On a sweltering Saturday in Baltimore, 11,000 bronies have claimed downtown. These are the fans of the TV show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, their name a mashup of "bro" and "pony" because many of the show's earliest — and unanticipated — adherents were young men.
For nine years they've evangelized the show, and for nine years they've been targets of scorn. But they've come here for BronyCon — the biggest My Little Pony convention in the world — heedless of what that world may think of them.
That's what brought me here, too. I've dodged the brony label for years, but I can't deny my love for the show. It's helped me out in dark times, and I wasn't about to pass up my last chance to join fans at BronyCon. Friendship may be magic, but the magic is fading; the show has entered its ninth and final season, and after several years of dwindling attendance, the convention's organizers decided it was time for a last hurrah.
The promise of a final party drew record crowds much as it attracted me. "Honestly, I'm shocked that we got to this point. We were not expecting to have such a banner year," says current convention chair Shir Goldberg. "We were expecting the fandom to be excited and maybe we would double our attendance from last year, clocking at the seven- or eight-thousand range, but we did not expect 11,000 people to show up."
People of all genders and ages — many colorfully costumed — parade down broad convention center halls. They gather for sprawling fan-illustrated card games, spontaneous singalongs to music from the show, and choreographed dance numbers. Everyone I spoke with waxed reflective, sharing stories of what first hooked them about My Little Pony. Eliana Summers, BronyCon's vice chair, says she first approached the show with skepticism, but it won her over with a moment of self-aware comedy. "It's the same way you watch Toy Story, and even as an adult it's an incredibly enjoyable film because the humor works with children and adults. Pony has always been that kind of clever, and that's why we have about 10,000 people here to celebrate with us."
Fans say they see themselves reflected in the shows' sensibility, or in a particular character. T.J. Carson, who runs fan websites under the moniker PirateDash, relates to Rainbow Dash — the high-flying athlete. "She's kind of a sporty, brash person and I'm kind of sporty — and I try not to be so brash." For the record, the character who always resonated with me was Twilight Sparkle, a bookish nerd who panics when she's unable to finish a task to her satisfaction and who regularly reports on lessons she has learned about friendship.
It's telling that I'm not alone in this. Daniel Chadborn, a psychologist on a team that has studied the phenomenon for nearly a decade, said fans list Twilight Sparkle as the show's most likable character. In addition to her neurotic but endearing personality, Twilight Sparkle's sincere focus on friendship might appeal to viewers who are socially marginalized — and also provide a model of pro-social behavior. According to Chadborn's study, bronies are more likely to donate to charity, less likely to accept gender stereotyping, and have five to 10 times higher LGBTQ representation than the average U.S. population. "Bronies tend to show that the No. 1 reason that they like the show is the story and characterizations," he says. "Very early on there was the phrase 'what would pony do'," he added, meaning "how would this character react to this? How should I behave in that matter?"
Many people flocked to the fandom because it provides a creative outlet, not to mention a ready market for their artwork. Claire Revell says she has slipped away from My Little Pony in recent years, but came all the way from England with new pony art for the last BronyCon. "I met a lot of people through it. I met my current boyfriend through it," she says, "and it's really quite changed my life, more than I realize."
Revell isn't the only person who met a life partner through pony fandom. Jayson Thiessen, chief director for many seasons of the show and for My Little Pony: The Movie, says that's part of its lasting impact: "People have come together and formed relationships and got married and had kids during the course of the show, because of the show ... and we were wondering, how many kids owe their existence to this show? And it's just kind of amazing."
Children may be the most lasting consequence of the fandom, but show writer M.A. Larson is thinking about what else its legacy may be. "I wonder how the show's going to live on, and will the new generations get the same lessons out of it," he says. Many bronies I've talked to compare their plight to that of Star Trek and Doctor Who fans, who had to persist for years without new content. While Hasbro, the owner of My Little Pony, will doubtless manufacture equine toys and spinoffs for years, they may never catch fire the way Friendship is Magic did. So many fans are moving on, even though they've come back to the last BronyCon to see old friends and relive some of the old magic.
That old magic was heady stuff for me. My hours at BronyCon threw me back to an earlier self, when the show hit me like a bolt from the blue. I was studying at Brigham Young University, returned from a Mormon proselytizing mission cut short by a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Shattered and lonely, I felt bereft of a life I thought I had figured out: no longer the ambitious student, the unshakable older brother, the model Latter-day Saint. Then came a show about candy-colored ponies learning to accept themselves and each other — one song and smile at a time. I hadn't watched an episode in years, but BronyCon reminded me how much I needed My Little Pony back then, and how it strikes a chord in me still. In fact, until I sat down to write this essay I didn't realize how much of my current life I owe to the show — it even, indirectly, led to me meeting my own wife.
So while this year's BronyCon was the biggest, it was never more bittersweet. As convention chair Shir Goldberg says: "Friendship is magic, you know. It's cliché, but the reason the fans stay in the fandom is the people. It's not for the content or the merch, it's for all of the people that created that stuff."
James Perkins Mastromarino is a producer for NPR and WBUR's Here & Now, an obsessive board gamer, and lover of all things magical.