Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Bronycon 2014: What I saw

I was walking back to the convention center with my son. Coming the other way, a girl of about ten or eleven walking with her family threw her arms open for us as if we were long lost friends. We were complete strangers, but she hugged us both.

"Fees Brony hugs!" she said, then walked on.

This scene (far from the only unsolicited hug I got at Bronycon)  illustrates the My Little Pony community as well as anything else.

I'm not a Brony, but my son is. He begged us half a year ago to take him to Bronycon. I ignored him for awhile; at his age passions come and go. But he was persistent, so eventually I bought tickets. It was in Baltimore this year,  or "Baltimare" as it says on the badge.

I'm not going to tell you what a Brony is like as if you don't know. But it's important to emphasize that Bronies are first and foremost fans of the currently running "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic" series, run by Lauren Faust; the rest is supplemental. In preparation for the con, I watched a few episodes with my son, the ones he said were significant (the two Nightmare Moon episodes that began the series and the first two episodes with Discord) along with a few others.

It's a very good show. There is no doubt it's made for little girls, but the quality of the art, the music, the writing and the voice acting are all top notch. That doesn't make it a rarity today, necessarily. We are living in a golden age of kids' TV. Shows like "Phineas and Ferb," "Adventure Time," "Legend of Korra" and many others stand head and shoulders over the crap they were making for kids in my generation. The difference was made clear in "Riffing is Magic," an event we attended Friday night in which the wretched old 80s My Little Pony show was played, accompanied by MST3K quips from the panel. So there are a lot of good kids shows today, but they don't have a fan base that will put together a con and attend it in the thousands. Why does MLP:FIM?

After seeing thousands of Bronies together this weekend, I'm beginning to understand.

The first thing we went to was the vendor's area, which I'll talk about later. We looked around, and Jeff was fairly restrained about wanting to buy things. I told him he could buy some stuff, but to look around and make sure he knew what he wanted because we couldn't spend a lot.

The next thing we went to was a woodcarving panel, because Jeff has become interested in carving. It was mostly a demonstration; the man who led the panel was carving a figure of Luna's "cutie mark," the brand that each pony has to distinguish her personality or special quality. He gave some guidance (bass wood is the best wood to start with, apparently). But much of the time he was just carving into a camera and talking about his favorite ponies. "Is this boring?" he asked at one point, and the crowd responded urgently to the contrary.  "What else are we here for?" someone said.

We took a break after that and spent some time in the hotel, since for a kid Jeff's age that's a thrill in itself. When we came back, it was time for the first night of Bronypalooza, the Brony concert of the year.

As with a number of events, Bronypalooza began with a long line through switchback barriers. As with all of them, the line was practically unnecessary: once the event was opened you could just walk straight in without waiting at all. But for the bronies the line was its own pleasure. Because of the barriers, you kept walking back and forth past the same people, and every time was an opportunity for a "bro-hoof," the MLP fist-bump that was the universal greeting here.

Bronypalooza itself is a lot like any other rock concert. It was pro-level in every way: there were huge colored track lights, enormous thumping speakers and really good bands in every genre. There was a boy-band pair whose name I can't remember, followed by an acoustic singer-songwriter named (I think) MondoPony. On Saturday night there was a metal band playing a Metallica-like song about Discord and a number of dubstep DJs (especially the amazing Alex S.) who would be right at home in the best dance clubs I've ever been in. You might forget where you are for a moment until someone started singing "Everypony Smile" and all the young men earnestly start in. And you noticed they were all holding Pinkie Pie plushies.

Consider the degree of rebellion in what they are holding in their hands. At that age, there is an enormous pressure to prove one's masculinity. This is why young men do so much of the stupid shit they do, sex and violence and rock and roll. Becoming a Brony is, among other things, a big FU to the expectations of what a young man in America ought to be. But is it so surprising? What kind of rebellion is left for this generation? Everything has been done: grow your hair long, get high, fight and march and stick baby pins through your cheek. It seems there's nothing left, and then a bunch of young men embrace a TV show made for 6 year old girls.

When I say embrace, I mean it. This is not ironic; that's been done. To wear a faded t-shirt with faded My Little Pony characters and a rainbow to a punk rock show is the kind of thing my generation specialized in back in the 90s. We might have even watched the show and argued over which pony was the best, if we'd been high enough.

What we never would have done, while standing in line for 30 minutes waiting to get into a show, is enthusiastiacally chant, "fun, fun, fun," and mean it. I know I keep coming back to this, but the most foreign thing about this to me, as an irony-numbed Gen-X veteran of the 90s, is the utter sincerity of the whole thing.

That might make the whole thing sound cult-y. But the individualism of everypony at the convention is visible in the outpouring of artistic creativity in the vendor's area. The room would be familiar to anyone who's been to any major fandom con. There is now a whole culture of people who make a living pushing the boundaries of copyright and making fan-related art and selling it on Etsy and at cons. What's extraordinary here is the manic remixing of MLP with nearly every other touchstone of fandom and pop culture: Firefly, Bioshock, Portal, Minecraft, the Avengers, kaiju, Adventure Time, Game of Thrones, and countless others I no doubt didn't recognize. And Doctor Who; MLP and Doctor Who have an especially large overlap in fanbase. One of the most popular "background characters," (after Vinyl Scratch) is Doctor Hooves, a pony that looks like the Tenth Doctor.

There is a difference here too. In the Bob's Burgers "Equestranaut" episode,  a creepy middle-aged fan scams Tina out of her rare pony figure, because he greedily wants to own all the best figures. One with any experience of other fandoms can see why one would expect at least some MLP fans to be this way. I couldn't help be reminded of the moment when my son and another man went for the last Pinkie Pie plushie at a vendor's table. But when the man saw that Jeff wanted it, he said, "Oh, you have it," and Jeff responded with, "No, you," and they went back and forth that way like Chip and Dale. Finally they agreed on a game of rock, paper, scissors, which Jeff won.

But the wide range of hand-made plushies and hand-drawn art is only a beginning of the creativity on display at Bronycon. In addition to the bands playing at Bronypalooza there was a second stage for less well-known bands that was occupied all day, every day. MLP has a huge amount of fan-made animation, much of which was being shown on various screens. As a break from the first day of Bronypalooza we saw films where entire episodes of Disney shows (including the commercials) were overlaid with clips from MLP. But there are also entire hand-drawn episodes of nearly equal quality to the original show. There is an entire stable of fan-created ponies with their own fanbase. There are spectacular hand-drawn music videos, some of popular songs, some of dubstep like that of Alex S., and some of the enormous number of songs written by Brony musicians. There are video games, including an entire remake of Super Smash Bros. Brawl featuring the MLP characters.

Then of course there's the cosplay. That leads me to the cosplay contest, which was later on Saturday. I'm jumping around in time a bit now, but I noticed something at the cosplay contest that connected to something I saw at Bronypalooza as well.

The costumes were impressive, no doubt. I'm sure it's better at Comic-Con (though some of the costumes had probably been worn there recently enough as well). They got big cheers, of course. But just after a spectacular hand-made Twilight Sparkle costume would go up, someone would go on with a few things they'd obviously just bought at the vendor. And people cheered them nearly as much. It was the same during the concert. A dance pit would open up and someone would throw down some spectacular hip-hop dancing. But then right after a regular schmoe would go in and flop around no better than I would be capable of. And everyone would be just as happy for them.

And that illustrates what makes  MLP:FIM different, I think. That's what gives it a fan base that will throw a con that 20,000 people will attend. Because unlike most of the other high-quality kids' shows on Nickelodeon or Disney, it is not drenched in irony. It can be funny, but it does not throw in clever pop-culture references that only adults will get. For a long time it's been an open secret kids' cartoons have two audiences: little kids and stoned adults, and the makers of most shows take that into account. But MLP:FIM is not really made for stoners. Instead it drew a different kind of adult audience: people who really believe in friendship and caring and loyalty.

And that's what leads to the open-arms inclusion of everybody that comes. In the Equestria con in Bob's Burgers the attendees are almost all creepy middle-aged men. In fact, the majority of the Bronies at the convention were guys between fifteen and thirty or so. There were plenty of guys my age and older, and boys Jeff's age (11) and younger.

There were a significiant number of women and girls as well, by my eyes maybe thirty or forty percent. The brony community is sometimes described as "young men who like MLP and their admirers," but these weren't all or even mostly Bronies' girlfriends. Some of them were teen girls and young women, and a significant portion were what is known in the MLP community as the "original fan base," i.e. little girls -- and why not? Sometimes it was hard to tell the difference, and it's possible that given the size of the MLP community now it's easy to imagine going straight from being a little girl who braids an MLP's mane straight to being a full-on Pegasister.

The point was, contrary to Tina's Equestria experience, everyone is just as welcome here. That's why a 10 year old girl feels comfortable hugging a strange man and his son in the street.

I'm not going to say I know nothing creepy happened to anyone. I know cons and I know young men, and anything wrong that went down wouldn't have happened to someone like me. Hopefully the con has a good harassment policy and it was enforced when necessary.

But this really was different from other cons I've been to, from the people offering random bro-hooves to anyone they saw to the young women and men walking around saying "free hugs!" -- and really giving them.

There was another night of Bronycon, and Jeff cleaned up like Texas Slim at the Appaloosa Hold 'Em game. He got an autograph of one of his favorite animators, Animated James, at the quiz panel "You Don't Know Applejack." We saw more animation and music and the cosplay show.

The last event we attended on Sunday was a Brony census; in addition to all the other arts practiced by Bronies, some of them are hard-working statisticians. I don't know how good the data is, since much of it is from online surveys. But I think the answers people gave were probably useful enough to say something.

Some of it wasn't surprising. Bronies tend to come from the upper middle class, and the majority are from families whose parents aren't divorced. The majority are white, and most are men. I saw a larger percentage of nonwhite Bronies than the statistics here suggested, but then again the con was in Baltimore, which is more than 60% Black. Their mean age is 21, and most are between 10 and 30. 72% live with their parents, but that's not so surprising since a lot of them are teenagers or college students.

One might expect that a large percentage of people who participate in something that challenges gender expectations so much are gay or trans, but by the survey answers these populations are no more highly represented than in the general population: 81% of Bronies identify as heterosexual, and almost all are cisgender. 25% are in relationships of 12 months or more, but again I don't think that's atypical for middle class males in that age range.

 There is always that bittersweet moment at the end of a con where you check to make sure you have your badge on only to realize you won't be needing it anymore. I saw it in Jeff's eyes once, and was surprised to be feeling the same way myself. One of the first thing Jeff said as we were leaving was "where is the next one?"

I know Jeff had the time of his life; he told me as much. I had more fun than I ever expected, as well. A lot of it was just the pleasure of spending a whole weekend with my favorite person in the world, my son. But a lot of it was meeting a group of people that have challenged my idea of what it is to be a young man.  

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