One of the best things about Schaumburg, aside from the sheer volume of chain stores with a lower sales tax rate than Chicago's, is its absolute blandness, which makes it really easy to imagine yourself somewhere else—like, say, Ponyville.
Hordes of children and also many adults in America and around the world regularly imagine themselves in Ponyville, not just because it's an exceptionally pretty small town with fanciful architecture, perfect weather, and breathtaking natural scenery—forests! mountains! apple orchards!—or because it's inhabited by multicolored talking horses, some with magical powers, but because everyone there is so nice. Other towns value military power or a thriving economy. In Ponyville, the greatest value is friendship. The ponies there are kinder and more generous than the people in Schaumburg. They laugh more, you can always depend on them to tell you the truth, and they are fiercely loyal. Being there makes you want to be all those things too.
Most of the time, the only way a mere human can visit Ponyville is through an act of the imagination, aided by plastic toy ponies and play sets or watching the cult TV cartoon My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, now in its fifth season. But last weekend, 1,500 My Little Pony fans descended upon the Schaumburg Hyatt for this year's My Little Pony Fair. They brought glitter and face paint and mane-and-ear headdresses and detachable tails. And they brought ponies, thousands and thousands of ponies, plastic ponies and plush ponies, mass-produced ponies and custom-made original ponies, limited-edition ponies still in their original packaging and beat-up ponies missing tails and chunks of mane. There were ponies that were 32 years old and ponies that won't be in stores for several months. Ponies, ponies, everywhere! And all was happiness and joy (mostly), because, as Savannah O'Connor, keyboardist for the pony-centric band the Shake Ups in Ponyville puts it, "Ponies are everything that is sweet and good and positive in the world."
- Parker Bright
- Patrick O'Connor and Bitsy Matatall, aka Twi-fi Sparklecaster, and the Great and Powerful Bitsy Pie, of the Shake Ups in Ponyville
And yet, waiting in the (remarkably peaceful) registration line at 10 AM Saturday, young Isabella Hengge, resplendent in a hoodie featuring her favorite pony, Twilight Sparkle, is apprehensive.
"There are boys coming in!" she informs her mother, Cindy.
"It's OK," Cindy says. "Boys can like ponies too."
This is probably as good a time as any to discuss bronies: grown men who love My Little Pony, more specifically Friendship Is Magic. They have become an object of fascination because, in the public imagination, there is something sort of weird and maybe even pedophiliac about men who play with toys intended for little girls, a perception that was enhanced by a now infamous 2012 segment of Howard Stern's radio show in which roving correspondent Wolfie visited Bronycon and interviewed young men who admitted they still lived in their parents' basement and spent their time masturbating to pony porn. (The technical term for this is "clopping," and it's a perfect example of the so-called Rule 34 of Fandom: If it exists, there is porn of it.) Every brony I meet at the Pony Fair insists that this characterization is unfair. "He had to interview 40 people to get one clip," says Alex Davidson, a brony from New Jersey who had actually attended that year's Bronycon. "If you have to interview a lot of people, there has to be an ulterior motive."
"We're five years into the brony fandom," adds his friend Keith Butler, an organizer of Ponycon, an annual event in Brooklyn ("seven floors of Pony!"). "It never would've lasted this long if it wasn't sincere and family oriented. We're 70 percent guys, but if a little girl would walk in, she would feel comfortable. We have a lack of porn and drinking and other unfun things."
At the My Little Pony Fair bronies are a definite (though extremely vocal) minority. The fair started in 2002, long before Friendship Is Magic, as a way for collectors of vintage 1980s My Little Ponies to meet and trade and indulge in childhood nostalgia. It's still the only My Little Pony convention that's officially sanctioned by Hasbro. The first fair had only 30 attendees, all women. Even after the TV show became popular, the focus of the fair remained collecting, says Summer Hayes, who took over as its organizer in 2010. When the bronies started showing up, there was some resentment among the collectors.
"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," Hayes told Collectors Weekly in 2012. "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."
Since then, the animosity—though, actually, it's hard to imagine any kind of hostility in Ponyville—has melted away. The two groups have learned to understand each other, or at least coexist peacefully in a form of parallel play. The collectors occupy the ballroom on the first floor of the hotel, while the bronies, represented by the Bronies-NYC meetup group, take over a meeting room in the basement.
Savannah and Patrick O'Connor, who go by the stage names Professor Savvyshy and Twi-fi Sparklecaster, are one-third of the Indianapolis-based band the Shake Ups in Ponyville. Originally the Shake Ups were a regular, kid-friendly power-pop band. In 2013, Hayes invited them to play at the fair. The Shake Ups, already ardent fans of Friendship Is Magic, decided to do her one better by rewriting their songs to be pony-centric. They have since recorded two pony albums and become regulars on the pony circuit, which gives them plenty of opportunities to observe bronies at close range. At first they were terrified at the prospect of spending a weekend in a hotel with hundreds of guys in their 20s. But when the band's car broke down on the way to their first brony convention, the bronies sent encouraging messages on Facebook and lined up outside the hotel to greet them and escort them to their room. "All brony events," Patrick says, "have had that spirit."
- Parker Bright
- Bronies at the convention were a distinct (but vocal) minority.
Bronydom, the O'Connors believe, has less to do with horses than with the magic of friendship.
"Gender norms are stifling," Savannah says. "Men are finding male friendship stunted in some way. They're just sitting side by side playing video games. Then they see women being ever so kind to each other in these nurturing friendships. Men couldn't have that except under extreme duress, like at your mom's funeral. There are basic social skills that women have access to . . . "
". . . that men do not," Patrick finishes.
Friendship Is Magic serves as a primer for those skills. It begins when Twilight Sparkle, a brilliant student of magic who prefers books to other ponies, visits Ponyville and is befriended by five local ponies—Applejack, Rarity, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, and Rainbow Dash—who accompany her on a dangerous mission to save their homeland of Equestria. Through their adventure, Twilight discovers that friendship is the greatest magic of all and decides to stay in Ponyville to study it further. Each episode centers on what one minor character describes as "a friendship problem that can be solved in 22 minutes," and ends with one of the ponies reflecting on what they all have learned.
Lauren Faust, the creator of Friendship Is Magic, based some of the stories on the adventures she staged for her own ponies as a little girl, but the real heart of the show, she's said, is the feeling of joyful recognition she had as a teenager when, after a lonely childhood, she made her first real friends. The "Mane Six" have different personalities and interests, but they all accept and support one another without being cliquish or mean. Everypony (as they say in Equestria) has a definite place in the world, identified by a "cutie mark," a logo on her rump, which magically appears at the moment when she realizes her purpose in life. (It's sort of like puberty, without the terrifying surge of hormones.)
It's easy to see how all this would appeal to bronies, who, according to an ongoing psychological study (called, yes, the Brony Study, conducted by a team of actual psychiatrists) tend to be in their early 20s and more introverted than nonbronies, less likely to be joiners, and more likely to become absorbed in fantasy worlds.
"My idea of a stereotypical brony," says Savannah O'Connor, is a "sweet-natured 19-year-old boy I feel maternal toward and want to defend, just a sweet human being."
It becomes even easier to understand bronies once you've seen Friendship Is Magic. It's a really good cartoon, funny and smart, with enough color and action to entertain kids, interesting characters and pop culture references to amuse adults (my personal favorites are Doctor Whooves and Maud Pie, the pony Daria), and "fan service" to make the obsessives feel important. It is upbeat and joyful without being saccharine. A few weeks before the fair, I started watching on Netflix for research purposes and quickly became addicted. It made me happy.
Faust deliberately created Friendship Is Magic without a single strong male character. This is the reverse of most cartoons (and TV shows and movies). It's always the female ponies who save the day while the males stay on the sidelines. There aren't even any pony boyfriends. The bronies don't care. They're happy to dress up like girl ponies, even when they're acting like dudes, watching TV together and eating pizza and looking for continuity errors in the animation. (While they enjoy collaborating on art and music, they're not as interested in crafts or pony restoration as their "pegasisters.") During a Saturday seminar on how to start a MLP meetup, a young man named Arun announces that he and a friend have recently formed a brony group in Naperville because the three other Chicago brony herds are all in the city. "Once we get ten guys," he says, "we're going to go play Airsoft!"
"That's great!" Alex tells him. "In New York, we do Nerf wars all the time. It's a bunch of guys dressed like ponies shooting each other."
- Parker Bright
- My Little Pony creator Bonnie Zacherle and designer Susanne Riette-Keith
Bonnie Zacherle, the designer of the first My Little Ponies, is not particularly surprised by the brony phenomenon. "At the beginning," she says, "I intended Pony to be a toy for both boys and girls."
For five My Little Pony Fairs now, Zacherle has shown up to talk about how she came up with the idea of little plastic horses in pastel colors. "I'm surprised they want me back," she says. "Some people go every year. They got my autograph, they know my life story. I'm flattered they still want to hear it." This year, she decided to liven up the presentation with a slide show of her upcoming comic book about her life in Pony.
The story goes like this: In the early 80s, Zacherle was working at Hasbro, then a small New England toy company, where she was one of the few female designers. She was supposed to be thinking about toys for girls, but she found this difficult because as a little girl, she'd never played with dolls. She was more interested in her record player and in horses. Then she realized that lots of other little girls loved horses too. For three years running, she presented a design for a plastic horse. Her bosses rejected it every time. "Most girls aren't like you, Bonnie," one told her. "They like to cook and clean and iron." One fateful day, her bosses' boss suggested she design a plastic pony. "Pony, horse, what's the difference?" Zacherle remembers thinking. But she went back to the drawing board and came up with My Pretty Pony.
Four times larger than its later descendants, My Pretty Pony was made of hard plastic in realistic shades of brown and gray, with a combable mane and tail. It sold pretty well, but the wife of the director of marketing suggested it might do better if it were smaller and softer. Zacherle designed the little ponies, and prototypes were made. The director of marketing asked her what she thought about turning them pastel so they would appeal more to little girls.
"I said, 'Oh, go ahead,' " Zacherle remembers. "The rest is history."
She designed six ponies—the original Mane Six—with designs on their flanks to make them even more girly. By the time My Little Pony appeared in stores early in 1983, Zacherle had taken another job at Parker Brothers, but colleagues kept her apprised of the ponies' progress. At Easter, they did well, Zacherle assumed, because the pastels looked nice in Easter baskets. But in late summer, her former marketing director told her, "Bonnie, the ponies are galloping off the shelves!"
That was precisely the time I acquired my first pony. Her name was Blue Belle. She was pale blue, with a small constellation of darker blue stars on her rear. I adored her instantly. She was also easily within the budget of my aunt, who had taken me to Toys "R" Us to choose a present for my seventh birthday. My sister saw Blue Belle and wanted a pony of her own: Cotton Candy, pink with white dots. Within a year, we had what we and our parents thought was a sizable herd, though, as I learned at the My Little Pony Fair, we were much mistaken: compared to other collectors, all we had was a little paddock. Summer Hayes, for instance, had 450 ponies even before she became a serious collector.
The ponies were simple but sturdy, with no other gimmicks or gizmos. Originally, Zacherle says, that was a point in their disfavor with the Hasbro sales team. "They said, 'It doesn't do anything!' " None of them had ever been little girls.
But my sister, our friends, and I loved our ponies because of their simplicity. We gave them voices and personalities and spent hours inventing adventures for them on our bedroom floors. I don't think there was a single toy we ever had that our father hated more. Blue Belle, in particular, had a high and piercing voice that drove him crazy. ("Good!" Zacherle says when I tell her this. "That's the way you should play, giving them personalities.") He retaliated by calling the ponies My Little Jackasses. He also liked to hold up one called Lemon Drop and yell "Lemon Drop!" as he let her fall. ("See?" Zacherle says. "Boys just play differently than girls." My father: "Who says I was playing?")
Our pony fixation lasted for about a year, long enough for us to get into the more sophisticated ponies, the unicorns and pegasi and sea ponies and a baby, but not the ballerinas with the moving legs or the sleepy-time ponies with blinking eyes or the First Tooth Baby Ponies that came with toothbrushes.
Many of those ponies were the work of Susanne Riette-Keith, who joined the design team at Hasbro after Zacherle left and was given the mission of expanding the line. "Talk about trying everything!" Riette-Keith says. "It worked." (On Friday night, Riette-Keith was inducted into the My Little Pony Hall of Fame. "They give you a trophy like the Academy Awards," she says. "It's a riot!")
At the My Little Pony Fair, there's a small museum of Zacherle and Riette-Keith's ponies, the so-called Generation One, manufactured until 1992. There are five cases and dozens of ponies. The display's largely ignored by the little kids and the bronies, but older fans, mostly women in their 30s, gaze at them enraptured. I go back to look several times. "I had that one!" a woman standing next to me whispers, pointing to a sea pony with a rainbow mane. Then she notices me, and we giggle together.
- Parker Bright
- Herds of MLP fans attended the convention in costume
Zacherle never gives a talk at the My Little Pony Fair without Summer Hayes.
"People ask me all sorts of fan questions," she says, "like, 'Why, in 1992, did they take so-and-so out of the line in the UK?' And I'm like, 'What?' Now I can just turn to Summer."
Hayes wrote the book on pony collecting. Actually, she wrote five. They catalog every pony ever made, from Blue Belle and her friends, who lived in a place called Dream Valley, to the current denizens of Ponyville. In total, there have been four distinct generations of ponies over the past 30 years, as well as foreign and special mail-order editions. The holy grail of pony collectibles is a limited-edition mail-order Rapunzel from 1990. These days, she goes for $450.
Currently, Hayes owns 2,000 ponies. She keeps them in a room in her basement, which she shows only to people she trusts. "It's more acceptable for a female to be a collector," she says. "Female collectors don't seem as . . . Granted, we're fanatical, but if you met us on the street, you'd have no idea. We have families, other interests, other things going on. Collecting is part of our life. It doesn't define us."
A few years ago, Hayes applied to be on the TLC show My Crazy Obsession. She sent in a video of her pony room. The producers were interested and asked her to make another video of herself talking to her ponies and taking them on trips to the grocery store. She refused. "I'm not up to their level of crazy," she says.
Several vendors at the My Little Pony Fair warn me that collecting is a slippery slope. "You start by going to things like this," says Tina Carroll, "and you see one and go, 'I had that!' You get it for your kid, or as a childhood memento . . . "
And the next thing you know you're the lady leaving the fair with an enormous plastic bag full of old ponies. Which, actually, wouldn't make you that conspicuous.
Carroll herself is a cautionary tale. She specializes in Blue Belles. Last she counted, she had 141—and she's not selling any of them. Blue Belle, it turns out, was the pony most prone to production errors, which has led to a lot of unique-looking specimens. Carroll has Blue Belles who've faded to white, Blue Belles with weirdly blotchy skin, a Blue Belle with a chunk bitten out of her nose, and a yellow Blue Belle from Colombia. "I found a head in a bin once," she says. "At that point, I thought, They're stalking me."
Seeing Carroll's Blue Belles reminds me of my own. When my parents sold the house where I grew up, I gave away most of my old toys. Blue Belle had lost her personality by then and just stood quietly on a shelf, but I decided to keep her for nostalgia's sake. A few weeks ago, I thought I would go get her and bring her to the fair with me. But after an hour rummaging through the boxes in the basement that hold the detritus of my childhood, I couldn't find her. This made me feel oddly sad, even guilty.
Not counting Carroll's collection, there are lots of Blue Belles hanging around the marketplace. I have my choice of vintage, quality, and price and pick up a very early, only slightly beat up Blue Belle for $11, which, with tax, is four times more than my aunt paid back in 1983. But she's just like I remember, down to the little rattle when I shake her.
"Maybe it's the same pony, and she came back to you," the vendor, Lindsay Bock, aka Sunshine, suggests as she runs my credit card.
I'm quite certain that a My Little Pony Fair is the only place where someone could say this and be utterly sincere.
- Parker Bright
In the Friendship Is Magic universe, there are no real villains. The power of friendship can redeem even the most hardened souls. At the My Little Pony Fair, kindness is everywhere. Children politely thank life-size plush characters for posing for pictures. Two women from Kentucky who have no interest in ponies whatsoever are here because they promised a recently deceased friend they would take her daughter to the fair and continue their decade-long tradition. Andrea Libman, the actress who voices both timid Fluttershy and exuberant Pinkie Pie, cheerfully obliges the request of a brony named Danny to sing him "Happy Birthday" in her Pinkie Pie voice.
Pony fans are even kind to old, broken-down toys. They sit in tubs labeled "bait" and sell for 50 cents or a dollar apiece, usually to artists, who incorporate them into projects. "Some ponies need a new life and can be made beautiful again," says Sheena Henderson, an artist from Tennessee who creates custom characters under the name Roogna. "Or dark and scary."
Henderson has an entry in this year's fan art contest: Stormageddon, a black pony with enormous, heavy wings. "It's always interesting to see what everyone comes up with," she says, looking at the table with all the entries. "My husband's a yoga teacher, and he says this is the most energy-positive environment he's ever been in."
Later in the conference, however, tempers start to fray. Little kids get tired and hungry and cranky and start arguing with their parents. Exhausted vendors sit at their tables staring into their phones. Young women bitch to each other about people who cheated at bingo and wouldn't let them register for the costume contest after the deadline. Even the indefatigable Shake Ups look tired. "I have to work tomorrow," says Patrick O'Connor, "and perform with my other band. I don't know if I'll remember any of the words to the songs."
In a seminar on creating an original pony character, or OC, the NYC bronies try to initiate the group into one of their favorite pastimes, mercilessly criticizing other people's OCs, but some audience members aren't having it.
"What's wrong with this OC?" Alex asks, pointing to a slide of a pony with a striped mane and tail.
"The eyes and the cutie mark don't match!" says one enlightened brony in the front row.
"It's not a rule!" snaps a woman in the second row.
"OK," says Alex, "it's a guideline. But remember, you can overdo it with Rainbow Power."
I'm not sure what Rainbow Power is, but all this judgment seems antithetical to the spirit of My Little Pony. (Unwittingly, I have stumbled onto one of the main points of contention between the bronies and the porn-watching cloppers. The cloppers feel the other bronies can be extremely judgmental, and rant online about the injustice and hypocrisy. I assume the back-and-forth will go on forever.)
So I leave the OCs to go play some carnival games (in Ponyville, everypony wins!) and then head back upstairs to the vending hall to find a Cotton Candy to send to my sister. We haven't talked about ponies in years, but I feel this is the sort of gesture one of the Friendship Is Magic ponies would make—possibly Rarity, the generous but fastidious fashion designer who sometimes gets annoyed with her younger sister Sweetie Belle.
After Cotton Candy and Blue Belle are reunited in my bag, I go listen to Zacherle read from her book, which she jokingly calls Pony: The Real Story: An Exposé, and reminisce about her days in the pony factory. When Riette-Keith comes in late, Zacherle asks Summer Hayes to return to the slide in her presentation in which an executive is telling her, "Most girls aren't like you, Bonnie. They like to cook and clean and iron."
"Do you know who that is, Susanne?" Zacherle asks.
"I do," Riette-Keith allows.
"No names to protect the guilty," Zacherle says. "But I was right, and he was wrong!"
Amid the cheers, someone cries, "Long live Pony!" v
- Parker Bright