TAMPA — In a culture of beer pong and Grand Theft Auto, their down time is spent with Twilight Sparkle, Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie.
They are the University of South Florida's Bull Bronies, members of a new student organization uniting those with a peculiar fondness for “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic,” a cable television cartoon show originally aimed at prepubescent girls.
Go ahead and snicker. They can take it.
“People are so focused on the norm,” said Will Clark, a sophomore sociology major who started the club this year. “We are so focused on what is normal, what is the right thing to do, how we fit in, when really, we're all so different in our own unique way. We tend to gloss over what's special about us. One good thing about this show is it encourages you to be who you are.”
Grown men's fixation on the “My Little Pony” franchise isn't just a USF phenomenon. Brony culture – the word is a mash-up of “bro,” for brother, and “pony,” the stars of the show – is worldwide. There are conventions, documentary films, web sites, even studies of Brony behavior.
What makes a dude want to watch a cartoon about candy-colored ponies?
“If you asked each individual person here why they like this show, you'd probably get something different from each of us,” Clark said at a recent Bull Bronies meeting.
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Garrett Sloop, a junior in computer engineering, gave it a shot. “Some people like the animation style, some people like the character design, some people like the lore of the world, some people like the fandom that just kind of grew up around it,” said Sloop.
Add some clever writing, with dialog and humor that might make a mom watching with her 6-year-old daughter chuckle here and there, and you have a cult hit in the making.
The USF club typically meets on Saturdays at the Marshall Center on campus. They talk business, watch and discuss an archival episode of the show, and close with a Brony anthem and pledge.
There are at least 22 members, including a few women, who are sometimes known as “Pegasisters.”
“My Little Pony” debuted in the 1980s as a crude vehicle to shill the Hasbro toy line of the same name. It has come and gone in different iterations since then.
A watershed moment came in 2010, when renowned animator Lauren Faust took over and launched the “Friendship is Magic” brand. She upgraded plots and humor while maintaining the feel-good themes of friendship, nonviolence, loyalty, tolerance and togetherness in the land of Equestria.
The show runs on the Hub cable network.
“Out there in the media, every channel has people getting shot, people getting blown up, people getting punched,” Clark said. “This show is a big breath of fresh air. They go in, they have a good time, they solve their problem, and it's never done with a big explosion.”
Andrew Conrad, a sophomore majoring in history and education, said he's watched “Breaking Bad” and similar tense and violent shows. “It gets a little overbearing at times,” he said. “You just feel like your being drawn into this violent hate culture, and you need a way to let that out. I'd rather do that (watch “My Little Pony”) than start breaking furniture in my house.”
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There's something to the theory of escapism, said Marsha Redden, a neuropsychologist in South Carolina who is studying Brony culture.
She noted that the period after World War I brought the Roaring '20s; World War II yielded to the bohemian and beatnik movements. After Vietnam, “out came the hippies,” Redden said, adding that it is worth noting that “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” launched in the decade following 9/11.
“We're just wondering if this is not in response to, 'I've had it with the terrorism, I've had it with the hatred, I've had it with the suspicion. Let's just love and tolerate everybody.' ”
Redden and a colleague, South Carolina clinical psychologist Patrick Edwards, have launched a project they've appropriately titled the Brony Study. They have concluded that Bronies are more introverted, more agreeable and less neurotic than non-Brony subjects, and Bronies were more likely to be absorbed or lost in experiences like art, music and nature.
The researchers said the Brony community serves a social function of connecting them with other fans, not unlike the hard-core fans of Star Wars or Dr. Who. Unlike those groups, however, the object of Bronies' affection is a non-stereotypic interest – meaning men enjoying a subject aimed at young girls.
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That's what's largely behind the frequent creeped-out reaction toward Bronies. What's more, pornographic images and appearances by pony-costumed participants at fetish conventions has led to something of a backlash.
“Unfortunately, with any subculture, you're going to have extremists,” said Clark. “Unfortunately, there are small groups of people in this community that do fan art and they do fan fiction where they sexualize ponies, anthropomorphize them, write dirty fiction.”
Yes, “My Little Pony” porn exists. But so does “Transformers” porn, “Batman” porn, “Kim Possible” porn, even “Gilligan's Island” porn.
“In my research, I've found that extremists define a culture a little more than they should,” Clark said. “You see some extreme case, and you hear, 'Oh, my god, can you believe they're out there looking at dirty pictures of ponies, those perverts, those creeps.' I've heard everything from 'pedophile' to 'homosexual,' things that don't even make sense.”
To that end, the Bull Bronies are being cast as a community service group. A recent Brony mini-convention raised $2,000 for All Children's Hospital, and the USF group will be instrumental in this year's Grand Brony Convention, to be held in August at the Embassy Suites on campus.
Clark is also planning activities such as beach cleanups and other community projects.
“I want Bronies to have a good name,” he said. “We want people who hear the word 'Brony' to say, 'Oh, yeah, they just did that thing where they cleaned up a park,' or, 'Oh, yeah, they just donated all those toys for kids in need.' Not, 'Eww, don't they watch that show for little girls?'
“I hope we redefine in peoples minds that stereotype that they're those weirdo guys.”