I was feeling a little tired today and wasn’t going to write anything at all, but I feel that it is my solemn duty to note the decline and death of Western Civilization. The existence of the strange and seemingly growing phenomenon of the Brony is surely a sign that the end is near. Read this article in The Weekly Standard and shudder.
In the near future, historians will struggle to locate the precise moment when civilization’s wheels finally, irretrievably came off. By then, there will have been too many such moments to pinpoint one with any certainty. But I’ll mark the day as having occurred on a recent August weekend when, standing in the concourse of the Baltimore Convention Center, I watch grown men with problem skin and five o’clock shadows prance around in pony ears, rainbow manes, and braided tails lashed to their belt-loops, doling out “free hugs,” starting “fun! fun! fun!” chants, and spontaneously breaking into song. “Give me a bro hoof,” says one, trying to knuckle-bump me. It’s what you might imagine heaven to be like, if your idea of heaven is hell.
I’ve come to BronyCon, where the herd gallops 8,500 strong, up from a “mare” 100 conferees (apologies, but Bronies insist on speaking in horrible horse puns) at the first BronyCon in 2011. If you’ve been lucky enough to stay off the Internet for the last three years—Internet-culture and culture-proper having long since become one and the same—you might not know that “Brony” is a portmanteau of “bro” and “pony,” used to indicate the (mostly) late teenage and adult male fans of the children’s cartoon series My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. (Average age: 21, though I encounter scores of middle-aged Bronies, and even a 60-year-old.)
Much has been written about the infantilization of the American male, which for a change is not media hype. The average age of video-gamers is now 37, and 2011 census data show roughly a quarter of 25-to-34-year-olds still living with their parents. By some counts, more adult-leaning superhero/comic-book movies have been made in the last couple of years than in the entire decades of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s combined.
But Bronies represent a novel variation on the theme: Like so many American men, they wish to be forever suspended in childhood. Except this time, they want to be 6-year-old girls. Bronies have, in fact, come to embody what pop sociologists call the New Sincerity Movement. The thinking goes that the smirky ironic detachment of recent decades—pretending to embrace low-culture totems for laughs—has grown stale. Now that the Internet has fragmented the culture into a million pieces, helping every maladjusted shut-in to realize his natural level of eccentricity, the only way for a self-respecting hipster or a Zuckerbergian alpha-nerd (the tribe that now runs the world) to distinguish himself is to enthuse over his enthusiasms without detachment or apology. Even if that means grown men writing Twilight Sparkle fan fiction or cutting bad electronica songs with titles like, “I Might Be a Brony.” You might find it funny, but they’re not joking.
Maybe we need another major terrorist attack or a prolonged economic depression to shock people into growing up. I will say though, that I really hate that cynical, ironic, smirking attitude that some people affect, believing themselves to be more sophisticated than they really are. I am not sure whether embracing bronyhood is preferable.
To defuse a few common Brony stereotypes straightaway, despite their fascination with pastel talking ponies, there’s no evidence that Bronies are mostly gay or pedophiles. Indeed, there are hardly any children at BronyCon. When I encounter one dad who’s brought his 6- and 12-year-old daughters (the more traditional MLP demographic), the latter says she finds all the older male fans “creepy.” And Dad is heading them toward the exit, not having understood how few young kids would be making this scene.
As for accusations that the Bronyhood is some sort of equine gay cult, this is supported neither by studies nor by my three days among the string. With the musky smell of humid T-shirts and social awkwardness cultivated by spending too much time eating transfats in front of computer screens, most Bronies I speak with seem to emit a sort of nerd–drogynous sexuality. They don’t seem to have special someones of either the gay or straight variety.
One Brony study—yes, there’s some academic to study everything, and most of them seem to be conducting panels at BronyCon—says 84 percent of Bronies report being exclusively heterosexual (only 1.7 percent report being gay, while the rest are bisexual or asexual). More tellingly, 22.4 percent have no interest in dating, and 60.9 percent are interested but not dating. (There are some female Bronies, but these are often called “Pegasisters,” giving third-wave feminists a fresh inequality to whinny about.)
Not dating, go figure. I can’t imagine why women wouldn’t be impressed with a grown man who admires a cartoon for little girls. The horror is growing though, even without natural breeding.
But even if Bronies don’t seem to have an overwhelming interest in breeding, what’s clear is that, like malware, Bronydom is spreading. One terrifying “State of the Herd” survey estimates that there are as many as 12.4 million, which if true would mean that if Bronies had their own state, it would be the seventh most populous in the nation.
During three days of BronyCon, I have occasion to meet all manner of Bronies and their stable-mates. There’s Sam Miller, who teaches communications at the University of North Dakota, and who studies them. He tells a roomful of Bronies, from the dispassionate vantage of academe, that “you guys are doing something powerful. . . . You’re pushing the envelope of what gender is supposed to do. That’s awesome.” Then there’s Dr. Katia Perea, who teaches sociology/queer media studies at CUNY Kingsborough. A roomful of pony-ears and manes bob in agreement, as she lectures on the historic sweep of “girl cartoons” which she has extensively studied. She drops academese like “transgressing gender normative coding” and “the master/slave dialectic.” When she finally speaks English, it is to tell the Bronies, “You are a revolutionary movement in popular culture.”
Well it certainly is revolutionary.
They are even infiltrating the military
Then there’s 28-year-old Jacob Hughes, an Army drill sergeant at Fort Benning. I go to lunch with him after hearing him speak at a Military Bronies panel, where our soldiers, sailors, and Marines—in testimony that should probably end up in al Qaeda recruiting videos—come out about their love for all things My Little Pony. Hughes insists on wearing a stuffed Pinkie Pie plushy (his favorite pony) on his shoulder on our walk to the restaurant. When a waitress takes our order, she says, “Ooh, glad my granddaughter isn’t here. . . . She [has to have] soft pink things.”
At ease about his Bronydom, Hughes is an enthusiastic booster. A gregarious performer-type, Hughes says ponies helped him shed once-crippling introversion. “A good part of the appeal is that wholesomeness and innocence,” Hughes says. “And so we’re shining a light on the fact that, yes, I am a man. But at the same time, I enjoy what I enjoy.” He seems sincere and well-meaning, so I don’t want to harsh his Pinkie Pie mellow. But the Care Bears are wholesome and innocent, too. Yet you don’t see Army drill sergeants traipsing around in Funshine Bear costumes—at least not as of this writing.
We are doomed. At least the Roman Empire fell to invading barbarians. Thousands of years from now historians will be discussing the fall of the American Empire… to Bronies.