What is it like to be a dragon?

It is probably not news to anyone by now that the new My Little Pony cartoons are quite good. Unfortunately it is probably also not news to anyone who has spent more than a minute thinking about it that they have problems, particularly with regard to how they deal with race. Because despite this being a series in which the main character is purple and her friends come in all the shades of the rainbow, ethnicity does exist in Equestria. We see it in an episode where the sole zebra character (not a pony, note) is signalled as being African. We see it again in the episode Over a Barrel, in which the ponies come into conflict with the buffaloes who are obvious Native American/First Nations analogues (in this as well as other episodes of the series the history the ponies are given is of the settler/pioneer variety). I find the show’s apparent comfort with that tradition a little bizarre – presumably at some point someone gave a thought to how the race thing worked within the show’s universe? Besides the obvious offensiveness it seems incredibly naive.

Children’s books/tv with talking animals tend to anthropomorphise unevenly. Pets and food in particular often don’t get a voice – everyone knows pets don’t speak, and food that did so would be creepy.  Goofy can talk, Pluto cannot; Noddy and Miffy are friends with bears, monkeys, and pigs but Bumpy Dog and Snuffy only bark. In the MLP universe, the cows, buffalo, donkeys, griffins and dragons all talk; the animals the ponies keep as pets (an owl, a cat, a tortoise who humiliates himself considerably for Rainbow Dash’s company, a rabbit, etc) do not.

Speech is important here because in a fantasy world with multiple sentient species in it I suspect the ability of a species to communicate becomes at least in part the arbiter of what personhood entails. So the buffalo are people in a way that Owloysius the owl (despite being excellent and an owl) isn’t.

My Little Pony does quite a bit of playing around with language, as is evident from the episode titles, the flood of horse-puns and cities like “Fillydelphia” and “Canterlot”. One of the things the show does is to insert the word “pony” into a number of words and phrases, such as “everypony”. “Pony” is thus used to replace “body” or “person”. I’d been bothered by this for some time, but in the most recent episode (“A Friend in Deed”) I particularly noticed that non-Pony characters, a pair of donkeys, were using “everypony” as well.

And so Spike the dragon, Cranky Doodle Donkey and other characters live in a world and communicate in a language in which personhood is literally defined as something that they are not. The idea that a person and a pony are the same seems to be at the heart of the language. And going by the racial stereotyping I mention above, if the Native Americans are buffalo-not-ponies and the African immigrants are zebras-not-ponies, it seems heavily implied that personhood in Equestria is limited to what in this world would be the white settlers.

7 Responses to “What is it like to be a dragon?”

  1. Oh gosh! That’s exactly it. It had started to bother me since the first Zebra episode when the show started to show a (racist, exclusionary) internal logic, and that’s precisely where it ends up.

    • And since they clearly hadn’t thought these earlier decisions through this is just going to go on. The Zebra has a cutie mark, though a very abstract one – the donkeys and buffalo do not. What does that mean? Pinkie Pie tries to make peace between the buffalo and the ponies because “we’re all hooved!” What does that mean if the ponies come into conflict with, say, dragons? Was Equestria empty of all animals when the ponies colonised it? (I will stop now because I’m sounding ridiculous!)

  2. Yep. Exactly.
    (Can I whine about how replies to comments here on wordpress don’t get emailed to you, and how having conversations on DW is so much easier?)

  3. Very interesting point, however have you analyzed beyond the initial discovery of minority roles? For example, the Buffalo and Ponies made peace, real peace. The Zebra becomes their friend and saves their butts on several occassions. I think they’d taken what’s real and evident with race issues in our world and put them in context, recognizing it in a way children can see, and then turning it on its head to give it a World Peace (we CAN do it!) ending.

    Our children aren’t stupid and they’ll see these things in the world, This representation of the results of hard work are positive. And while it doesn’t replace education, it gives them a little opening without disillusioning them.

    • If you’ll read the post you’ll see that I didn’t actually analyse the initial discovery of minority roles – merely linked to people who had. And if you’ll read those links, there’s plenty to criticise in the depiction of the resolution between the buffalo and ponies (we were too stubborn to give up our traditions before, but your apple pie is delicious, so okay?).

      I don’t like glib, world-peace-y endings but I can tolerate them to some extent in a show for very young children. But in this case it’s not the glibness I’m objecting to – it’s that the show is perpetuating the logic of racism further in its yay, inclusivity! stories.

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