It's a common stereotype for mules, as well as for their donkeys sires, to be stubborn, recalcitrant, and uncooperative animals. This typically applies in the context of trying to use them as beasts of burden, with the animal in question stubbornly refusing to pull its cart or haul its load and firmly planting itself in its spot. If it will be convinced to move at all, it will only be by dint of much pulling, pushing, and cursing, and most likely after some judicious application of goads or stout sticks. Less commonly, the mule or donkey will be used as a steed instead, typically on a path to harsh for horses, and at an arbitrary point in the path suddenly refuse to move any further.
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, and 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 equally applicable to full-blooded donkeys as it is to mules. More rarely, hinnies — the other horse/donkey hybrid; mules have a horse mother and donkey father, while hinnies are the other way around — may be depicted this way as well. Compare Moody Mount (which is for rideable animals other than donkeys and mules being troublesome).
- Shrek: Donkey is implied to be one of the stubborn donkeys from Aesop's fables listed above, as the first time we see him he is about to be sold into bondage by his owner, promising to never be stubborn again. After this, Donkey's stubbornness is mostly an Informed Flaw, as he's generally pretty agreeable and willing to do some dangerous feats. He is stubborn in one regard, though — making friends with Shrek.
- 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.
- Charlie Wilson's War: Gust reacts with incredulity when he's told that the mules have to be trained to carry stuff through the Afghan mountains:
- 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.
- Kidnapping, Caucasian Style: Shurik rides into town on a donkey, which stops and refuses to budge until Nina shows up, at which point the donkey suddenly continues.
- 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.
- The Ten Commandments has a mule pull this act during the leaving of Egypt.
Joshua: Four hundred years in bondage and today he won't move!
- 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.
- The American Credo: Among the various myths, stereotypes, and superstitions of American culture, #369 is "that all mules are very obstinate".
- Animal Farm: Benjamin the donkey is never taken in for a moment by the pigs' false promises of Utopia, and refuses to undertake extra labor for it as some of the more idealistic animals do, but he also refuses to do anything to oppose the pigs.
- Dark Future: Elvis is watching TV in Comeback Tour and briefly pauses his channel-surfing to be amused by Pepe the Robo-Mule, a cybernetically augmented Hispanic burro version of RoboCop who declares himself to be "a stubborn crusader for jos-teece!"
- 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 Vetinari when he disappears into the minaret and returns leading a docile donkey. Vetinari helpfully explained that the key is to find that part of the donkey that really wants to get down. He is holding a walking cane when speaking, suggesting mechanism.
- A Song of Ice and Fire: Mules, donkeys and hill ponies/horses (moor-, Shetland- and Icelandic analogues) show up from time to time. Although not widely deemed as impressive as a warhorse, let alone a dragon, they are essential if you want to get around the wilder parts of the Seven Kingdoms in anything like decent time. For climbing up to the Eyrie or trekking around and beyond the Wall, you need reliable, hardy stubborness that's both willing to balk at mutually suicidal directions and can just keep ticking along on dodgy forage, as Stannis finds out when he tries ploughing Southern-bred slabs of hay-guzzling muscle through autumn snow. The poor war- and draught-horses weren't bred or trained for that.
- Spellsinger: One novel has a talking hinny as a supporting character. Yep, she's stubborn too.
- Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms: Invoked in The Fairy Godmother. 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.
- Tik-Tok of Oz: Hank the talking mule is very agreeable and affectionate towards Betsy, but is surly and quarrelsome with others, especially other animals.
- Winnetou: Mary, Sam Hawkens' mule. She's captured at the beginning of volume one, and trying to tame her almost kills Sam faster than the bison who had killed his initial horse, and takes more effort out of Old Shatterhand than the fight with the grizzly bear. The only reason he wins is because he is a very stubborn bastard himself. (He's half dead on his feet by the end, though.)
- The Amazing Race:
- The season 12 opener has a challenge involving transporting peat using a donkey. Most seem compliant enough, but the donkeys used by Ari and Staella and by Nathan and Jennifer prove to be premiere examples of this trope, resulting in both teams placing in the bottom rung.
- In season 1 of the Australian version, Richard and Joey get a stubborn goat that doesn't want to go where they have to take it, resulting in them being eliminated.
- Dirty Jobs: Part of Mike Rowe's visit to a California camel ranch involves rectally taking the temperatures of several camels. When he jokingly asks if they're going to do the same for the ranch's donkeys, his host hastens to make it clear that handling the donkeys is a much different undertaking than handling camels: "You don't do anything to a donkey unless you ask first."
- 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.
- The Dark Eye: Donkeys are commonly stereotyped as stubborn and stupid animals, but the game rules note that this is an artifact of how people try to deal with them — they tend to be suspicious animals, and will refuse to move if something (say, someone pulling on them to make them move forward) blocks their view of the road. They're actually fairly intelligent animals, and this, combined with their patient natures and tough hardiness, makes them popular beasts of burden.
- Warhammer: In the skirmish game Mordheim, the expanded rules for mounted warriors note include mules as one of the additional purchasable mounts. These mules have the "Stubborn" special rule that forces their rider to take a test each turn in order to get the mount to move.
- 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. You yourself can ride donkeys, but they won't jump, they can't run as fast as a horse, and you can't put a hogtied person on one.
- Bosko, the Talk-Ink Kid: Bosko briefly rides one in "Bosko's Knight-Mare", but it quickly chucks him off into a river.
- Family Guy: Parodied in a cutaway gag in "Boys do Cry", where after Brian says that conservatives are as stubborn as mules a mule is seen playing the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, and refusing to admit that he was in Footloose.
- Il était une fois...: In episode 13 of Il était une fois... l'Homme, "The Hundred Years' War" a mule is pulling a barge that Pierre and Jumbo are in. When it refuses to move, Pierre and Jumbo offer to pull the barge themselves.
- My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic:
- Cranky Doodle Donkey is old, set in his ways, and very, very unwilling to deal with Pinkie Pie. After a while, you start to empathize with him.
- There's an actual (nameless) mule who shows up when one of the protagonists says how somepony else is "as stubborn as a mule", prompting them to quickly add "no offense!" Humorously, the actual mule never does take any offense, implying that he's actually more agreeable than the ponies.
Twilight Sparkle: [concerning Applejack] That pony is as stubborn as a mule!
Twilight Sparkle: ... no offense.
Mule: None taken.
- The Small One: Inverted. The eponymous ass is gentle, patient, and quite amazingly self-sacrificing.
- 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 (European mountain-based militaries have done so for centuries, and as they were abandoning them the USMC started using mules in Afghanistan).
- The American Democratic Party has a donkey for a symbol. This is sometimes said to originate — like so many American political terms — with an insult: namely, calling Democrats "jackasses" because they supported Andrew Jackson. However, the link between the Dems and the donkey was cemented by political cartoonist Thomas Nast in the late 19th century, who drew the Democrats as a donkey stubbornly but futilely kicking the Republican elephant (itself chosen to represent the GOP's domination over Gilded Age politics). Democrats continue to emphasize the use of the donkey as a representation of stubbornness... although today, the reason for the donkey's stubbornness (intelligence) is also emphasized.