Playing against (stereo)type: Applejack the straight-mare

Applejack is frequently regarded as boring or inconsequential.  If you’ve been in this fandom for any amount of time, you’re probably familiar with the “background pony” joke.

If you weren't, well...this is the joke.  (Click for source).

If you weren’t, well…this is the joke. (Click for source).

This attitude is understandable, to a point — AJ isn’t quite as extreme as the other characters.  In a cast including Rarity’s drama, Rainbow Dash’s bravado, and Pinkie Pie’s…Pinkie Pie-ness, Applejack can seem boring by comparison.

And in some sense, she is — kind of.  But that’s vital to her role in the narrative: Applejack is the straight-mare.

No, not that kind of straight-mare — I make no claims about the way(s) AJ’s barn door might swing.

(AppleDash OTP)

For those not familiar with the term as it’s used in the context of storytelling, the “straight-man” (or -woman, or -mare, or whatever) is the comparatively normal, down-to-Earth character who serves as a contrast to the more zany, wacky nature of another character(s).  The straight-character is a vital role, because in comedy (well, in anything, really) context is everything.  Pinkie Pie’s rambling tangents are funny, but only if we have something to compare them to.  For her insanity to really be effective, it has to be clear that this isn’t the norm, even in her world.  Otherwise, it just becomes a bunch of noise, and it goes from “funny” to “annoying”.

Fortunately, the FiM team understands this, and we usually see Pinkie’s antics get paired with someone who can react to them.  The same is true of Rarity’s drama, Twilight’s freakouts, and Dash’s boasting.  And while just about every one of the Mane Cast plays the straight-character at some point, it’s most commonly AJ.

For a great example of this, let’s take a look at a quick scene from “Wonderbolt Academy”:

Pinkie’s rant is amusing, but it’s AJ’s deadpan reaction that really sells the joke here.  Without that, it would just be a string of absurdity with no real punchline or payoff.

As another example among many, consider this scene from “Spike at Your Service”:

Aj’s humor here is subtle and understated — but that’s exactly what makes it so effective.  That right there is a straight-character at her best.

But naturally, writing episodes that revolve around such a character is difficult, because they tend to resolve conflict, rather than cause it.  So to make such an episode work, they either have to show a more extreme side than usual (“Applebuck Season” or “Apple Family Reunion”), or the conflict has to be caused by someone else, while they have to deal with the fallout (“Spike at your Service” or “The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000”).

Provide contrast, learn nothing.

Act as comedic foil, learn nothing.

All that said, straight-characters do frequently have quirks and interesting characteristics of their own — otherwise, they’d be kind of lacking as characters.  So then, what are AJ’s quirks and interesting characteristics?

Well, for one, she’s kind of snarky.

Seriously, here’s just a few scenes I grabbed:

Damn — AJ is kind of a wiseass.

So why don’t we generally notice that?  Why isn’t AJ known as “the sarcastic one” of the Mane Six?  A lot of it, I suspect, comes from her status as a Southerner, and the stereotypes that accompany it.

Now true, there is no U.S. South in Equestria, but Applejack’s accent and attire clearly mark her as a Southerner.  More specifically, her green eyes, blonde hair, and freckles mark her as a white Southerner, and her profession and mannerisms mark her as a working-class white Southerner.

And while there are a ton of stereotypes associated with white working-class Southerners, a dry, understated wit is certainly not among them.  People generally expect Southerners to be big, flashy, extreme, and often just outright stupid.

And this stereotype is pretty overt; in American media, an exaggerated Southern accent is often narrative shorthand for stupidity, especially in a cartoon.  In fact, of all the cultural groups in the U.S., working-class white Southerners are perhaps the most unfairly-derided when it comes to intelligence.  Probably the only people who beat them for that dubious title are (ironically) working-class black people.

In this sense, FiM‘s use of the Southerner as a straight-character is actually kind of subversive.  It’s one solution to the problem of absence I discussed previously.  But it can also prevent us from seeing AJ’s less obvious qualities, particularly when it comes to her humor.

Just as an example, let’s consider Digibrony’s review of “Twilight’s Kingdom”.

Now, Digi took a lot of flack from a lot of people for this review, and I think most of the criticisms he makes are unjustified.  But let’s ignore that for now — I want to focus on one small part of the review.

I feel like every time I find something to like about this episode, it’s quickly followed by something to hate.  Rarity takes this really clever jab at Rainbow Dash early in the episode for groaning at Spike’s boasts, but then Applejack has lines like ‘as in “Discord,” Discord?’…and I return my face to my palm.

Do me a favor; read that dialogue with a minor change:

Celestia: I’m afraid I must call in another to stop Tirek: Discord.

[Gasps]

Rarity: As in “Discord,” Discord?

In this case, the exchange reads differently; Hypothetical!Rarity is clearly asking an intentionally-obvious question to express her complete incredulity.  In fact, the line is actually kind of clever.  We in the audience would expect something along the lines of “as in, ‘the avatar of chaos’ Discord?” or “as in, ‘the evil draconequus who nearly destroyed Equestria’ Discord?”.  But FiM surprises us by making the line even more overt than we expect.  Yes, the question is beyond obvious — but that’s the joke.  Celestia’s decision is so unbelievable that merely making the question obvious wouldn’t be sufficient.  But when the line is read in AJ’s Southern twang, that aspect is harder to notice.

And that kind of sums up AJ: compared to the other characters, her character traits and narrative roles are harder to notice.  But even if you don’t notice some aspect of a story, it can still help you enjoy it (just ask any lighting designer).  As the straight-mare, it’s harder to notice her contribution the comedy, but she’s still vital to it.  As a Southerner, it’s harder to notice her snarkiness, but it’s still amusing.

In general, if a character or element in an otherwise-good work seems boring or useless…well, they might be.  But take a closer look at what they’re doing before you decide.  Their role might be vital — just harder to notice.

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5 Responses to Playing against (stereo)type: Applejack the straight-mare

  1. handyj443 says:

    Another really perceptive article. I initially found her stereotyped accent and mannerisms crass and annoying, but Applejack is definitely a character that takes time to grow on people, and as you say, she fills an crucial role in comic storytelling.

  2. spacekoifiles says:

    As a southerner with half my extended family living in the south, there is a lot more snark than you’d realize 😉 Great article–i really couldn’t agree more.

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