For the “Element of Harmony” backer tier on the My Little Po-Mo Volume 1 Kickstarter, one of the rewards was for the backer to select a pony, and I would write an essay for this site on why that character is the best pony. This is the third and, for now, final such essay.
As I discussed in the articles on Rarity and Applejack, the very concept of “best pony” requires that there be such a thing as “best,” and therefore begs the question “best for what?” For the first two articles, that was largely all we had to consider, because it was easy to define the purposes for which Rarity and Applejack are best, and no particular valuations jumped out in which they are actively bad or harmful.
But this article is on Zecora, and as I’ve made fairly clear in the past, I believe Zecora’s character to be deeply problematic, largely for issues of tokenism and othering. So it’s not enough simply to point out the set of values for which Zecora is best pony, as I’ve already rejected those values. First, we must find a redemptive reading, a way to read Zecora counter to the problematic reading; only then can we find the value set for which that reading of Zecora is best pony.
There is, happily, a way to do so, and it requires only a fairly simple exercise: under what circumstances would Zecora not be problematic? Put another way, is it possible to render Zecora less problematic by changing the show around her while leaving Zecora herself intact? And if so, what changes to the show would accomplish this?
The first charge against Zecora, that of tokenism, comes with a ready answer to these questions. The problem of tokenism is that if an entire people have only one character to represent them, then any trait that character has reads as an assertion that the trait is universal to the people. Any negative trait becomes an indictment of an entire people; anything about the character that resembles a stereotype held in the larger culture becomes reinforcement of that stereotype. For example, if the token woman in a show likes fashion and is highly status-conscious, she reinforces stereotypes about women.
Why, then, is Rarity not problematically reinforcing stereotypes about women? Because she shares a show with Rainbow Dash and Applejack, equally prominent characters who are women, but don’t share those particular stereotypical traits. Likewise, Applejack’s nurturing side isn’t a stereotype of the “even tough, take-charge women need to take care of babies” ilk, because Rainbow Dash isn’t a nurturer.
So the solution to Zecora’s tokenism problem is clear: more zebras. Zecora’s position as the wise mentor-figure recalls the “magical savage” stereotype of non-European people and the “magical Negro” in particular; add another zebra who isn’t like that and it becomes a personal trait of Zecora, not something shared by all zebras on the show. Zecora speaking in rhyme recalls minstrel shows and the stereotype of “black person equals rapper,” so add a zebra who doesn’t do it, and it becomes a personal trait of Zecora.
The other major challenge with Zecora is the appropriation and misuse of cultural iconography around her. The show has been very careful to give each pony tribe iconography associated with a particular subset of European culture–Old West for the Earth ponies, Classical for the pegasi, fairy-tale medieval for the unicorns. Zecora, however, gets a mishmash of African culture, evidence that less care is being taken. The writers clearly know less about African culture than their own, and are uninterested in trying to learn enough more to make Zecora’s hut from as distinct a time and place as, say, the architecture of Cloudsdale (which isn’t even all that distinct–it’s a region hundreds of miles across and a period a thousand years long, compared to the thousands of miles and years lumped into Zecora’s genericized Africa).
The solution is, again, to show more. Spend an episode in zebra country, either through the ponies visiting it or, even better, Zecora telling her story. Show that zebra (and African) culture is as varied, sophisticated, and deep as pony (European) culture. Maybe Zecora wandered zebra country before she came to Ponyville, and the contents of her hut come from different zebra communities. This would still be imperfect, as any depiction of human cultures as different species is inherently problematically othering, but it would be a vast improvement.
The problem, in other words, isn’t that Zecora exists. It’s that there’s only one of her. The show needs more zebra. Thus, one sense in which Zecora is best pony is that she is the pony there needs to be more of, not in a personal sense of her character needing more screentime, but in the sense that there need to be more ponies who are like her, yet distinct.
Which leads to the second sense in which Zecora is best pony: representation. It’s easy for someone who is frequently represented in media (say, a white, heterosexual, middle-class cismale such as myself) to forget how powerful seeing that representation actually is for someone who doesn’t get it nearly as often. Junot Diaz expresses it well:
You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all.
Zecora is the only pony representing a non-European culture, and that makes her best pony if seeing more representation of non-European cultures is more important than seeing better representation of non-European cultures–which is a perfectly reasonable position to take, as either can do real good in the world. The problem of Zecora is once more not that Zecora shouldn’t exist; it’s that we need more and better Zecoras.
In that hypothetical show, where there are multiple tribes of zebras with distinct cultures, and multiple zebra characters with distinct personalities independent of cultural differences, and the buffalo have a distinct culture and individual personalities instead of being appalling stereotypes, and maybe a few other real-world ethnicities get depicted–in that show, is Zecora best pony?
Certainly she has her virtues. She is a born mentor, as witness her interactions with Apple Bloom, who is usually not the best student. She also, after Twilight’s defeat at the hands of Trixie in “Magic Duel,” patiently helps Twilight come to the realization that magic alone will not enable her to win, that she cannot overpower Trixie but can outwit her. She is tremendously patient and forgiving in “Bridle Gossip,” helping cure the ponies of their poison joke-inflicted ailments even after the repeatedly insult her and wreck her home, but at the same time not a pushover–she only does it after they realize the misunderstanding and apologize. She’s excellent with children as well; witness again her interactions with Apple Bloom in “Bridle Gossip” and “The Cutie Pox,” along with her quite entertaining storytelling session in “Luna Eclipsed,” which also demonstrates that she’s quite a good storyteller and entertainer. She has, in other words, all the qualities of a truly excellent primary school teacher, arguably more so than Cheerilee–at least, she has had more opportunity to demonstrate her abilities than Cheerilee has.
So we have two distinct senses in which Zecora can be taken as best pony. Within the context of the show as it is, she is deeply problematic, but at the same time the pony most defined by the show needing more of her, which certainly seems a reasonable enough definition of “best pony.” Outside that context, she is an excellent teacher and mentor, a great fit for a show about growing and learning and an aspirational fandom. Finally, she represents much-needed representation for viewers who aren’t necessarily of European descent, particularly black viewers. She is an important character with potential, who deserves a better depiction and better context than she has.