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.