Elements of Harmony 3: Zecora Is Best Pony

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.

0 thoughts on “Elements of Harmony 3: Zecora Is Best Pony

  1. Well, when you said this one was the one that actually made you question if someone were trying to trip you up, I can see why. If anything my guess is that someone was deeply curious how much you'd have to contort yourself to pull it off, and wanted to give your brain some good exercise. Good job meeting the challenge!

    I agree that the most efficient and non-contrived way of getting across enough zebra characters would be to have Zecora recount her backstory (ideally sparked by the arrival of a permanent new character that's also a zebra), but I have to question if the writers of the show are capable of pulling that off without digging themselves deeper. I mean, they certainly had no shortage of Buffalo in the Buffalo episode and look where that got them. Hopefully this time they'd have the sense to seek out someone with experience portraying such issues gracefully and bring them in as a guest-cowriter. But probably that wouldn't happen, because they're probably only mildly aware at best that they've actually done anything wrong.

  2. Err, now that I've actually posted that I realize how it might be interpreted so I'd just like to append “given your previously stated views on the character” to that first sentence.

  3. You know, I agree that there is a certain dissonance in not seeing your group portrayed in media, and a visceral gut reaction if you are portrayed poorly. I'm an asexual individual, I have no real sexual desire. When's the last time you saw that as a character trait? I can only think of one, and it was offensive.

    On The Big Bang Theory (pretty good show), the character Penny (worst character by far), takes the group aside and asks what Sheldon's “deal” is, since she can't place him as hetero or homo . His friends respond that he doesn't have a deal as far as they can tell. Instantly I relate with Sheldon; I've had this conversation before with people that don't understand why I don't find such and such attractive. There is usually some disbelief, maybe a question or two for clarity, before acceptance and moving on. That's not what happens here.

    Penny (how I hate her), insists everyone has “a thing”, and starts listing off increasingly bizarre options, until she basically outright states that it's more normal to be sexually attracted to sock puppets than nothing at all. What a bitch. And instead of defending their friend, the guys get in on the act! They say their theory is tat Sheldon will reproduce by mitosis, like he's a freaking amoeba or something. In the end it's played as another “Sheldon is extremely weird and probably mental” joke and moved on.

    Sheldon has sated asexual throughout the series, and the only other moments on it have been jokes about him not desiring sex with his girlfriend, as if the natural male state of mind is “sex”. Well guess what show, we exist, we aren't weird, and I'd say “Screw you!” but I don't think you'd appreciate the irony.

    Being poorly represented hurts.

  4. Yes. Yes it does. I myself despise Big Bang Theory because I feel like all it does is poorly represent geek culture, presenting a pile of stereotypes rather than anything which actually resembles me or my friends.

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