Sunday, January 26, 2014

Book Version: Doors are barred and shutters shut/Guess I should have stayed inside my hut (Bridle Gossip)

A reminder: My friend Viga is still trying to raise money for college. You can get art for helping! Details here, donation site here.

Looking back on past posts to create the book versions, some stood out as needing more improvement than others. Here, therefore, is the revised version of one of those articles, as published in My Little Po-Mo Vol. 1. Citations are numbered as in the book; unfortunately, Blogger doesn't allow anchors or superscript so they have been implemented in a fairly primitive way.

It’s December 10, 2010, and Rihanna still wants to be the “Only Girl (In the World).” 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;(42) Somali piracy is still 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); and British students protest a massive tuition hike.

On TV, Amy Keating Rogers pens “Bridle Gossip,” which, in the online version of this essay, I called a “complete failure of an episode” and “a steaming pile of racist horse-s**t.” Neither of which is true, really. It’s an exceedingly mediocre episode, one of the show’s worst, but there are no truly bad episodes of Friendship Is Magic until well into Season 3. And while it is racist, its racism is a matter of lazily and uncritically repeating stereotypes, not active malice.

Nonetheless, on the internet, I correctly predicted how some people would respond: “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...”

Let me make something clear: This episode is not trying to incite hatred. I suspect it actually is well-intentioned, 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 undertones and implications in this episode comes from the same source as the sexist commentary in “The Ticket Master”—namely that Rogers either can’t write certain characters, doesn’t understand them, or simply isn’t interested in them, and therefore takes a “shortcut” by writing them in conjunction with the most obvious stereotypes.

I have tried exceedingly hard to like this episode, and its attached character. Zecora is one of my friend (and cover designer) Viga’s favorite characters, and she dressed as her for both Halloween and several conventions. 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. For example, while this has improved drastically in the past year, a Google Image Search on “humanized ponies” still returns mostly white ponies, and most group photos will have at most one “pony of color.”

The show itself has done nothing to cast doubt on that “default viewer” assumption. Quite the opposite: prior to this episode, we know that Rarity’s accent pegs her as a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) from the start, and Twilight Sparkle comes from a city modeled on Arthurian legend.

Later in the series we get confirmation that the rest of the Mane Six come from pony counterparts to European cultures as well: Pinkie Pie is apparently Amish (likely German); Applejack descended from settlers in the American West (Western, Northern, or Central Europe, primarily); and Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash come from a city that closely resembles 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” (essentially a different “base culture”) 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, including allergic reactions to a magical plant which the main characters misinterpret as Zecora cursing them, they finally learn that Zecora’s a good pony with a different “way of life,” as deserving as anyone else of respect and friendship, smiles, hugs, and a good lesson to the kiddies.

The problem, and to be fair it’s one any writer would struggle with, is the issue of tokenism. If Zecora shows no trace of African or black culture, then this continues to erase non-European cultures from the show. But if Zecora is the only character on the show to signify Africa or black people, then any trait she possesses is possessed by all characters who signify black people. If any of those traits are even remotely stereotypical or problematic, then the show is universalizing them across all black people. The only way out is to add more zebras who signify black people or Africa in other ways, but given the toy-driven nature of the show that’s unlikely to be a possibility.

But this is Rogers, and as with Rarity, when presented with a character she isn’t comfortable writing, she writes a stereotype instead. We thus get a Zecora 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. The end result is a hodgepodge of cultural indicators and “artifacts,” taken from completely different cultural and filial groups, spread out over a large geographical region with likely little interaction between them.

Keep in mind, 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 than the distinct cultures used to make each of the three Equestrian tribes.

Somewhere, an anthropologist is lamenting this disparity in five different local dialects.

The only explanation for this is simple, old-fashioned Eurocentrism: 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 (a 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 (not to mention misinformed) 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 and healing (but not in any sort of scientific way), 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 misjudged through paternalist and imperialist notions, as opposed to more actively hateful and violent racism.
Put another way, she falls victim to the polite, upper-class sort of racism that enslaves cultures and burns its way across continents in the name of “Manifest Destiny” or “bringing civilization,” as opposed to the rude, working-class kind that organizes lynch mobs.

Now, to be fair, it’s not entirely clear how much of this was Rogers’ doing. Zecora was intended from the start as a recurring character, so at least some elements of her characterization are doubtless the product of the entire Friendship Is Magic creative team and probably Hasbro’s toy designers as well. But that only strengthens my core contention, which is not that Rogers is a racist, but rather that this episode and Zecora’s character uncritically draw on stock character traits rooted in misguided stereotyping.

But if we’re going to be fair, we have to be fair in both directions: what little documentation I’ve been able to find suggests that Zecora speaking in rhyme was entirely Rogers’ idea. Because she wasn’t typecast badly enough already, she needs to speak like she has some sort of bizarre compulsion, or possible brain damage.

Again, I really don’t think Rogers hates black people or anything like that. The impression I get is that it simply didn’t occur to the makers of this episode that there could be implications here other than what is directly stated. For example, 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 a few episodes 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, as 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 actively hurtful 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 bully Spike is being, since no character calls him out on it, and he suffers no consequences. Rogers is failing utterly at basic empathy, 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 laden with stereotypes. For all that it tries (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 sort of rot in the heart of the show. This is supposed to be 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 or 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.

Which isn’t to say that Friendship Is Magic is a bad show. Other good shows have struggled with race and tokenism before, and it’s at least one notch better than erasure. Nonetheless, race remains a sore point for the show, a topic it never manages to address successfully, and that’s sad.


42. That is, the tendency of efforts to suppress information to instead result in increased publicity for that information, particularly where the Internet is concerned. See Andy Greenberg, “The Streisand Effect.” Forbes (May 11, 2007).


  1. While I was reading this, I was thinking of how Zecora's character could be salvaged. The most important thing would be to introduce another zebra character, of course. But pertaining to the mish-mash culture that Zecora has, I think that it could be fixed if it was explained that it's a mish-mash of different cultures; that Zecora has traveled a lot and over time accumulated many souvenirs from many different cultures she has met. The idea that Zecora has traveled a long way is certainly implied in the show, since her home is apparently distant enough that none of the ponies even knew exactly what she was.

    1. I actually proposed that very idea here:

      Although published a couple of months ago, it was actually written after this post.

  2. Are we ever getting an entry on Babs seed?

    1. I figure every time someone makes a comment implying entitlement to such an article, I'll push it back another week.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. So if we keep asking for one, then it will never come, and the "real" episode will forever exist as this nebulous thing we only talk about in vague terms, and the much better version by the Friendship is Witchcraft folks will just have to stand in officially as far as our record is concerned?

      Because if so I really want a Babs Seed article! ;p

  3. It was not my intention to come across as being entitle to the entry. I apologize for any annoyance that I may have caused.

    You have stated some very strong opinions on the episode, and I feel your writing goes up a notch when there is a fire in your belly (so to speak). I am eager to read excellent content, and am impatient. Which is really your fault for being consistently erudite and having a fairly high level of quality in your writings.

    I await your next entry with baited breath.

  4. I agree with the meat of this, but I think your reading of the Spike bit is off. All the little ponies treat their afflictions more as annoyances than crippling disabilities, and Spike is essentially Twilight's kid brother, so calling his childish teasing 'bullying' feels like putting it on a bit strongly. It seems like a deliberately uncharitable interpretation that only works by ignoring the relationships between the characters. I can understand that you don't feel like being charitable, given the rest of the article, but I don't think there's any need to invent problems when the legitimately problematic elements stand strongly on their own demerits.

    1. You have a point in that "bullying" is going a bit far, since bullying is a sustained campaign from a position of relative power, and this is an isolated act and it's debatable whether or not Spike's status as the only uncursed person in the room is enough to overcome his status as Twilight's assistant and put him in a position of power. The bigger issue is that he lies about helping find a cure, which as I pointed out is a really nasty thing to do for a laugh when at least three of the curses are potentially life-threatening and at least two others are clearly very upsetting (much more than minor annoyances) to the ponies afflicted by them (Fluttershy and Rarity).


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