A little historical perspective
Many attendees at BronyCon are young enough that this is their first fandom; they might not have the experience from which to draw any comparative conclusions between this one and others that have come before. But from the perspective of someone who has seen fandoms come and go over the years, the difference in atmosphere between a new one on the rise and one that’s been around for a long time is remarkable.
Walking the con floor on Saturday I encountered Dustykatt, broadly known in the fandom as The Manliest Brony in the World, an old friend of mine who has been a part of conventions like these for the better part of two decades. I found him in the middle of an aisle being mobbed by fans, accosted for photos and autographs, and in general made to understand that not a single pony fan in the entire hall didn’t recognize him on sight. His Everfree Radio channel, Stay Brony, My Friends (modeled, of course, on the iconic Dos Equis ad campaign), has become such a popular production that Dusty is on the verge of being the fandom’s first homegrown folk celebrity—worthy of anchoring a panel of his own.
What’s funny, though, is that what he’s doing right now is no different from the schtick he’s been doing for years—it’s just that pony fandom is so energetic and so eager for his particular take on sentiments like Faust’s early flippant comment that “only the manliest of manly men can watch My Little Pony” that he has only now found an audience in which his popularity is achieving breakout. Prior to his newfound fame among pony fans enamored of his aggressively masculine “biker” persona, he had been most closely associated with the anthropomorphic or “furry” subculture—a community that has seen its fortunes over the past twenty years rise, stabilize, and then begin to decay.
“Furry isn’t what it used to be,” he told me, pausing to acknowledge the shy, starstruck wave of a passing fan wearing pink Fluttershy hair by knitting his eyebrows and glowering theatrically. His voice turned wistful. “At least for me. It’s just not as much fun anymore. Nowadays you’ve got two or three cons competing for attendance, and all they do is fight each other. It’s just stupid. Arguing over who had the most entries in their costume contests? Seriously?” He raised a massive arm to give an overpoweringly forceful brohoof to another giggling passerby. “But now, Pony is where it’s at. This is where all the fun is. People are here to just make art and create stuff and have a good time with each other. It’s like the old days.”
One fundamental difference between the pony and furry fandoms is, of course, that the latter is not based around any particular corporate property; all its content is created by the grass-roots membership. But, though that has often been a point of pride and a rallying cry for furry fans over the years who wished to set themselves apart from corporate-property fandoms like Star Trek and Harry Potter, it does put a fundamental limitation on the draw of the community—you won’t find VIPs like John de Lancie and Tara Strong on panels at Anthrocon—and on its relatability to the outside world. It’s much more difficult to describe anthropomorphic fandom to the press than, for example, a contingent of adult men who brave social stigma to proclaim their love for My Little Pony.
Telling reporters the answer to “why ponies?” makes for a tempting narrative. Lauren Faust has repeatedly explained how she designed the show to legitimize the entertainment aimed at young girls, to unload the linguistic baggage we attach to words like girly and remove the negative connotations with which we reflexively burden them. Seeing adult men embrace the show for its objective quality blended with the charm, beauty, and humor that makes it appealing to all ages leads an observer to conclude that something fundamental and exciting is happening to the very structure of society, catalyzed by this show appearing in the right place at the right time: that our traditional ideas of “masculinity” and “femininity” are being upended, that what was once unthinkable for one gender to appreciate is now perfectly acceptable for both. A man dressed as Rarity is not inherently “in drag” or making a statement about his sexuality. The show set out to prove that entertainment for little girls didn’t have to be dreck; but in the process it showed that there’s no reason dudes can’t wear pink hearts and rainbows on their backpacks.
Smile, smile, smile
But if you step onto the floor of BronyCon, matters of weighty social import disperse into the atmosphere.
What there is in the pony fandom, more than anything else, is fun. There is simply so much fun to be had, immersing yourself in the sea of happy pony-loving faces, that you forget every little impulse that tells you you shouldn’t be here. You’re just there because you love the show. What’s more, you’re surrounded by people who don’t care how awkward you might look or sound—but all 4,000 of them share your most embarrassing secret and are shouting it to the flaming rafters. Interacting with fellow pony fans, knowing that any observation you might make about the characters or their stories will meet immediate understanding and enthusiasm instead of confusion and narrowed eyes, is a recapitulation of the feeling of discovering the show for the first time; and even once the show itself has settled into your mind with comfortable familiarity, at a con you are thrown back into that sense of furtive, desperate joy that accompanied your growing realization of how much you loved it.
Amy Keating Rogers, one of the show’s long-time writers and one of the creative forces who collaborated earliest with Faust to flesh out the show, took me up on my invitation to attend the convention following her interview which kicked off this site’s career. In doing so, she—along with Faust and current head writer Meghan McCarthy—helped turn the focus of this BronyCon’s panel lineup from the technical execution side (as with previous cons focused on figures like director Jayson Thiessen and the voice actors) to the creation side, giving fans their first real look at what kinds of thoughts went into bringing their beloved characters to life.
While Faust in her panel described the genesis of the show in the toys she had played with as a kid, selecting six of her favorites to which she’d applied one-word archetypes like “debutante”, “tomboy”, “waif”, and “bookworm”, Rogers gave invaluable insight of her own into the process by which these characters and their defining moments evolved. Pinkie Pie’s “Smile” song began life in a demo sung by Rogers herself—a much longer version than the final, with a protracted “patter” section in the middle in which Pinkie interacts with pony after pony, demonstrating her uncanny knowledge of just what makes each one of her friends happy. Rogers braved the attention of the thousands of fans in the audience and sang the demo live. By the time the audience had begun clapping along, it was clear that this was one of those “you had to be there” moments that is impossible to convey properly—the positive feedback in both directions, from audience to panelists and back, drove the needle off the scale.
Continued on Page Three…