Jayson Thiessen has 20 years experience in the animation industry and is most known for being the supervising director and co-executive producer of the animated television series My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic and its spin-off films Equestria Girls and Rainbow Rocks. He recently directed the 2017 feature film adaptation, My Little Pony: The Movie, based directly on the television series.
Over the course of the eight years I was involved with My Little Pony as supervising director of the TV series, several DVD movie spinoffs, and this year’s feature film, I had the honor of being a guest at a number of conventions devoted to all things My Little Pony. There are many such conventions of this sort recurring annually all over the United States and internationally. If you were so inclined, you could attend a different convention every month, or more! Most of the conventions have matured over the years and now attract thousands of attendees, young and old, to large fancy hotels. They’re highly organized with a full complement of staff and security. The days are packed with activities, panel discussions, concerts, V.I.P. dinners and charity auctions, and there are halls full of vendors selling truckloads of unique artisan crafts depicting fans’ favorite characters. I’ve had many great times at these events and have always been treated with the utmost respect. But out of all the big pony cons I’ve been to over the years, it’s that first, littlest one in 2011 that stands out to me the most.
At that time in my circle of the animation industry, we didn’t have any sort of interaction with fans of the shows we made, if there were fans at all. We just did our best to make our shows as entertaining as we knew how and hoped that somebody somewhere enjoyed it. Thanks to the internet, all this was changing and it became possible to see people react to episodes mere days or even hours or minutes after airing. Back in 2011, the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic TV series had only aired one season and was already generating a following online. I was watching a new fandom emerge with curious fascination. Supposedly, full-grown adult men were falling in love with a show typically intended for little girls and were calling themselves “Bronies.” None of us working on the show saw it coming, nor did we know what to make of it. Most of the general public (who were aware) considered this fandom creepy and assumed it had some fetish associated with it. (Some still do.) So when I was contacted by a person named “Purple Tinker,” asking me if I would attend the first “BronNYCon” as the guest of honor, I was hesitant. However, after I discussed it with my wife, Jocelan, we agreed it would be worth the experience. Also, a free trip to New York City was hard to pass up!
When we arrived at the airport, I simply expected to be picked up by my contact and driven to the hotel, nice and easy. However, as we slowly ascended the escalator, a crowd of about 10 or 12 young adult men (and a few women) appeared, craning their necks to see over the edge and waiting with staunch anticipation. Some were dressed in cosplay outfits depicting their favorite pony or their own original pony character. They had big signs held above their heads with slogans and rainbows and they carried their favorite pony toys with them. They all cheered when they saw me. I was amazed! I would never have expected anyone to care that much, but as Jocelan and I were paraded through the airport with the group hooting and hollering declarations like, “Rainbow Dash is best pony!” and “Friendship is magic!”, it was clear that they seriously did!
The next morning, Jocelan and I headed to the convention venue in Chinatown, but it was difficult to find the location. There were no obvious signs of any convention center, the area seemed a little sketchy, and we thought we must have gotten the address wrong until we spied a small group of guys wearing pony paraphernalia and followed them to a nondescript door on a side street, like some kind of speakeasy. We registered with the organizers and were assigned an empty table next to several other tables where people were selling fan-created art and jewelry. Nobody knew what I looked like, and there was no signage saying who I was, so I just sat there completely anonymous as people walked by. One guy came up and asked what I was selling, I showed him my name tag, which said, “Director of MLP.” He gasped loudly, turned beet red, and backed away slowly, barely able to squeak out the words, “I really like the show,” before running away.
After that, word got around that I was there and before I knew it, I was surrounded by excited fans interested in my autograph. I had never signed autographs before and quickly realized that I really should have practiced beforehand! I marveled at the majority demographic I was meeting: there weren’t nearly as many kids or little girls as I had expected, it was mostly full-grown men (along with a moderate amount of women), generally college-aged young adults, but also some older gentlemen with almost as much enthusiasm as a teenage girl at a pop concert. I didn’t see any ironic or creepy behavior at all, just a genuine love for the show, its characters, and what it all stood for: friendship. They were people from all over the U.S. and some even from overseas; I was surprised at the distances people had traveled to be there. I heard stories of how the show and this newly emerging fandom was improving their lives. Some socially awkward people were able to make friends for the first time ever through meeting other Bronies, or had been lifted from depression. I had no idea our little TV show could have this kind of impact! One guy presented the stock of an assault rifle, painted sky-blue with a rainbow lightning bolt, for me to sign. He explained that he was a member of the armed forces and one of many Bronies in the military. I was incredulous, but according to him, the show was a therapy of sorts from the stresses of combat. I was honored to hear that the show was doing good for people.
As the day went on, the place filled up and got really hot and humid as there was no air conditioning. Nobody seemed to care, though – they were having a blast! There were several people dressed as “DJ Pon-3,” a background character who had all of three seconds of screen time in one episode (the name comes from the fans), and had a portable DJ station. Soon the whole place broke out into an impromptu dance circle as they all sang along at the top of their lungs to their favorite songs from the show. They seemed so carefree and welcoming of each other, it felt to me like I was witnessing the beginnings of some kind of new social movement where male prejudices and cynicism make way for inclusiveness and sincerity.
Then something occurred to me: nobody frowns at the thought of a girl enjoying a show intended for boys, it is instead welcomed and even considered cool. Why shouldn’t it be the same the other way around? If someone gets fulfillment and joy out of a particular pastime, sport, lifestyle, movie or TV series, who cares what gender or demographic it’s intended for? If it has a positive impact on one’s life, then that should be celebrated.
By the time the con was over, I had a new appreciation of what we were doing with the show and a deeper understanding of what was drawing people to it. I went home with a renewed interest in my work and tried to share that sense of excitement with my crew.
By today’s standards, that convention was very small, with only about 300 people in attendance. It certainly didn’t have nearly the amount of scope and organization that most Brony cons do today, but there was a real sense of discovery about it. A raw, unbridled joy and enthusiasm from a ragtag group of misfits at the beginnings of a journey. And as I now put my own journey with My Little Pony behind me and look forward to my next adventure, I will always look back and feel proud that for some people, this little show about colorful ponies and their lessons in friendship was a life-changing experience. It certainly has been for me.
All images courtesy of Jayson Thiessen.