Sunday, December 2, 2012

Doors are barred and shutters shut/Guess I should've stayed inside my hut (Bridle Gossip)

Pinkie dances while Twilight looks on in confusion.
MOSKAU! MOSKAU!
Wirf die Gläser an die Wand...
It's December 10, 2010, and Rihanna wants to be the "Only Girl (In the World)." It's an extraordinarily forgettable song, but at least the video has some hilariously faux-profound imagery and costumes that do an excellent job of highlighting just how devoid of content the song is. In film, the top movie is Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which holds a special place in my heart as the book which made me realize I despise C.S. Lewis and everything he holds dear. Needless to say, I have not seen the movie.

In real news, assorted countries led by the U.S. continue to try to shut down Wikileaks in apparent total ignorance of the Streisand Effect, Somali piracy is making headlines, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange gets arrested for sexual misconduct (which he probably did, proving once again that good things can sometimes be created by horrible people, which anyone over the emotional age of seven already knew), and British students protest a massive tuition hike.

On TV, Amy Keating Rogers brings us "Bridle Gossip," which, if I want to be really, really charitable, is a well-meaning but wrongheaded complete failure of an episode. Less charitably? It's a steaming pile of racist horseshit. And now everybody's all upset, because calling something racist is the! Worst! Possible! Thing you can say, worse by far than actually being racist, and how dare I say anything against Rogers, who you met at that one con and she seemed like a really nice lady and...

Okay, look: This episode is not trying to incite hatred. I suspect it actually is well-meaning, an attempt to add the first hints of a non-Western culture to Equestria. The reason I suspect this is because I can easily believe that all the racist horribleness of this episode (and there is so much racist horribleness) comes from the same source as the sexist bullshit in "The Ticket Master," namely Rogers being kind of a crap writer of any character who doesn't have "Apple" in their name.

I have tried very, very hard to like this episode and this character. Zecora is one of my fiancee's favorite characters, and she dressed as her for both Halloween and Anime USA. She's argued for, and I can see, the good points here, most notably the attempt at inclusion. We live in a culture where white is treated as "default"--in other words, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, characters are assumed to be white. Do a Google Image Search on "humanized ponies"; how many of the resulting images include a person of color? Perhaps more damningly, how many include more than one?

The show itself has done nothing to cast doubt on the default viewer assumption that the characters are white. Quite the opposite: prior to this episode we know that Rarity's accent pegs her as a WASP from the start and Twilight Sparkle comes from a city modeled on Arthurian legend, i.e. WASP mythology. Later in the series we get confirmation that the rest of the Mane Six come from pony counterparts to white cultures as well: Pinkie Pie is Amish (so Swiss or German), Applejack descended from settlers in the American West (Anglo-Saxon, German, or possibly other Germanic countries, much slimmer chance of elsewhere in Western or Northern Europe), and Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash come from Mt. Olympus as depicted in Disney's Hercules.

So the introduction of a character obviously drawn from another culture could have been a much-needed breath of fresh air. Zebras could bring something very interesting to Equestria, a different set of traditions, different ways of doing magic, maybe even different languages. The premise of the episode fits right in with this potential: An outsider with different ways comes to Ponyville, and the sheltered ponies, who have never before encountered representatives of other cultures, are initially afraid of her. After a round of misunderstandings, they finally learn that Zecora's a good pony with different ways, as deserving as anyone else of respect and friendship, smiles, hugs, and a good lesson to the kiddies.

Of course, that would have required Rogers to create a convincing, believable, likeable character that isn't Applejack, and to do the bare minimum of research necessary to avoid making said character an appalling stereotype. As it turns out, either she can't be bothered or she just isn't sufficiently competent to do either.

We thus get a character who is built to be generically "African": named "zebra" in an East African language, wearing Southern African neck rings, and with a hut decorated in West African masks. This is a show that has taken pains to give pegasi, unicorns, and Earth ponies extremely distinct architecture (and, in later episodes, clothing both modern and traditional) that reflects their cultural origins--Classical Greco-Roman for the pegasi, fairy-tale Western European for the unicorns, and a blend of nineteenth-century Old West and medieval European thatch-roofed cottages for the Earth ponies. The one zebra, on the other hand, gets a blend of African elements separated by a greater distance, physically and culturally, than the distinct cultures used to make each of the three Equestrian tribes.

The only explanation for this is simple, old-fashioned, paternalistic imperialist Othering: everything from the entire continent of Africa goes into a pot labeled "African," while more familiar European cultures are seen as distinct. To make matters worse, Zecora has an Ojibwe (as in the Native American tribe) dreamcatcher over her door, making clear that she's not only the generic "African" but the generic "tribal" pony, too. The episode thus not only lumps all of Africa together, which is appalling enough, but all of humanity outside of a small circle of European-descended cultures. These Other cultures then get depicted as primitive and crude: Zecora's cutie mark is more abstract and less colorful than the others on the show, her masks have chunky outlines suggesting rough-hewn handmade carvings compared to the polished, manufactured look of most pony decorations, and she cooks over an open flame rather than on a stove.

Of course, as is often the case for "primitive" characters in fiction, Zecora gets to be wise--she is allowed knowledge about topics such as nature (but not in any sort of scientific way) and healing, can dispense good advice (but at the same time lacks social awareness, such as in her apparent belief that all the shops just "happen" to be closed each time she comes to town), and shows every sign of having a higher emotional intelligence than the rest of the cast. However, this only heightens the impression that she is a "closer to earth," "noble savage" type of character, which is to say paternalistic and imperialistic, as opposed to more actively hateful and violent, racism. Or to put it another way, the polite kind of racism that enslaves cultures and burns its way across continents in the name of Manifest Destiny or the White Man's Burden or "bringing civilization," as opposed to the rude kind that organizes lynch mobs.

And then (and what little documentation I've been able to find suggests that this, at the very least, was entirely Rogers' idea), to top it all off, Zecora speaks in rhyme. Because she wasn't Othered badly enough already, she needs to speak like she has some sort of bizarre compulsion or possibly brain damage. And after all, it's not like Rogers might think to consider whether there are any stereotypes dealing with people of African descent and facility with rhyme, perhaps deriving from a century of minstrel shows or three decades of media associating rap, urban African-Americans, and gang violence. That would require Rogers to care about what she's writing and think beyond the immediate next word on the page, which clearly isn't something she does very often. (This is still me being charitable, by the way. The uncharitable assumption would be that Rogers made Zecora rhyme because she's from Pony Africa and Rogers is a racist.)

Again, I really don't think Rogers hates black people or anything like that. But, well... there's a scene in the episode where Spike makes fun of the other pony's curses, even though at least a couple of them are potentially life-threatening (especially Rainbow Dash's and Applejack's), and Twilight's could doom the entire town (given that she saved it from destruction just an episode ago). All of their curses are at the least very hurtful for the pony suffering it. And yet Spike not only laughs at them, he lies to them; he tells them he's working on a cure, and instead spends his time coming up with more jokes at their expense.

All of this is played for laughs; we are supposed to join Spike in laughing at the ponies. In a sense, that's okay; the ponies are fictional characters, and have no actual feelings to be hurt. Laughing at them is certainly no worse than watching characters die for our entertainment in an action movie or suspense thriller. Also, this is an episodic comedy-adventure cartoon for small children; we know that, unless there's a "Part One" in the episode title, odds are very high the characters will all be perfectly fine by the time the credits roll. As I've said before, in an adventure the primary question is not "Will they get out of this one?" but rather "How will they get out of this one?"

However, within a diegetic context this scene is very much not okay. Spike is being a massive jerk here, and nothing ever comes of it. Further, I'm not sure it occurred to anyone involved in making this episode just how much of a jerk Spike is being, and no character calls him out on it. Rogers is failing utterly at basic empathy here, what the show itself will later term "Lesson Zero": the recognition that the feelings of others exist and are always legitimate, no matter what they are.

Sadly, the show itself fails at this lesson in one key respect. This episode is one of (to date) two that attempt to depict someone from a non-Western culture, and the other one is just as stereotype-laden. For all that it tries very hard (and usually succeeds) at being a feminist show, for all that it is clearly made with the best of intentions, Friendship Is Magic doesn't deal well with race. Zecora's later appearances are, thankfully, few and brief, but always painful to watch, because they represent a rot in the heart of the show. It is a show that celebrates community and bringing people together. It is a show that celebrates the "many ways of being a girl" and, since there is no statement true of all women that is not true of all humans, by extension the many ways of being human.

As long as your ways of being human fall within Western norms descended from European cultures, anyway. Otherwise, you're an Other, and the creators apparently expect you to count yourself lucky that you get one heavily stereotyped token to represent you.

Next week: Intertextuality! Cute things! Geekiness! Easily avoidable failures of communication! We're back to the show I love.

14 comments:

  1. This episode was one of the other four I ended up watching this week in addition to the two I'd already mentioned, so it felt fresh in my mind as I read this. Watching the episode, I'd gotten the impression that it was set latter in the show's run, given that Applejack's sister felt like the sort of character shows introduce later in their run. I like that this isn't the case, though, and that the show had the sense to give the ponies lives and relationships outside of each other early on.

    Speaking of world-building, a general lack of knowledge about it, when combined with my general ignorance of the various African cultures and the fact that I had not at all noticed that she was speaking in rhyme did not allow me to see the degree to which Zecora's depiction was problematic. Thank you for the breakdown.

    Incidentally, I was working on a blog post describing the idea that intent is not magic, and this essay was actually very helpful in helping me visualize what I wanted to say. Do you mind if I end up quoting you and/or linking to you in the post?

    Finally...Pinkie Pie is Amish? 0_o!

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    1. Yeah, Apple Bloom is actually introduced in the first episode, although this is the beginning of shifting her from background character to secondary character.

      Feel free to link or quote as you wish, but if you quote, please link as well.

      And... yeah. There's an episode where the Mane Six tell Apple Bloom and two of her friends how they got their cutie marks. Pinkie Pie's story pretty much has UNRELIABLE NARRATOR written all over it, but involves her growing up on a literal rock farm among dour ponies, and her father has that distinctive Amish hat.

      Yesterday's episode confirmed (with a flashback from a slightly more reliable witness) that rock farms exist and one is run by the pony in the Amish hat, so it seems that part of Pinkie's flashback is real.

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  2. The Amish are Swiss and German btw.

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    1. Are they?

      *looks it up*

      Huh, had them confused with Pennsylvania Dutch. Thanks for the correction, will fix in article now.

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  3. zecora is not a racist caricature. your reading to much into her.

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    1. Reading too much into ponies is kind of the point of this blog.

      As for whether she is a racist caricature: Obviously, the degree to which she is racist is a matter of opinion based on where you set the bar. I freely admit I set the bar quite high. She is definitely a caricature, not a character, however; a better way to put it is that she is (like Celestia, and unlike the Mane Six and Luna) a plot device disguised as a character. Easy way to tell: without delving into fanon, there is no way to answer the question "What does Zecora want?"

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  4. I think you made one error here, and one that you warned yourself against in earlier reviews and your purpose statement: ignoring how an episode like this has to be written to make its point to the target audience.

    A six year old girl, even an African-American girl, would have less than zero comprehension of or even the ability to comprehend the differences between African cultures.

    I am reading your posts in order, and generally share your politico-philosophical viewpoints, but IMO you're over-reading this given the show's target audience. At the age of the target audience everything outside their family and immediate small circle of friends is "other."

    I am afraid I must respectfully agree to disagree with you about this episode, which in my opinion is average, but no better save for a couple of nice Apple Bloom and Fluttershy moments.

    Cheers!

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    1. Respectful disagreement is always welcome, and thank you for your thoughts!

      However, I would point out that a six-year-old is just as unlikely to recognize the difference between classical Greco-Roman architecture and fantasy-medieval fairy castles, and yet, as I pointed out in the article, the pegasi get the former and the unicorns the latter.

      Ultimately, most of the issues with Zecora are a problem of tokenism. They've chosen to have one character represent all of Africa, and it is simply not possible for a single character to do that without either leaving things out or blurring together distinct cultures.

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    2. That I can very much agree with.

      The fantasy-medieval trope is at this point so much an integral part of the animation world, mainly thanks to Disney, that I don't think there is anyone in the Western world over 4 or 5 that doesn't immediately identify it.

      The Greco-Roman trope is probably identifiable by any kid of 8 or 9. As it's based on reality, it requires a little more information about the world.

      I recognized those things by those ages, but even as a teenager I wouldn't have been able to tell you the differences between southern and western African cultural artifacts, mainly because I - and most Western kids then and now - haven't been taught the differences.

      The deeper I get into this blog the more impressed I am. Your BA in cultural anthopology, by any chance?

      I think the degree to which Ponyvillians have completely accepted Zecora was driven home pretty well in "Luna Eclipsed" where she was the character primarily responsible for the foals during Nightmare Night. I read somewhere that she was originally intended (by Lauren?) as a secondary mentor for Twilight in the way that Yoda was for Luke Skywalker, but for whatever reasons that never panned out. That intention did get a huge shout-out in "Magic Duel"
      though.

      BTW, I think it was Megan McCarthy who said (possibly in jest, but likely not) at a panel that "the right wing story ideas go to Polsky." Interesting. There's video of this panel out there in the vast Pony YouTube world, but I can't recall where. It may have been the writer's panel at the Las Vegas Unicon.

      Brony on!

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    3. Well, no, you likely weren't taught the difference--but you learned that difference from things like Disney, from the media you consumed, as much or more than in school. African cultures are no further distant from us than medieval Europe or ancient Greece, so there's no inherent reason to depict one but not the other, yet it's because shows like MLP do play favorites that kids only learn about the one.

      I think absolutely the citizens of Ponyville have accepted Zecora, which is great. I just wish Zecora weren't such an awful pile of stereotype. I have mixed feelings about the original plan for her; on the one hand, more Zecora might enable the addition of nuance. On the other, oh hi there, "Magical Negro" stereotype, welcome to the pile. Really what the show needs is more zebras--an episode where the Mane Six are the bizarre outsiders in Zecora's home town could be awesome, except that frankly I don't trust the writers to pull it off, given their track record with Zecora, the buffalo, and so on.

      It's an interesting claim re: Polsky. However, as I understand it, if a single writer both suggests the story and writes the script, they get a "Written by" credit. If one writer suggests the story and another writes the script, they get a "Story by" and "Teleplay by" credit respectively. Assuming we're talking about social conservatism (that is, bigotry) since nothing in the show is remotely economically conservative, and looking at the stories where Polsky has either a writer or story credit, the only one that strikes me as particularly conservative is "Over a Barrel." Most of the other "conservative" stories are by Rogers, with a couple from Morrow.

      Thanks for the compliment! My B.A. is actually in English, but at one point I was toying with an anthropology minor. I ended up just doing three anthropology classes, though, and two of those were intro level. I've since considered, and done reading preparatory for, grad school in either cultural anthropology or media studies, but in the end I like my current paychecks too much to go through with it.

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  5. This episode also reeks of affirmative action which is, by its very nature, racist.

    However, then there is the question of whether or not artificial inclusion is racist in itself. That the creation of a tale, by members of a particular ethnic group and in a region primarily populated by that ethnic group, can be considered racist because it does not take into account the cultures (or even existence) of other ethnic groups that are not even typically in the geographic region in which the tale is set? I am not questioning the effects of such things, merely the mentality of blanket assumptions and inferences (and not implying that you have done this).

    Lines, so many lines arbitrarily drawn in the sand, and their far-reaching effects...

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    1. That's simply untrue about affirmative action. Racism is a systemic social phenomenon which disproportionately affects some members of a society more than others. The playing field is tilted; the only way to restore it to a level field is to either push down on the parts sticking up (which seems both unnecessary and cruel) or push up on the parts forced down.

      Let me state this very clearly: Acknowledging the existence of race as a cultural phenomenon is not racist. Even treating members of different races differently is not inherently racist. Contributing to the material social conditions by which individuals of some ethnicities are privileged over members of other ethnicities is. So-called "colorblindness" is thus racist, because it is a conscious choice to ignore those material social conditions, perpetuating the status quo. Affirmative action, if done right, is not, because it mitigates, rather than increasing, that differential of privilege.

      Part of how any culture perpetuates its social construction is through the telling of tales. One tale which supports racism is the tale which contrasts Our Tribe with the undifferentiated mass of Other; to perpetuate that tale is thus a racist act.

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  6. On top of all that, as a trans woman I find the "humor" of Fluttershy having a male voice to be deeply painful.

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    1. I hadn't even thought of that, but yeah, I can definitely see how it could be. My sympathies.

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