by Anthony Johnston
Children in the U.S. learn about the world through numerous conduits. They learn to speak by listening to their parents, become introduced to social situations with their peers, and local congregations hope to instill values and morals. However, one major source of information that permeates this learning process is mainstream media. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that in 65% of homes with children, the television is on for at least half the day and in 36% of homes, the television is always on (Rideout, Vandewater, & Wartella, 2003). Children in these “heavy TV households” (homes with a television ever-present) tend to watch TV sooner, have poorer reading skills, spend less time outside, and often imitate aggressive behaviors witnessed on television (Rideout et al., 2003). Many prejudices and stereotypes are also learned from this format. Television producers, however, often ignore this fact and allow their productions to continue sending out negative messages. Rarely are people with disabilities present on television. If they are, they are often the butt of jokes like in slapstick comedy and are inaccurately portrayed.
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (MLP) seems like an ordinary cartoon. Reality is often defied as ponies speak, fly, and perform magic. In a world built upon imagination, anything can happen. There are overarching themes of teamwork, honesty, and friendship throughout each episode. The series was pioneered by Lauren Faust, a well-known animator, writer, and producer of popular cartoons such as The Powerpuff Girls and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends. The show airs on The Hub, a network primarily targeted for children, with new episodes every Saturday at 1 pm. Hasbro, the company that owns the rights to My Little Pony, has certain educational and informational standards that have to be implemented in each episode (Tekaramity, 2011). Faust was also restricted by what Hasbro deemed inappropriate. Insults like “egghead” and characters that cheated were not allowed (Tekaramity, 2011). With such strong creative restrictions, it would seem that MLP should be a generally wholesome show for young girls to enjoy.
Presently, there is a new cult following of the show by adult and adolescent males. Faust says “I’ve received a lot of notes from men in the military who are fans of the show” (Tekaramity, 2011). Members of this seemingly untargeted audience began calling themselves “bronies.” The creative team often subtly catered to them in the second season for fan service. Faust dreams of shattering the crippling gender stereotypes that plague children. “People still insult boys by comparing them to girls…and praise girls by comparing them to boys” (Tekaramity, 2011). Yet, with all these positive messages, there is still an overlooked negative tone to the show exemplified by one particular character – Derpy.
In the pilot of MLP, Twilight Sparkle, the main character of the episode, wanders into a surprise party to welcome her to Ponyville. In the background, there are many ponies scattered throughout. On the top, near the edge of the screen, one of the background characters was accidentally drawn with crossed eyes (Faust, 2011). The production team embraced this character and unofficially gave her the name “Ditzy Doo” (“Derpy,” n.d.). The Brony fan base decided to name this peculiar pony after a popular meme. “Derp” first became popularized by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone in the late 1990s. Mr. Derp was introduced on the show and he “performs various slapstick clichés like striking himself on the head with a hammer while exclaiming ‘Derp!’” (“Derp,” 2010). Images began popping up on 4chan, an image board that serves as the source for many internet memes, with different people or fictional characters having crossed eyes paired with the word “DERP” in large letters (“Derp,” 2010). It is a term that is synonymous with the words “idiot,” “retard,” and “moron.” In homage to this meme, “Ditzy Doo” was renamed “Derpy.”
Throughout the second season of MLP, Derpy made cameo appearances in the background of each episode and served as a “Where’s Waldo” Easter egg that was intended for Bronies. She was never officially recognized by other characters until episode 14 of the second season (“The Last Roundup”) where she gets a small scene with Rainbow Dash and officially is called “Derpy” in the episode. In the MLP universe, Pegasus ponies are the ones that can fly and often serve as the directors of different weather elements. In the beginning of the episode, Derpy is seen bouncing on a cloud to produce lightning and accidentally destroys the town hall. She has her eyes crossed, is extremely clumsy – almost shocking Rainbow Dash – and speaks with a slur. Violence is common in most cartoons, but Derpy seems to be the recipient of a greater amount of pain than are any other characters on the show. She cannot fly well and smashes into many obstacles. Nobody is sympathetic to her misfortune. Derpy’s voice sounds like the typical “durrrr” sound you would hear for a “dumb” cartoon “oaf” (Rogers, 2012).
After “The Last Roundup” aired, there was a bit of a backlash from concerned parents. Amy Rogers, the writer of the episode, reports “that while I got 10 negative emails, I also got about 200 positive ones!” (Sethisto, 2012). Rogers felt that the scene was not offensive and that several parents and siblings of children with disabilities supported her (Sethisto, 2012). However, The Hub and Hasbro both received enough complaints for them to alter the episode. Reruns and the iTunes version “contained a slightly modified Derpy including the lack of Rainbow Dash calling her by the name ‘Derpy.’” She did not have the signature “derped” eyes, either (“Derpy Hooves,” 2011). Some merchandise was also pulled temporarily in midst of the controversy. Fans of the show, however, refused to sit idly by and petitioned for MLP to continue to feature Derpy. It was reported that “a ‘Save Derpy Hooves’ image reached the front page of the /r/mylittlepony subreddit, accumulating over 1,000 upvotes within 17 hours” (“Derpy Hooves,” 2011). Other bronies turned to Change.org to create a petition for Hasbro to keep the character (“Derpy Hooves,” 2011).
The American Psychiatric Association typifies Mental Retardation as an individual with a low IQ who also has great impairments in functioning in the domains of “communication, selfcare, home living, social/interpersonal skills…academic skills, work, leisure, health, and safety” (2000). Certain motor skills are often impaired and result in clumsiness. If this is how an individual with an intellectual disability is defined, Derpy is a negatively stereotyped character with an intellectual disability. She seems to be unable to properly communicate or understand what she is being told. Derpy also is extremely clumsy – a common problem for those with this type of disorder.
Regardless of what the fans or creators of My Little Pony may believe, the ostracization of Derpy is indicative to the reality that many with disabilities have to face. Inherent differences can prevent individuals from being accepted. This process of snubbing those who already face enough setbacks in life is something that is learned. It is not inborn. Shows such as this reinforce that reality instead of challenging it. Derpy is only present to serve as tribute to the Brony community. She is used as an element of comedy – free to use, abuse, and laugh at. Derpy’s presence in the background, utterly ignored by everyone, serves as an example to how many outsiders feel. Rainbow Dash’s condescending and sarcastic insults towards Derpy in “The Last Roundup” expresses how the majority treats individuals with an intellectual disability. Derpy is denied any chance to succeed and nobody in the show believes she is incapable of anything but being a “derp.”