I spent this Valentine’s Day weekend at New York City’s fourth annual Ponycon. Because if there’s one thing in this world for which I feel true love, it’s My Little Pony. My affection for My Little Pony dates back to my childhood in the late 80s, when I collected the colorful plastic Hasbro toys, branded their hooves with my initials, and dragged them through interminable games of “Beauty Salon,” “Capture,” and the bleakly-entitled “Life.”
They were my favorite toys because they were perfect for playing imaginary games. My ponies were characters ready to trot into any story I wanted to tell. When I looked at them, I saw complex webs of family relationships and interpersonal rivalries, and sometimes one of them would get kidnapped and then shit would really go down. I still own more than 100 of these first generation ponies. They live in a laundry hamper in my mom’s basement. I get that this is weird.
So when I heard that Ponycon was happening in Brooklyn, 5-year-old me wanted to go SO BADLY. But 31-year-old me was like, “What the hell is this.” I wanted to find out what the deal was with this modern pony obsession, and if adults in elaborate costumes could really have anything to do with my childhood. Also, I wanted to see some unicorns. So I ventured into the very heart of the equine beast: Ponycon.
Here’s the thing: My Little Pony has changed a lot since my Beauty Salon days. We’re now on to the fourth generation, whose skinnier, sleeker ponies have become big stars, thanks to the TV cartoon My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, which premiered in 2010. As you’ve probably heard, MLP: FIM boasts a fan community that spans generations: it still attracts little girls, but also grown men who self-identify as Bronies. And this perplexed me, because the ponies I knew and loved didn’t have a “fan culture” at all, let alone one run by people who could stay home alone without a babysitter.
“If I could have told myself when I was fourteen, ‘You’re going to be into ponies,’ I would have beat myself up.”
Thousands of fans congregate at two annual conventions: Bronycon, in Baltimore, and Ponycon, held this weekend at the Grand Prospect Hall in Brooklyn. The Grand Prospect Hall is famous for making your dreams come true, and that is 100 percent accurate, assuming your dreams resemble the inside of a sparkly rainbow. Previous years’ Ponycons have been held at various hotels, and Bronycon will be at the Baltimore Convention Center, but those are poor choices: unquestionably the Grand Prospect Hall is where all pony conventions forever should be held. It is the most absurdly ornate place in Brooklyn, and My Little Ponies are the most absurdly ornate creatures in existence. The Grand Prospect Hall is basically Canterlot on Earth. (Canterlot, I learned, is the glamorous and romantic capital of the ponies’ magical land, just as Grand Prospect Hall is the glamorous and romantic capital of South Slope.)
So for three days, this Victorian banquet hall was filled with children, cosplayers and Bronies. Let me tell you about Bronies: they are the nicest people I have ever encountered. They’re not necessarily “girly.” They just really, seriously love ponies.
“My favorite part of the show is the strong characters,” Jon, age 30, tells me. “It doesn’t matter to me that they’re ponies. They could be just normal-colored dogs and the stories would still be great.”
Jon is dressed as Rainbow Dash—not just any Rainbow Dash, but Rainbow Dash in a specific episode—he shows me a screenshot on his phone as proof. He sewed his entire costume from scratch. He’s planning to move from the NYC area to Colorado, to work in bikes and outdoor adventure. He’s not so sure about Colorado’s pony community, though. They can’t be as active as NYC’s pony community, which Jon says is probably the biggest in the world.
Not everyone is as crafty as Jon. Some fans hire artists to make their costumes. Mike, age 26, is decked out as Big McIntosh, in a red furry outfit which cost $1,000 and took the costume maker a year to create. Mike is the most impressive Big Mac I meet, but he’s not the only one: there aren’t many male characters in Friendship Is Magic, and sometimes guys just want to dress as stallions.
So how do these grown men get into a show that’s ostensibly geared at little girls? The draw for them is not nostalgia. Most of them weren’t interested in MLP when they were kids, either because they’re young enough to have missed My Little Pony’s ’80s heyday, or because they’d thought ponies were “for girls.” I may be the only one who gets emotional when I see the exhibit of My Little Pony history in the Oak Room, featuring my favorite childhood toys preserved in glass cases.
Jason, age 24, is a long-running Ponycon volunteer. He describes discovering MLP: FIM as a sophomore in college, when his friends told him, “Oh my gosh, you have to watch this show, it’s talking about racism.” (It was an episode about the single-colored ponies learning to accept a zebra.)
This point is relevant because Ponycon is one of the most racially diverse happenings I’ve ever encountered. Pony fandom excludes no age, no gender, no sexuality and certainly no race. Canterlot is welcoming to all. And that extreme level of acceptance is one reason why people are drawn to this world.
Jon’s answer to the “how did you get into ponies?” question is: Howard Stern. Jon’s coworkers played Stern’s radio show at work, and after hearing Stern make fun of Bronies, Jon decided to see what it was all about.
“I hold Howard Stern in very poor regard,” Jon tells me. “I’m going to do the opposite of everything he says.”
Mike says that he became an MLP fan in 2012. It was a stormy day, nothing to do but watch TV, and his cable got stuck on an episode of Friendship Is Magic. This was probably a sign.
For many, what got them interested in MLP were the stories and characters, but what keeps them engaged is all the original artwork the show inspires. This commitment to creation is a huge point of pride for the community.
For example, there’s fan band Ponyphonic’s epic “Lullaby for a Princess,” which opera star Lady Aria Phantasy covers for Ponycon attendees. On the big screen in the Grand Hall, we watch a compilation of fan-created youtube videos setting Friendship Is Magic footage to songs or voice tracks. While the images are kid-friendly, the vocals are definitely not: one of the most bizarre is anti-ketamine PSA concluding with the line, “Ket is for horses, you dumb motherfuckers.” This has zero impact on the five-year-old girl near me, who continues blithely fluttering the pink wings attached to her back.
Other pony artisans fill the vendor hall, like Lane, who sews My Little Pony plush toys. Each one sells for between $300 and $600 and takes her around two 16-hour workdays to make. This is Lane’s full-time job. She’s only 22, but because she does so much sewing, she’s already gotten double carpal tunnel syndrome surgery. She’s here with her husband, Andrew, who admits he’s not that into ponies, but he is clearly very into supporting Lane.
“I can take a desk job,” he tells me, “if it means she gets to do what she wants to do.”
Even kids get into the creativity that defines MLP fandom. Jiyah is here for her 10th birthday, along with her mom, grandma, aunt and eight-year-old cousin Mimi. Jiyah’s brought along a folder of her pony drawings so she can show them to the cosplayers and the voice actors (if she’s lucky enough to meet them at their autograph sessions). Both cousins’ favorite pony is Applejack. Why?
“Because she’s brave,” says Jiyah. “And honest,” adds Mimi. “And awesome,” Jiyah concludes.
No matter how awesome I’m sure Applejack is, I’m not going to move my ponies from my mom’s basement into my Brooklyn apartment. Nor am I going to regularly watch MLP: FIM or attend monthly MLP meetups—sorry, 5-year-old self. Nonetheless, I love that this community exists, and that My Little Pony today inspires so much creativity, imagination, and storytelling—just as it did for me, back when I played Capture. Turns out there is something about this new pony culture that I can understand, after all.
And as for the Brony part, who could object to thousands of guys who genuinely do believe that friendship is magic? Couldn’t we use some more men like that? For example, take Justin, 26, who met his girlfriend, Bex, through the pony community in Toronto. They’ve been together for 14 months. They made the nine hour drive down here to sell their My Little Pony-themed bottle cap game.
“If I could have told myself when I was fourteen, ‘You’re going to be into ponies,’ I would have beat myself up,” Justin says. “But ponies are really no different from anime, except for being geared toward little girls.”
Although, let’s be clear, he adds: “If someone told me, ‘A year from now you’ll be into Care Bears,’ I’d still be like, ‘No.’ ”
See a bunch more photos from Ponycon on our Facebook page.
Leila Sales (leilasales.com) is the author of four young adult novels, most recently Tonight the Streets Are Ours. Follow her on Twitter @LeilaSalesBooks.
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