon to understand why good-minded people would embrace its message. Benage admits there are various reasons — be it the art, the music, or the writing — why a Brony may latch on to MLP. But he certainly agrees with Aldous and W.K.'s sentiments.
"In our day and age, people have lost a lot of these values. So it strikes a chord with them and they think 'I should be a better person at doing this or that.' So initially, I think that was the appeal. Aside from all the other things like the music, the art, the writing and all that was great. But in essence, everybody wants to be more value driven."
All this begs the question: Does the world need more Bronies? If an influx in adult men watching talking ponies can contribute to a more benevolent, loving society, then perhaps the answer is yes.
"I would love to see more Bronies," said Benage. "In the end I think they're people that are definitely more understanding. They're people who hopefully won't jump to conclusions and judge people, because they know what that feels like. And I think the world definitely needs more people like that."