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.)

Children of the eighties will recall the original My Little Pony (MLP) franchise from the Technicolor ponies in their little sisters’ toy chests. Or from the saccharine, omnipresent Saturday-morning commercials with the infectiously cloying jingle, featuring sun-kissed little girls doing little-girl things like combing her pony’s mane and carrying it in her bike basket. But that was several MLP iterations ago.

A fourth generation of MLP debuted in 2010 on the Hub, a cable network co-owned by toymaker Hasbro, who thought it a keen idea to program a slate of low-quality cartoons (like Pound Puppies and Transformers: Prime) to help hawk toy lines to susceptible children. The new MLP wouldn’t have seemed like anyone’s idea of revolutionary animation, nor was the intent to appeal to adult men. The dialogue was a bit snappier, but it was still little-girl fare, with ponies such as Twilight Sparkle and Rainbow Dash cantering around the mythical land of Equestria with their “cutie marks” (like brands, only cuter), bantering about the magic of friendship.

Then, a curious thing happened: The Internet got a hold of it. On the website 4Chan​—​famous as the place where every cultural cancer goes to metastasize, from Anonymous hackers to cat-photo memes​—​people started posting about MLP in order to ridicule it. But a counterforce of people who seemed to like it struck back, perhaps ironically at first, but then out of genuine affection or mass psychogenic illness​—​nobody’s entirely sure which. Virtual blood was spilled as Internet pony fights ensued. When the dust settled, a whole new older-male fandom was born, with all the clammy, neckbearded earnestness that one sees evidenced in more traditional enclaves of obsessives​—​from Star Trek to anime to CPAC conventions.

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.

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.)

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.”

There’s the long-haired heavy metal guitar player Dustin Randolph, aka Dr. Tiny, who has a Friendship Is Magic shirt, but with the design of Led Zeppelin’s “Swan Song” logo. Bronies are notorious for creating hundreds of thousands of pieces of fan art, from drawings to music, and Dustin has suffered for his, having been booted from his original band, Hexorine, just a few weeks ago. “They called me Brony scum,” he says. Now, he plays pony-themed solo tunes, songs such as “Cascadence” and “Alone.”

But one is never truly alone among the Bronyhood, discovering the magic of friendship with bros whose fondest wish is to show off their pony plushy toys, picking their favorite according to which pony’s personality most matches their own. (“I’m a Fluttershy .  .  . but today I’m feeling more like an Applejack.”) I encounter a mustachioed man taking a smoke break on a convention balcony. He’s in pony ears and tail, holding an MLP lunchbox. The name is Moonlight Blossom, he says (his pony alias). Mr. Blossom is a 37-year-old senior network administrator.

He says the notion that Bronydom infantilizes grown men like him is “horse apples.” If it’s rebelling against anything, “it’s against excessive cynicism and irony and people not being kind to each other.” Take his ex-girlfriend, for starters. Like MLP’s evil Queen Chrysalis, he says, she “sucks the life out of people by chewing up their love.” She nearly ruined him and sent him spiraling into depression, until he saddled up with the Bronies. So the show isn’t just for effeminized guys who don’t like the company of women, he’ll have me know. “Close to the end of season two, there’s a massive fight scene, okay?”

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.

Over my long weekend riding with the herd, I attend everything from Brony karaoke to dance-offs (where Bronies literally dance their tails off). At a rave one evening, I am nearly impaled by an alicorn horn during a Brony stampede. To calm things down one afternoon, I visit “The Crusader’s Clubhouse”​—​the sole sanctum for MLP’s original intended demographic (kids) to get away from the Brony man-children. Here, they can write letters to Princess Celestia about the magic of friendship, or have cutie marks painted on their cheeks.

The head-Brony-in-charge, a 20-year-old Asian guy named Justin, vigilantly checks my press pass. Since I’m not running around in pony ears or Pegasus wings, he needs to make sure I’m not some sort of weirdo. A cherubic 8-year-old girl named Carson is doing pony-crafts at a nearby table. She tells me she and her little sister have been into MLP their entire lives, though she allows, “I think it’s weird that guys like it.” I ask her who her favorite pony is. “Rarity,” she tells me. “But she’s so prissy!” argues Justin.

Justin tells me that at first, he started liking the show ironically, but then, he just liked it. I ask Carson if she knows what “ironically” means. She doesn’t. I tell her it kind of means pretending to like something as a joke. “Like when people go to Applebee’s,” adds Justin. Carson looks bored and wants to get back to her popsicle sticks and Elmer’s glue, even as Justin enthuses over the MLP fight scenes: “They’re girl ponies and they’re girly, but they’re fighting! So hilarious! Such a contradiction!”

Carson tells me that during crafts time, she’s teaching Justin how to make “butterflies and outdoor nature things.” I leave the 8-year-old-girl and her 20-year-old pupil to their studies. Since I’m not sure Justin has ever been outdoors before​—​between his My Little Pony-viewing marathons and whatever other entertainments are being hatched in the misfiring synapses of the hive mind​—​I’m guessing he has much to learn.

Matt Labash is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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