Unashamed, pretty pretty ponies.
I attended my first My Little Pony convention this weekend. It’d been about a decade since I’d been to a less-academic, cartoon-based fan convention, and I felt rather wary as to what to expect. Various blogs and documentaries report conflicting messages about brony culture, and being on the outskirts of the fandom (i.e., not as obsessive as some), I wondered if my n00b would be showing. Would I get harassed as a female cosplayer? Are furries as creepy as some people make them out to be? Would I be shunned for discussing feminism at my panel? Hours after returning home from a very pony weekend, I find myself reluctant to remove my pegasus hoodie, suffering those distressing “post-con blues.” ‘Cause, damn, I had a good time!
Let’s go back to see when this all started…. [Insert wavy lines here.] While healing from a rather difficult illness in Spring 2013, I decided watching cartoons was the most my cloudy mind and bedridden body could handle. I settled on the latest My Little Pony reboot, Friendship is Magic, after hearing good things about the show. Two episodes in, I was hooked. Those bright, adorable ponies and their girl-powered adventures and wholesome lessons made me forget my pains and focus on positive things we should all strive for: love, community, mutual aid, and adventure. No wonder so many adults were falling in love with these peppy equines.
That year, I devoured the rest of the television series, but didn’t find many fellow fans in my friend circles with whom to geek out. My partner, my coworkers, and my friends and family were a bit weirded out by my new interest, which I proclaimed, then defended to each. I was vaguely aware of brony fandom through a documentary I happened across on Netflix called Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Male Fans of My Little Pony. The most I contributed to this fanbase was writing a review of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic for a political geek blog I help maintain. It wasn’t until the following year, when I had the fortune of meeting a pony fan who would become my best friend, that I was able to start seriously geeking out, our newbie-level interests building on each other.
That being said, I’m nowhere close to competing with many of the bronies out there as far as knowledge of the My Little Pony universe and the elements of its fandom, which extends to art, comic books, card games, music, cosplay, fanfiction, video parodies, and beyond. But I soon found myself drawing my own fan art, creating an OC (original character, a pony of my own creation), and having in-depth conversations about fictional pony culture and pony identities. And, yes, a plushie Pinkie Pie made its way to my workbench at the bike shop.
Earlier this year, on a whim, I decided to look up brony conventions, and lo and behold! the neighboring city of Milwaukee was hosting Ponyville Ciderfest in November! An easy bus ride away! My curiosity and enthusiasm took over, and I registered. I even offered to host a panel and facilitate a game. I had second thoughts, mind you. And third thoughts, and fourth thoughts. I discussed attendance with my brony friend J, who also wavered between excitement and skepticism. Honestly, we were both unsure what to expect from fellow fans, and some of the pseudo-sexualized pony mascots, well, they freaked us the fuck out.
It wasn’t until we started working on our costumes that our excitement outweighed our anxiety. Wearing costumes at conventions is not required (unless you’re attending a immersive event like Madison’s Teslacon), but many people dress up as their favorite characters for enjoyment and theatrical, role-playing aspects. (This is called cosplay in nerd terms; think Renaissance Festival, but for your fiction of choice.) I used to perform in cosplay at anime conventions a decade ago, and have since enjoyed costuming at more historical-based events. It’s been ages since I cosplayed a specific character, and so putting together a punk version of the timid, animal-loving pony Fluttershy was a real delight! For J, this would be his first convention cosplay, and it was heartwarming to see his enthusiasm grow as his unicorn costume came together. There’s just something about putting on another skin for a night or a weekend, exploring your identity through that character, and creating something others appreciate…. But I digress.
J carving a unicorn horn from crafting foam.
My favorite detail of my “Flutterpunk” costume.
In the weeks leading up to Ponyville Ciderfest, I frantically worked on the two events I had volunteered for: a panel exploring feminism in My Little Pony, and a customized tabletop role-playing game I would facilitate. After a frightening visit to the mall for costume pieces, a crafting night or two, and some fretting over game print-outs, we were on the bus to Milwaukee!
My events were scheduled for Friday afternoon and evening, which didn’t leave us much time to explore the convention and get a “feel” for what brony culture was all about. After checking into the hotel where the con was hosted, J and I donned our costumes and dived right in. Breezing through a minor fiasco with registration (our panel badges were nowhere to be seen), we explored the vendor/artist room and fell in love with half of the exhibitors there. SO MANY CUTE THINGS. And talented artists! There were plush dolls, embroidered patches, charms, clothing, accessories, posters, terrariums, and more. Only a small portion of the fanart was mildly disquieting to us (the pseudo-sexualization thing again). The convention was family-friendly, and more lascivious art was not allowed. Good move, Ciderfest. Good move.
Dodging between six-year-olds on the pony-music dance floor and tables full of bronies playing the My Little Pony collectible card game, J and I made our way to the panel we were hosting. I roped J in last-minute, and he ended up being a fantastic boon to the conversation and facilitation of the panel. Usually a “panel” consists of three or more people well-versed on the topic at hand, discussing questions from a facilitator and/or audience. However most panels I attended, including mine, had one person behind the panel table, as the convention did not offer help in finding others to join panels. (I have no idea how other cons do this, save for the long-running WisCon which is so accommodating in so many ways, I probably shouldn’t compare it to others, especially first-year cons like Ciderfest!) Many of these one-person panels transformed into group discussions with audience member participation.
For “Equestria as Feminist Utopia: What Can We Learn,” I came prepared for a group discussion on feminism, utopias, and other -isms in the realm of ponies. I was pleasantly surprised to find many of the 20-some audience members excited to talk about these issues within our favorite fictional world. Occasionally, the conversation was nearly derailed by obscure fact references (“Well actually, in the So-and-So episode, this pony does THIS, refuting your claim that all ponies something-something.” #notallponies). This is where J was my savior, roping conversation back in and offering a feminist perspective from a male, the gender expression of choice among audience members. (I can’t say if the unicorn horn helped; perhaps J was using magic.) Many perspectives were candidly shared, then discussed by those with differing or similar perspectives. No one raised their voice, called anyone “wrong,” or acted aggressively in any way. Honestly, activist organizations could learn a lot from this group of bronies.
In our hour-long panel, we touched on tough topics including the term “feminism,” race, class, gender, and power depicted in the series, and how My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has helped us relate to the “real world” in terms of change for the better. It was pretty rad, albeit a little nerve-wracking for a Fluttershy to facilitate in previously unknown territory. I was happy to get compliments from audience members and to make “friends” early in the convention.
Next up: facilitating my tabletop role-playing game! I’m a huge fan of the 3-hour, self-facilitated game of Fiasco by Bully Pulpit Games. The game’s creators encourage fans to craft their own “playsets,” or worlds in which to play. I’d been itching to try my hand at building a playset, and itching to role-play ponies with other fans of the series. Honestly, that was a big pull for me to attend Ponyville Ciderfest: tabletop gaming.
Gaming at the convention!
All went well for My Little Pony Fiasco despite my only registered player not showing up! We were joined by two pick-up players, known only to me as their Fiasco character names Lightblade and Dubstep Moneybags. Hilarity, destruction, and mayhem ensued, as the game is designed. Highlights of our shared story were boysenberry lava flows, cultist-bakers, and magical cookbooks. Need I say more?
With my responsibilities behind me, I enjoyed the second day of the con by attending panels, buying gifts for friends and family, gaming, and drinking cider. Leading up to the convention, I grew more and more curious about furry culture, as brony and furry culture often overlap. For those not in-the-know, furries are fans who enjoy anthropomorphized animal characters. Think Donald Duck, Disney’s Robin Hood, or the Muppets. Furries, like bronies, often create original characters or identities, and will wear tails, ears, and even full fur-covered suits similar to those you see sports mascots wear. Furries end up being the butt of people’s jokes more often than not, and the media likes to grab hold of and exaggerate the sexually deviant, fetishized parts of furry culture. I’ve found myself making these hateful jokes and conflating furry fandom with sexuality, and I’m currently working on understanding, respecting, and celebrating furries as creative, caring individuals. This internal work is what led me to a panel Saturday morning called “Are Bronies Furries?”, hoping to learn more about both cultures. As with my panel, the audience participated very candidly and liberally, and I listened to interesting perspectives on how furries are treated by both mainstream society and other fandoms. I also discovered that a lot of people consider bronies furries, and so if I’m going to be a pony fan, I better teach myself more about these intersectionalities.
Another panel I enjoyed wasn’t a panel at all; it had been cancelled! But due to poor communication, 20 bronies found themselves in a room waiting for an academic to show up to discuss his research on brony fandom and gender. After 15 minutes, we decided to push our chairs into a circle and facilitate our own discussion based on anecdotes, observations, and personal experiences involving gender within brony culture. It was absolutely fantastic, and, again, I was massively impressed by bronies’ abilities to self-facilitate with respect and open minds. Can I bring y’all to my housing cooperative, please?
Unfortunately, J and I had to book it outta there to join in another tabletop role-playing game, My Little Paranoia: Friendship is Mandatory. I had been anticipating this game since I read the description a month before. The game-master (GM) had developed a custom game of Paranoia in which players are ponies living in a dystopian society reminiscent of 1984, but ridiculous rather than depressing. I had studied my character sheet and flipped through a .PDF of the rulebook online. I was ready! ….And so were 13 other people. Yes, I played a tabletop role-playing game with 14 players and one GM. It was a lot of fun at first, with each character having space to do their thing, fun props on the table, a boisterous and theatrical GM, and plenty of great ideas floating around. But as the story developed, mayhem at the table reflected mayhem within the game. There were a lot of side-comments, derailments, and pointless banter that half of the players really enjoyed, and half of the players were… well, it was difficult to read. I got pretty exhausted keeping up with it all and bowed out early. I would love to revisit the game and the GM’s pony modifications with a smaller group of people.
Another point of enjoyment at the convention was the video gaming room. I hadn’t played dancing games since college, and so I was thrilled to see an arcade version of In the Groove with custom pony songs. (I still have a techno-remix of the Cutie Mark Crusaders song stuck in my head….) There, too, was a fantastic player-versus-player fighting game featuring the Mane 6 ponies; think Mortal Kombat but with special moves involving confetti canons and aggressive bunny rabbits.
Saturday night was filled with cider-sipping and listening to pony-music at the PON3 Dance, which I had hoped would be a rave with electronic base-dropping wub-wub-wubs, but instead involved a lot of poppy pony vocals. I tried dancing, but alas, my body mostly wanted to sleep.
Pony dance party!
Sunday morning, J and I half-assed the con, as we had a bus to catch midday. A morning’s panel on older bronies had discussed post-convention depression, and we both scoffed at the idea of us suffering such a fate. Yet as we walked to our respective homes after returning to Madison, it hit us. Hard. Conventions can provide safe, welcoming, and warm space for all of us outsiders, weirdos, and freaks to come and celebrate our shared obsessions the rest of the world just doesn’t “get.” Ponyville Ciderfest, despite some rough edges of it being a first-year con, did a fantastic job of providing a space in which bronies could grow and thrive, if only for three glorious, pony-filled days.
Flutterpunk giving “The Stare” to all you naysayers out there.
As an afterthought and conclusion written a day later, I want to reiterate the enjoyment I had this past weekend. It was by no means perfect, as no fandom ever is. There are things I don’t understand (namely, psuedo-sexual anthropomorphism and macho-competitiveness around pony trivia). Overall, I’m really glad I’ve gotten to experience brony culture firsthand and meet extreme fans. Many bronies (including myself) seem to be a little (or more than a little) socially awkward: nervous ticks, different ways of relating to strangers, and peculiar methods of expressing themselves. I saw adult men carrying around pony dolls proudly, furries thrilled to share their newest digs with a welcoming audience, and countless people forming and fostering what could be extremely important relationships and communities within their individual lives. The atmosphere was full of acceptance and warm welcomes, a culture embracing each fan no matter their levels of commitment, their anxieties, their eccentricities, or their identities. In retrospect, that was what hurt the most when leaving that space. Bronies take to heart the six Elements of Harmony described by their favorite show: loyalty, honesty, generosity, laughter, kindness, and yes, magic. I wish the real world could do these things better. Bronies, overall, have given me sparks of hope for a more accepting, more magical world.