In defense of Zecora: stereotypes as a problem of absence, not presence

AnYPony has posted a self-described ramble about our favorite thinly-veiled cultural allegory: Zecora.

You all knew this post was coming eventually.

You all knew this post was coming eventually.

AnY is thoroughly ambivalent on Zecora, describing her as a “mixed bag”.  And for all her good points (which he mentions), he’s clear that her character has some serious problems, stating that she “enforces stereotypes” and describing her depiction as “in its core, racist.”

She has a very strong accent, she has masks lying around, she has this whole mystical and spiritual aura thing going on for her, which is usually associated with more quote-unquote “primitive” cultures.  And then there is her outfit with the big golden rings and stuff, which also looks more like tribal wear, which is less “modern”, less “civilized”, and this is really like “ah, whyyyyyy?”.

This is something that I really don’t think is necessary in this degree.  By using these stereotypical elements to create this character who is obviously a reference to people with African roots or immigrants from Africa…they are kind of enforcing the stereotype itself.

In conclusion, even though her representation is, in its core, racist — because yeah, you pretty much picked all the stereotypes you could pick to illustrate her as a “typical African” character, by [which] you turn her into a stereotype.  But it is not done with ill will.  On the contrary, she is always presented in a good light.  I have to say, it is definitely not optimal that they simplified the issue by giving her so blandly another cultural heritage which is extremely inspired by this rather outdated image of African people.  But even though it is not optimal, I don’t really see it [as] too critical.

So AnY certainly isn’t harsh in his criticism of Zecora, but he does insist that her depiction is problematic.

And I’d say he’s thoroughly mistaken.

Are many of Zecora’s character elements stereotypically West African?  Yes.  But that doesn’t make them bad, or mean she shouldn’t be written that way.

That sounds heretical, but ask yourself this; is Rarity a bad character?  Not “does Rarity annoy you?”, but “is Rarity a bad character?”.  Your answer is probably “no”.  Mine certainly is.

So now ask yourself; “is Rarity stereotypically feminine?”  And the answer there is definitely “yes”.

And if we say that her character is objectionable as a result, then we’ve basically exchanged one bad idea (“women must be this way”) for another (“women must not be this way”).  Rookiewompus makes a similar point in her analysis of “A Dog and Pony Show” (see 8:28 for the relevant portion):

Minorities have to work to be accepted as they are, whether or not they seem to conform to stereotypes, negative or positive.  Why should you try to be anything other than what you want to be?  And that’s what I think Rarity is doing in this episode.

This point has been made before.  A lot.  Indeed, Rarity has been defended from charges of sexism so many times that it’s almost boring at this point.

SlowpokeRarity

I should clarify that I don’t intend to criticize Wompus here — her analysis was remarkably well-done. But the joke was too good to pass up.

So most of us seem to understand that matching a stereotype is not, in itself, bad.  I mean, blue eyes are stereotypically German, but I’m not about to tell AnY that he should bust out the tinted contacts — and if I did, I’d kind of be an asshole.

So are concerns about stereotypes or representation just bullshit, then?  No, not at all.  But here’s the key; when AnY charges Zecora with “enforcing stereotypes”, he makes a mistake that’s distressingly common in discussions about representation.  And it’s the same mistake made by the Rarity detractors; he is treating stereotypes as a problem of presence, when in fact they’re a problem of absence.

To demonstrate what I mean, let’s use a classic example of a stereotypical character in geek culture; Final Fantasy VII’s Barret Wallace.

Barret

“I pity da fool who call me a Mr. T expy!”

In conversations about representation in geek culture, Barret is often used as a textbook “what not to do” example of depicting black people, specifically black men.  He’s big, loud, brash, intimidating, easily-angered, and while he’s not exactly stupid, he’s also not particularly intelligent.

(Yes I’m aware I’m oversimplifying his character, yes I’m aware he has some actual depth, yes I’m aware he gets even more depth in the tie-in novels, but work with me here, I’m trying to make a larger point.)

So clearly, since Barret is a stereotype, it would be better if he weren’t present, right?

Well…maybe.  I mean, it would be one less depiction of the big, loud, scary, black man in media.  But we’d also lose a character who adds quite a bit to the story.  But more importantly, he seems like a drop in the bucket — we’re kind of spoiled for choice when it comes to depictions like him.

But let’s stretch our imaginations a lot and imagine that we manged to get rid of almost every depiction of a loud, angry, black man.

ClearMySchedule

Yeah, clear my schedule — this is gonna take awhile.

Would that really help debunk the stereotype?  Maybe, but probably not.  Human beings are really good at pattern-recognition.  In fact, we’re so good at it that we frequently do it without meaning to.  And if you only see ten black men every year, but all of them are big, loud, angry and violent, you will associate violence with black men (and yes, this is true even if you yourself are both black and male).

Now, consider an alternative — let’s say that instead of removing Barret, we add a character — let’s call him Traber.

Traber, like Barret, is both black and male — but that’s about all they have in common.  Traber is a scientist by profession, and a specialist in the properties of magic and materia.  He was formerly an assistant to Hojo, but his conscience got the better of him and he helped the party escape when they broke Aeris and Red XIII out of Shinra’s custody — placing himself on Shinra’s most-wanted list the process.

Stats-wise, he’s got high magic and magic defense, but pretty lousy physical damage — he works best as a backline caster.  In terms of physical appearance, he’s tall, but pretty much a beanpole (he hasn’t had much cause for strength-training).

Character-wise, Traber’s rather quiet, and chooses his words carefully.  He’s not at all used to life outside the city of Midgar, and sometimes regrets not just shutting up and following orders.  In fact, sometimes he’s kind of a coward — he struggles with an urge to just cut and run, leaving the rest of the party in a bad spot.  This sometimes leads to both tense and funny scenes with the rest of the party (including Barret).  But he keeps on with them out of a sense of moral obligation, a desire to fix the damage he caused and bring Hojo to justice, and because…well, what else is he going to do?

(Square-Enix, I’m available for freelance work.)

Now, which of these two options would do more to debunk stereotypes: removing Barret, or adding Traber?

It isn’t ultimately the presence of Barret, Rarity, or Zecora that reinforces stereotypes, it’s the absence of characters that are not like them.  We tend to focus on presence because it’s a lot easier to point to a character and say “this is what’s wrong” — but really, that isn’t accurate.  Saying that Zecora (or even the Tom & Jerry housekeeper) is the problem is focusing on the wrong place.  It’s as though we had a car whose brakes didn’t work, and our solution was to remove the wheels.  Strictly speaking yes, we have eliminated the most visible part of the problem (the crash), but this is clearly not a good solution.

Novelist Chimamanda Adichie makes a similar point in her TED Talk on the subject:

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

And if stereotypes are indeed “incomplete”, then to debunk them, we need to add characters and stories, not remove them.

When in comes to gender, FiM basically gets around this problem by default — if there are six major female characters, you basically can’t avoid debunking stereotypes.  Well, okay; you can avoid debunking stereotypes, but you have to make all your characters so similar (or so flat) that it’s impossible to write well — which explains the quality of most fiction directed at young girls.

But with Zecora, that isn’t really an option.  Adding five more zebras to the episode might seem like a solution, but it raises all kinds of problems.

First of all, to fill her role in the episode, she has to be an outsider.  And the phrase “a group of outsiders” is an oxymoron.  At that point, we’d be talking about how to handle interactions between two groups, and we’d just be re-hashing the moral of “Over a Barrel”.

Furthermore, members of a minority (whether cultural, racial, or whatever) often do find themselves as the only such people in the room (as any black Westerner can attest).  So it’s important to teach kids (and adults, for that matter) that people in that situation ought not be ostracized or ignored, but given the benefit of the doubt.

Finally, if our purpose is to display actual diversity of character, adding five more zebras wouldn’t accomplish that anyway.  Because if there are five new characters, there isn’t time in a 22-minute episode to give them any kind of character depth.  So the only thing we would know about them is that they act like Zecora (more like Zecora than the Mane Six, anyway).

As a side-note, there’s also a related question; “if they couldn’t add more zebras, couldn’t they at least not make Zecora so blatantly stereotypically African?”  And the answer is “yes, but then they couldn’t make her ‘African’ at all.”  Because there is no Africa (or Europe, for that matter) in Equestria, and there are no black people in Equestria because there are no people in Equestria (fanfiction notwithstanding).  So the only way Zecora can register as “African” in the minds of the audience is to use images, sounds, and speech that Western audiences will associate with sub-Saharan Africa — in other words, to resort to stereotypes.

We see a similar issue with Applejack — there is no “U.S. South” in Equestria, but Applejack is clearly a Southerner (or at least evokes the U.S. South) by virtue of her accent, mannerisms, attire, and so forth — which is another way of saying that she is Southern by stereotype.  And similarly, the only way for Zecora to be evoke sub-Saharan African is through her own accent, mannerisms, attire, etc.  I mean, if we really think about it, if she didn’t have the masks, the rings, the accent, and the shamanist overtones, then how would she be recognizably (to Westerners) “African”?  She really wouldn’t be.  And then “Bridle Gossip” would lose much of its emotional resonance and effectiveness.

But the larger point is this: the real problem with stereotypes in media representation is not the characters we have, it’s the chracters we don’t have.  We shouldn’t work for fewer Barrets, we should work for more Trabers.  We shouldn’t work for fewer Raritys, we should work for more Applejacks and Rainbow Dashes.  And if we’re telling a story — be it a novel, comic, or whatever — we shouldn’t say to ourselves “make sure none of my characters are stereotypes”.  Instead, we should ask “can one (or more) of my major characters be a minority who isn’t a stereotype?  And will that make the story better?” (usually, it will).

As a general rule, if we say “not you, but instead you” in a social justice context, we are probably Doing It Wrong(TM).  We should be saying “yes you, and also you.”

And yes, Zecora is still best miscellaneous equine.

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3 Responses to In defense of Zecora: stereotypes as a problem of absence, not presence

  1. Pingback: In Defense of Zecora: Stereotypes as a problem of absence, not presence | MLP Analysis

  2. Pingback: Playing against (stereo)type: Applejack the straight-mare | The Pony's Litterbox

  3. Pingback: How analysis can improve the fandom: a response to Tommy Oliver | The Pony's Litterbox

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