Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Big fan of 'My Little Pony'? It's a bro thing


The Mesa coffee shop is filled with young men playing with pink and purple pony figurines that have flowing manes and huge eyes. They snack and chat as they watch a cartoon targeted at little girls.

Welcome to the world of Bronies, a brotherhood built around the phenomenon of "My Little Pony" TV shows.

Bronies -- the word is an olio of "bro" and "ponies" -- are adult fans of "My Little Pony," a cartoon series based on a line of Hasbro toys. There are Brony groups around the United States, including Phoenix, as well as a handful in Europe. Men make up about 85 percent of members. Many are self-described nerds, and the majority are straight.

The original TV series ran for a few years in the mid-1980s. A cable series called "My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic" premiered in October 2010; like the original, it follows six colorful ponies who live in Ponyville and focuses on the central character, Twilight Sparkle, as she learns about friendship and life.

The Phoenix Bronies number 383 members online. Joseph Plate, one of the organizers, says the group has about 70 active members who regularly attend meetings.

The group celebrated its first anniversary in July at Gotham City Comics and Coffee in Mesa. About 25 members, including five or six young women, attended.

Most of the people in the room seemed similar: friendly but shy, a little awkward yet likable. A number were science or technology college students, and several were in the military. The group is a respite for otherwise reclusive people looking to make friends with people similar to themselves.

"It's a nerd thing," said AJ King, an Arizona State University student.

Members brought their Brony paraphernalia -- toys, games and CDs. Some sported Brony T-shirts and backpacks. They spent the next few hours playing board games, talking and eating, while watching episodes of the show.

James Moore, an IT student at Chandler-Gilbert Community College, said he isn't sure why "My Little Pony" appeals more to men than to women.

"The characters of the ponies on the show are tomboyish. That may be a reason," he said.

Moises Luna, 18, said, "It's not the first time that this has happened with a show. Even 'The Powerpuff Girls' was aimed at girls initially, but now everyone watches it."

One of Luna's favorite characters from "My Little Pony" is his namesake -- Princess Luna.

Some Bronies say that the essence of the show -- friendship -- brings its fans close to one another. That, along with the fact that many fans tend to be shy and introverted, makes it a close-knit group.

"I'm antisocial by nature, and I'm trying to be more outgoing. I joined Phoenix Bronies because otherwise I tend to sit at home in front of my computer all day," said Regina Richards, 21, a computer-science student at Paradise Valley Community College. "I have no life."

David Tran, who's studying mechanical engineering at ASU, understands that being a Brony might be a bit of a problem on the dating front.

"Many of my friends don't understand why I'm into this," said Tran, 20. "If a girl I'm dating doesn't understand why I'm a fan of 'My Little Pony,' I'd try my best to explain it to her. I'll ask her to watch a couple of episodes, and hope that she understands why I love the show."

Tran, who makes jewelry as a hobby, wears three of his rings that have "My Little Pony" themes.

Aaron Wolfe, 23, wasn't worried whether friends think his love for "My Little Pony" is weird.

"I'm already weird to begin with, so no one really cares," he said. "And these people in this room are just about the only friends I have."

Plate, the Phoenix group's president, said the concept of Bronies "developed in online chat rooms."

"The show is popular because of its artistic style and intricately developed characters," he said.

He noted that the term 'Brony' usually applies to males, although it's used synonymously for both genders.

"But many girls like to be called Pegasisters," he said.

Clinical psychologists Patrick Edwards and Marsha H. Redden conducted a survey in November 2011 to study the characteristics of the Brony population. The online survey, completed by about 24,000 Bronies, found that 85 percent of respondents identified themselves as heterosexual. Edwards and Redden plan to study the phenomenon over a three- to five-year period.

Redden, in an e-mail, said the Brony culture "is no doubt a respite for shy and introverted people, but, remember, there is a large group of social Bronies also."

Two members of the Phoenix Bronies are in the military. Tyler, a meteorologist at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson who declined to give his last name, says he knows three or four other Bronies on base.

"I wear my Brony T-shirts around the base a lot. That's how I let others know that I'm a Brony," he said, pointing to his purple-and-pink T-shirt. "I was apprehensive about the response I would get because military guys tend to be raw and macho. But I'm surprised at how many nerdy guys I keep meeting in the Air Force."

Michael Rice, an Air Force veteran of Afghanistan, disagreed about acceptance by his comrades in arms.

"I find it necessary to hide," he said. "The military is full of the alpha males who love looking for excuses to pick on others."

His military service is a primary reason why he's a Brony.

"My experiences in Afghanistan made me realize the value of humanity," Rice said. "Phoenix Bronies is a close-knit group, bound by friendship. And they're all wonderfully sweet people."

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