Joe Strike joins 4,000 "bronies" to witness the show's remarkable growing fan base first hand.
It’s the last day of June and the first day of ‘BroNYCon,’ a gathering of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic fans. ‘NYC’ might be in caps, but the venue is in New Jersey: the Meadowlands Exposition Center, a cavernous building in the midst of an office park not far from Manhattan. In case you’re unawares, a brony (as in ‘brother pony’) is on the average a teen-age to 20-something (and mostly likely male) Pony fan.
The first BroNYCon took place a year ago in a mid-Manhattan rehearsal hall with 100 bronies in attendance. The second in September attracted 300 fans to a Chinatown loft; in January 850 bronies gathered in a cramped midtown hotel ballroom.
The sold-out attendance today: 4,000.
I’ll repeat that: four thousand fans of a show intended for pre-adolescent girls, based on a toy line targeted to the same demographic are here. They’re here to see series creator Lauren Faust, several of its voice talents – and each other. Some have travelled hundreds of miles, driven across several states or flown in from far-off countries. (I’m told a Finland brony is part of the throng.)
Human versions of the show’s ponies abound, many in exquisitely detailed costumes. There are numerous versions of show stars Twilight Sparkle, Rainbow Dash, Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy and Rarity. Secondary ponies, crowd scene ponies and ponies that appeared in single episodes are represented as well. (Indiana Jones-style adventurer Daring Do, fashion snob Hoity-Toity and my favorite, the masked Mysterious Mare Do Well are particularly impressive.) There’s also a couple of full-body, mascot suited ponies on hand, courageous enough to venture outside the Exposition Center into the 90-degree heat.
The Center itself is a vast, echoing space – a big box. A floor to ceiling black curtain physically (but not aurally) separates the “Mane Stage” at the back of the hall from the rest of the building. (The stage’s malnourished sound system is occasionally overwhelmed by competing audio from the nearby “Tail Stage.”)
Before you can reach either stage you must run a gauntlet of dealers’ booths. Most of them are occupied by bronies selling fan art, jewelry, posters and the like, but the largest and most crowded one belongs to “Welovefine,” the numero uno creator of pony T-shirts, shoulder bags and etcetera. (Their screaming graphics loot bag is so enormous you could hide a baby elephant – or full-size pony – inside.)
Welovefine produces dozens upon dozens of Pony tees, many designed by the fans and all approved by Hasbro, owner of the Pony brand. The tees highlight individual ponies, sport show catchphrases or replace pop culture icons with Pony characters. (One can find the winged Rainbow Dash in place of Led Zeppelin’s Icarus or generating Dark Side of the Moon’s rainbow in her wake.)
A lanky fellow named Aaron is working the Welovefine counter singlehandedly. He’s stuffing currency into an already overstuffed waist pouch bulging with Jacksons and Hamiltons. “We sent eight people to the anime con and I’m here by myself,” he says while dancing between the emptying cartons behind him and the clamoring bronies on the other side of the counter. “I had 5,000 shirts this morning; right now I’m down to my last hundred.”
And BroNYCon is still in its opening hours.
Lauren Faust is the star of the show, of the weekend. When she steps onstage 4,000 bronies give her a cheering, standing ovation that brings her close to tears. Lauren wraps her arms around herself, brings her hands to her face… she’s comforted by Twilight Sparkle (in her human form as Tara Strong, Twilight’s voice.) She tries to talk. “I’m completely overwhelmed… thank you, thank you… I love you guys so much.”
A few hours later Lauren’s a bit more self-composed. She tells the audience about the origins of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and her desire to have an assortment of female characters with strong, distinctive personalities. “Most girls [in boy-oriented cartoon series] have the same character over and over again… I was looking for relatable characters. Usually the girl who wants to get good grades is usually the nerd – an unattractive stick in the mud. My own mom was [like the overly intellectual] Twilight Sparkle – she was too busy studying to make friends.” The bottom line for Lauren: “I wanted a respectable show for girls – not a girlie show.”
The animation that inspired and influenced her? “A sincere love of the classic Disney films and Warner Brothers shorts.” She outlines her career, beginning as an animator on Mark Dindal’s Cats Don’t Dance before moving onto Powerpuff Girls. (“There’s no way that wouldn’t work its way into my style.”)
Lauren reveals that husband Craig McCracken’s fondness for Margaret Keane’s kitschy big-eyed paintings of sad waifs manifested itself in the Powerpuffs’ design. We learn DVD commentary track-style tidbits: the taciturn Big Macintosh was originally Big Apple, the African-accented zebra Zecora was intended to be Twilight Sparkle’s mentor and fashion designer Rarity originally had a British accent…
And what about her dream project, the one she pitched to the Hasbro executive who instead asked her to reconceive My Little Pony? “The Galaxy Girls is the bane of my existence. It’s in stasis until I can do it right. I’m looking for the right partner who shares my vision for it.” Beyond her Super Best Friends Forever short for Cartoon Network’s DC Nation block, she and Craig are working on a project for the Disney Channel, Wander Over Yonder, “a surrealistic, fantastical space adventure comedy.
“I’m drawn to character” Lauren says as her session comes to a close. “A great story comes from the characters. In an adventure story the adventure is about them; the outside story is a reflection of their personal problem… the stories come from inside you.”
An electrical mishap adds a touch of drama to a Mane Stage event as an overhead light fixture begins raining sparks. The in-progress session is postponed, the building is cleared and 4,000 bronies bake in the sun (except for the ones who head for the shade where, to quote Rainbow Dash, it’s 20% cooler) while waiting for the Secaucus Fire Department to arrive.
Will a goodly chunk of BroNYCon go up in flames? Oh the ponymanity! It turns out a bit of faulty insulation is the culprit (and not the klutzy cross-eyed flying Pony Derpy Hooves), a minor problem which is quickly remedied; Bronycon resumes. (A hand-drawn sign of a wicker pony in flames and the words “I Survived! Burning Pony 2012” is taped to a wall near the stage.)
The most imaginative Pony fans – the artists, writers, videomakers and musicians who use the show as raw material or inspiration for their own creations – have their own fans, and their own BroNYCon sessions. (On Sunday I meet a brony who is ecstatic because the best known fan composers have all signed his poster under their pony likenesses.)
This is the part that most amazes me about brony fandom, the hardest for me to wrap my head around: why has My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic triggered a tsunami of fan creativity, from reverent homages to irreverent (but loving) send-ups, in both amount and quality beyond anything ever seen before? (Ponies: The Anthology 2, a compilation of these pieces fills close to two Sunday afternoon hours.)
Bronies have produced animation indistinguishable from the show’s; they’ve written stories and made videos that delve into themes of loss and loneliness, far more emotionally intense than the show itself could ever explore; others have turned the Ponies into grotesque parodies of themselves. (John K himself would have a hard time topping the horribly, tastelessly funny “True Equestria Story” expose of Pinkie Pie as a dissolute celebrity.) They’ve sliced and diced show songs and footage into video mash-ups and dubstep remixes, or ponyized well-known visuals (The “Mad Mares” version of Mad Men’s opening titles is absolutely identical to the original – except for the ponies)…
The only word that comes to mind is protean: there’s some intrinsic, ineffable quality to the show and its characters, a universality that speaks to every brony personally and individually, in their own voice – and inspires them to answer back in fluent Pony…
It’s Sunday and John de Lancie is onstage. John voices ‘Discord,’ a portmanteau beast-villain with powers and abilities not unlike his Star Trek character ‘Q’ (and cast for precisely that reason). The connection did not go unnoticed by the bronies who immediately made de Lancie a MLP:FiM celebrity.
With his neatly trimmed, salt and pepper beard de Lancie could pass for Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World. (Did I mention I have a friend who posts on YouTube as “The Manliest Brony in the World”?) In case we didn’t already notice it he opens his jacket wing-like and reveals, to the audience’s great delight, his BRONY tee-shirt.
de Lancie’s no stranger to voice work; his stentorian tones have been heard in the Assassin’s Creed video games, Young Justice and in the uber-weird Invader Zim. “One day I got a call from my agent to do a cartoon show,” he recalls. “I looked at the script and thought ‘wow, this is pretty well written.’ I went in and did the show. They said ‘it’s great to have you on the show Mr. de Lancie, it’s for” – de Lancie’s voice shifts into a droning mumble; at the time he didn’t give the role – or even the show’s name – a second thought.
“I did the show and completely forgot it. About three months later I turned on my computer and there were 400 E-mails [after the show had been broadcast] – and I’m not happy.
“I begin reading one of them, and on top it says ‘My… Little… Pony.’ I asked my wife what is this. She said ‘it’s a program for little girls.’
“‘These aren’t little girls’ I thought, but what are ‘bronies?’ A friend named Mike asked if I was interested in being part of a documentary on the subject and I said I’m just sort of an interloper and it would feel strange.
“That weekend I was in Vancouver at a Star Trek convention and a bunch of people came up to me and said ‘we’re bronies.’ There must’ve been a hundred of them. I listened to their reasons why they liked the show and they were really good reasons. I began to get a sense that this was the beginning of a new fan base – and it was forming around the Elements of Harmony.”
I have to take a paragraph or two to explain the Elements of Harmony, the positive values at the heart of the show’s mythology. It’s right there in the subtitle: “Friendship is Magic.” To put it as simply as possible, each Pony personifies one of the Elements:
Applejack – Honesty
Fluttershy – Kindness
Pinkie Pie – Laughter
Rarity – Generosity
Rainbow Dash – Loyalty
- and Twilight Sparkle; her magic and their mutual friendship harness the power of the Elements of Harmony, before which bad guys Discord, Nightmare Moon or Queen Chrysalis eventually fall.
Honesty, kindness, laughter, generosity and loyalty: there are far worse values to live by.
Back to de Lancie: “The next weekend I was in Calgary and the same thing happened, and I’m beginning to get a sense of who the [brony] community is.”
It was a shooting-fish-in-a-barrel, snide Fox News (“who’s done more to destroy truth in America than any single institution”) report on the January BroNYCon that raised de Lancie’s ire. “And it pissed me off. I called Mike and said ‘dammit, let’s do this documentary.’
“The world needs more of you,” he tells the cheering crowd “This group and more groups like you have got to be better than what we have now.” For starters (and without endorsing anyone in particular) he urges the bronies to vote in November.
I’m impressed by de Lancie’s genuine passion. He’s been dealing with fanboys and girls for years; there’s absolutely no need for him to suck up to this crowd, to pretend to believe what they believe.
Can bronies really change the world? Can the fans of a cartoon show, no matter how committed accomplish what a generation, during what seemed a time of unlimited possibilities, fail to do? As someone who back in the day believed that greed and cruelty would disappear in the face of peace, love and understanding, I can’t help but be more than a little skeptical; it didn’t work then; can it work now? Can I be a brony without believing in the world-changing power of the Elements of Harmony, if I just love the show and the amazing home-made creativity it’s sparked?
It’s too hot on this first day of July to linger on such weighty subjects. Right now I’m enjoying the impromptu production number taking place on the steps of the Meadowlands Exposition Center. A crowd of bronies are singing and dancing Pinkie Pie’s “Smile” song – and they’re doing a pretty good job of it:
My name is Pinkie Pie, And I am here to say, I’m gonna make you smile, and I will brighten up your day! It doesn’t matter now, If you are sad or blue. Cause cheering up, my friend, is just what Pinkie’s here to do!
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. He has written about animation, sci-fi and fantasy entertainment for the New York Daily News, Newsday and the New York Press. Joe has scripted the Nick Jr. series Wow! Wow! Wubbzy! and taught Mass Communications at New York's St. John's University. He is currently hosting “Interview with an Animator” [animator.interviews.com], a series of audience-attended conversations with noted figures in the animation community at a variety of New York City venues, including the Paley Center for the Media, The Society of Illustrators and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art. Joe can be reachedvia firstname.lastname@example.org.