By VAUHINI VARA And ANN ZIMMERMAN
BERKELEY, Calif.—Fifteen young men in this hotbed of activism gathered at an Indian restaurant on a recent Sunday and made an appeal: Could the waiter please switch the TV from the news to “My Little Pony”?
Then the men heaped their plates with curry and clustered around tables to absorb the Pony cartoon, share trivia about the characters and play show-and-tell with the various plastic Pony toys they had brought along.
Meet the self-described “bronies.”
The object of the bronies’ fascination is “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic,” a remake of a 1980s animated TV show for preadolescent girls featuring plucky, candy-colored equines.
After the show launched in October 2010, video clips began appearing on 4chan, a website that largely draws geeky, tech-savvy guys. Before long, the bronies were born. They started holding local get-togethers, from Seattle to Brooklyn, where they recognized each other by the paper Pony cut-outs tucked in their shirt pockets. They’d discuss the latest shenanigans of Ponies with names like Twilight Sparkle and Fluttershy.
Some bronies say they got hooked on the high-quality animation. Others felt they identified with the four-legged stars that flaunt luxurious, pony-tail like manes. “The characters aren’t one-dimensional,” said 15-year-old Christian Leisner, a brony in the Berkeley group. “They have flaws, they have backgrounds they’re ashamed of.”
Bronies—a mash-up of “bro” and “ponies”—established a quarterly New York convention, called BroNYCon, this year. They’ve spawned at least two Pony-themed websites and enjoy a thriving subculture of artists whose creations include Pony-inspired music and their own writings about Twilight Sparkle and the gang.
Jessica Blank, a 32-year-old computer programmer who is BroNYCon’s organizer, says people inevitably ask her whether the bronies—three-quarters of whom are male—are gay. “Actually, the overwhelming majority are straight,” she says.
Bronies say their hobby has nothing to do with their sexuality or gender. “I don’t care about showing to the world that I am masculine,” says Jason Subhani, a 19-year-old college student in Astoria, N.Y. A Pony poster on his bedroom wall mingles with images of heavy-metal icons.
At the recent informal Berkeley gathering, Quinn Johnson, an 18-year-old freshman at the city’s University of California campus, showed a Rubik’s cube he had customized with homemade “My Little Pony” stickers. Michael Boveda, a 16-year-old high-school junior, proffered a plastic Pony carefully transported in a plastic food container. “I didn’t want to ruin the hair,” he explained.
The group included four “Pegasisters,” as the small minority of female bronies sometimes call themselves in this male-dominated world. Voices escalated, and Ohad Kanne, a 27-year-old studying videogame design, crossed to the TV and turned up the volume on “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When Hasbro Inc. and Discovery Communications Inc. revived the “My Little Pony” franchise on a new television network called The Hub, an executive told investors the remake was for “the three- to six-year-old girl and her mom, who has fond memories of ‘My Little Pony’ from her childhood.”
The Ponies confront knotty challenges—such as an invasion of adorable but hungry insects called Parasprites—and report to a ruler named Princess Celestia about the life lessons they learn.
This is the sort of thing discussed at Equestria Daily, a brony website with links to such enthusiast-pleasers as free Pony coloring books. Shaun Scotellaro, its 23-year-old founder, says he cut back on his community-college classes to run the site out of his parents’ house in Glendale, Ariz., and has since become a cult hero.
“Growing up, ‘My Little Pony’ was basically on my list, being a boy, of things I’d probably hate,” says Mr. Subhani, the college student from Queens. Then he found the remake, he says, and “before I knew it, I was going on Equestria Daily more than any other news website.”
Mr. Subhani tried to get his rock-band mates to play some Pony-inspired covers. They declined, so he formed a new band of bronies called Neighslayer, in which he plays guitar-heavy renditions of such “My Little Pony” songs as “Art of the Dress.”
The show’s producers have caught on to the phenomenon. This September, “My Little Pony” supervising director Jayson Thiessen was a special guest at BroNYCon, which drew 300 bronies to a studio in Chinatown. Mr. Thiessen, 33, addressed a raucous crowd of men, Neighslayer performed and the guy in the best Pony costume won an award.
Later, Mr. Thiessen wrote on Twitter that the enthusiasm “completely floored me!”
In an email, a Hasbro spokeswoman said of the bronies: “From what we’ve seen, they are a small group of ‘My Little Pony’ fans who don’t necessarily fit what one might expect to be the brand’s target audience.”
Sales of “My Little Pony” merchandise are growing, says Hasbro, which declined to provide figures or comment on who, exactly, is buying the stuff.
The Hub Chief Executive Margaret Loesch said she is aware of the show’s strong following among young males, but says the majority of adult viewers are still overwhelmingly female. “I think part of why it resonates is the funky, flying mystical creatures,” she says. “The combination of plenty of action and heart gives it broad appeal.”
Some bronies disdain Hasbro’s Pony figurines, which they find too commercial and not “show-accurate.” A pet peeve: On TV, Princess Celestia is a heavenly white, but the toy is cotton-candy pink. So the bronies frequently buy unofficial merchandise from each other, including treasures such as pipe-cleaner Ponies.
Leaving the Berkeley gathering, bronies discussed loved ones’ reactions. “My sisters say, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ ” said Mr. Kanne, who wore a Pony T-shirt. “Luckily, we have this community that understands.”