Ingrid Nilson, the voice of the My Little Pony character Maud Pie, is going to be at DerpyCon South this year.
That sentence may not mean much to you — in fact, it even may not make sense — but for an entire subculture of geekdom, those words are as magical as Rainbow Dash, Applejack and all the other ponies living in the fantasy world of Equestria.
Next weekend, New Orleans will host its second annual DerpyCon South, a convention dedicated to fans of the children's cartoon show My Little Pony Friendship is Magic (the franchise's fourth generation, often abbreviated simply as MLP). The fans, though, won't be little girls in pink tutus and pigtails. They will be men, possibly dressed in pink tutus (though more likely dressed as their favorite animated horses), talking about the show's themes, the art it inspires and other grownup topics centered on a subject many will ridicule them for having any interest in at all.
They call themselves bronies.
According to Brendan Moore, a New Orleans brony who moved here from Ohio to pursue a Ph.D in philosophy at Tulane University, there are about 56 My Little Pony (MLP) conventions across the U.S. each year. BronyCon, one of the biggest MLP conventions, is held in Baltimore. More than 10,000 people attended this year.
DerpyCon, the New Orleans convention, will feature discussions with Nilson. There also will be panels with artists who sketch the show's characters, and there will be a marketplace for fans to sell the artwork that's the result of the show's inspiration.
Moore runs the local New Orleans brony Meetup group, which has 31 active members. When he talks about that number, he says "only," and when I say that 31 seems like a lot, he replies that most brony Meetups, such as the one he was in when he lived in Cincinnati, have between 1,000 and 2,000 members.
Moore has degrees in philosophy, psychology and pre-law, and he has the equivalent of two masters in philosophy. He teaches at Ohio University online. "Sixty-five or 70 percent of bronies are college graduates, or are just about to graduate," he says.
What does it mean to be an adult male fan of the show? It's not the same thing as being an adult male fan of Lost. You don't just DVR My Little Pony and bring up the latest episode over a beer with a random friend later in the week, and then move on with your life until the next episode.
To be a brony means dressing up as a brony. It means scouring the Internet for trivia about the show. It means joining online groups and in-person groups and connecting with other bronies and discussing the show's themes and singing the show's songs. It means writing songs about the show. It means drawing and painting pictures from the show. It means contributing in whatever small way you can to making an animated television series real, to bring to life the world of Equestria, where the ponies live and sing and play and learn. A fan-written song, "A Long Way from Equestria," written and performed by "MandoPony" and "AcousticBrony," deals with the complex issue of how far our reality is from the fantasy world of friendship, caring and kindness represented on the show. The video has 117,920 views on YouTube.
Many people assume the portmanteau "brony" refers to a "bro" who likes ponies. But the name actually refers to the /b/ board of the website 4chan, where brony culture originated. According to Moore, 4chan, an image hosting website, used to be completely unregulated, so people would put up all sorts of hateful things. "So people started posting images of the new My Little Pony, saying nice things," Moore explains. "And then it ended up being banned because they were really spamming it. And it just sort of caught on as a meme." So, /b/ + ponies = bronies.
Moore says MLP got him to start painting, and when I met him at a coffee shop in Mid-City, he brought a portfolio of his work. Every painting is a pony from the show, but rendered in creative ways, alluding to computer games, anime and other cultural outlets of so-called "geekdom." Moore also brought an envelope of pony broadsides printed on high-quality paper and a 3D printed sculpture of one of the My Little Pony villains. He wore a MLP t-shirt. And half an hour later, after he went home to pick up a MLP DVD, he arrived at Gambit's offices wearing a different MLP T-shirt.
When I tell Moore that I have seen the show (when I was babysitting a few months ago), his immediate question is, "Which episode?" I tell him that the one I watched centered on a birthday party, and he quickly responds: "It's episode 25, season one, 'Party Horse,' Pinkie Pie's birthday. I used to pride myself on knowing, like, 'Oh, the song comes in at the five-minute mark.'"
Moore likes the show for a lot of reasons. "Applejack, her parents are dead," he says. "So she's like running the farm. She's an orphan character. So they deal with orphans, themes of loss, change. The characters actually change over the seasons."
Moore also appreciates how high the stakes are in MLP, compared with a more mainstream show like Breaking Bad. "It's like, oh, Walter's self-conscious," he says of the main character of Breaking Bad. "He has to lie because he's going through this internal struggle. Part of me is like, I don't care about Walter's problems. If Walter died, nothing would happen. It isn't like the world is going to explode. In [MLP], there's like genocide happening."
Troy Smith, a New Orleans brony, says discovering the show helped bring him through a bout of real depression. Like Moore, he's well-educated, but at the time he was between jobs and couldn't muster up the self-confidence he felt he needed.
"It was at a point where I was feeling so bad I needed to vent my rage at something," Smith says. "I wanted to know where all these things were coming from. So I researched it. And then I decided to watch the show, because it looked OK. And then two hours later I was halfway through the season."
For Smith, it's the morality of the show that carried him through his tough time. "It was the simple fact of the joy that they preach of friendship," he says. "It got me self-confident again. Bad things will happen, but it'll come back around. If you have friends to take you along, the bad times will eventually go away, and you'll be where I am today, actually." Smith is working again as a computer programmer.
Preaching the values of love and friendship isn't a new concept, but Smith says MLP stands out, in part because it's wrapped in a package of the old-style cartoons he grew up watching. That's no surprise, since the show is produced by Lauren Faust, the same animator who created the 1990s show Powerpuff Girls.
There are an estimated 12 million My Little Pony Friendship is Magic fans in the U.S., according to the 2014 documentary A Brony Tale.
Smith says the Louisiana Brony Facebook group only has 300 people on it. There are an estimated 12 million MLP fans in the U.S., according to the 2014 documentary A Brony Tale, so the lack of interest in New Orleans is striking. Smith, a native of south Louisiana, says it's because the city is more diverse than a place like Ohio. "The fans tend to sink away in their own universe, only speaking to other people that know," he explains. "I truly think it's because of how diverse New Orleans is. It's such a melting pot, people generally keep to themselves or their own clique."
Moore suggests that the stigma of a bunch of grown men who like a show targeted for preteen girls also might have something to do with it. "The thing is, I used to kind of keep my fandom hidden, until probably 2013," he says. "Before it [became] more mainstream ... all someone knows is that you're a fan of a children's show targeted for girls. It's just a stigma as a male doing that. I didn't want anyone to know."
As for sexual or fetishistic interest in the colorful ponies, Moore says it's a very small percentage of bronies, and not a big enough number to be representative of the group.
Smith says his parents weren't exactly thrilled to learn that their son was into the show, but they've come around in the years since he's been a fan, and he says they support his interest.
Moore has also become much more comfortable with his affection for ponies, with many T-shirts and other outward displays of fandom. He will talk to anyone about MLP, and he'll even laugh at the very notion of it himself. "It'd be like a man who was obsessed with like Barbie, that'd be sort of weird," he jokes.
"But then again, Barbie doesn't teleport and fight crime with a whole group of friends."