This past weekend, I attended my second Bronycon as a panelist. I reunited with my teammates from last year and we presented a panel called “Cutie Marks and Branding: The Importance of Social and Mythological Identity Formation Among Friends.” The turnout was great and we got overwhelmingly positive feedback on our presentation! One person even said ours was the best panel they’d been to at the con up to that point.
The panel covered the very, very broad topic of identity. Brian Newby began with providing basic definitions of identity and of “normal” vs. “deviant.” Bill Ellis then explored identity in a mythological sense, particularly with the heroes and villains of MLP. I grounded these ideas in cutie marks as an exploration of identity within the show itself (in other words, basically using a New Criticism approach) and then looked at what happens when we fans bring our own understandings of identity to the show as we watch it (i.e., Reader Response Criticism), specifically in the case of “Brotherhooves Social” and the discussions around it being helpful/harmful trans representation. I’ll add a link to the video recording once it’s available.
During the panel, Purple Tinker, who founded Bronycon, got word of the discussion and she started giving away pride flags at her booth in the vendor’s hall. Stay tuned for a guest post from her about this topic!
I did a couple last-minute things as I finalized my portion of the panel and the result is that I lowkey took y’all to church. First, I included this slide:
This is a slight modification of a common refrain in the United Church of Christ, which goes, “No matter you you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”
I felt that this message was in line with all of the affirmations I heard throughout the weekend. “You are important. You matter. You have a community here. You are not alone.” All of these were spoken in the face of struggling with suicidal tendencies, recovering from addictions, healing from bullying, and so many other hurts.
The second way I lowkey took y’all to church was by leading the audience in singing a modified version of “This Little Light of Mine.” We sang “This Cutie Mark of Mine,” which makes perfect sense for the panel topic and the MLP fandom as a whole.
If only we had a Hammond! The closest we got was the neat Gothic choir music they played before the panel began (if it were up to me, I’d have gone with Kyrie Eleison).
However, I saw so many other examples of the gospel at work over the weekend and it honestly seems like another instance of God working with and through the least likely and least “qualified” communities.
We all know that My Little Pony has a bad reputation specifically because of bronies. Sometimes, there’s this sense that no upstanding feminist would bother with the series or the fandom because there’s always a brony who’s misogynistic and/or creepy and the most feminists ought to do is point out the fact that he’s a brony to explain that he’s a misogynist.
I’m not dismissing criticisms of misogyny within the fandom or ignoring the problems folks have with giving more attention to the shock value/transgression of men liking ponies than to all the awesome female empowerment the show has to offer. In fact, this is why I talk about this series through my experience as a woman and focus more on what it does for girls/women. Plenty of folks talk about bronies redefining masculinity and while I have no problem with that discussion, I do feel like people often stop the conversation at what the show does for bronies and what bronies do for the show. And I get it. It’s not as weird for me to like My Little Pony because I’m a girl, hence why the whole girl empowerment aspect isn’t as sensational.
As with any fandom, there’s a lot of crap that makes people say, “why would you associate yourself with these people?” That’s a big reason why I typically don’t get deep into fandom drama. Yet as a Christian, I’m quite used to loving and being involved in something with a terrible reputation. Yes, there are unsavory aspects of the MLP fandom. Maybe some unsavory things happened to some people at Bronycon. I can’t dismiss that possibility, but this is what I saw:
I saw Tara Strong, who voiced your entire childhood, give a signed Derpy plushie to a girl who flew in all the way from Belgium and had been struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts due to bullying–to the point of needing professional help. Tara invited the girl and her sister on stage and told her she was beautiful, loved, cherished–all of these affirming things. When she handed over the Derpy plushie, she said she chose Derpy because Derpy isn’t perfect, but everyone loves her anyway.
I saw a young man crying while standing in line for the microphone at the bullying Q&A panel. Another young man standing in front of him held him for the longest time. A middle-aged woman rubbed his back. A Princess Celestia cosplayer rose from her seat to give him a hug.
I saw a panelist pause and try to gather himself while sharing his experiences with alcohol addiction and how My Little Pony approaches the topic of recovery.
I saw over $27,000 raised for charity.
I saw a teary-eyed vice con chair describe attendees who had gathered in the main lobby to prepare care packages for the homeless around the convention center. I’ve seen this happen at church conferences, but never fandom conventions.
I saw the last few minutes of an accessibility panel where people shared creative ideas on how to make even loud events like the rave party more accessible to attendees with noise sensitivities. I’m sure there were many other great ideas as well.
I saw a Princess Celestia and a Princess Luna cosplayer read letters written to their characters over the course of the weekend. Some letters rehashed hilarious memes. Others told the saddest stories.
“Dear Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, my best friend died five years ago. I was at a pony convention when I found out. I still struggle with feeling alone.”
“Dear Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, this world is full of scary things. Cops killing people. People killing cops. I wish you could come to our world to teach us more about friendship. Signed, nobody important.”
To which the Princess Luna cosplayer emphatically replied, “You are very important. Every. single. one of you.”
For all of these reasons, I understand why so many people feel like the MLP community is their home and conventions like Bronycon their sanctuary. I know how freeing and healing it is to find that second family. I’ve found mine at my church, which makes me a rare case among people my age.
Even so, I strongly believe that all works like what I described above are God’s works. God is present through all things and meets us where we are. That includes people of little or no faith who also face constant misunderstandings about their views and yet have found a community in the MLP fandom.
What can the church learn from these happenings at Bronycon and vice versa? What would it look like for these two very different communities to work together? Joint service projects built into the con schedule that attendees could choose to sign up for?
It’s funny because while I was happy to be going to Bronycon this weekend, I was also bummed that I’d be missing church. Instead, God reiterated the theme of UCC General Synod 2015:
Grace in unexpected places.