My Little Pony galloped into the world in 1983 on a cloud of pink and purple sparkles, bent on winning the hearts of little girls. Set to a saccharine jingle, commercials showed pigtailed girls admiring these pastel-colored vinyl toy horses, unicorns, and pegasus, lovingly brushing their unnatural neon manes. And love them girls did.
Now, nearly 30 year later, My Little Pony mania has exploded again. But this time, the main drivers of the craze are teenage boys and 20-something men. Known as “bronies,” these bros fell under the Pony spell thanks to a clever new cartoon, “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic,” which airs on children-centered digital cable channel The Hub.
Soon after the show was launched in 2010, My Little Pony references sprang up all over the Internet, particularly on fan sites for anime, comics, and video games. “Friendship Is Magic” fan conventions began to pop up last year, as bronies went wild making custom fan art, from online images tweaked in Photoshop to handmade plush toys. The idea for a documentary about BronyCon—a major brony convention taking place this weekend in Seacaucus, New Jersey—raised nearly $350,000 through PayPal donations and Kickstarter, an online platform that helps artists fund their projects. As of today, the BronyCon documentary is the second highest-funded film on Kickstarter ever.
All of this has more than a few people scratching their heads. But perhaps the most confused are hard-core My Little Pony collectors—largely women in their 20s and 30s—who first developed a starry-eyed mane-combing devotion to the toys back in the ’80s. As many of these women have held onto their childhood treasures for decades, longtime Pony devotees tend to bristle at the fact that only when young men started making noise about My Little Pony two years ago, the world began paying attention.
“It was just so bizarre,” says Summer Hayes, the 30-year-old author of six My Little Pony collecting guides. “Here I’ve been a lifelong Pony fan, and all of a sudden this ‘Friendship Is Magic’ show comes out, and it’s like, what? Where do these people come from and why?
“I know a lot of My Little Pony collectors who don’t care for the bronies,” says Hayes, who lives in Indiana and helps run the only annual U.S. collectors convention, My Little Pony Fair. “They feel that they put so much time and effort into this niche collecting community, and then all of a sudden bronies come out and start getting all this attention. And it’s like, hey, well, what about us? We’ve been here forever, and nobody seemed to care. But now that there are all these guys in their 20s that are crazy about it, it’s suddenly important and it means something.”
Despite openly airing her friends’ frustration, Hayes herself feels no animosity toward the bronies. “To the bronies, I say, I think My Little Pony is awesome, so more power to you,” Hayes says. “I love Ponies. You love Ponies. It’s all good.”
“Now that there are all these guys in their 20s that are crazy about My Little Pony, it’s suddenly important.”
Also, Hayes says she gets why people love the “Friendship Is Magic” cartoon, which is tied to the fourth generation of the Hasbro toys, and she appreciates its strong female Pony personalities, as reimagined by Lauren Faust, known for her work on “The Powerpuff Girls” and “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends.”
The new cartoon follows six My Little Pony friends: Twilight Sparkle, an earnest, bookish unicorn; Rainbow Dash, a feisty tomboy pegasus; Rarity, a haughty, girly unicorn; Pinkie Pie, a buoyant party-loving “earth pony”; Fluttershy, a bashful, animal-loving pegasus; and the hard-working cowgirl earth pony called Applejack, a character who was in the original first generation Pony line.
As much as she likes it, Hayes still can’t get her brain around why teenage boys, specifically, are so drawn to it. So we asked Shaun, a 24-year-old brony who makes a living running his “Friendship Is Magic” fan blog Equestria Daily from Arizona, to explain in an email interview.
Shaun says he first became intrigued by My Little Pony when he saw “Friendship Is Magic” memes popping up all over image-driven sites populated by comics and gaming geeks. Then, he watched the show and became enamored with the look of the animation, the characters, and the references to mythology, and so was inspired to create his fan blog.
Some bronies—who, despite the “bro + pony” origins of their name, can be male or female—even take the ideas presented in the show to another level, Shaun explains. “They turn it into a creed to live by, filled with love and tolerance.” Well, sure, why not?
Equestria Daily gets between 80,000 and 100,000 unique page views a day and makes enough money through Google ads to sustain itself. The blog is filled with fan-generated tributes to “Friendship Is Magic,” from images and animations to songs and games, often “mashing up” the fourth generation My Little Ponies with other pop-culture phenomena like “Mad Men” or “Harry Potter.”
“We only get 22 minutes of Pony a week when it’s actually in season, so the custom stuff helps drive it forward between episodes,” Shaun explains. “Crossing it over with other geek-culture things is a good way to get noticed and spread it beyond the current fandom.“
Most bronies, Shaun says, have zero interest in the Ponies that came before “Friendship Is Magic,” the first three generations of the toy, or the two girly My Little Pony cartoon series that aired in the ’80s and ’90s.
“A good majority of bronies don’t have anything to do with the older stuff,” says Shaun, who goes by the Pony name Sethisto Scootaloo online. “‘Friendship is Magic’ essentially made Ponies ‘cool.’ Lauren Faust wanted to make something everyone could enjoy, and did an amazing job of it. It’s not too surprising that kids of both genders would be into it. I’ve always compared ‘Friendship Is Magic’ to a Pixar movie: It’s filled with stuff only a more mature viewer would get, but still keeps it carefree and fun.”
But why do bronies get so much attention? Shaun has some ideas. “Traditional media sites love reporting on the armada of young adults who can’t get enough of sparkly unicorns and rainbows. They rarely dig into the actual show, and a lot of them actually link to or play scenes from the ’80s cartoon, which isn’t very popular among us. Still, brony culture does grow at an astounding rate. It’s hard to go anywhere on the Internet without at least catching a glance at some Pony stuff.”
While Shaun and other bronies are uninterested in the Ponies’ origins that first inspired Hayes and other longtime collectors, rocker and motivational speaker Andrew W.K., who’s 33, seems to bridge the divide. In an interview with Dan Solomon at MTV Hive, Andrew W.K. talked about why he will be speaking at Canterlot Gardens, a brony convention happening in Strongsville, Ohio, September 28-30, where he will discuss the party philosophy of Pinkie Pie.
“I remember quite clearly when My Little Pony first came on the scene,” he says. “I was always, always really into the Ponies because, one, they had soft plastic skin. They had chubby feet — their legs get broader and broader toward the base, which I imagine gives them more traction for when they gallop or trot. And they had really nice, fragrant hair. It was mostly girls who liked it, so I was able to spend a lot of time playing with very beautiful girls, some of whom were kind enough to give me their Ponies, or lend them to me for extended periods of time.”
Of course, it’s likely that multitudes of boys, like Andrew W.K., grew up secretly loving the original ’80s My Little Pony toys.
“They are marketed to girls; you can’t deny that, with the pinks and the purples, the babies and the bottles,” Hayes says. “That’s what little girls are supposed to like, I guess. But then again, they’re just a fun toy.”
At age 2 in 1984, Hayes received her first My Little Pony, and became obsessed. By the time the first generation of Ponies were out of production, she had amassed about 400 Ponies, which lined her childhood bedroom walls. She also had all the play sets, which she would use to build a “whole Pony city.” And as she became a teenager, she put it away but still kept it all.
“Growing up, I had a boy cousin, the same age as me,” she says, “and I remember being with him at my grandmother’s house when we were little. I, of course, had Ponies because that was my thing. So we played with them together, underneath the trees and in the pool. It’s funny because he would make He-Man and his friends ride the Ponies. He’d be like, ‘Whoa, Masters of the Universe doesn’t really have enough horses for guys to ride on, so we’re going to put them on an army of Ponies and charge to Castle Grayskull.’ I don’t see anything wrong with it. I played with his Hot Wheels when I was a kid, and nobody said anything about that.”
Those iconic chubby and doe-eyed Ponies made in the United States from 1983 to 1992 are known to collectors as the first generation, or G1. Under the Kenner imprint, Hasbro reintroduced My Little Ponies with strange new skinny bodies in 1997, and this second generation is unpopular with most collectors, Hayes says.
The third generation, debuting in 2003, was closer to the classic My Little Pony mold. Then in 2009, Hasbro revamped the Ponies again producing only the “Core Seven” characters with a more anime look, a line collectors dismiss as G3.5. But when “Friendship Is Magic” was launched in 2010, the new fourth generation’s anime-style grew more accepted. Hayes has ‘em all. “I’m a completist, and I really enjoy all Ponies. I practice all-generation appreciation.”
One might think that a collection of mass-produced and widely distributed plastic toys would be relatively easy to complete. But Hasbro produced limited-edition mail-order Ponies, like the ’80s long-tailed Rapunzel Pony, which now goes for as much as $800. And outside of the 600 U.S.-issued Ponies, Hasbro has licensed My Little Pony molds to toy companies all over the world.
“Unknown Ponies keep showing up,” Hayes says. “As recently as six months ago, collectors discovered a whole separate line of Ponies that were produced in Venezuela that we never knew about. Someone found a stash of mint-in-box ’80s Venezuelan Ponies, and of course, they went on eBay and sold them to collectors. We don’t know everything. I’m sure we’ll get to a point where there’s no new information, but it seems like every couple of years we find a new country or a new variation.”
Now Hayes has more than 2,000 Ponies and their accessories, which are showcased in their own “Pony Room” at the home she shares with her Star Wars collector husband and their 17-month-old son. Her toddler, no surprise, doesn’t seem to know these toys are meant for girls.
“My gosh, he loves them!” Hayes says. “But I don’t let him go into the Pony Room. Isn’t that sad? I took him in there once. And he’s at that age now where he’s like, ‘Ahh!’ and he’ll just run to the shelves and try to clear them off in one handful, you know, to get all the Ponies on the floor. I’m like, ‘Mmm, this isn’t going to work for me. This Pony goes here, and this one goes here.’
“But I do have a lot of extra Ponies,” she continues, “things that I’ll pick up at yard sales and shops. Even if I have the Pony, I usually buy them to trade with other collectors for accessories or things I might need. So I’ll get those out for him. He thinks they’re pretty great.”
It’s not especially shocking that little boys like miniature horses, or all toddlers are drawn to pink and purple sparkly things. Unfortunately, according to Shaun, bronies aren’t breaking down the gender barriers much further.
“Traditional media sites love reporting on the armada of young adults who can’t get enough of sparkly unicorns and rainbows.”
“I think brony culture is making specifically My Little Pony more acceptable, not so much the other stuff,” he says. “Kids’ shows marketed toward girls aren’t too popular among bronies when they pop up on the official Hub or My Little Pony social-media pages.”
Indeed, bronies are fierce in their devotion to the show, connecting in real life at conventions, the oldest of which is only two years old. This year, nearly a dozen of these brony conventions are scheduled to take place all over the United States and Europe. The much-ballyhooed BronyCon happening this weekend in New Jersey will feature series creator Lauren Faust; John de Lancie, who played “Star Trek’s” Q; and popular “Friendship Is Magic” voice actors like Tara Strong. With the help of those Kickstarter funds, this BronyCon will be documented on film for ages to come.
By contrast, there are exactly two major My Little Pony collecting conventions. Hayes’ My Little Pony Fair, which is in its ninth year, and its sister convention, UK PonyCon. Even so, the Pony collectors beat the bronies to the big screen: Hayes and other old-school Pony collectors were featured in the 2011 documentary, “My Little Obsession,” which, Hayes says, screened at several brony events last year.
And Hayes has noticed the registration for this year’s My Little Pony Fair, happening July 7 and 8 in Orlando, Florida, has shot up from around 350 to about 450—in all likelihood thanks to the brony movement. Hayes says she welcomes all Pony lovers, but also wonders what the bronies, most of whom don’t collect the Hasbro toys, will bring to the collectors’ table.
“I’m really anxious to see how it will turn out this year,” she says. “Last year, when we had the Fair in Rhode Island, we did get several bronies, but they seemed to be the ones who were already interested in Ponies before this trend hit. These new bronies, the ones that have emerged just last year, they’re really into the show. I don’t know what they’re expecting from the My Little Pony Fair. I would hope that the bronies that are coming to the convention do have an appreciation for the toys. Otherwise I don’t know why they’re there.”
Shaun says he does buy smaller plastic Hasbro Ponies known as Blind Bags, because they “come with molded hair that is more true to the cartoon look. I never was into the ones that require brushing. The more show-accurate out of the box, the better.”
So perhaps this tidbit is drawing bronies to the My Little Pony Fair: Hasbro representatives, as usual, will be there, and they’ll be bringing a limited-edition fourth-generation Pony, made specially for the event, with them. The same Pony will be available at UK PonyCon in October.
However, bronies are more likely to collect elaborate fan-made custom plush toys, which are unlike anything Hasbro produces and sell for hundreds of dollars each on eBay. Hayes says customization, the practice of repainting a traditional vinyl Pony and re-rooting its hair to make your own character, has long been a part of My Little Pony fandom, but the bronies have taken it to the next level with their plush toys and memes.
While Hayes and her collector pals may seem dwarfed by the enormity of the brony movement, as an unstoppable viral force, they are actually a part of a much larger pop-culture phenomenon: Gen-Xers who are obsessed their own childhoods. Hayes’ other friends collect Star Wars, He-Man: Masters of the Universe, and Strawberry Shortcake.
“The ’80s were, like, the best time to be a kid, ever, because everything was all about kids,” Hayes says. “I have a 17-month-old, so I’m out looking at the toys today. There are some okay toys, but to me, these are nothing compared to what we had.”
But even if you still have your first-generation Ponies—and they’re not totally beat up—it doesn’t mean you’ll get big bucks for them. “I see people at flea markets, who are like, ‘I have this Pony; I’m going to put $20 on it,’” Hayes says. “And it’s a Peachy, which is probably one of the most common Ponies ever. You might be lucky to get 2 bucks out of it. It’s best to do the research before you go slap a crazy price tag on it.”
And those ’80s Ponies are losing their limelight, as the decades-long My Little Pony collectors struggle to hold on to their identity in a world where the bronies seem to be taking over, driving the Ponies into their future.
“A couple weeks ago, I was in Ohio with my friend Mary, who also likes to collect Ponies,” Hayes says. “We were in line at an Old Navy, and she was explaining to her husband about one of the events at the Pony Fair. The cashier by the counter, who was wearing a Star Wars shirt, goes, ‘Are you a brony?’ It was just really random, like, ‘Wow, a cashier at Old Navy knows what a brony is.’ That is wild. But Mary was like, ‘No, I’m not a brony. I’m a collector.’”