A discussion of the My Little Pony character Derpy Hooves and why some people find her offensive.
Hello, my name is Webster, I am 26, and I am a Brony.
What does Brony mean?
It means that I am a fan of the Hasbro series ‘My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic’.
More specifically it means that I am a male, adult fan, but all kinds of fans fall under the Brony-umbrella, and now pretty much any fan of the show can be known as a Brony. And there are loads of fans like me all over the world; people who weren’t in the show’s target audience, but were attracted to it by its high standards of writing and animation, its sense of fun, and its heartfelt message of tolerance, friendship and love.
Yes, MLP has a huge fan base, partly due to Lauren Faust (the show’s creative director, executive producer who has worked previously on smart kids’ shows like The Powerpuff Girls) and the fact that she is committed to interacting with the online community of fans.
For more on the brony community look here: BRONIES.
The naming of Derpy Hooves, ‘fanon’, and Derpy’s first appearance
Now, at one point in the past one of those fans noticed there was a pony in the background who they thought had funny-looking eyes. They thought this was hilarious, posted on 4chan about it, and this pony was dubbed ‘Derpy Hooves’ because they thought she had ‘derpy’ eyes and facial expression. Faust, seeing the popularity of this pony in the background, started putting it in more and more episodes, until finally in the second season in episode: ‘The Last Roundup’ Derpy made a named and speaking appearance.
For many fans this was a huge deal, as they’d been in love with Derpy Hooves, building up a huge character and background for her, creating a fan canon or ‘fanon’ that was as rich as any of the main characters. For many bronies Derpy was already a character on the show.
So What’s the Problem?
Let’s start with the name: Derpy Hooves. Hands up if you think you know what ‘derpy’ means?
Well like a lot of words that have come to prominence on the internet, it has a few different meanings. It’s also often used in the ‘herp derp’ or ‘hurr durr’ context.
Opinions differ on where the term originated, but many agree ‘derp’ first came into popular usage thanks to South Park and the movie Baseketball. Specifically on South Park it was used by a character called Mr Derp whose introduction to the main characters was to say the word ‘Derp’ and then hit himself in the head with a hammer.
This actually explains where two of the different things derp can mean originated. One: to be clumsy or make stupid (often painful) mistakes. Two: to act as if you are disabled to the point where you cannot properly speak. A usage used often to dismiss peoples’ opinions.
And, of course, derp progressed into being a meme. One of the memes that it came to be associated with was to write the word derp on a .gif of an especially ‘stupid’ looking face and thus we get this definition: “The word that describes a particularly retarded face: A retarded smile, and the eyes pointing in different directions.” (no. 3 on the linked page) Well here it is. The definition that describes the ‘derpy’ face that first gave Derpy Hooves her name. A definition rooted in horrifically offensive language.
Now, the majority of bronies spend quite a lot of time on the internet (given the brony community began on 4chan), some at least would be aware of this definition. And the people who named Derpy? The bronies who gave that pony that name on 4chan, they named her because of this definition.
Then there’s her representation on ‘The Last Roundup’
She is represented as clumsy and uncoordinated. So much so she flies into buildings, damaging them.
Her voice is goofy and slow, as if it’s intended to sound dim-witted (while I know this is not the intention as the voice actor Tabitha St Germain has explained, it still seems this way).
She is made fun of by the other characters for being stupid, for ‘ruining everything’ (while this is done by Rainbow Dash, who is often portrayed as insensitive, it is barely challenged by the other ponies and Derpy plays no further part in the episode).
And of course she has the eyes pointing in different directions (which we have established stems from a knowingly offensive meme).
These are all attributes that in various media have been used as comic shorthand for people with neurological conditions/disabilities. And whether it was intended or not, to a lot of people, this is how Derpy Hooves came across in the episode: as a comic stereotype of someone with a disability. Someone who was dismissed, teased and other’d by the main characters for being different.
And as the overall portrayal of Derpy was comic, and as the character didn’t get any kind of character arc, development or emotional journey, Derpy did not seem like a positive example to some people. Derpy did not reaffirm how it’s ok to be different, or that everyone has something to offer, but quite the opposite. For them, Derpy was a character that encouraged children to laugh at the disabled.
But why is it offensive?
Well that would be twofold.
First it’s ableist. A good discussion of what ableism is can be found here, with the definition:
“Ableism is a form of discrimination or prejudice against individuals with physical, mental, or developmental disabilities that is characterized by the belief that these individuals need to be fixed or cannot function as full members of society …”
Derpy is shown routinely messing up and causing damage, I think that counts as ‘cannot function as full member of society’.
“… As a result of these assumptions, individuals with disabilities are commonly viewed as being abnormal rather than as members of a distinct minority community.”
Derpy is made fun of for her mistakes, does not feature in the rest of the episode, and very much seems to be outside the friendships of any of the regular characters on the show. Check.
Secondly, it’s teaching children that laughing at people with disabilities is ok. That treating them as nuisances and ostracising them is ok. It is teaching children ableist behaviour
So What Happened?
People complained. Some people cite a facebook petition (link to Derpy vs the People) but most people just know that Hasbro received complaints from various people about the name ‘Derpy’ and her representation on the show. Most sources agree that this was because they found the name offensive, and found the ‘Last Roundup’ appearance to be a negative depiction of a character with a neurological condition.
Shortly after this the episode in question disappeared from itunes, and when it was put back up the goofy/stupid voice was gone. The ‘derpy’ eyes were gone. The use of the name ‘derpy’ was gone.
The Fan Reaction
A lot of fans are upset about what they see as the removal of Derpy Hooves. They feel betrayed by Hasbro, who admittedly have not helped themselves by being uncommunicative on the matter (and allegedly e-mailing some fans to tell them that Derpy was definitely not being removed). And a pretty big ‘Save Derpy’ campaign was created.
There are some very well written and argued pieces out there on why to save Derpy. Especially good are Erik Hare’s piece on Barataria (where he is superbly even-handed) and this piece entitled ‘To Derp is to Love’.
But the reactions that pop up again and again are along the same lines:
- It’s not offensive. Because Derpy is clearly not a character with a neurological condition. She’s just clumsy.
- It’s not offensive. Because Derpy is actually a positive example of a character with a neurological condition. Just look at all the fan background we’ve given the character!
- I have/I know people who have a neurological condition and I/they are not offended, ergo it’s not offensive.
- Whoever has complained doesn’t really understand what ‘derp’ means.
- You people who complained. You know who you are. Stop it. You’re ruining our fun and no-one likes you.
Honestly, they’re not unfamiliar reactions. Anyone who’s ever questioned someone’s comments or behaviour for being offensive (whether it be sexist, racist, homophobic etc.) has come across the ‘it’s just harmless fun’ or ‘you have no right to be offended’ response. I just never thought that I’d see it from the bronies. A community that rallied to defend grown men’s right to watch a kids’ show about ponies and not be lambasted for it. A community that are so lovely they invented a day to celebrate being nice to your friends and exchange muffins. That day is called Derpy Day. It was today.
Something I find interesting is that (offensive name aside) things like Derpy Day and the loving backstory/fanon that’s sprung up around Derpy in many ways is very accepting and it seems like Derpy is a very positive and inspiring character for lots of bronies.
But what some fans seem not to realise is that this amazing and inspiring backstory they’ve created? It’s not on the show. We don’t get any of it from Derpy’s brief appearance. What we got is a name that refers to ‘a particularly retarded face’ and a comic of someone who (many fans believe) has a neurological condition. What we got was offended.
What do we mean when we say we’re offended?
Well we mean just that: that Derpy Hooves (the name, the depiction, everything) has offended and hurt us. It has made us feel less wanted as part of the brony community, and we are a part of it (some great responses from other fans are here and here) We’re just part of it that feels differently.
What we don’t mean is that Derpy Hooves is universally offensive and that everyone, or everyone with a disability, should find it offensive. That is not what anyone’s said. This is not what anyone’s meant.
If you don’t find Derpy Hooves offensive then that’s fine, good for you, I respect your opinion. If you have a neurological condition and are still not offended, I (again) respect your opinion and am glad for you. But the fact that you do not find it offensive/some people living with disabilities did not find it offensive, does not mean it cannot have offended us.
The thing is: none of us can say whether or not a thing is universally offensive or not. All we can say is whether or now we have been offended by it and remember that other people may not feel the same way.
Believe it or not we’re not offended because we choose to be. I’d prefer it if the depiction of Derpy Hooves did not hurt me, but it does. No matter how accidental this portrayal may be I am still offended by it and think it sets a terrible example to children.
And I don’t want to continue to be hurt and offended, and don’t want what I see to be a negative stereotype to be shown to children …
So What Now?
Well now I have to say I fully understand why people would have complained about the character. I myself find Derpy offensive. But I am sad that so many of my fellow bronies have clearly lost a beloved character.
I think that now Hasbro and Lauren Faust have to make it clear why the character was dropped. A big reason why many fans have been upset is because they simply were not told what was going on.
As for the Save Derpy campaign, it may still work. They’ve ably and emotively demonstrated that Derpy has huge support. But if Derpy does come back and become a regular character then I think MLP have to devote the time to developing the character, making her an accepted and valued part of the Ponyville community. They’ll have to make an effort to make Derpy Hooves a positive example of a non-neurotypical character. And maybe that would help to reclaim the word derp and move it towards a less harmful definition.
But honestly, I hope Derpy doesn’t come back. And I think Lauren Faust and her team, and Hasbro, will learn from this. I think they’ll bring in other opportunities for the fans to have their say in the. Other fan jokes will be given their nod in future episodes. You’ll have other Derpy’s, they just won’t be called Derpy cos that name hurts people.
This generation of My Little Pony is all about friendship. And one thing I have learned over the years is that people who know something offends and hurts me and keep doing it or tell me I have no right to be offended are not my friends.
Hasbro and Lauren Faust (while they didn’t handle this well for many bronies) are my friends as they saw something hurt people and they stopped.
The majority of the brony community are not my friends and seem to have no interest in being so.
Ladies, Gentlemen and Others, today is Derpy Day: a day (whatever the problems I have with the name) that is dedicated to friendship and muffins. I lost a lot of supposed friends today.
I doubt I’ll get any muffins either.