On a warm Saturday afternoon in April, Jacob Karvonen sits surrounded by a group of young men in the food court of Concord Mills mall. They eat sushi, pizza and homemade peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. After lunch, they plan to head to a nearby park for a game of Frisbee in the gorgeous spring weather.
At first glance, the guys — all in their late teens and early twenties — look and act no different from the rest of the young shoppers milling around Concord Mills on a busy Saturday. They're white and black, Latino and Asian. Some keep their hair short; others wear it shaggy. One of them recently dyed his blue, hardly unusual in this day and age.
But a closer inspection reveals an intriguing hobby that might surprise more than one onlooker. Many in the group wear T-shirts featuring characters from the cartoon show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Small pony figurines instantly recognizable to any young woman are scattered around the table, and a stuffed pink pony's head pokes out of someone's messenger bag.
This is an official meeting of Team Brony North Carolina.
AS A FRANCHISE, My Little Pony has been around since 1983 as a line of plastic toy ponies marketed to young girls. Through the years, the toys have given rise to four animated television series. The most recent, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, was developed by Emmy Award-winning animator Lauren Faust and debuted on The Hub Network on Oct. 10, 2010.
Shortly after its premiere, Amid Amidi, editor in chief of the blog Cartoon Brew, wrote an article criticizing Faust and the show for being toy-centric. Amidi called the program "the end of the creator-driven era in TV animation" and said it was "an admission of defeat for the entire movement, a white flag-waving moment for the TV animation industry." The article's alarmist nature began to fuel interest in the show, particularly among male users of the Internet forum 4chan. They began to watch and discuss its characters, plot, pop-culture references and animation style on the website. A new demographic of viewers had emerged, and they began to call themselves Bronies, a portmanteau of "bro" and "ponies."
According to the 2013 State of the Herd, an online census of 21,637 Bronies worldwide, almost 66 percent identify as exclusively heterosexual, their mean age is about 20, and Chile is the hot spot for Brony activity in South America.
In the first episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, a purple unicorn named Twilight Sparkle is sent to the town of Ponyville by Princess Celestia to supervise the Summer Sun Celebration. She grudgingly accepts her assignment but scoffs at the ruler of Equestria's suggestion to make some friends while she's there. Twilight is a devout student of pony magic who'd much rather have her muzzle stuck in a book than interact with other ponies.
Back at Concord Mills, Karvonen, 17, can relate to Twilight's hesitance to make friends. Before finding the Bronies, he said he "found it hard to accept people's friendship because I thought it would interfere with my lifestyle. I enjoyed staying in my room, writing stories and playing guitar. I didn't feel like I needed to share my time or interests with anyone else."
By the end of the second episode, Twilight has a change of heart. While in Ponyville, she meets five wildly different ponies who fearlessly stand by her side and help her defeat Night Mare Moon, an evil winged unicorn who wants to bring eternal night to Equestria.
KARVONEN, a native of Harrisburg, started watching My Little Pony last year after encountering posts and memes referencing the show on the website Funnyjunk. After some additional online exploration, he found the Bronies and the beginnings of a new group of friends; last summer, he started a Facebook group for local admirers of the show. Team Brony North Carolina has grown to more than 200 members who are constantly posting pony-related pictures, fan fiction and general news about their favorite cartoon equines. Most of its members are young adult males, but a few teenage and young women, or "Pegasisters," also participate.
The group hosts monthly get-togethers, and it is at the meeting in the food court of Concord Mills that I have my first real-life encounter with Bronies.
As much as I tried to keep an open mind about hanging out with a group of guys who are die-hard fans of a show made for little girls about magical ponies, I couldn't help but arrive with some preconceived assumptions. I scoured the tables of the mall's food court, expecting to find a socially awkward group of men. But a few conversations in, I realized they were just like any other group of friends: they're loud, play pranks on each other, and complain about being broke.
Brendan Gorman, 17, is on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout. One of the things he likes about My Little Pony is that it doesn't recycle the same plot like other cartoons and that it is wholesome and full of positive lessons.
Twilight Sparkle and her friends each represent an element of Harmony — honesty, laughter, loyalty, kindness, generosity and magic — the most powerful force in Equestria, used by the ponies to defeat evil. Gorman can relate to these principles because three are part of the Scout's law.
"So much of TV today is full of sex, drugs and violence that it's refreshing to watch a good show that teaches good values," he said.
Across the table from Gorman are friends Adam Cheatham and Derek Kinney, who went to high school together in Southern Pines. Cheatham is dark-skinned and sports plastic-framed glasses. Kinney is tall and thin with long hair that he perpetually swipes from his eyes. They are both 20 and in college. Kinney started watching the show in January after casually catching a scene of an episode his younger sister was enjoying. He thought it was funny and liked the animation, so he started watching more and more until he'd finished all three seasons on Netflix. He told Cheatham about it, and after some convincing, Cheatham decided to give it a chance. In one week, he finished all 26 episodes of the first season. They both said they like the show because it's well-made, funny, and they feel emotionally connected to the characters. Cheatham and Kinney are also both fans of Breaking Bad, the definitely-made-for-adults TV show on AMC about a high school chemistry teacher who starts manufacturing and selling meth to pay for chemotherapy. They agree that My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is just as good as that award-winning drama.
"They are obviously completely different genres," said Cheatham, "but both shows are the finest quality for what they are."
I was warned about Ian Vinson's energy level by some of the Bronies on the Facebook group. He lives in Charlotte and, at 16, is one of the youngest members at the meet-up; he's also the loudest. For Vinson, My Little Pony has opened up the floodgates to his creativity. He creates art, writes elaborate fan fiction, and is interested in taking up voice acting. The My Little Pony fandom, he said, has provided him with the confidence he needs to pursue his interests by helping him grow a thicker skin. He said he has learned to laugh at himself. But like many of the Bronies at the meet-up, Vinson's attraction to the show has raised questions and provoked mild teasing from some of his friends and family members. To cope, he's learned — through the show — to brush them off.
"We are accepting of all people whatever their religions, sexualities or races; our message is love and tolerance," he said.
Isaac Colon leans in to me and whispers that he'd like to provide me with some background about Vinson's "love and tolerance" statement. Colon is 17, measured and soft-spoken. He's been watching the show since January 2011 and wants to join the military once he graduates from high school in Harrisburg.
"When fans started to get called names and receive negative comments about liking My Little Pony on 4chan, they decided that, instead of fighting fire with fire, they would react with kindness. In response to the trolls, they posted pictures of ponies with the words, 'I'm going to love and tolerate the crap out of you.' The haters never saw it coming."
IN AN INTERVIEW for Equestria Daily — the Internet's leading source for all things pony — Faust, the creator of the most recent edition of the cartoon, said, "My specific dreams are still to make great entertainment for girls. I just don't think there's enough truly good stuff out there for them, but I also have kind of selfish reasons. When I think of something I want to say or an experience I want to share, my ideas are usually innately feminine because I'm female — and I refuse to believe that something being feminine by nature automatically means it isn't worthwhile."
Even though I often use Netflix to stream cartoons for my almost 4-year-old son, I had never considered showing him My Little Pony. But after my meeting with the Bronies, I tell Lucas that I want to show him a new cartoon. So one evening, we curl up on the couch to watch an episode together.
He is immediately drawn into the storyline and asks me lots of excited questions about what's going on and why. After the 22-minute episode, he begs me to let him watch another, and when I refuse — he's only allowed one TV show a night — he asks if we can play a game in which we pretend to be some of the characters. I agree, and he chooses to be Spike, Twilight's baby dragon assistant and one of the only male characters.
Since then, My Little Pony has been in regular rotation at our house, along with some of his other favorites, such as Thomas the Tank Engine and Dinosaur Train.
As an adult watching the show, I found complex, well-rounded characters, an actual plot, and tons of references to pop culture specifically targeted at me. My kid isn't familiar with the Coen brothers' cinematic oeuvre, but in an episode that takes place at a bowling alley, pony versions of the main characters from The Big Lebowski make a cameo. It's the kind of thing that, as a parent, makes me want to engage in the episode with my child instead of immediately zone out and surf the 'net on my phone.
Recently, I was telling a group of friends about the show and casually said something about it being marketed at girls. Lucas heard my comment and frowned. "It's for girls? Does that mean I can't watch it?" he asked. "Of course you can watch it," I said. "Some girls really like it, but boys can like it, too."
Our conversation got me thinking about the double standard we have when it comes to gender stereotypes. Why is it more socially acceptable for girls to watch shows targeted at males than for boys to enjoy a cartoon like My Little Pony?
"To state it most simply, masculinity is one of the ways that people access privilege," wrote Kent L. Brintnall, affiliate professor of women's and gender studies at UNC Charlotte, in an e-mail. "Masculinity (like whiteness, like American citizenship, like Christianity, like wealth) equals power. So, to pursue masculine things, to excel at masculine things — even if it may be non-normative, and even if it can give rise to accusations about a woman's non-normative sexuality — will also, usually, be accompanied by a certain level of social approval."
He goes on to explain that men are vilified for pursuing traditional female things because when they do, they are seen as abandoning their power and privilege. "Insofar as the feminine is imagined and understood as a site of powerlessness in our cultural moment, then it makes no sense for anyone to want it or to pursue it or to emulate it or to desire it as something to be," he wrote.
In one of my favorite episodes (yes, I've seen so many I have favorites), a griffon — half lion, half eagle — named Gilda bullies Pinkie Pie and several other ponies. Instead of seeking revenge, Pinkie Pie decides to throw her a party to, as she says, "turn her frown upside down." This act of generosity completely disorients Gilda, who ends up embarrassing herself in front of everypony and subsequently leaving Ponyville. She is defeated, not with harsh words or violence, but with kindness and understanding.
If those sorts of lessons are what make the show girly, then I guess I want to raise a really girly son because that's exactly how I'd want him to handle a similar situation.
"Do I think that men should learn that traditional norms of masculinity are a limited way of embodying the human experience? Yes," wrote Brintnall. "And I think that women should learn that, too. I think that both men and women should learn that neither our genitals nor our chromosomes ... are our destiny."
Due to an editing error, this story incorrectly identified Gilda. She is half lion, half eagle.