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A Brony gathering: SoCal men let their ‘My Little Pony' flag fly

April 19, 2012 |  1:25 pm

SoCal bronies

This post has been corrected. Please see note at bottom for details.

A raucous gathering at an Anaheim hotel on a recent Saturday night looked like any fanboy mini-convention — about 150 people, mostly guys in their late teens and early 20s, watched animation on big-screen TVs, recited dialogue from memory and jumped out of their seats to cheer for a storied franchise.

But it wasn’t a Marvel superhero, a Christopher Nolan blockbuster or a million-selling video game that had them rapt. It was the rainbow-hued fantasy world of “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic,” a reboot of a classic kids TV series airing on cable network the Hub, that has found its way into the hearts of an unexpected demographic: adult men.

“My Little Pony” has spawned a testosterone-fueled subculture in Los Angeles and around the country so strong that its devotees have a name, “bronies” — combining “bro” and “ponies” — and produce a steady stream of flying-pony-inspired blogs, rock bands, fan art and YouTube videos.

These guys know the pink-and-pretty show is intended for little girls, but they like it — no, love it — anyway. And sure, they’re used to the raised eyebrows.

“A lot of people think it’s weird,” said Justus Stebner, an 18-year-old high school senior from Tustin who attended the recent viewing party, dubbed “March Mare-a-Thon,” with several friends and his 9-year-old sister. “I just love the look of the show, the writing, the humor, the characters. It’s uplifting. It makes me happy.”

Unlike tattooed goth kids who think it’s hilarious to adopt sweet pop culture icons like Care Bears and Strawberry Shortcake, bronies insist they’re not being ironic. They like “MLP,” as they abbreviate it, for what it is — highly stylized animation with clever, positive stories.

SoCal bronies

That it’s wrapped in glitter and sunshine, with characters named Fluttershy and Twilight Sparkle, is OK too, even though they have to brace for the inevitable questions about their manhood. (Those tired stereotypes of what boys should or shouldn’t like don’t bother them, a number of local bronies said. They most often describe themselves with words like “nerdy” and “artistic.”)

“The first 30 seconds I ever saw, I thought the show was pretty amazing. Then I thought, ‘I can’t believe I just enjoyed a girls show,’” said 20-year-old David Cuyno, an organizer of the recent Anaheim meet-up. “But the fact is, it could be about anything. It just happens to be about pastel-colored horses.”

The movement, both in Southern California and other hotbeds of brony activity, grew rapidly through social media such as Reddit, Facebook and Twitter. At last count, there were nearly 170,000 pieces of fan-created “MLP” art on the online artist collective deviantArt, and fans have a robust presence on animation hub 4chan. “MLP” became part of a meme when bronies reworked the clip "Hitler Reacts to … " and snippets of the series regularly get mashed-up with popular movie trailers. “MLP”-inspired metal band NeighSlayer has its own YouTube channel.

Stephen Thomas, from Claremont, became something of a brony celebrity when he based his senior high school physics presentation on “MLP” last year. A video shot in the classroom and posted online quickly went viral; it has racked up nearly 1 million views. Thomas, now at Cal Poly Pomona, said he’d been concerned initially about reaction from his schoolmates. “I wondered if I’d be a laughingstock for admitting how much I liked the show,” he said. “But people didn’t think it was silly or dumb.”

Neither did his teacher. He got a perfect score by doing mathematical calculations to prove why it’d be impossible in the real world for ponies like Rainbow Dash and Applejack to defy gravity and break the sound barrier as they do on the series.

Local bronies like Thomas are becoming more active in their “MLP” worship. The SoCal Brony meet-up roster numbers more than 400, making it one of the largest such groups in the country. Members are planning the first local brony convention, scheduled for November at the Anaheim Convention Center.

The locals are following in the footsteps of fellow fan clubs in cities like New York and Seattle, where brony communities have been thriving since late 2010. That’s shortly after the new incarnation of the classic “My Little Pony,” a syndicated show from the 1980s, began on the Hub cable channel, a joint venture between Discovery Communications and toy giant Hasbro.

Fan fervor that’s truly organic may seem as elusive as a unicorn in today’s marketing-driven TV landscape. But that’s the case with “MLP,” where even the show creators and Hub executives weren’t prepared for the adult male response.

“We heard during the first season that guys were chatting about it online, and it just snowballed so quickly,” said showrunner Meghan McCarthy. “No one saw this coming.”

The brand, in less sophisticated form, has popped up in toy aisles and on TV and direct-to-DVD for the last few decades. But it didn’t cross over beyond the 3-and-up set until its recent remake. Many fans credit Lauren Faust, the Emmy-winning animator who reimagined “MLP,” with giving it adult appeal, as she’d previously done on series like “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends” and “The Powerpuff Girls.”

Margaret Loesch, the Hub’s president and chief executive, said she figured there would be nostalgia value for moms who grew up with the original “MLP” and some “dual gender enthusiasm” because dads would watch, too. But the bronies, she said, “have been a real head-turner — just remarkable.”

“MLP” and its loyalists have become so well-known that gossip blog Gawker has written about them, Stephen Colbert has given two shout-outs to bronies on “The Colbert Report” and NPR quizzed former President Clinton on “Pony” trivia for its show, “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me.” (He aced all questions, solidifying his brony cred.)

The show’s second season concludes this weekend with a two-part finale centered on a royal wedding. (It has been renewed for a third season.) Though a wedding would seem to be a girls-only topic, local bronies said they’re excited about the episodes and not just because they’ll include a male pony, Shining Armor. Thomas said he and other local bronies are planning to scoop up finale-centric Hasbro figurines and other swag to add to their collections.

Loesch, noting that the show remains targeted at young girls and their parents, said the network’s been reaching out to the bronies with subtle hat tips in marketing and promotions. It’s been a measured approach, though.

“We haven’t driven this movement, the fans have, and we don’t want to get ahead of that,” Loesch said. “We want to nourish this phenomenon, not manipulate it.”

Hasbro, which produces the show, has taken a similar low-key approach, adding brony-targeted Easter eggs to its websites and doling out “MLP” posters to the heavily male Comic-Con crowd last summer.

“Hasbro and the Hub are very aware of the community,” Cuyno said. “They don’t need to gear the show toward us, but they know we’re out here. We feel included.”

[For the record, 2:15 p.m. April 20: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said that Shining Armor was the first male pony, and that the Anaheim event planned for November would be the first Brony convention rather than the first local convention; both details have been corrected.]

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-- T.L. Stanley

Photos: Ryan Marshall, top, sings along with fellow "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic" fans during a gathering of the SoCal Bronies last month at Anaheim Plaza Hotel; Justus Stebner and his little sister Harli draw ponies at the event. Credit: Christina House / Los Angeles Times

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