gossip's bridle

10

This is it.
-This is what?
The last episode Amy Keating Rogers wrote for MLP.

I’m going to be a little melodramatic here, but yes I’m going to miss her. This wonderful lady wrote some of my favorite episodes for this show and now she will leave us for Disney. Which is awesome, because obviously they’ve seen her talent and she deserves it! However I’m going to be a little sad for us, fans of technicolor-ed horses. It’s very likely she won’t get to see this post, but it doesn’t stop me from making a tribute for her ;)

Godspeed Amy!

Tackling Real Life Politics in MLP

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is a show that takes risks in the realm of children’s animation, but it’s also a show that likes to play it relatively safe when compared to most progressive media in general. And I think that this is especially congruent in the episodes where the writers have decided to tackle real life political issues… sort of.

You see, children’s entertainment companies like Disney, Warner Bros, Dreamworks, etc. have a “risk-taking mode” and a “play it safe mode” for money-making. Disney’s risk-taking mode is best observed in it’s animated movies like The Lion King or The Hutchback of Notre Dame, while it’s play-it-safe mode is best observed everywhere else in stuff like it’s animated tv shows or Hannah Montana (lol and look how that turned out).

Hasbro is a company that seems to be perpetually stuck on play-it-safe mode. I don’t blame the Hasbro execs solely for this. The whole reason Disney’s execs let movies like The Lion King show on-screen deaths and tackle relatively dark subjects for modern children’s entertainment like grief and redemption is because they have established an identity with the public as a company that can be trusted to handle those kinds of subjects in ways that will be good for their children. If Hasbro released a show or a film that was as sophisticated and dark as The Lion King, I’d wager a good chunk of the parents wouldn’t take it well because they don’t trust Hasbro in the same way that they trust Disney. Is it unfair? Absolutely. But Hasbro isn’t entirely the victim here. They could always just release challenging stuff regardless and let the parents scream their heads off, but Hasbro execs don’t have the balls to do it apparently.

What you have to understand is that even if MLP’s writing staff wanted to tackle real life issues in a meaningful way, they probably weren’t allowed to because Hasbro is eternally stuck on play-it-safe mode and the execs would scream their heads of if anything even the least bit controversial were to be included in the final release of their products. Which brings us to the politics in MLP.

For those of you who don’t remember: FiM has included some age old political conflicts in the show, most notably in season 1. Bridle Gossip featured the issue of racism, Feeling Pinkie Keen unintentionally featured the false debate between science and creationism, and Over a Barrel featured colonialism rolling over the homes and traditions of native cultures around the world. Now, the show has often taken a balanced approach at conflict resolution and for the most part has produced ethically sound morals. And these episodes are no exceptions. Bridle Gossip argues against racism and for accepting difference, Feeling Pinkie Keen provides a lesson about trusting your friend’s intuition in the face of your own doubt, and Over a Barrel gives a fantastic lesson about sensible compromise when two groups both need mutually exclusive things. But the problem I want to talk about is in how these real world political conflicts are used in delivering these morals.

Because the show isn’t allowed to get too sophisticated or challenging, lest the wrath of over-protective conservative parents be brought down on Hasbro, MLP:FiM treats the politics as little more than a framing device for the morals about friendship. And this can lead to some at best awkward and at worst offensive subtexts when tied back into the politics which the narrative was taken from.

Take Bridle Gossip; this episode features a zebra named Zecora whom the ponies of Ponyville are afraid of. Zecora is an African animal who wears African jewelry and lives in a low-tech house adorned with a lot of African decor. Zecora is heavily coded as African. And that’s awesome. I love that we have diversity in the characters of this show. Except look at how the conflict in this episode is presented. The ponies of Ponyville are ostracizing Zecora because she’s different and they have to learn to accept her. Obvious anti-racism message right there. But they don’t actively shun her. They run away from her in fright because she appears scary to them. So the ponies aren’t shunning Zecora because she’s different, they’re shunning her because she’s scary, which is a little more of a legitimate reason to shun someone. The moral of the episode is still valid, but the episode takes the complex issue of racism, which is rooted in a complex history of ideological conflict, bigotry, religious zealotry, and imperialism, and boils it down to “those white folk were just scared of them black folk”. And this absolves the white people of admitting they were at moral fault because it was all just a misunderstanding. The ponies were scared of Zecora because she came to town with her hood up, partook in strange rituals, spoke to them in riddles, talked to herself in a foreign language they couldn’t understand, and lived in a place which was hostile to them. I mean, when you break it down, it was a reasonable misunderstanding. The ponies of Ponyville don’t learn a lesson about accepting difference. They learn a lesson about not being afraid of difference, which rings a little hollow when we take it back into the real world. Racists in real life aren’t scared of other races and will come around once they know they aren’t a threat. No, they have contempt for other races and view them as inferior to themselves. If the show wanted to do a lesson about accepting difference, then they should have had the Ponyville ponies actively shun Zecora simply for being a zebra and then learn to accept her difference.

In Over a Barrel the episode takes the Western conflict of Cowboys vs. Indians and resolves it by giving a moral on compromise. Compromise is a good thing to strive for when two sides have equal merit to their goals and values. Except, do you see the problem in framing the moral of comprise in the context of Cowboys vs. Indians? I hate to break it to everyone, but the Native Americans have the moral high ground in this conflict, historically speaking. If you know your history, then you’ll know that when European settlers came to places like America they devastated the native people there; killing them, enslaving them, kicking them off their land, doing all kinds of horrible things to them. And talking about compromise here isn’t balanced. The episode, for fear of showing anything heavier than land being taken, displays the grief of the coded-Indian buffalo as “those colonists are interfering with our traditions”. The buffalo don’t actually need that land the settlers built on. They just like to run across it to keep up their traditions. But the grief of the native Americans goes far beyond having their traditions interrupted. The resolution of “find a compromise” works in the conflict presented in the show, but it’s an insult to the actual historical conflict it’s using to deliver that moral. It’s a little difficult to find a balanced comprise when one side has slaughtered and enslaved a good chunk of the other side.

Feeling Pinkie Keen accidentally drudged up the old conflict between creationism and science, and the writers admitted they didn’t mean to make a political statement with this episode, so I don’t hold a grudge against it. But it does speak to how careless the writing staff can be with their subtexts. When Twilight uses words like “science” and “facts” and Pinkie uses words like “believe” and “faith” it invokes the creationism vs. science false debate due to the parallels of language. Having faith in your friends in the face of your own doubt is a good moral, but since it’s linked to a real life conflict which is all about faith vs science it ends up accidentally making a political statement. It frames science as something that tears friendships apart and faith as something that brings people together. This is the example of politics being used sloppily that has ignited the most anger amongst the bronies, but it’s the one that I personally take the least amount of issue with.

This rant has been in my mind for a while, but I put it into an essay now because I suspected that the most recent episode “Bats” was going to fall into the same trap. “Bats” touches on animal rights vs. human rights, the debate that I’m in the middle of right now where I’m arguing that we can give up a few of our delicacies for the sake of animal welfare. Bats took that conflict and delivered a decent couple of morals, but treated the conflict as a mere framing device for completely unrelated messages about friendship. And this trend is overall my biggest gripe with the show. It uses real world politics as framing devices for episodes which deliver morals about friendship, and doesn’t stop to think about how it presents these politics might reflect back on the real world contexts. The morals it presents are always decent, but they are often inapplicable to the actual politics used to present them.

This show isn’t doing anything bad, not by a long shot. It just rings of a show that has to itself find a compromise between being challenging enough to be able to tackle politics, but not challenging enough so Hasbro doesn’t shit its pants. It’s disappointing because this show has actively challenged gender politics by having no romantic interests for the Mane 6, a tomboy as a main character, and having episodes with substantial subtexts that argue against traditional gender roles and stereotypes. I’m just a little disappointed that this same level of care wasn’t afforded to the race politics or imperialism or animal rights issues that the show chose to incorporate into its canon.