When Savannah O’Connor goes to Star Trek conventions, she braces herself for the inevitable barrage of quizzes from skeptical male fans testing her authenticity.
They’re usually shot down quickly: O’Connor, 29, isn’t the type to stumble over the difference between Romulans and Vulcans. “Thankfully,” she says, “I have an encyclopedic knowledge of Star Trek.”
But at conventions for the animated television series My Little Pony, the tables turn.
Suddenly it’s her husband Patrick’s job to prove his pony mettle in a roomful of superfans. Meanwhile, O’Connor and her female friends are assumed to have a passion for, or even a hand in creating, the show.
“All the characters are women, all the voice actors are women,” says O’Connor, who also goes by the pony-name “Savvyshy.” “And so there’s a reverence for women somehow. It’s almost like we’re grandfathered, err, grandmothered, into the fandom.”
O’Connor was wearing a neon pink wig in homage to her favorite character, Fluttershy, as she had just finished playing keyboard with her band the Shake-Ups in Ponyville during a February 15 appearance at New York’s Ponycon 2015.
She’s one of only a handful of women at the three-day convention, held at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights.
When the rebooted television series, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, debuted in 2010, new fans — in addition to those whose nostalgia for the toy franchise had been simmering since the mid-Eighties — sparked a brony boom. Teenage and adult fans meticulously dissect the series’ characters and plots on several blogs and online forums. Some collect trading cards or action figures from the show’s initial run. Others have created various spinoff podcasts, costumes, or visual fan art in honor of their favorite characters.
Eighty-six percent of self-identified bronies are men, according to a 2012 study by the University of South Carolina Upstate. That means less than one in five are so-called “pegasisters.”
But despite being outnumbered, female bronies describe a level of respect that’s uncommon in nerdy subcultures. They attribute that respect to the show’s format, which teaches social skills, as well as its female lead roles. Women also point to My Little Pony‘s emphasis on kindness and positivity — values that radiate throughout the crowd here at Ponycon, where bronies in a rainbow of wigs eagerly start up conversation, hand out miniature valentines, and bring lone reporters into their fold.
“I’m a gamer, and a few years ago I started using a more feminine [gamer] name,” says New Jersey’s Brittany Anderson, 23. Anderson changed her online moniker to “Sasha” while continuing to play games like League of Legends, Counterstrike, and Guild Wars. A deluge of insults rained down. “The more people realized I was a girl, the more harassment I got.”
That’s not the case with her fellow My Little Pony fans. “At every convention, there’s someone that needs help that we’re willing to give them,” says the artist, who is selling her portraits of the series’ characters at the convention today. “This is probably the most accepting community I’m in.”
A significant lady-fandom of My Little Pony isn’t exactly surprising. After all, the series has strong feminist themes. Almost all of the main characters of the show are female. The stories revolve around six ponies in the fictional land of Equestria, and their friend Twilight Sparkle, a unicorn who must learn lessons about the “magic of friendship.” In each episode, the pastel ponies come together to solve problems in Equestria and learn lessons about collaboration along the way — making for a show that consistently passes the famous Bechdel Test.
And of course, this is a show marketed to young girls. My Little Pony was a toy before it was a televised cartoon, and the early shows could easily be interpreted as ten-minute toy commercials by cynical or cheap parents.
“There’s definitely always been girls as fans, since day one,” says Jessie Aulicino, 29, who has been a My Little Pony collector since the Eighties, when her mother “put a Generation-One Twinkle Eyed Pony in my hand” for the first time.*
Aulicino, whose pony screen-name is MintamenaPie, helps run a monthly meet-up group for My Little Pony fans in New York City, where slightly more men than women regularly attend — along with a healthy contingent of people who don’t identify with traditional notions of gender. She says that women who love the show are common. They just get less media attention because they’re moms of young fans, or they enjoyed the show as kids, or they prefer terms like “collector,” or because they might just seem less weird to mainstream Americans than their male counterparts. “Women,” she says, “were always predominantly ‘the group of people who like ponies.’ ”
At the same time, some insiders are seeing an increasing number of women become a bigger part of the My Little Pony community. As a new generation of cartoon-lovers request that their bars play Adult Swim instead of SportsCenter, it’s just less eccentric to get into a children’s show. Although a small number of My Little Pony fans online — called “Cloppers” — do sexualize the show in ways some consider disconcerting, they’ve been roundly expunged from much of the fandom; meanwhile, copious media attention has disproved unfortunate stereotypes about male fans being creepy or predatory. This new understanding of what bronyism is really about may make more women feel comfortable being associated with the group.
“There’s a term in our community called ‘spaghetti.’ It’s messy. It gets everywhere. It’s difficult. We don’t like spaghetti,” says Keith Butler, the co-founder of Ponycon, which saw 1,600 people, up from 500 last year. With rainbow-tinted hair and a glowing smile, Butler radiates the kind of social sincerity that My Little Pony preaches to its audience of kids and awkward adults. He says his convention maintains high standards for its panelists and vendors, with strict rules against swearing, adult content, and negative juju. That rigorous standard-setting allows people of all stripes to feel welcome, he says.
“The fandom is maturing,” he says. “It’s finding its voice. We’ve grown up a little bit.”
That maturation means that lady-bronies like Aulicino can focus on the reason they’re here: to geek out about the candy-colored cartoon they adore.
“It shows girls with different personalities can be friends,” Aulicino says, pointing to the ultra-feminine fashion-obsessed pony Rarity. “In any other kids’ show, Rarity would be the villain. She’d be the snobby rich one. But in one episode, when Fluttershy starts becoming mean, she says, ‘Rarity, all you care about is fashion,’ and Pinkie Pie says, ‘Leave her alone, fashion is her passion.’
“It’s actually a little more deep and actually has some poignant lessons.”
See also: ‘Meet Two Generations of New York Bronies’