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Although in Real Life, donkeys are quite effective in pulling wagons, in media, the donkeys pulling the cart are often stubborn and unreliable, and don't want to do the heavy work. Of course, it doesn't have to involve carts.
Sometimes the ass is used as a symbol, not so much of stubbornness, as of sheer stupidity. It was probably this characterization that led to the modern usage of "ass" to mean "fool." On still other occasions the donkey is used to depict low status or servility, especially when contrasted with more favored beasts such as the horse or the hound. Finally, paradoxically, the mule has been used to symbolize sturdy, if stubborn, practicality, and a no-nonsense attitude towards the harsher realities of life.
Both these characterizations (ironically) come from the fact that donkeys and mules are more intelligent than horses and have a stronger sense of self-preservation. This makes them less obedient to humans, therefore we perceive them as stubborn, but consider: you can ride a horse to death, but a donkey will stop when it's exhausted. Which is smarter?
Note that strictly speaking, a donkey (or ass, of which a "jackass" is the male and a "jenny" the female) is a separate species; a mule is a (usually) sterile hybrid, a cross between a male donkey and a female horse, as opposed to a hinny, the offspring of a male horse and a female donkey.
Despite the name, this trope is not limited to mules.
- In Gasoline Alley, junkmen Joel and Rufus ride around between disasters on a cart pulled (when she's in a good mood) by Becky, the mule.
- Patton: During the invasion of Sicily, a pair of mules pulling a wagon refuse to move, blocking a bridge and causing a column of American troops to be strafed. Patton shoots the mules and has them dumped over the side of the bridge, allowing the column to continue.
- In Der Schuh des Manitu, while the Greek talks about the cleverness of his donkey, the beast steps on the rails, refuses to move and gets killed by an express train.
- In Cahill, United States Marshal, John Wayne is left horseless and is forced to buy a mule from a farmer for lack of any alternative. There's a short clip of it bucking in protest when he mounts up, although it cooperates perfectly well in later scenes.
- The original Aesop had several fables centering on these.
- In one, an ass had to carry a load of salt, but accidentally fell into the river, the load dissolved, no more heavy weight. Next trip it threw itself into the river on purpose. The master got annoyed and had it carry a bunch of sponges on the third trip. It threw itself into the river again, but found that sponges get heavier when wet.
- In another, a drover is leading an ass that suddenly decides to take a path that leads over a cliff. The drover desperately tries to hold the beast back by its tail, but when he sees that the stubborn animal is about to drag him over himself, he lets go and lets the ass plunge to its death. The moral there is that there is no point killing yourself to save those who are determined to ruin themselves.
- In another, an ass is envious of the pampered position enjoyed by his master's lap-dog, who never has to do any heavy work. So he attempts to jump into his master's lap and lick his face. Hilarity Ensues.
- Bad Ass, Lancre was named for the fact that a donkey got stubborn there. The village was founded by the people riding in the wagon it was pulling. Now Lancrians have to explain it to everybody.
- In Jingo a donkey gets stuck up a minaret in Al Khali. Being the stubborn animals they are there is no chance it will back down. It can't turn around, and being right at the top it can't go forward. The locals are amazed at Ventanari when he disappears into the minaret and returns leading a docile donkey. Ventanari helpfully explained that the key is to find that part of the donkey that really wants to get down.
- Animal Farm: Benjamin the donkey is never taken in for a moment by the pig's false promises of Utopia, and refuses to undertake extra labor for it as some of the more idealistic animals do.
- Invoked in Mercedes Lackey's The Fairy Godmother, the first of her Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms series. A stubborn prince who behaves like an ass finds himself transformed into one. His asinine behavior persists for some time until he loses some of his pride and subsequently reforms.
- One of Alan Dean Foster's Spellsinger novels has a talking hinny as a supporting character. (Mules have a horse mother and donkey father; hinnies are the other way around.) Yep, she's stubborn too.
- The Bible: The prophet Balaam being hired out to curse the Israelites struggles with a stubborn mule, until the mule is granted the ability to speak and reveals that she was trying to protect her master from a vengeful angel.
- In Red Dead Redemption, while traveling through Mexico, you'll occasionally encounter a peasant leading his donkey down the road. The peasant will loudly and repeatedly curse the beast in Spanish.
- Parodied in a Family Guy cutaway, where a mule plays the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, and refuses to admit that he was in Footloose.
- Averted in Disney's The Small One (directed by Don Bluth) in which the eponymous ass is gentle, patient, and quite amazingly self-sacrificing.
- My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic (of course) has Applejack, who's actually less patient then an actual mule. Admittedly, the mule in question seemed to not mind the implications of the actual insult, but still...
- A later episode gives us Cranky Doodle Donkey, who's old, set in his ways, and very, very unwilling to deal with Pinkie Pie. After a while, you start to emphasize with him.
- In the American West, J. Golden Kimbell, a Mormon leader, was infamously known as The Swearing Apostle. "As a young man he had worked as a mule driver. And as everyone knows, mules are twice as stubborn as any other creature on earth. And these were Church-owned mules! Church-owned mules are ten times as stubborn as ordinary mules. You had to blister them with the coarsest oaths known to man for over two hours just to get them to move ten feet. I was the best mule driver in camp, and my language showed it."
- This is the reason they were used to carry equipment in mountainous terrain, horses were just too damned obedient to choose a safe path. They're also generally tougher than horses, making them a good choice for the military for getting to places where vehicles can't go (the USMC started using them in Afghanistan).
- The United States Democratic Party chose a donkey as their symbol to show how stubborn they are.