Every local news station in the United States featured exposés on a rising and seemingly dangerous subculture in 2013.
“You probably sit with your kids sometimes when they watch cartoons,” reported WREG in Memphis Tennessee. “But we’re about to introduce you to a group of grown men and women who are obsessed with one particular cartoon: ‘My Little Pony.’”
News channels like ABC, FOX, CBS, and their local affiliates all took time to explore this budding cultural phenomenon. “Red Eye Radio” and “The Howard Stern Show” sent reporters to conventions hoping to catch bronies on tape. Podcasts, blogs, newspapers, and magazines featured interviews with professed bronies. Parents watched horrified, believing that their children were being exposed to brony culture and even worse: brony-themed pornography. Bronies drew attention, and everyone wanted clicks while the getting was still good. People soon moved on, and the coverage stopped. The bronies, however, have stuck around.
The website “What is a Brony” states that a brony is “a fan of ‘My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic’ that is outside of the target demographic of little girls.” The statistics tell another story. According to the most recent “State of the Herd” report, a statistical analysis of the brony fandom, a clear majority of bronies are males ages 14 to 24.
Hillsdale senior Steven Custer fits into this demographic. Custer studies economics and plans to graduate next semester. He also loves “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.”
“At the end of my freshman year I saw something on the internet mentioning bronies,” he said. “I figured I would watch the first few episodes before passing judgement on it, so I watched the first few episodes, and I really liked it.”
Custer devotes about 10 hours a week to brony-related activities. He watches the show, streams fan-created content, talks with other bronies on the chat service Discord, and makes music videos featuring the cast of the show.
“I’m a content creator,” Custer said. “I take clips from the show and reinterpret them in the context of a piece of music to tell a story. They’re called PMVs, or Pony Music Videos.”
Custer has 250,000 subscribers on YouTube, with his most popular music video reaching 600,000 views. His dedication to creating original content centered around the show is far from unique in the community.
“The fandom allows anyone who wants to be creative in any aspect to participate. There’s art, music, fanfiction, and animation,” Custer said. “It really shows the creative aspect of the fans.”
Hillsdale sophomore Joseph Frank Johnson has a simple explanation for this artistic phenomenon: “Ponies are easy to draw.”
Johnson hesitates to call himself a brony, but enjoys the show and creates content in his free time under the YouTube handle “Joey, The Dark Lord.”
“It’s really stupid, but I’m taking ‘My Little Pony’ episodes, and I’m applying economics to them,” Johnson said. “The videos use ponies to explain economic concepts like comparative advantage.”
Johnson first discovered “My Little Pony” his sophomore year of high school, but moved away from the fandom after being exposed to its more extreme facets.
“You look at stuff at the fandom has made and you think ‘Oh that’s cool,’” Johnson said. “But as time has gone on I started to realize how weird some of that stuff was. I think the closer you get to what a brony is, the more you want to step back and just like the show.”
Outside of buying a few shirts from Hot Topic during high school, Johnson kept his wallet far away from the fandom’s clutches. Custer cannot say the same.
“I’ve dropped about $1,000 on the pony fandom,” Custer said. “I’ve been to BronyCon in Baltimore the past two years, so that includes flights and hotels.”
At last year’s convention, Custer met people he knew from the community in person, watched panels, and participated in live musical performances. He even made time to bring Johnson home a poster.
“The show is very positive. All the messages are about community, friendship, and how to interact with other people,” Custer said. “That inevitably seeps into the psyches of the people who watch the show, so we pride ourselves on being a very open, loving, and accepting community.”
The brony fandom thrives on its openness, to the point where it produces everything that a fan could possibly want or need. There’s brony news websites, brony support groups, brony shoes, brony charities, communist brony discussion boards, and even a brony dating site called “Brony Mate.”
The brony fandom is often viewed negatively by the public, leading to tragedy. In 2014 an 11-year-old boy attempted to hang himself after his classmates repeatedly called him gay for wearing clothing featuring the character Pinkie Pie. Earlier that same year a 19-year-old with learning disabilities threw himself in front of a train after internet trolls accosted him over a pony fanfiction.
Both Custer and Johnson claim that Hillsdale students never so much as sneer at them for their bronyism. Junior economics major Jenna Suchyta explains part of the reason why.
“My gut reaction is that the whole thing is weird, but its not hurting me so, ‘you do you,’” said Suchyta, when asked how she feels about bronies. “Anime is weird also, but they don’t bother me, so why should I be worried?”
Considering Hillsdale counts itself among the few remaining colleges in the U.S. that allow smoking on campus, this answer seems far from surprising. Self-government extends into bronyism quite nicely.
“People know I’m a brony, and they don’t really care about it,” said Custer.
For both Custer and Johnson, the most difficult person to discuss bronyism with was their parents. Custer’s father initially resisted his bronyism.
“My dad would joke around about how he would never want any of his sons to be a brony,” Custer said. “That was a difficult conversation.”
Johnson, on the other hand, found his mother difficult to convince.
“I was pretty nervous leading up to telling my mom about it,” Johnson said. “I showed her a couple of episodes, and she thought it was weird but was cool with it. Later, I found out she thought I was gay.”
“My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” recently wrapped up its 7th season. According the brony news website “Horse News,” the show experienced a huge drop in the ratings during its 6th season and continues to lose viewership. After leaving the public eye, bronies began to abandon their once beloved fandom.
“There is definitely a sense that fewer and fewer people are involved with the fandom,” said Custer. “When the fandom first started it was weird and caught people’s eye. After the hype dropped people who were not as involved all left.”
Visiting brony websites gives a stark impression of the fandom’s falling popularity. Many of these websites post new content rarely if at all, and the few that persist lose traffic every day.
“I think that the whole fandom got big as a counterculture thing,” Johnson said. “People came on because it was a fad, and then things just eventually blew over. People analyzed the show way too much, picking apart each episode on an individual basis. It was talked to death.”
Johnson believes that bronyism now serves as an interesting case study more than anything else.
“I think bronyism is remarkable,” he said. “It’s the first culture to arise purely because of the internet. Something like Star Trek or Star Wars appeals to guys on a universal level, so they could grow naturally without the internet. Bronyism needed the internet, so it’s the first of its kind.”
As the world that they built crumbles around them, the few remaining bronies continue to create. Rumor has it that the show still has two seasons left, and fans like Custer and Johnson hope to stick around to the very end. Custer just hopes for some like-minded company in the meantime.
“If there’s any bronies that haven’t made themselves known, feel free to contact me because I would love to meet you. It would be great if we had a group here on campus.”
Custer sees the writing on the wall, but refuses to be swayed by the apparent exodus.
“There’s a fairly large core of really dedicated members of the fandom,” Custer said. “Come hell or high water, these people won’t leave the fandom. Even if 90 percent of the fandom leaves I’m still sticking around. I’m still watching the show, I’m still going to conventions, and I’ll still have the friendships I’ve made.”