My Little Pony fanboys flock to Bloomington
BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- There was a convention this weekend in the Twin Cities for fans of a cartoon show featuring My Little Pony characters.
But the people who flocked to the Ramada hotel in Bloomington weren’t little girls clutching pastel plastic horse dolls with luxuriant, brushable manes and tails.
They were primarily young men, many dressed as their favorite adorable ponies, with cotton-candy-pink wigs, horse tails, unicorn horns and Pegasus wings.
Welcome to the world of Bronies, adult devotees of the “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” cartoon, which debuted in 2010.
Organizers of “MLP-MSP,” the state’s first convention devoted to the grown-up fandom of an animated show intended for young girls, said they expect about 1,000 fanboys from the Upper Midwest to attend the three-day gathering. They went to panel discussions featuring the show’s writers, got autographs from the show’s voice actors, performed and listened to original music made by fans inspired by the cartoon, heard how the Brony movement is challenging perceptions of masculinity, snapped up hundreds of dollars of custom-made, plush pony dolls and other equine tchotchkes, and generally expressed their “pony-sonas.”
“It’s weird,” admitted Mike Bernstein, 29, of Minneapolis, who is co-chair of the convention. “I would’ve never expected myself to be involved in this.”
Even though the show is targeted for girls, Bernstein and other adult male fans say they are hooked by its intelligent scripts, quality animation and acting, and original songs.
Bronies also say the show draws in adult fans with pop-culture references to “Mad Men,” “The Brady Bunch” and “The Big Lebowski.”
“It’s kind of an addictive show. It’s really well-written,” Bernstein said. “This is one of the first shows in the past decade whose creators really gave a damn about what they’re doing.”
“Just because kids can appreciate it doesn’t mean it’s just for kids,” said Ted Anderson, a Twin Cities writer who has written for a My Little Pony comic book. “They manage to tell stories that aren’t insulting to the viewer. They tell stories for kids, but they don’t treat kids as idiots.”
Adult fans often say they are drawn by the show’s essential niceness, with plot lines that typically involve the pony characters relying on goodwill and friendship to resolve moral conundrums over issues such as bullying, gossiping or jealousy.
That’s led observers to say the show is a sort of “Aesop’s Fables” for the 21st century, part of something called the New Sincerity or Neo-Sincerity movement, a reaction to post-9/11 cynicism and sarcasm.
“The animation is just excellent. The storylines are great. Lots of teachable moments. I work in mental health. Adults need teachable moments, too,” said Stephanie Waldenmaier, a 29-year-old psychologist from Chanhassen attending the convention.
Jacob Sutherland, 22, of Champlin, said that unlike other online fan communities, Brony discussions are civil and helpful instead of insulting and hostile.
“I think it attracts nicer people,” he said.
“It promotes friendship. It promotes acceptable behavior,” said convention co-chair Chase Hedges, 24, of Andover.
“It presents a very utopian society,” said Zander Cannon, a Minneapolis comic-book artist who has worked on a My Little Pony comic book.
Brony Benjamin Wright, 24, of Belle Plaine, said watching the show helped him when he was depressed after losing a job at Target.
“I had nothing better to do. I don’t have a job, let’s watch this show,” he said. His reaction: “That was nice. That was pleasant. Instead of killing the main antagonist, they had cured her. It was positive. It was pleasant. It was friendly. After all I had just been through, it was a nice change of pace.”
Bernstein, who also runs a My Little Pony fan website, said the Brony fandom is a global phenomenon, embracing about 30 conventions a year around the world. The movement has inspired documentaries and research by academics.
Andrea Libman, who does the voices for two of the main characters in the show, was at the Twin Cities convention to participate in panel discussions. She said she’s done voice-over work for 20 years, but as an actor for “My Little Pony,” this is the first time fans of a cartoon have sought her out for autographs.
“It was surprising at first,” she said. “The show makes them so happy, and I’m a small part of that.”
But Bernstein and other Bronies admit that their fandom also generates suspicion.
“People immediately believe something is wrong with this,” he said.
“When I first heard about Bronies, I thought they were all pedophiles, no offense,” Waldenmaier said.
“It’s not about sexuality,” Bernstein said. “Most times, I tell people, yeah, I’m a fan of the show. It shouldn’t be a moral judgment call.”
“As soon as a young man decides, ‘I’m going to do something that’s not typically masculine,’ their sexual orientation comes up,” said Samuel Miller, a doctoral student at the University of North Dakota who is studying Bronies. “I think what this is doing is creating a better understanding of gender fluidity.”
Miller said a survey he has conducted shows that most Bronies are heterosexual. Miller also said he has encountered Bronies in traditionally masculine environments such as the military.
“Those are two things you would never associate with each other: Marines and cute ponies,” Miller said.
But at a presentation Miller gave at the convention, an audience member said the cartoon reflects many of the moral values important in the military, such as loyalty, duty and respect.
“If this was ‘Star Trek,’ no one would question it,” Sutherland said.
“Not anymore. But they also went through their own period,” said Mathew Hennen, 21, of Red Wing.
But Miller said Bronyism still can be the fandom that dare not speak its name.
“There’s already this generation of shame that the media is giving to people who like cute little ponies,” Miller said. He said some fans have told him they would rather be caught looking at pornography than have someone see that they have a My Little Pony screensaver.
Miller described fans who keep their pony devotion secret — “in the stable” rather than in the closet.
He said he sometimes has difficulty telling people that he’s studying Bronies.
“Just telling my father I’m doing research on this, I felt kind of weird,” he said. “When I told him, initially he said, essentially, ‘Is this what you’re wasting your time with?’ ”
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.