By Alex Consiglio
The Toronto Star
Every weekend, a group of men eagerly climb the narrow stairs leading to Silver Snail comics in Toronto, where the latest adventure of cute ponies can be found.
Sometimes, the men are so excited they come dressed as their favourite pony, trotting around the shop before buying the newest volume of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic comic book, based on the children’s television show.
The show, produced by Hasbro and originally targeted toward young girls, has many fans, the oddest to outsiders being Bronies, the adult, male fan base that feels misunderstood.
Reaction to their love of the show usually ranges from disbelief to outright criticism and judgment, suspicion even that there’s a sexual nature to their obsession.
Not so, they say – they’re just, in one word, nerds.
Bronies, 18 or older, live and breathe My Little Pony – they buy merchandise, discuss the show’s animation, plot and characters online and attend conventions, similar to ComicCon conventions or the FanExpo. Of late, Bronies have been invading the show’s newest spinoff, a movie being screened before its summer release.
“We filled most of the theatre, ” says 18-year-old Alexander Blake, who joined a group of about 40 Bronies recently for a screening of My Little Pony: Equestria Girls in AMC theatres at Yonge and Dundas Sts.
Blake says a startled mother in the theatre with her young daughter curiously asked if he was lost, so he explained the Brony fandom to her. “She was surprised, ” says Blake, who is studying computer engineering at Sheridan College.
Blake says he has spent at least $400 on toys, shirts and comics. “But it’s not like any other kids show.”
The show dates back to the 1980s, but only gained its Brony following after being revamped in 2010 by animator Lauren Faust, known for her refusal to propagate stereotypical gender roles (think Barbie).
Faust (who wasn’t part of the movie team and has left the show) injected her unique animation into the series – adored by Brony artists in online forums – and wrote a gender-neutral show that teaches lessons of friendship, a concept both children and Bronies relate to.
Marsha Redden, a psychologist in Louisiana, has been conducting a study of Bronies, through interviews, and a survey now with 30,000 respondents.
She’s found Bronies, usually single, computer-savvy men struggling socially, get three uses out of the show: Socializing, escape/avoidance and conflict resolution.
Shy men credit the show with helping them break out of their shells, especially through meet-ups with other Bronies; others escape through the show’s fantasy and some apply its lessons in life, like how to deal with being bullied, says Redden.
“Each episode teaches a lesson, ” says Redden. “It comes down to ‘what would a pony do.'”
Calvin Horne, 25, moved to Halifax three years ago from Calgary to study computer and information systems and credits the show with allowing him to build a group of new friends.
“I don’t think people should find it weird because the show is as much for kids as it is for adults, ” he says. “There’s a little bit of something in there for everyone.”
Hasbro knows how diverse the show’s audience is, so the movie has subtleties only an older audience would grasp, as does the TV show.
Some parents, including Jennifer Gilbert, whose 7-year-old daughter watches the show, believe it’s sometimes too mature for young children.
“It goes over her head, but she likes all the colours, ” she says.
“I wouldn’t say it’s inappropriate, but it’s kind of a teenage kids kind of thing.”
Gilbert, who had never heard of Bronies, says the show is still better than other “preteen” shows that simply push female stereotypes, but she won’t be taking her daughter to see the movie.
In the movie, the main pony Twilight turns into a teenage girl, much to the chagrin of some Bronies and an attempt by Hasbro to market a new line of toys to tween girls.
Gilbert worries the human version of Twilight will be stereotypical, and feels uncomfortable in a theatre full of men watching a children’s show.
But Horne, who has attended the BronyCon convention in the U.S., says Bronies aren’t a threat, they’re just fanatic fans like any comic nerds, part of a fandom quickly growing.
The January 2012 BronyCon had 800 attendees, which rose to 4,000 that summer and is expected to rise to 6,000 this summer, says Horne.
Plans to bring a large-scale convention to Toronto are in the works by a group of fans following news that the first-ever BronyCon will hit Canada this summer in Vancouver.
Mike Brookhoff recently helped produce a documentary about the Brony phenomenon and says My Little Pony helps fill a gap for some men.
“They’re getting a message from it they’re not getting anywhere else, ” he says, adding the new movie is “a pretty big departure” from the original show and clearly an attempt to broaden the franchise and audience.
“There’s always a divide between animators and marketers, ” he says.
Bronies, who feared the movie wouldn’t stay true to the morals of the show, say the core values remain despite the main pony turning into a human.
“I thought it was a strange direction to take, ” says Horne, who went with a group of Bronies to watch it in Nova Scotia. “But the stories still had all the points that drew the people into show to begin with.”
Stories of inclusion, friendship and tolerance – some traits Bronies wish would be applied to them when people react to their love of My Little Pony by calling it “weird” and “bizarre, ” says Horne.
“It’d definitely be nice if people had a more open attitude toward us, ” he says.
Originally published in The Toronto Star.