Disability in Animation: My Little Pony

Series: Disability in Children’s Animation Spoiler Warnings: In this post, I’ll be looking at the fourth season of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, specifically at the following episodes:

  • S.4 Ep 5: Flight to the Finish
  • S.4 Ep 18: Trade Ya
  • S.4 Ep 22: Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3

Trigger Warnings: None I can think of

I am a big fan of MLP: FiM. I haven’t watched much of the old series–I believe it missed me by a few years–but I have become a huge fan of Friendship is Magic. In general, I’m really happy with the kind of messages they send, and I find the character growth very impressive. Also, a lot of the music is very catchy. Sometimes annoyingly catchy.

Watching My Little Pony, I see a show that I wish had been around when I was little, and that I am glad is around for kids like me now. And that’s pretty much my metric for a good kids’ show, to be honest.

For those of you that aren’t aware of the latest iteration of My Little Pony, here’s a quick explanation: My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is a show aimed at elementary school aged girls (although its audience is much wider than that). Most of its episodes are one-offs that teach valuable life lessons through the every day mistakes and trials of the characters (who happen to be ponies). Occasionally there will be a plot arc, like the recent Olympics (or “Equestria Games”) arc, and at the beginning and end of every season, they teach valuable life lessons by fighting actual villains and their nefarious plots to destroy the lives of ponies everywhere. There are six main ponies, the “Mane Six”, who are as follows:

  1. Twilight Sparkle: Originally a unicorn. Her special element is magic. Twilight loves learning, and lives in a library.
  2. Rarity: Also a unicorn. In the MLP universe, this means that, like Twilight, she has magic. Her special element is generosity, and she is a fashion designer and seamstress.
  3. Rainbow Dash: A pegasus pony.  Her special element is loyalty. She loves to fly, and is very good at it. Her dream is to join the Wonderbolts, a crew of extremely skilled fliers.
  4. Fluttershy: Also a pegasus. She is very shy, but very kind. Her special element is kindness, and she cares for the animals of the forest.
  5. Pinkie Pie: An earth pony, a rather fancy way of saying that she isn’t a pegasus or unicorn. Her special element is laughter, and she is the town…party planner, basically.
  6. Apple Jack: Another earth pony. Her special element is loyalty, and she works on an apple farm.

There’s also Spike, a baby dragon who lives with Twilight, and the Cutie Mark Crusaders, a group consisting of Rarity and Apple Jack’s younger sisters and their friend Scootaloo, who is a pegasus. Alright. Explanation over. So, in trying to decide what to focus on for this series, there were several options. Fluttershy’s shyness certainly approaches an anxiety disorder at times, as does, arguably, Twilight Sparkles (at least, as someone with an anxiety disorder, I found it easy to identify with both of them). However, I’ll be saving them both for their own post. This time, there are three ponies I want to talk about: Scootaloo, a one-off pony named Stellar Eclipse, and Rainbow Dash. Scootaloo in “Flight to the Finish”  
Let’s start with Scootaloo.

640px-Scootaloo_-live_together_as_friends-_S4E05

Image Description: Scootaloo, a small pony with very small wings. She is orange with a purple mane and tale. Her mane is cut short.

Scootaloo is a school aged pegasus pony who is friends with Sweetie Bell and Apple Bloom, the younger siblings of Rarity and Apple Jack. She rides a scooter, and she is, quite frankly, amazing. Also, Rainbow Dash is her hero. Scootaloo’s wings are underdeveloped, and so she can’t fly–but with her scooter, she doesn’t really need to. She also is able to use her wings to get an extra burst of speed while on her scooter. Her wings may not be able to fly, but she knows how to use them.

The specifics of just what Scootaloo can do seem to change, although whether this is inconsistency or just her gaining skill and strength isn’t clear. It’s also not clear if her underdeveloped wings will develop more as she gets older. In any case, a pegasus her age that can’t properly fly is clearly unusual, and it seems to function as an actual disability. (The merits of showing fictional disabilities like missing wings are something which I’m planning to discuss in a later post, specifically my Wreck it Ralph review, so for now, let’s just say this: Scootaloo has a visible physical disability. While it does not prevent her entirely from using her wings, it does limit their usage.) Unfortunately (but not surprisingly) all of Scootaloo’s skills don’t stop her from feeling insecure about her disability. These insecurities come to a head in “Flight to the Finish”, where the Cutie Mark Crusaders are trying to come up with a routine in the hopes of introducing Ponyville at the Equestria Games.

So, “Flight to the Finish” starts off and all the little school ponies are told that they have the chance to represent Ponyville by carrying the flag at the Equestria games. Not only that, but Rainbow Dash will be their coach. Scootaloo, being Scootaloo, is immediately gung ho for flag carrying, and the rest of the Crusaders agree. In order to come up with a routine, they need to figure out what makes Ponyville special. So what is that?

DIVERSITY. (hooray!)

Then they sing a song called “Hearts as Strong as Horses” which will get stuck in your head forever. And of course the two mean-girl pony children, Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon, turn up to make fun of the Crusaders and their lack of cutie marks and tell them that they’ll never win, because they don’t have cutie marks, and bla, bla, bla. (For the uninitiated, Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon’s  cutie marks are…a tiara and a silver spoon, respectively. Personally I think they should stop bragging.)

But then we see the routine the Crusaders throw together, and, well…

If you can’t view the video, I’ll sum it up in one word: AMAZING.

The mean girls realize that calling the Crusaders blank flanks is no longer working, and decide to switch tactics. This time, they tell Scootaloo how “brave” she is for representing pegasi when she can’t fly. And Scootaloo listens. She starts trying to learn how to fly by the next day. In fact, her specific words are “Maybe I can learn how to fly if I work twice as hard!” And boy, do those words sound familiar. I’ve heard it from others, and I’ve heard it from myself. I’ve heard it from other people, including doctors (yay neurologists!) about me. “Maybe I can stop being in pain if I just try!” “Maybe I can stop being depressed if I just try!”

It doesn’t work. Don’t get me wrong, a positive attitude can do a lot, and there is definitely a link between mental and physical health and between self-talk and mental health and, yes, all of that stuff is connected. But if you have no legs, trying won’t give you legs. If you have chronic pain, trying won’t make it go away. If you have depression, trying won’t make that disappear either. And if you’re wings cannot physically support your body mass, it doesn’t matter how hard you try. Your wings  will not lift you up.

What trying does is three-fold: First, it helps you minimize your symptoms and maximize what your body can do, like how I have special diets to reduce my migraine and GERD symptoms. Scootaloo can sometimes use her wings for propulsion–hard work will help her develop her wing muscles.

Two, it helps you cope with your symptoms. I know what to watch for in terms of depression, and there are coping methods I have. Some physically disabled people use mobility-assistance devices. Scootaloo may not be able to fly on her scooter, but she can get around (and, briefly, into the air) very fast and very easily.

Third, trying includes attitude and acceptance. Accepting who you are, and understanding that your disability doesn’t reduce your worth as a person.  That last one is what Scootaloo spends this episode working on–and with some encouragement from her friends (and Rainbow Dash), she eventually realizes that, in Rainbow Dash’s words, “maybe you’ll fly someday, and maybe you won’t. You’re all kinds of awesome anyway.”

And, spoilers, they win the contest and get to represent Ponyville at the Equestria Games.

So, “Flight to Finish” gets a thumbs up from me on good disability representation. Scootaloo_through_trampoline_S4E5

Image description: Scootaloo on her scooter bursting through a hoop during the flag-carrying routine.
Next up: “Trade Ya” and Stellar Eclipse.
240px-Stellar_Eclipse_ID_S4E22

Image DescriptionStellar Eclipse, a brown pegasus with a purple and black mane and tail, and a very steampunk looking cart to help him get around.

Stellar Eclipse, named, I think, only in the credits, is a minor character who only appears in one episode. He has a market stand where he trades from his extensive collection of lamps. Discord lamps, in fact. Just Discord lamps. Literally nothing else. Now, much of the discussion I’ve seen of this character is about how he looks like an OC. Which makes sense because, apparently, he is: specifically, he is his voice actor’s OC.

His voice actor is Sylvain-Nicholas LeVasseur-Portelance, who has spinal muscular atrophy type III, according to the MLP wiki (the most reliable source I could find for this). There’s some controversy over whether or not his inclusion in the show was a result of the Make-a-Wish program, given the arguments I’ve seen, I tend to think it wasn’t.

Aside from the character design  (and Stellar Eclipse is not the first OC in the show, again, according to his mlp wiki page), there isn’t much notable about this character. To me, the most notable thing about Stellar Eclipse is how…not notable he is. Stellar Eclipse has a mobility assistance device. What would be a wheelchair if horses used wheelchairs, which they don’t . Because they are horses. Said device looks really cool, and blends pretty seamlessly into his character design–enough that I didn’t notice the first time. Stellar Eclipse plays his part in the episode, and no one mentions the device even once. There’s no “very special episode” moment, there’s nothing. It’s just a thing that he has that allows him to move around freely. And that is really cool.

So again, thumbs up from me on the disability representation front.
Finally: “Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3” with Rainbow Dash.
640px-Rainbow_with_ear_down_S4E21

Image description: Rainbow Dash, a blue pegasus with a rainbow mane and tail, stands behind a very large book looking very concerned.

The episode begins with Twilight trying to get Rainbow Dash to study for her Wonderbolts history exam. Twilight herself has some major test anxiety, and can’t understand why Rainbow Dash doesn’t feel the same way–again, we’ll talk more about that in a future post.

Now, any college student or half-way decent teacher can tell you that there are lots of different ways to study, and everyone needs to figure out which method works for them. And that’s a lot of what this episode is about: Rainbow Dash has trouble studying, and each of her friends suggest their own methods of studying hoping that these will help. They try everything from highlighting (Rainbow Dash starts by highlighting everything and then gives up and doodles) to a fashion show, Rarity’s method. But, what makes this an episode about disability, and not just about diversifying education (though there’s a lot of overlap in those issues), is, in my opinion, two things: First of all, the level of difficulty that Rainbow Dash has with most of these methods. They’re not just harder for her, she cannot learn using them. Second, it’s the fact that so many of her difficulties, particularly when she’s dealing with Twilight’s suggestions (that is, the typical things that are used in most school settings, particularly with older students), deal with concentration, and with a difficulty sitting still and focusing.

For instance, Twilight’s second suggestion is a history lecture. This does not work. Rainbow Dash is bored out of her mind. She wants a snack, she asks if it’s recess, she can’t even stay still on her stool without falling asleep. A.k.a, me in lecture, whenever my depression is acting up. And Twilight, of course, gets mad. This I have less experience with–I mostly just got ignored–but I know it’s something a lot of kids deal with in school, especially when they have disabilities that effect concentration.

Twilight tries to get Rainbow Dash to start taking this seriously, Rainbow Dash freaks out because, OMG, she’s going to fail, and naturally, a fight ensues. Which Fluttershy, being Fluttershy, stops.

Fluttershy tries a play performed by pets. The problem here is mostly that the play makes no sense and is incredibly unclear, rather than that Rainbow Dash can’t concentrate, and this is the beginning of the “experimental learning methods” section. I’ve seen some of these in my time. There’s a rap, which works for some people and does nothing for Rainbow Dash, who absorbed none of the lyrics, and a fashion show, which I guess works for Rarity but doesn’t mean much to Rainbow Dash and actually really freaks her out. Apple Jack’s only strategy is “learn on the job” which isn’t helpful when you have 12 hours, and all of this leaves everyone fighting and Rainbow Dash, well,

Discouraged.

She is sure she will never pass this test, and this leads to her line “It’s too bad I’m too dumb to learn anything”. And again we get into “sentences every person with x disability has said and heard a thousand times”! Just like with Scootaloo’s belief that if she just tries, her disability will go away, the idea that a different way of learning, difficulty concentrating, or a learning disability makes you “dumb” (in itself an ableist term) is pervasive.

In the end, of course, they realize that one time Rainbow Dash thoroughly absorbs information is when she’s multitasking, specifically when she’s flying. Flying requires her to keep track of everything around her. They use this to help her study “Rainbow Dash’s way” by presenting the information she’s trying to study down below her while she and Twilight fly. Without telling her. Yes, they sneakily teach her everything she needs to know without her noticing.

So, message time.

Whether the intention of this episode was to teach about different learning methods or whether it was to teach about learning disabilities doesn’t really matter. There’s so much overlap in education issues that it could be either, and it speaks to both. The most important part here, to me, is the message that Rainbow Dash isn’t any less intelligent because of these things. (In fact, she aces her test), and that whatever a person’s learning method, it is important to cater to them. And as someone with concentration problems that can make studying hard sometimes, I was able to identify with Rainbow Dash, which suggests to me that kids will be able to do the same. Thumbs up from me.

 

So that’s three thumbs up on three episodes. I definitely recommend My Little Pony, for this and many more reasons. I think they’re doing a really good job, and hopefully other shows will follow their examples. One of the coolest things to me is the variety here–and also, that this selection is just from one season. Hopefully this trend will continue in the show’s future.

All pictures found on the MLP wiki.

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