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Don’t laugh, but bronies may be propping up one of America’s favorite companies

A chart from Hasbro’s most recent shareholder report. (Hasbro)

That peculiar Internet phenomenon called brony has received its share of derision over the years. But hold your repugnance, readers: Adult male fans of Hasbro’s girliest product may actually be propping up one of America’s favorite companies.

That’s one possible implication, at least, in Hasbro’s most recent earnings report, which saw big growth in the “Girls” sector. We don’t want to get bogged down in the financials of the whole thing, but suffice it to say that while many traditional pillars of the toy industry are flagging (Hasbro’s Playskool and many of its board games, Mattel’s Barbie and Fisher-Price), My Little Pony is doing well. Really well. In fact, it propelled Hasbro’s girls’ category to its first $1 billion year in 2013.

To quote directly from Hasbro’s most recent earnings release: “The Girls category grew 21% in the first quarter 2014. MY LITTLE PONY, MY LITTLE PONY EQUESTRIA GIRLS and NERF REBELLE [essentially a pink Nerf gun] contributed to the continued strong growth in the category.”

So Hasbro’s girls’ toys are selling like hotcakes (certainly in comparison to Mattel’s girls’ sales, which fell last quarter — Barbie alone dropped 14 percent). But here’s the intriguing question: Is it actually girls who buy them?

That is, unfortunately, not easy to answer. Both the brony phenomenon, and Hasbro’s recent success, seem to stem from the company’s relaunch of My Little Pony in October 2010. My Little Pony has, of course, been around since the early ’80s. But 27 years later, Hasbro decided to “debut a new look” for the toys along with a wildly popular animated series called “My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic.”

Against all expectations, the show didn’t just attract children. It also built a large, devoted fan base among teenage and adult men, who have started obsessive fan blogs,

, launched a million trend pieces and otherwise done more to put My Little Pony in the public eye than three- to six-year-old girls ever did. The attraction isn’t necessarily sexual, as some have assumed — a fascinating

that took off last September described the appeal as some mix of quality animation, feel-good vibes and — naturally! — lolz.

Anyway, leaving aside the big questions of why bronies exist and what fandom means, this still leaves the curious case of Hasbro’s recent resurgence. Did My Little Pony’s popularity spark the birth of bronies, or did bronies push a retro toy back into the spotlight? Alternately did both things spring from a third event entirely — namely, Hasbro’s 2010 relaunch of the My Little Pony line?

Hasbro is taciturn on the subject, though the company’s recent product launches would suggest it’s deliberately courting adult fans. The company has begun selling, in an expansion lauded by analysts, My Little Pony trading cards, comic books and USB drives — in addition to the standard plush dolls and toys. Spokeswoman Julie Duffy said Hasbro is aware the franchise “has become a significant part of pop culture transcending both age and gender,” but that it doesn’t break out sales by demographic.

Why not, though? It seems like good business! Bronies are, clearly, a growth market.