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Is the pony ride over? How the bronies are growing up

Is the pony ride over? How the bronies are growing up
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It wasn’t the most memorable episode. It was partway into the show’s second season, and the story was about a young pony desperate to have some special talent who learns that good things come to those who wait. The show always offers a lesson.

Early in his last year of high school, Gardiner was going through a rough patch. A fan of routine, he was now applying to university, approaching the moment when he would graduate and everything would change.

“I grew up in North Van, both my parents have degrees, everyone from my high school went to university. It was one of those high schools,” he said. “It was just very stressful.”

Bronies listen attentively to Andrea Libman (image on screen), voice actor for Pinky Pie on the My Little Pony television cartoon show, at the Brony Expo held at West Edmonton Mall’s Fantasyland Hotel in Edmonton on July 5, 2014. Larry Wong / Edmonton Journal

Bronies — a portmanteau of “bro” and “ponies” that refers to the mostly male adult fans of American toy company Hasbro’s latest reincarnation of My Little Pony — emerged as a strange phenomenon in the first years after the show began. What started as a largely online community quickly broke through into the real world as fans organized conventions and began making and selling artwork and toys based on the show. The largest brony convention, BronyCon, exploded from just 100 guests in June 2011 to more than 10,000 in Baltimore in the summer of 2015.

In those early years, the fandom’s visibility was sustained by a barrage of media coverage that ranged in tone from curiosity to alarm. “Is this the end of American manhood?” cried the American Conservative in 2014.

For 7 amazing years, this fandom has come together to help us host an amazing event. Next year will be our last BronyCon. Join us for a 4-day party, August 1-4, 2019 in Baltimore! Visit https://t.co/k6aY1p950o

But the brony fandom is now shrinking almost as fast as it grew and conventions, including BronyCon, are shutting down. Eight years in, the novelty seems to have worn off. It’s also widely believed the show’s next season will be its last, and the future beyond that is uncertain.

Now 24 years old, Gardiner doesn’t get up early on Saturdays anymore. He recently finished his master’s degree and has started a new job. He feels more stable. He used to be able to name every episode of every season, but not anymore. And if he just stumbled onto the show now, he said, he’s not sure he’d become a fan.

***

At the centre of this phenomenon is 4chan, the murky online imageboard that thrives on anonymity. The first posts about My Little Pony appeared on 4chan in the days after the show launched, as did the term “brony.” As the legend goes, what started as a joke swiftly turned earnest, and the volume of pony content on 4chan quickly became so overwhelming that one moderator tried to ban it altogether. So the bronies went elsewhere, creating their own internet forums and online communities.

Our Photography Department is ready to share their hard work and all of the wonderful photos they have taken this year. You can view all of them here and reminisce about the fun weekend. https://t.co/JyZBm8Sgv3 pic.twitter.com/GO4nME6jX2

Informal surveys suggest that at the peak of the fandom in 2014, bronies were at least 80 per cent male and 75 per cent single, mostly in their teens and 20s and living with their parents, and overwhelmingly white and straight. Some bronies say the community also attracted a large number of people with disabilities, especially autism. Many, like Gardiner, say the show makes them feel happy and comforted.

Bronies often identify with one character, especially from among the six main ponies, all female, with distinct personalities and foibles: Fluttershy is timid, Rarity is a drama queen, and so on. From the start, there was speculation that the interest from young men was primarily sexual — and that’s certainly part of it for some, as is clear from the huge volume of sexually explicit online artwork and stories. Tabatha Hughes, a 27-year-old former chair of Canada’s sole brony convention, BronyCAN, said some bronies come to see the show as a kind of caretaker. “If someone’s a very important part of your life and they’ve shown you kindness, sometimes people will interpret that as sexual desire and romantic feeling,” she said. “So I think that kind of happened with ponies.” But that’s not at the core of the fandom, she insisted. Most bronies really just like the show.

Still, if it was the show that attracted young adult fans, it was the community that kept them. “I probably would have only lasted maybe not even till the third season if it was just about myself,” said Afion. “It was mostly because of the friends.”

Jul 11, 2016 at 7:23pm PDT

But online communities offer more than that. Trapa Civet, BronyCAN’s former treasurer, a 38-year-old who used his character name, became a furry — a member of a much broader community for fans of a whole range of animal characters — after seeing The Lion King when he was 17, at the start of the internet era. For Trapa, facing the shame of feeling that a Disney movie had changed his life, the internet offered a lifeline. “Suddenly I have a place to belong,” he said. “Suddenly you have this group of people who are ostensibly validating your existence.”

When Friendship is Magic ends, then, it won’t just put a stop to the flow of new content. It will take away a massive online community’s raison d’être. On the forums today, the angst is clear. “Just because a show ends doesn’t mean all these friends you’ve made and things you have built will disappear,” , the largest My Little Pony fan site, in December 2017. “As long as we keep celebrating pony, we can keep this going long into the future.”

Still, things are already changing. Trapa said he’s lost contact with a lot of his former brony friends since BronyCAN ended in 2017. “It’s not due to lack of desire. That’s just the way life works,” he said. “Real life starts to sneak in there.”

***

In the food court at Metrotown, an enormous shopping mall in suburban Burnaby, Afion and a dozen other bronies cluster together on a few couches, eating and chatting on a Saturday afternoon. Several are wearing My Little Pony T-shirts. Some carry plushies of their favourite characters. They seem largely immune to the looks of passers-by.

In the early days, the brony community existed mostly online, but with the advent of conventions, internet bonds turned into real-life friendships. Between conventions, groups of bronies often gather at local meet-ups like this one.

Aric, whom the Post is also referring to by his first name because of privacy concerns, credits the show with getting him some more friends and making him a little less shy. “During summer break in high school, I used to sit in front of my computer for 17 hours a day, doing nothing, browsing the internet. It was really sad,” he said. “I can’t ever forget this.”

Many older bronies have their own stories about how the show and the community changed their lives. Hughes was working in a restaurant, “making minimum wage, tossing salads and chopping carrots,” when she discovered My Little Pony. She was introduced to the show by her boyfriend at the time, who got her to help organize the 2013 BronyCAN. Two years later, she was chairing the convention. “It just taught me what I’m capable of,” she said.

***

It can be expensive to be a brony. Travelling to and from conventions alone can cost hundreds of dollars, but many devoted bronies have also amassed large collections of merchandise, including plushies, artwork, figurines and sometimes full pony outfits. These aren’t just children’s toys. Hughes spent $300 on a watercolour of Rarity, her favourite character. Gardiner has a custom-made plushie of an original pony he designed called Maxwell Citybuilder, which cost him $400. It’s a bit of a status symbol at conventions, he said. He and his friends all have high-end plushies. “We called ourselves the high-rollers.”

As the bronies have gotten older, Gardiner has started to see a different type of merchandise appearing at conventions, including bath towels embroidered with pony symbols. “It’s kind of the march of life, right?” he said.

This is one of the peculiar quirks of the brony fandom: the show’s adult fans, apparently drawn to it for its messages about friendship and acceptance, are also obsessed with accumulating stuff. Expensive stuff. This, of course, is the whole point of the show. Hasbro created My Little Pony for girls in 1981, and has released four generations of the toys since then. The accompanying TV shows are simply clever marketing for the toys. Still, Hasbro didn’t expect to be met with legions of adult fans, and initially didn’t seem to know what to do with them. As a result, many bronies buy their merchandise not from Hasbro, but from fan artists who create higher-quality products.

Hasbro eventually came around to the bronies, and has begun selling higher-end collectibles to its adult fans. The company has embraced the bronies in other ways, too. The show’s voice actors and series creator Lauren Faust often appear at brony conventions. Several episodes feature inside jokes that only bronies will catch.

But it can be a testy relationship. The bronies get upset when Hasbro is too transparent about using the show to sell toys. The Season 3 finale caused outrage when Twilight Sparkle, the central character, suddenly grew wings — a lazy attempt to boost sales, fans decided. They still talk about it today.

Some argue that the money is one reason for the fandom’s decline, as the bronies face new financial responsibilities. “I think, ultimately, the fandom was created for teens and tweens, and eventually mom and dad’s money ran out,” said Trapa.

***

To some extent, the decline of the brony fandom was inevitable. The show is eight seasons old and the sheen is wearing off. Some bronies grumble about how the writing isn’t as good anymore, or about how the focus has shifted away from the six main characters to a growing cast of lesser ponies.

Added to that, a slew of unintended email leaks from Hasbro in December 2017 signalled that the show may be coming to an end after Season 9, to make way for the next generation of My Little Pony toys. The revelation sent shockwaves through the community, now facing an existential threat. “A lot of it is a sense that Generation 4… was kind of lightning in a bottle,” said Gardiner. “Everything went exactly perfect, and that won’t ever happen again.”

But many also believe the frenzied heights of the brony fandom in 2014 and 2015, which Hughes compared to a Silicon Valley start-up, were never sustainable. “We saw a lot of people who maybe were just interested in the one convention to see what it was. Maybe a little bit of curiosity,” she said. “And I don’t think we had as many dedicated fans as we thought we did.”

BronyCAN opened in 2013 to 850 guests, and peaked at more than 1,000. But attendance soon started to drop off, and by the end, they struggled to break even, Trapa said. He believes part of the issue is that bronies are so narrowly focused on a single TV show with an expiry date. “This is the first time I’ve been involved in a fandom that I know is going to die,” he said.

***

Many bronies don’t like to talk about the fandom dying. They don’t see it that way — to them, it’s just levelling off. “I’m definitely as into the show as I was from the start,” said Rob Harrison. “I would say probably even more so at this point.”

At 38, Harrison is fighting perhaps harder than any other Vancouver brony to keep the fandom alive. After BronyCAN closed in 2017, he decided to start up a new convention, on a smaller scale, that he hopes will be sustainable. The Vanhoover Pony Expo launched on Jan. 11 and will run through the weekend, in defiance of those who say “the pony ride is over.”

Gregarious and confident, more outgoing than many bronies, Harrison makes a good spokesperson for his cause. His tiny basement apartment in North Vancouver is cluttered with plushies, figurines and a pirate airship from last year’s My Little Pony feature film.

I’m definitely as into the show as I was from the start

Harrison recognizes that without the conventions, some friendships won’t survive. A lot of bronies worry about that. When BronyCAN ended, Trapa said, “people realized they might have friends that they’ll never see again. And that’s pretty tough.”

Many of the bronies that organized BronyCAN are on board to help with Harrison’s new convention, even those that aren’t quite as attached to the fandom anymore. Gardiner, Hughes and Trapa are all involved. They want it to work.

If Harrison worries that his mission is a little quixotic, that he’s trying to resurrect a moment that’s already passed, he doesn’t show it. He says he’s just doing it for the community. “Are they growing up? I don’t know,” he said. “I think the whole point of this is that none of us will ever grow up who are interested in something like this.”

Gardiner, too, hopes the new convention will last. He doesn’t like change, even though he recognizes that an important chapter is drawing to a close. He’s planning to go to Baltimore this year, to send off the mother of all brony conventions with a bang. There’s no way to escape what that represents.

“It’s kind of a symbolic end to the fandom,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a moment in time that’s never going to happen again.”

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