Life on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border was boredom or terror, with not too much in between. For combat engineer Kyler Black, serving at the remote Army outpost known as Firebase Asadabad also offered not only endless hours of Call of Duty: Black Ops on the Xbox while off-duty, but also the thing he'd been longing for since he'd graduated from high school in a small town outside Richfield, Utah.
"I wanted something to be able to tell somebody," Black says.
Whether guarding the perimeter while the occasional mortar was lobbed over his head by the Taliban, or hearing rounds ping off his truck in a midnight firefight, he would certainly have anecdotes to spare. But when Black returned from his tour of duty in 2011, he found his tales of combat did little to compensate for bouts of depression that left him struggling to get out of bed in the morning. After enrolling in classes at Utah Valley University in Orem, he found himself fighting an exhausting battle against thoughts of suicide. "My depression was killing me," he says.
Salvation came from an unlikely source—a children's cartoon called My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. Black says he was enchanted by the animation, the show's emphasis on catchy songs and its stories set in the town of Ponyville, where six ponies learned how to be better friends whilst confronting personal challenges, and the occasional dragon or hydra. He binge-watched the first four seasons and now credits the show "with getting me out of my really bad depression-funk."
The show premiered in October 2010 and is currently in its sixth season. Its premise was a re-imagining by The Powerpuff Girls creator Lauren Faust of a toy and television franchise created in the early 1980s by Hasbro—and intended for young girls. But Black soon discovered that other young men, typically white and heterosexual, across the United States, shared his fascination. The captivation even came with a name: brony, a portmanteau of "bro" and "pony." The brony label is embraced by male and female teens and adults who adore the show, some secretly, others proudly and publicly bonding over their televisual passion and, in the process, creating their own communities.
An ex-Mormon, Black began attending regular Saturday afternoon meetings of brony students at the LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University in Provo. It took several meetings before his initial apprehensions eased. "The community really impressed me," he says. "There's actually a bunch of grown men who watch a little girls' show—and I'm one of them."
That Black was able to find a thriving community of fellow bronies on the campus of a college that revels in conformism is not as implausible as it might sound. Utah claims a unique position in the fandom. According to a survey known in brony circles as the Herd Census, which was conducted with the help of statisticians at Massachusetts' Salem State University, the nation's most Mormon state also has the highest per capita brony population in the country. Utah has 9.03 bronies per 100,000 residents. Alaska comes in second with 8.16. In total, according to the "State of the Herd report" website, there are between seven and 12.4 million bronies in the U.S.
In the early days of the fandom, fans would use the term "love and tolerate," as a motto reflecting the show's emphasis on friendship and kindness. But while some bronies have remained true to that motto, others have let it fall to the wayside, in part because of infighting, whether over which episodes are the best or even which is the best pony. "Some of us still have those core beliefs where we try to accept everyone no matter who they are, how they behave or what parts of the fandom they enjoy," Salt Lake City brony Robby Galaviz says.
On June 17 and 18, 2016, local and out-of-state bronies will gather for the fourth annual Crystal Mountain Pony Convention at the Radisson hotel in downtown Salt Lake City. There, they'll celebrate all things "pony" in the heart of a state where, Mormon and non-Mormon bronies alike say, "love and tolerance" can be hard to find.THE TRUE RUB
Some of the tensions stem from gender stereotypes and long-standing ideals of masculinity in American culture, says Candi Carter-Olson, assistant professor in Utah State University's Department of Journalism and Communication.
The ideal man in American culture "doesn't express emotion except anger, can't be weak or afraid of anything and always has to be in control of women or non-hyper masculine men," she says. "He has to be a protector."
Bronies, she says, break out of that potentially damaging paradigm, "challenging traditional masculinity in many ways."
University of Utah associate professor in gender studies Matt Basso notes that the 2010s are an era where "we are trying to figure out what we think about gender." The line where bronies cross over into sexuality, however tenuously, is where the true rub emerges for many in society regarding the fandom. "That line between childhood and adulthood, especially when it runs up against sexuality," he says, "still makes us uncomfortable."
Part of the American tradition of the ideal male is to be disconnected from children and essentially uninterested in childhood, Carter-Olson says. But to people like pundit Kelley Vlahos, who asked in a piece for The American Conservative whether bronies represented "the end of American manhood," veteran Black has a defiant reply.
"You can't take my man card. I earned it," he says of his tour of duty in Afghanistan. "I love guns. I like it when things go boom. I can't think of anything more satisfying than making a whole tank vanish."
BYU Brony club co-founder Kirk Hamilton says he's an Eagle Scout who chops wood and "is in touch with my inner man." He continues, "I don't think it's necessarily we've lost what the traditional man is. The ideal man is a good father, a good countryman, a good neighbor, a man of service." He argues that young men who are bronies represent "a good direction for us to be going. The show teaches us to be conscientious of other people's feelings, to take a stand for yourself based on your own beliefs."
But while ideas about masculinity are shifting, bronies as yet have not benefited from the friendship and support they show each other as far as society is concerned. The brony community "is used to being persecuted," says computer programmer and brony, Joe Broderick. They "feel degraded by the stereotype put on bronies of someone who lives in mom's basement."
Spend time with bronies at BYU or at Bronies Drinking Coffee, a Salt Lake City-based social group that meets on Saturdays at a South Salt Lake coffeehouse called Kafeneio, and that stereotype does indeed seem ill-informed. Rather, a different quality emerges—not one of people who might seek to victimize others, but of those who have been victimized themselves. In these groups, young men and women, several clutching pony toys, reveal histories of trauma, bullying, depression and marginalization. In the show's positive values, and in their shared fandom, they've found an opportunity to heal, and forge an ad hoc family structure providing warmth, friendship, safety and even empowerment.
"In the world of My Little Pony, above all else," Galaviz says, "friendship really is magic."GOING FULL BRONY
In the first season's opening two-part story-arc, a precocious purple and pink unicorn named Twilight Sparkle learns that friendship can be a life-changer for those reluctant to connect.
That resonates profoundly with Galaviz. As IT manager for a local business, he has struggled with illness and depression. When the 2013 Crystal Mountain convention was announced, the until-then "secret brony" convinced himself he needed to get out and be more social.
"After the con, I went fully brony," says Galaviz, who later founded Bronies Drinking Coffee. "Something about the brony community hit me in the heart: how extremely funny it was, this weird thing that we all like, that we're not afraid to show it even though you're going to get a lot of shit for it, for liking a cartoon that was designed for little girls."
Galaviz, who is in his early 30s, says he was bullied as a child to the point he had to leave Utah with his grandfather for a period. While proud of his ethnic heritage and family name, he changed his first name to Robby, because that's "who I identify as, instead of the person who was constantly knocked down and bullied."
When he recently ran into one of his former bullies, he asked him "why?"
"It was fun," he says was the answer.
More than a half a dozen bronies interviewed by a City Weekly reporter described similar experiences with bullies and depression.
"I think we have all had our past trauma that we've overcome with this fandom," says Aaron Crandall, who was abandoned by his father when he was 10. "I'm still not completely over it. I felt I'd never be loved and accepted in this world, and the bronies have helped me out with that. It's been amazing, life changing."
Troy Harry wears a rubber band on his wrist with the name of a teenage boy who drew brony attention, sympathy and fundraising efforts nationwide after he was bullied in 2011 and attempted suicide. Troy says he, too, was mercilessly bullied after he took a pillowcase featuring Barney the purple dinosaur to school for show-and-tell. Eventually the bullying died away, but when he moved to junior high, he put on weight and developed breasts. Again, he was the target of abuse, being called "Double D," and "Booby boy."
Like Harry, Winter Day says she was painfully shy until she started coming to the Salt Lake brony club. The group "has helped me a lot with my social rehabilitation," she says, although she's "more of a fan of the fandom than the show." Winter says she was raped as a child and cannot watch mainstream entertainment for fear images of sexual violence will trigger memories for her. "Mostly it's child abuse and sexual violence I'm really sensitive to," she says. "I mostly only consume family-friendly material because it's safer."
When she came out as trans, she found acceptance at the club, where her brother Ez had been attending. That same welcoming embrace was not so apparent at work or among the neighbors who knew. She draws an analogy between the strange ideas and "prurient fantasies" people can have about members of the trans community and about bronies. "Those of us who are marginalized have a lot in common I guess."
And that, Galaviz says, is a central element that unites many bronies. "The show teaches you that friendship really is something nobody should be afraid of." He says the show has helped those who gather at his meetings "to find friendship among each other, to help each other out with our own issues, and get past whatever differences we may have had in the past."
At their meetings, fans gather round a TV to watch an episode, while others sit and talk while drawing "O.C."s (original pony characters) which they have created as a representation of themselves, or an aspect of their personality. They talk about episodes and about their lives, and at times the meetings have the feel of a boistrous and affectionate family gathering.
"We don't discriminate," Galaviz says. "We don't say you're too weird for us, that you need to go away. We give everyone a chance." Even within the brony community, however, some feel marginalized.FLYING THE FREAK FLAG
She argues that female bronies can themselves be marginalized, citing several documentaries on the fandom that did not feature interviews with women bronies. "That's something that needs to change," she says. "Being a brony doesn't mean that you're male."
Then there are the fan obsessives who are too brony even for other bronies. "There's always the one guy who ruins the fun for everybody else, the guy who speaks the loudest," Johnson says. "Let's call him the 'purist brony.' He's way too into the show, takes everything too seriously, and takes it too far."
Creating space for everyone, bronies say, means allowing for those with extreme views of bronyism to be part of the community. That, they say, is because being a brony is about far more than watching a TV show. It's about embracing your creative spirit, drawing on the inspiration from the show to pursue newly discovered talents, perhaps as a writer, penning fan-fiction, as an artist drawing your own ponies or as a musician remixing My Little Pony songs or even creating original pony-inspired music.
Utah has several high-profile bronies, including Dr. Wolf, who shares his insights into My Little Pony episodes on million-hit YouTube videos, and Nathan Carlin, whose My Little Pony-inspired music has drawn favorable reviews from the show's creative team.
"I know through My Little Pony a lot of artists have gotten the confidence to do more than [draw] ponies," Johnson says.
Kirk Hamilton co-founded the BYU Brony club. Out of frustration with his favorite show's at-times opaque back stories of its characters, he wrote his own version of a history of the show's universe. Thus far he has sold 144 copies. "One of the best things the community does is allow you to experiment," he says. "It encourages you."
Or as Johnson says, "Fly your freak flag, my friend."
Just how freaky bronies are allowed to get, though, is a matter of some debate, especially in Utah, where many bronies are practicing Mormons.
There is, as some might suspect, a side to bronyism that many adherents are reticent to discuss, and those who do are likely to reference "Rule 34," which states that if it exists on the internet, there's porn of it.
In the brony world, hand-drawn pony porn is known as clop art. Masturbating to said porn is known as clopping. "We don't talk about it in polite company," Johnson says. At the Crystal Mountain Pony Convention, "We have a rule: If you're looking to purchase something a little bit bluer, you can talk about it, but you can't have it out, or we will confiscate it."
As of yet, that hasn't happened, but the convention's website was hacked once, though, by someone who posted risque, pony-related images.
While there's a lot of pushback from community members not wanting to even recognize its existence, still others say they have the right to express themselves.
"Just like normal porn, you can't legislate it away," former BYU Brony president David Halliday says, but "you can put up good safeguards."BROTHER BRONY
In a world where mainstream culture features profanity, violence, nudity and sexual imagery, he says, "I believe members are trying to keep their minds pure." Mainstream entertainment, he adds, "can be awkward to watch when you know it isn't right. I think a lot of members enjoy the show because they know it's clean and wholesome and you don't have to worry about all the nasty stuff that appears in the media sometimes."
Defending that purity, though, can be a challenge. Joe Broderick discovered My Little Pony through his young children. He was "instantly hooked" by the animation and the "relevant" jokes. A computer programmer, he set up a website for role playing, which allows, he says, "budding authors to practice their skills writing fiction," while also for role players "becoming an outlet for exploring choices in their lives they wouldn't usually take. For some it's an escape; for others it's free psychology."
Despite being centered on a show "built around love, tolerance, friendship and harmony," Broderick says he got caught up in a turf fight with now-former members of his site who wanted to pursue a more sexually driven approach to the role-playing scenarios.
That wasn't the only problem. "Predators," he says, "would seek to come into our role-play chat and solicit adult-orientated role-plays from our members." That behavior, he says, was contrary to the site's rules. "We're here to escape reality, not bring too much to it," he says. "It's supposed to be a breath of fresh air, not more of the same."
What does appropriate participation look like in his mind? To demonstrate, Broderick invites a member on his website to role play.
To start, the other member describes a scene where his pony greets Fluttershy, a painfully shy pony. Taking the role of Fluttershy, Broderick then writes that she "blushes more deeply, letting her mane fall across her face. 'Oh well ummm hello I'm Fluttershy but ... you already know that. Ummm. What's your name?'"
The bronies who frequent his role plays are "secret," he says, "some afraid of family pressures, some of social pressures, some for fear of seeming less masculine. Honestly a good majority of people I interact with (on his website) would identify themselves as part of the LGBTQ community."
Much like at the social gatherings of brony clubs, his website, he says, provides "a place to call home, free from pressures and tensions of being members of different racial and gender groups. We provide that safe haven for them in a world that doesn't judge or stereotype."
With a wife and five children, Broderick says, "I have a very upstanding moral code," from his membership of his church. Nevertheless, the irony isn't lost on him that as a Mormon, he administers a site for members of a community his church has increasingly clashed with. Through his site, he's developed friendships with people that "have helped me change who I am and understand better what it means to be tolerant and respectful of other people's beliefs."BRONIES HAVE THE POWER
Mormonism values conformity to staunch male and female ideals, he says. In the My Little Pony universe, though, "you are valued because of your difference. I think there's a huge hunger for that in Utah." That's because there's "such a push, such a current to be the right sort of person, to present in the right sort of way. To even briefly inhabit a universe where people can go, 'Oh my gosh, you're so weird. Isn't that great?' gives us a nourishment we didn't know we needed."
Carter recalls sitting down to watch the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic pilot with his two little girls and laughing the entire time. "I thought it was the best show ever," he says.
In those early years, he says being a brony was akin to belonging to a secret club, "Kind of like being a Christian after Christ was crucified, you'd make the sign of the fish in the ground. In the same way, you'd very carefully prod to see if this person is showing a brony sign," whether it was an admission of knowledge of who a particular pony was, or a My Little Pony sticker on a laptop.
Carter contrasts My Little Pony with the classic, 1980s cartoon He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, having grown up with the latter. He adored He-Man, which he describes as "a very moral show." Both shows, he points out, offer moral lessons at the close of each episode. But He-Man had a very patriarchal foundation, he says, with values set heavily in good and evil, the latter represented by Skeletor and his male friends.
"No one ever strayed from their assignments of good and evil," he says. "It was a very earnest show."
My Little Pony, by contrast, hues to a matriarchal foundation, with many of the characters female, the supporting characters male and the plots revolving around conflicts between friends. "The moral basis of My Little Pony boils down to relationships and their interplay, rather than the conflict of good and evil," he says.
The two fundamentally different approaches to storytelling prove instructive, he says, when you look at the LDS Church. Currently, the church is pursuing the "He-Man approach," he says, where "evil is out there and we need to defend ourselves against [it]." He cites the November 2015 exclusion policy issued against church members in same-sex marriages and their children. "Whereas before there was a little bit of give, it's gone now. We've thoroughly entered the He-Man world, where Skeletor is same-sex marriage."
And that, he says, comes back around to how the show challenges masculinity. That's a perspective University of Utah professor Basso also picks up on, namely that Mormon culture idealizes a male in the LDS sensibility, focusing on "being a good son and a good father and having a strong religious grounding." Bronies, he says, "would in many ways challenge that, at least in my sense that bronies are more challenging of overtly militaristic, macho masculinity."
The Mormon male ideal, Sunstone's Carter says, is taking care of a family on a single income while maintaining a high calling in the church. That's a lot to live up to for a Mormon who, post-mission, woos and marries a woman, only for both to be alone in increasingly pressured situations. The man addresses the needs of his ward and ecclesiastical calling and the woman works "to maintain the family and the Mormon image, but their relationship is hardly a thing at all. What brought you together—that sense of intimacy, of working well together—is almost immediately aborted."THE PINKY PIE DOCTRINE
That's evident to a degree in a visit to the BYU Bronies, less a hotbed of subversion than a slumber party for pony fans. The last Saturday before Christmas 2015 on the BYU campus, a group of mostly young men and several married couples, one with a baby, gathered in a windowless room to celebrate Yuletide, My Little Pony style. An episode was screened, and there were pony-shaped cookies, with a variety of different colored frostings to spread over them. Three couples have met through BYU Brony gatherings, former club president Halliday says, including current president Michael DeGraw, who just married fellow BYU student and brony Rachel Bartholomew.
There's a bubbly sense of contentment at the BYU gatherings. "When you accept friendship, which is the central purpose of the show, then people aren't standoffish. They are there for the same things," Halliday says.
Halliday says that "college is a pretty safe place to be a brony," although, he adds in an email, he has still had to deal with both disgust and disapproval from other students at BYU. On one occasion, he recalls, "one girl confronted me and said it was wrong for me to like the ponies sexually (mentioning porn and masturbation.) I had to stop her right there and explain I was not sexually attracted to the cartoon—I just really enjoyed watching it."
Halliday discovered My Little Pony following the recommendation of a youth pastor on a podcast called Nobody's Listening. He thought he'd mock the pastor's glowing review, but instead fell in love and binge-watched the first season. He had no idea, he says, there was a fandom around it. He found himself questioning, "Am I really watching this?" and "Why do I like this?" and at that point, consulting on the internet, he discovered he wasn't alone.
Being part of the fandom has been educational for him. "Through meeting other people, hearing their perspective, it's shaped more of my political mind," he says. "In a lot of cases I'm diametrically opposed to where I was before My Little Pony. It opened the door but it wasn't the changing factor."
BYU Brony club co-founder Hamilton doesn't view the show as subversive, but rather as a facilitator. "I think the biggest thing the show does is open channels of communication without shutting down any types of beliefs. It's less an insidious plan to turn conservative people more liberal, but rather to get people to communicate, to be willing to listen to other people's ideas, even if you don't agree with them."
And it's that focus on communication, Sunstone's Carter argues, that may one day help blunt the "He Man" politics that currently pit Mormons against more progressive thinkers, even in their own ranks.
Carter predicts that "when bronies start to enter the Mormon hierarchy, things will start to change. Bronies will bring with them a sense of conflict based not on good and evil, but on friendship and tolerance, on embracing those who are different from you, rather than setting them apart. They will see the world more playfully instead of more earnestly. They will be looking at how Pinky Pie could add to the church."
He argues that bronyism brings a subversive tilt to Utah that is similar to the role that Christ played among the Jews, where "Jesus constantly threw monkey wrenches into the Jewish culture. I see My Little Pony fulfilling a similar role."
He continues, "Jesus taught the most important thing you can do is love one another. He was about what is your relationship with God and the people around you. In a lot of ways the story of Jesus resembles a My Little Pony episode," he says, "Except they don't crucify anybody at the end." CW