Elements of Harmony 7: Cadance Is Best Pony

The Elements of Harmony series are commissioned essays in which I examine a character selected by the Kickstarter backer who commissioned the essay, and construct an argument on why that character is best pony.
For starters, Cadance has one of the best names in the series, and almost certainly the most oversignified. Start with the first name given for her, Princess Mi Amore Cadenza. Mi amore is, of course, Italian for “my love,” and likely a title indicating the nature and source of her power; much as Twilight Sparkle is the Princess of Friendship, Cadance is the Princess of Love. But cadenza has a very different meaning: it is a musical term, referring to an ornamental passage, usually a solo designed to show off the virtuosity of one musician, placed near the end of a work. This is very much Cadance’s role in her first appearance.
Let us go back, a moment, to the end of Season Two. It has been something of a triumph, with a number of episodes that stand among the series’ best: “The Return of Harmony,” “Lesson Zero,” “Sweet and Elite,” “The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000,” “Read It and Weep,” “It’s About Time.” Now, here at the end of the series, we’re introduced to a new character, Princess Cadance, and just as swiftly (a mere couple of minutes into “A Canterlot Wedding, Part Two”) introduced to the real Princess Cadance, bedraggled, scratched up, desperate to save Shining Armor. What follows can only be described as a virtuoso solo passage, as the two Cadances sing “This Day Aria.” It is easily the best song in the show to that point, alternating verses in which the true and false Cadance sing light and dark versions of each other’s lines, with the false Cadance, Queen Chrysalis, wanting to control and devour, while the true Cadance mourns the disruption of her special day and worries about the loss of her love, Shining Armor.
Chrysalis isn’t just disguised as Cadance; in a sense, she is Cadance, another side of the same coin. Their song together is an aria–a piece performed by one singer–not a duet, and their power is the same: love. Chrysalis devours while Cadance creates, yes, but such is the nature of love; it can be grasping, greedy, possessive, or it can be giving, nurturing, healing. Usually, it’s both at once. And within a universe where friendship is magic, love is pure power; Chrysalis is able to defeat Celestia in a direct battle of power against power, and Cadance in turn is able to empower Shining Armor to do what Celestia can’t, and drive the Changelings from Equestria. Because, of course, one lover alone can only be selfish; it’s when love is shared by two or more people that it becomes able to accomplish something good.
This is the power of love: connection, binding, bridging gaps, enabling sharing and cooperation. Cadance is, in more ways than one, a bridge. She is, for example, a unicorn that became an alicorn princess: according to Lauren Faust, Cadance was a unicorn, neither an alicorn nor a princess, when “A Canterlot Wedding” was first planned; sometime after Faust left, she became an alicorn princess. This, perhaps, is why she is so different from Celestia and Luna: less distant, smaller, more down-to-earth and approachable. She is a living bridge between “ordinary” magical ponies and the goddess-like Princesses of Sun and Moon, someone who has ascended extradiegetically, and thus traced the path for Twilight to do so extradiegetically a season from now.
But Princess Mi Amore Cadenza is only one of her names. She has two more: Cadence and Cadance, the former her name according to the credits and closed captioning of some episodes, the latter her name in other episodes, most merchandise, and the Elements of Harmony guidebook. Cadence has multiple meanings, all related to sound. First, it is a musical term, the sequence of chords that ends a passage, with different types of cadences used to different effects–deceptive cadence, for instance, generates a feeling of hanging incompleteness. (As something of a joke, “B.B.B.F.F. (Reprise)” in “A Canterlot Wedding” ends with a deceptive cadence, moments before Chrysalis-as-Cadance attacks Twilight.) It can also mean a particular style of speech or intonation, or a rhythm.
These latter meanings of the word resonate with Cadance’s second major appearance, in “The Crystal Empire.” Though she spends most of the episode sidelined, her role is tremendously important, as she is (with Shining Armor’s support, a nice reversal of their roles from the climax of “A Canterlot Wedding”) the one actually battling King Sombra; the entire plot of the two-parter is Twilight trying to find ways to help Cadance finish him off. She’s the obviously correct choice for the job; having already confronted her own dark mirror in Chrysalis, she is more than prepared to take on the Shadow. But there are subtler ways in which cadence permeates the episode. For example, the Crystal Ponies are marked by a particular cadence of speech, a dour and overprecise intonation that represents the repression of their past and their light. As the Crystal Faire frees them, they begin speaking with a more normal cadence and regain their full shine, only to lose it again to Sombra. Their light and their cadence are equated, and it is Cadence who brings both once she grasps the Crystal Heart, recovered by Twilight and Spike.
What is the connection between Cadance and the Heart? The Crystal Ponies seem to recognize her as the Crystal Princess, and after “The Crystal Empire” accept her and Shining Armor as their ruler. The Crystal Heart bears a close resemblance to Cadance’s cutie mark, and flares to life when when she takes it, after which she leads the Crystal Ponies in using its power to dispel Sombra’s Shadow for good. But she’s not a Crystal Pony: like the Mane Six, she sparkles only temporarily after the activation of the Crystal Heart, not permanently like the Crystal Ponies, and she clearly has no memory of their realm, so she’s not their millennia-lost princess. What she is, however, is Cadance, which is to say, cadence, a rhythm–and the most primal rhythm of all, one accelerated both by the love that is Cadance’s power and the fear that is Sombra’s, is the beating of a heart.
Which brings us to her third, and apparently official, name: Cadance. Which is not itself a word, but fusion of two, cadence and dance. Dancing is, of course, another activity closely associated with both rhythm and with love, but the name carries more meaning than that: Cadance, from her first appearance, has been a character who dances on the edge of the spotlight, doing important things but never being at the heart of the story. She is not a mentor like Celestia, nor is she someone who can serve as the focus character for an episode like Twilight or Luna; she is the friend, the loved one, the one who holds down the home fort while others go questing. This fits well with her personality, as one of the most grounded and down-to-earth characters in the series. In “Three’s a Crowd,” for example, she’s happy to go along with either visiting the Star-Swirl the Bearded Museum or going on Discord’s absurd quest with Twilight, while in “Games Ponies Play” she tries to get Twilight and the others to relax and accept events as they unfold. And, as already observed, she is a pony who works by empowering others.
Friend, lover, wife, mother, quest-giver. The balanced center around which all else revolves, a font of power which others wield, the beating heart of the Crystal Empire whose love is refracted across all Equestria. Bridge between the three tribes of ponies and the alicorns, between the everyday and the exalted. Yes, there is definitely a case to be made for Cadance as best pony.

Elements of Harmony 6: Twilight Sparkle Is Best Pony

The Elements of Harmony series are commissioned essays in which I examine a character selected by the Kickstarter backer who commissioned the essay, and construct an argument on why that character is best pony.
Because of course she is. It’s hardly even a question. Twilight has had more focus than any other pony, and is nearly always depicted positively. Even when her behavior is shown in a negative light, as in “Lesson Zero” or “It’s About Time,” she learns from it and improves—there is a steady decline in her neuroticism from the frantic panicking of those episodes, to the visibly manageable anxiety of “The Crystal Empire,” to the strength and determination of “Twilight’s Kingdom.” She is still worry-prone and detail-oriented, but in increasingly mature ways over the course of the first four seasons. So let us take it as a given that Twilight is best pony, and focus on Twilight as a character, on who she is and what role she plays.
Twilight’s role is right there in her name: she is a creature of liminal spaces and transitional moments. She balances on the edge between light and dark, night and day, most obviously in the sense that she is responsible for reuniting Luna and Celestia in the premiere, but in many other ways as well. Twilight moves from a tower in Canterlot to a tree in Ponyville, and later into a crystalline hybrid of tree and tower; towers and trees both act as bridges from Earth to Heaven, and so are deeply appropriate to a character whose storyline has been dominated by ascension.
And what an ascension it has been. Twilight began as the classic nerd character, grumpy, neurotic, and far more interested in the acquisition of data than in her relationships with others. Not that there is anything wrong with being inclined to scholarly pursuits, and the show has never shamed Twilight for that. She has never lost her love of learning, but it has gone from being the totality of her limited existence to one aspect of a more complete person. The premiere was an epiphany for her, opening her eyes to her own incompleteness, and over the course of the first two seasons she grew in her understanding of others. Most significant here was her transformation in “Winter Wrap Up,” where she discovered her organizational skills and slight tendency to arrogant certainty combined to make her a natural leader. From that point, the course of her evolution was effectively set: to master magic and social interaction alike, and ascend to princesshood.
But this was not, in itself, a destination. It is in the nature of twilight to be transitional, and so it is for Twilight; she is always evolving, always connecting realms. Almost immediately after her ascension, she found herself the bridge between two worlds, namely Equestria and the human world in Equestria Girls. Passing through a mirror, she entered the mirror realm, full of reflections of the ponies she knew, and there she encountered her own dark reflection, Sunset Shimmer—even their names are synonymous! This in turn opened a path to seeing Sunset Shimmer’s own reflection, the human Twilight Sparkle (as shown in Equestria Girls: Friendship Games), who never had the lessons she did and so remained incomplete. That Twilight, drunk on knowledge and magical power but lacking friendship to anchor her, nearly slid into a demonic transformation worthy of Nightmare Moon—but Sunset Shimmer helped bring her back to herself, closing the circle.
This is one of Twilight’s greatest powers and greatest gifts. In Friendship Games we see just how close she is to the darkness, how easily she could have become another Sombra or Nightmare Moon. But that liminal existence, that transition from darkness to light, is exactly what enables her to help others ascend. Twilight is the bridge between Luna and Celestia, which is why she was able to heal Nightmare Moon in the first place. She is not only one who ascends, but one who descends to help others.
This, too, is why she had to be the bearer of the powers of the other princesses in “Twilight’s Kingdom.” Luna and Celestia form a binary, light and dark, night and day, sun and moon, gold and silver. Cadance is an outlier, unconnected to either. It is Twilight who partakes in all three—in the obvious sense that twilight is both day and night, but also in the sense that, as the Princess of Friendship, her domain naturally overlaps with the Princess of Love. Her liminality also makes her the one most able to hold the vast quantities of magic involved, as it is in the liminal spaces that magic thrives—one encounters it most in the surfaces of mirrors and the deep woods, in caverns and the backs of cupboards, between sunset and moonrise.
Twilight stands between night and day, between darkness and night, so it is necessarily Twilight who serves as the first line of defense against the darkness. We rarely see Celestia or Cadance fight the terrors that haunt Equestria, and when they do, they are usually less than entirely successful, but Twilight and her friends regularly fight evil, because that is who she is and where she stands—“liminal” comes from the Latin for “threshold,” and it is on the threshold that Twilight stands, Equestria’s gatekeeper. Like her brother, captain of the guard, she is a defender against evils that try to enter the realm, be they dragons, creatures of chaos, or her own Shadow.
Discord in particular is a perfect foil for Twilight. She is nigh-obsessively organized, and he is chaos incarnate, so they naturally clash. At the same time, both stand on opposite sides of the threshold: as master of chaos (in itself a paradoxical concept, because by its nature chaos cannot have a master), a walking grotesque, Discord’s role is to disrupt the order Twilight protects, and in so doing demonstrate its weaknesses and flaws. It is the nature of the grotesque to transgress boundaries, and Discord does, constantly, his very appearance transgressing the boundaries between species, his actions transgressing against the boundaries laid down by the laws of physics, and his conception itself transgressing the boundaries between shows, a Star Trek character within My Little Pony.
So Twilight, in her role as gatekeeper, must face Discord, not just once but repeatedly. At the same time, she cannot simply drive him away, imprison him, or destroy him, because the chaos he represents, the transgression of boundaries, is essential to her liminal nature. She has no choice but to befriend him, and while it is Fluttershy who does the most work in persuading him to change and helping him adapt to his new roles after the change, it is Twilight who provides the key moment of transition from villain to ally.
So it is not just that Twilight is the show’s own straightforward pick for best pony. She is also the most magical pony, not merely in the superficial spell-casting sense, but in the sense of being the pony who transforms and is transformed, the one who walks across worlds, who ascends and returns with the power to help others ascend. She is the one who journeys through darkness to enlightenment, and in that sense, she is us all.

Elements of Harmony 5: Big McIntosh is Best Pony

The Elements of Harmony series are commissioned essays in which I examine a character selected by the Kickstarter backer who commissioned the essay, and construct an argument on why that character is best pony.

Speaking of, My Little Po-Mo vol. 2 is on sale, and contains among other things the first three Elements of Harmony essays, on Rarity, Applejack, and Zecora! Check the Books page for details! 

One of the oft-overlooked aspects of Friendship Is Magic is the way it approaches masculinity. It is, of course, not the focus of the show, which is as it has always been about showcasing and celebrating myriad ways of being feminine. But nonetheless it also depicts a variety of male characters, and many of them are presented in a way to suggest they are performing a similar function of showing varied, positive expressions of masculinity.

By far, the member of this group with the most screen time is Big McIntosh.

Big Mac is a fascinating figure to look at in terms of gender, because he very subtly undermines hegemonic masculinity–that is, the way in which our culture equates masculinity with power. At first glance he appears to be an expression of this concept. In particular, he is physically very strong, carries great burdens and responsibility, and speaks little, in most of his episodes saying little other than “Yup” or “Nope.” Nonetheless, he has hidden depths. He pounces lovingly on Twilight’s doll even after the spell of desire laid on it in “Lesson Zero” wears off. He is able to eloquently express his anger and disappointment to the Cutie Mark Crusaders in “Ponyville Confidential,” and he has an artistic side, singing as a member of the Pony Tones in “Filli Vanilli.”

He thus appears to be an instant of the Warrior Poet type, a man whose taciturn and violent exterior hides a sensitivity and creativity underneath. Rather than appearing weak or unmasculine as artists and performers are often depicted, he is doubly powerful, since he is able to express his power both through destruction, as violence, and creation, as art or nurturing.

But to read Big Mac in this way is an error, but within Friendship Is Magic masculinity is not hegemonic, and this reading depends on misunderstanding his strength as a form of power, when that’s not how he employs it. Power, remember, is always over someone or something; it is the ability to impose one’s will outside oneself. Strength can be used as power, but Big Mac is never shown employing it that way: he is never violent or destructive (except twice, in “Lesson Zero” and “Hearts and Hooves Day,” both cases where he was under the influence of behavior-altering magic), never uses his strength or size to intimidate, and most notably never tries to dominate others.

Key here is his relationship with Applejack. She very clearly is in charge of Sweet Apple Acres, but at the same time this is not so much a matter of dominance–there are times at which Granny takes the lead, and more rarely Big Mac, as in “Ponyville Confidential”–as it is each member of the family doing what they are good at. Applejack is more gregarious, so she does most of the work involving dealing with ponies, managing the farm and representing it to outsiders, while Big Mac is content to provide muscle and do repairs because that’s what he’s good at. He does not feel the need to be part of a hierarchy, does not need either to be pushed around or given orders, or to try to dominate or assert himself as being able to control his surroundings; he can simply be who he is and do what he does.

That is strength. He does not shirk his tasks, but neither does he feel the need–as made clear in his conversation with Applejack at the beginning of “Applebucking Season”–to prove himself by pushing past his limits. He does what needs to be done. He is not quiet because of some macho suppression of feelings, but because he speaks only when it is necessary to speak. As we see with his singing in “Filli Vanilli” and lecture in “Ponyville Confidential,” or for that matter his and Cheerilee’s bizarre love-talk in “Hearts and Hooves Day,” he is perfectly capable of expressing himself when he wishes to; he just usually doesn’t see the need.

And, importantly, he is nurturing. He does much of the farm work at Sweet Valley Acres, and so is as responsible for the health of its plant life as Applejack is. The way he plays with Twilight’s old doll in “Lesson Zero” and “Ponyville Confidential” also shows this side of him, but it is most clear in “Filli Vanilli,” where, with body language alone, he is shown becoming increasingly tense, uncomfortable, and sweaty during the repeated lip-synching performances, but calms down when he glimpses Fluttershy. The strong implication is that he is deeply uncomfortable with the deception inherent in lip-synching, but is willing to do it to help make his friend comfortable with singing and enjoying. In other words, he is putting himself through the risk of being caught in order to help her grow.

He is far from flawless, of course. He takes part in the family spat in “Pinkie Apple Pie” just as much as any of the Apples, and the way in which he tries to hide his doll in “Ponyville Confidential” suggests that he has some anxiety about being seen with it. However, the general lack of gender norms in pony society suggests that it’s not that he’s anxious about his masculinity, but about being perceived as childish.

More importantly, the doll represents the most important way in which he differs from the “quiet, but strong” type, the frontier farmer manly man who never makes a fuss and demonstrates his strength by adhering closely to (and enforcing) social norms: Big McIntosh does not deny his feelings. He enjoys what he enjoys, and while he may sometimes fear the humiliation of being caught playing with a doll or lip-synching, that won’t stop him from doing what he feels is right to do. Because unlike power, strength is not inherently anxious, does not have victims and therefore does not require vigilance against counterattack.

Big Mac is hardly the only positive model of masculinity in the series. Shining Armor, Mr. Cake, Cheese Sandwich, and Fancy Pants all come easily to mind as constructions of masculinity who vary almost as widely as the Mane Six do in their construction of femininity. But of all the models, he is the one who most clearly takes the essential defining element of toxic masculinity in our culture, anxious power, and gently subverts it into calm, quiet strength. He is, in other words, the easiest character for a male viewer trying to break free of our culture’s toxic gender roles to accept as an alternate model, yet still able to guide them away from that toxicity.

Elements of Harmony 4: Princess Celestia Is Best Pony

Yes, it’s the return of the “Best Pony” series, in which I write articles about why various characters in the show, selected by Kickstarter donors, are Best Pony.

Sorry about the last-minute switch from doing an episode essay. Busy with book-related stuff. Next weekend we’ll be back to episodes. 

Also,  sorry for lack of responses to comments in the past week. I can no longer access the front end of the site from work, Blogger does not allow commenting from the back end, and trying to use my phone gets the comments eaten more often than not. I have now gone back and commented on every comment in the past week to which I have a response.

As I have stated repeatedly in this series, the definition of “best” is generally quite fluid and flexible. However, if we are to consider whether the show itself treats a character as being “best,” a fairly solid answer emerges. There is one pony who is consistently regarded with respect, love, and awe by all non-villainous characters, who represents the pinnacle of power in every sense of the word, and who is also held up as an aspirational figure and role model for the closest thing the series has for a main character.

That pony is, of course, Princess Celestia. However, even if she weren’t named in the title of this essay, she is still quite recognizable from the description in the previous paragraph. Only Luna rivals her in terms of power, and even there Celestia is the more significant and powerful figure within the narrative. Only Pinkie Pie comes close in terms of being universally loved by non-villains, and even there she sometimes gets on other characters’ nerves, such as Rainbow Dash in “Griffin the Brush-Of” and Applejack in “The Last Roundup.”

But it is Celestia who commands universal respect and adoration, as we see in multiple episodes right from the start of the series. In the premiere, “Friendship Is Magic Part One,” her disappearance is treated with a stronger negative reaction by the crowd, an audible gasp, than Nightmare Moon’s appearance. An ancient evil is bad, yes, but for Princess Celestia to not appear when she promised? That is apparently far more shocking. Later, in “Friendship Is Magic Part Two,” we see that there is no question that she has the authority to order a pony to uproot her life and settle in a new town, though admittedly this is something the pony in question, Twilight Sparkle, very much wants. Later, in both “Swarm of the Century” and “A Bird in the Hoof,” her arrival in Ponyville is treated as a festival occasion, with decorations and special dinners.

However, she also commands significant awe. Nowhere is this clearer than in her appearance at the end of Season Two’s “Lesson Zero,” when her stern shout of “Twilight Sparkle!” immediately cows all of the Mane Six. Part of this awe, of course, is due to her sheer power. In “Lesson Zero,” she’s able to wipe out the effects of Twilight’s out-of-control magic in an instant. In “A Canterlot Wedding,” she is nearly able to single-handedly defeat Queen Chrysalis in a straight contest of power, at a time when Crysalis is gorged on the love energy generated by a relationship involving a pony whose special talent is literally love. In “Princess Twilight Sparkle,” we see her go toe to toe with Nightmare Moon and hold her own, though she ultimately needs the Elements of Harmony to defeat her, and in “Twilight’s Kingdom,” the combined power of the four princesses–of whom Celestia is consistently depicted as the most powerful–is shown as being on par with Tirek wielding the combined power of the entire rest of the population of Equestria plus Discord.

But what makes Celestia best pony is not just power, it’s the wisdom to use that power properly. The show repeatedly depicts and contrasts good and evil (or at least deeply flawed) versions of the same kind of power, such as the economic power of the Apples as opposed to the economic power of Diamond Tiara or the Flim-Flams, the speed and energy of Rainbow Dash as opposed to the speed and energy of Lightning Dust, or the love magic of Cadance as opposed to the love magic of Chrysalis. The consistent pattern is that good power is characterized by restraint and empathy. The Apples, despite being founders of the Ponyville and having control of two of its main products, live frugally and humbly, as opposed to Diamond Tiara’s power trips or the Flim-Flam Brothers’ grasping avarice. Rainbow Dash holds back to avoid risking harm to others, while Lightning Dust charges ahead recklessly. Cadance helps a fighting couple remember that they care about each other or works with Shining Armor to create magical shields against evil, while Chrysalis seeks to control and consume.

Within the show, Celestia is the paragon of this restraint and empathy. Right from the start, at the end of the premiere, she recognizes what Twilight Sparkle really wants and uses her authority to provide it. In “Lesson Zero,” she recognizes that the underlying problem is that Twilight has advanced to a new level in her studies, and changes the rules for friendship letters accordingly. In “The Crystal Empire,” she recognizes that it’s time for Twilight to be truly tested, and so sends her rather than (quite easily, one imagines) taking on Sombra herself. But perhaps the best example is in “The Return of Harmony,” when rather than using her power to fight Discord directly or even to break the enchantments on Twilight’s friends, she recognizes that Twilight has already written the spell that will free them, and sends it back to her through Spike.

For all that the fandom jokes about Celestia’s political authority and her occasional hints of the trickster mentor, she really does exemplify this quality of power restrained by empathy, which is most likely why she is such an important mentor figure for Twilight. The show makes quite clear that Celestia is Twilight’s role model, and has been for at least her entire adult life: the moment at which Twilight enters young adulthood is also the moment at which she becomes Celestia’s protege in “The Cutie Mark Chronicles.” Twilight’s most significant panics are at moments when she fears disappointing Celestia, most obviously in “Lesson Zero,” but also notably in “Swarm of the Century” and “The Crystal Empire.”

Recall that the series began, effectively, as the story of Twilight Sparkle learning to relate to other ponies. The only significant relationships she is shown to have at the start of the series are Spike and Celestia, and of the two it is Celestia from whom Twilight is explicitly learning. The implication is thus that Celestia possesses the knowledge that Twilight is seeking. Within the context of a show about learning, can there be any higher position than the teacher, the character who already knows the lesson?

Even as the series has expanded in its scope, so that it is all of the Mane Six rather than just Twilight learning and developing, they continue reporting their findings to Celestia throughout Season Two and Season Three, continuing her role as the “grader” of the friendship lessons, with the implication that she has already mastered them. Then in Season Three as Twilight begins to develop into a Princess, it is Celestia who takes the lead in administering her tests at the beginning and end of the season, and ultimately Celestia who appears to Twilight in her death-vision and explains to her that she has moved beyond Celestia’s capacity to teach. Even in raising Twilight to her own level, Celestia’s great wisdom is revealed: she has been watching Twilight since the beginning, as she tells us in song, which means she saw this potential in Twilight from the start. Her empathy is so great that she is able to realize capacities in Twilight that Twilight herself couldn’t see.

The living epitome of power tempered by wisdom. The role model. The universally adored leader. Celestia is all of these things, and yet at the same time is able to crack a joke, pull a prank, even be bored at the Gala in “Best Night Ever.” She is no goddess, no sorceress in an ivory tower; she is a pony, and as a pony, she is best pony.

Elements of Harmony 3: Zecora Is Best Pony

For the “Element of Harmony” backer tier on the My Little Po-Mo Volume 1 Kickstarter, one of the rewards was for the backer to select a pony, and I would write an essay for this site on why that character is the best pony. This is the third and, for now, final such essay.

As I discussed in the articles on Rarity and Applejack, the very concept of “best pony” requires that there be such a thing as “best,” and therefore begs the question “best for what?” For the first two articles, that was largely all we had to consider, because it was easy to define the purposes for which Rarity and Applejack are best, and no particular valuations jumped out in which they are actively bad or harmful.

But this article is on Zecora, and as I’ve made fairly clear in the past, I believe Zecora’s character to be deeply problematic, largely for issues of tokenism and othering. So it’s not enough simply to point out the set of values for which Zecora is best pony, as I’ve already rejected those values. First, we must find a redemptive reading, a way to read Zecora counter to the problematic reading; only then can we find the value set for which that reading of Zecora is best pony.

There is, happily, a way to do so, and it requires only a fairly simple exercise: under what circumstances would Zecora not be problematic? Put another way, is it possible to render Zecora less problematic by changing the show around her while leaving Zecora herself intact? And if so, what changes to the show would accomplish this?

The first charge against Zecora, that of tokenism, comes with a ready answer to these questions. The problem of tokenism is that if an entire people have only one character to represent them, then any trait that character has reads as an assertion that the trait is universal to the people. Any negative trait becomes an indictment of an entire people; anything about the character that resembles a stereotype held in the larger culture becomes reinforcement of that stereotype. For example, if the token woman in a show likes fashion and is highly status-conscious, she reinforces stereotypes about women.

Why, then, is Rarity not problematically reinforcing stereotypes about women? Because she shares a show with Rainbow Dash and Applejack, equally prominent characters who are women, but don’t share those particular stereotypical traits. Likewise, Applejack’s nurturing side isn’t a stereotype of the “even tough, take-charge women need to take care of babies” ilk, because Rainbow Dash isn’t a nurturer.

So the solution to Zecora’s tokenism problem is clear: more zebras. Zecora’s position as the wise mentor-figure recalls the “magical savage” stereotype of non-European people and the “magical Negro” in particular; add another zebra who isn’t like that and it becomes a personal trait of Zecora, not something shared by all zebras on the show. Zecora speaking in rhyme recalls minstrel shows and the stereotype of “black person equals rapper,” so add a zebra who doesn’t do it, and it becomes a personal trait of Zecora.

The other major challenge with Zecora is the appropriation and misuse of cultural iconography around her. The show has been very careful to give each pony tribe iconography associated with a particular subset of European culture–Old West for the Earth ponies, Classical for the pegasi, fairy-tale medieval for the unicorns. Zecora, however, gets a mishmash of African culture, evidence that less care is being taken. The writers clearly know less about African culture than their own, and are uninterested in trying to learn enough more to make Zecora’s hut from as distinct a time and place as, say, the architecture of Cloudsdale (which isn’t even all that distinct–it’s a region hundreds of miles across and a period a thousand years long, compared to the thousands of miles and years lumped into Zecora’s genericized Africa).

The solution is, again, to show more. Spend an episode in zebra country, either through the ponies visiting it or, even better, Zecora telling her story. Show that zebra (and African) culture is as varied, sophisticated, and deep as pony (European) culture. Maybe Zecora wandered zebra country before she came to Ponyville, and the contents of her hut come from different zebra communities. This would still be imperfect, as any depiction of human cultures as different species is inherently problematically othering, but it would be a vast improvement.

The problem, in other words, isn’t that Zecora exists. It’s that there’s only one of her. The show needs more zebra. Thus, one sense in which Zecora is best pony is that she is the pony there needs to be more of, not in a personal sense of her character needing more screentime, but in the sense that there need to be more ponies who are like her, yet distinct.

Which leads to the second sense in which Zecora is best pony: representation. It’s easy for someone who is frequently represented in media (say, a white, heterosexual, middle-class cismale such as myself) to forget how powerful seeing that representation actually is for someone who doesn’t get it nearly as often. Junot Diaz expresses it well:

You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror.  And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all.

Zecora is the only pony representing a non-European culture, and that makes her best pony if seeing more representation of non-European cultures is more important than seeing better representation of non-European cultures–which is a perfectly reasonable position to take, as either can do real good in the world. The problem of Zecora is once more not that Zecora shouldn’t exist; it’s that we need more and better Zecoras.

In that hypothetical show, where there are multiple tribes of zebras with distinct cultures, and multiple zebra characters with distinct personalities independent of cultural differences, and the buffalo have a distinct culture and individual personalities instead of being appalling stereotypes, and maybe a few other real-world ethnicities get depicted–in that show, is Zecora best pony?

Certainly she has her virtues. She is a born mentor, as witness her interactions with Apple Bloom, who is usually not the best student. She also, after Twilight’s defeat at the hands of Trixie in “Magic Duel,” patiently helps Twilight come to the realization that magic alone will not enable her to win, that she cannot overpower Trixie but can outwit her. She is tremendously patient and forgiving in “Bridle Gossip,” helping cure the ponies of their poison joke-inflicted ailments even after the repeatedly insult her and wreck her home, but at the same time not a pushover–she only does it after they realize the misunderstanding and apologize. She’s excellent with children as well; witness again her interactions with Apple Bloom in “Bridle Gossip” and “The Cutie Pox,” along with her quite entertaining storytelling session in “Luna Eclipsed,” which also demonstrates that she’s quite a good storyteller and entertainer. She has, in other words, all the qualities of a truly excellent primary school teacher, arguably more so than Cheerilee–at least, she has had more opportunity to demonstrate her abilities than Cheerilee has.

So we have two distinct senses in which Zecora can be taken as best pony. Within the context of the show as it is, she is deeply problematic, but at the same time the pony most defined by the show needing more of her, which certainly seems a reasonable enough definition of “best pony.” Outside that context, she is an excellent teacher and mentor, a great fit for a show about growing and learning and an aspirational fandom. Finally, she represents much-needed representation for viewers who aren’t necessarily of European descent, particularly black viewers. She is an important character with potential, who deserves a better depiction and better context than she has.

Elements of Harmony 2: Applejack Is Best Pony

For the “Element of Harmony” backer tier on the My Little Po-Mo Volume 1 Kickstarter, one of the rewards was for the backer to select a pony, and I would write an essay for this site on why that character is the best pony. This is the second such essay.
As I discussed in the article on Rarity, the question of “best pony” requires a definition of “best.” That the concept of “best” is not set in stone should be obvious, unless you wish to contend that what makes he best cupcake also makes the best pony. “Best” thus necessarily must always be understood to mean “best for a particular purpose,” not in any absolute sense.

Thus, just as with Rarity, if we can find the purposes to which Applejack is best suited, we will understand why she is best pony. Now, I’ve made no secret of my apathy toward Applejack; I find her a boring character, the least entertaining of the Mane Six, and indeed less entertaining than any of the princesses or the Cutie Mark Crusaders as well. Pretty much the only character likely to serve as an episode focus I am less enthused by than Applejack is Spike.

So, clearly, the purposes for which Applejack is best pony are not my purposes as a viewer or a commentator. But by examining the character and her strengths, can we construct such a purpose? Because of course she has quite a few strengths; as I have said before, I feel apathy, not antipathy, toward her. I don’t dislike her or think her unworthy, I just don’t personally find her entertaining, precisely because of her strengths.

Applejack’s greatest strength and weakness, fairly consistently across episodes featuring her, is her determination. Since, as a general rule, if a pony is the focus of an episode they must have a problem to overcome, frequently Applejack’s determination is depicted as stubbornness. Applejack creates her own problems by excessive stubbornness, whether that’s refusing to accept help from her friends in Season One’s “Applebuck Season,” refusing to compromise or bend her sense of propriety and fair play for others in “Look Before You Sleep” and “Fall Weather Friends” (both also Season One) or holding herself to unachievably high standards in Season Two’s “The Last Roundup” and Season Three’s “Apple Family Reunion.” But at other times her determination is a strength, as when she refuses to give up and recruits her friends and family to help against the Flim-Flam Brothers in “The Super-Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000.”

Applejack does not quit, and she hates to lose, regarding even second place as a failure (as witness her behavior in “Fall Weather Friends” and “The Last Roundup”). But she is not a total perfectionist: “Fall Weather Friends” opens with her playing horseshoes, visually referencing the saying that “Close only matters in horseshoes and hand grenades.” Although one of the most rigid of the Mane Six (Twilight has a tendency to become even more rigid when pushed outside her comfort zone), Applejack is capable of bending when necessary, as in “Sisterhooves Social.” In order to help her sister’s friend (who is also her friend’s sister) Sweetie Belle, she cheats at the obstacle course by secretly substituting a fresh pony for herself mid-race, and simultaneously throws the contest by having that pony be the significantly less athletic Rarity. Rainbow Dash, the most competitive of the Mane Six, would never do such a thing, but Applejack is willing to do so because in addition to her stubbornness, she has a strong sense of compassion.

Applejack’s compassionate, nurturing side comes out most in her interactions with her little sister, Apple Bloom. Given their lack of parents, Applejack serves as a surrogate mother to the significantly younger Apple, most notably in “Call of the Cutie” and “The Cutie Pox”–indeed, between her brother’s taciturn and self-effacing nature and her grandmother’s age and disability, Applejack is effectively head of the family and manager of the farm; though she regularly defers to her grandmother’s experience and advice, it is usually Applejack who represents Sweet Apple Acres and the Apple family in interactions with others.

Indeed, as the series has gone one Applejack’s “stubbornness” has increasingly been portrayed as a strong sense of responsibility, sometimes pathologically so. There are hints of this as early as “Applebuck Season,” but it is most clear in “The Last Roundup,” where Applejack refuses to return home or even explain to her friends what’s going on until she’s earned the money she promised the town, and “Apple Family Reunion,” where she works herself to the bone not out of a stubborn determination to prove Big Macintosh and Twilight Sparkle wrong, but out of a sense of obligation to provide her family with a “perfect” reunion.

That episode gives us a clue to a possible reason for why Applejack acts the way she does, in that it comes as close as the show likely ever will to outright saying that her parents are dead. The implication is very strong, and therein lies a key to Applejack’s personality and the first time her character becomes remotely interesting to me all series. Consider who was left on the farm after Applejack’s parents died: Her grandmother, elderly and disabled, full of knowledge but unable to handle the exhausting physical and emotional labor of maintaining the farm and holding the family together. Her brother, physically capable but too quiet and self-effacing to lead the family. Her sister, too young for any real responsibility. Applejack would have seen herself as having no choice; she had to take on the responsibilities of running the farm and leading the family, because no one else was available to do it. She herself was likely still quite young: given that the Mane Six have been friends for at least a couple of years by the time of Equestria Girls, which depicts them as high school students, and Applejack is already depicted as running the farm in the third episode of the series, she cannot have been more than the equivalent of a 15-year-old, and could have been as young as the age difference between the sisters, perhaps as little as five or six years. Nonetheless, she shouldered the burden because no one else was around to do it, and perhaps also to distract herself from grief.

There is further evidence that her shouldering of responsibilities could serve as a distraction and escape from grief, namely that she near-compulsively takes on new responsibilities. In both “The Last Roundup” and “Apple Family Reunion,” Applejack jumps at the chance to take on new responsibilities, even though the ones she already has are quite impressive for a pony so young. Something drives Applejack to take on ever more responsibility, and we’ve seen no signs that she has any particular future goal she strives toward; it thus seems likely that her drive is away from, not towards. She is still trying to race ahead of that loss, still distracting herself from fully experiencing it and beginning the healing process.

She is, in other words, the inverse of Pinkie Pie. Both are trying to escape past trauma, but doing so in opposite ways. Pinkie Pie buries herself in fun, playing her life away in a rejection of all responsibility, while Applejack devotes herself to work, becoming the kind of pony whose idea of a party is a chance to sell her apple treats.

But this dedication, coupled with her nurturing compassion and genuine desire to help others, points to the way in which Applejack is best pony: She is, of all the ponies in the show, the one who would make the best friend or family member. She is reliable, hardworking, stable, at least relative to the rest of Ponyville, caring, nurturing, compassionate, and honest. None of these traits open up a lot of avenues for character development, humor, or entertaining drama, but they are great traits to have in a companion, whether setting out an adventure or just trying to live life.

Like her determination at the diegetic level, Applejack’s greatest strength at the extradiegetic level is also her greatest weakness. That which makes her best pony also makes her boring: she is the best pony to have as a friend, so on a show where most episodes are about learning to become a better friend, Applejack has the least to learn. Within the terms by which the show defines growth, Applejack is already fully grown.

But once again, what makes for an interesting character to watch is not the same as what makes for a good friend. Applejack has the quality of the latter in spades. In this sense, she is unquestionably best pony.

Elements of Harmony 1: Rarity Is Best Pony

For the “Element of Harmony” backer tier on the My Little Po-Mo Volume 1 Kickstarter, one of the rewards was for the backer to select a pony, and I would write an essay for this site on why that character is the best pony. This is the first such essay.

What does it mean to ask “Who is best pony?” To define the term “best pony” is to already know the answer to the question, because “best” is a value judgment. Define what values qualify a pony to be “best,” and instantly whichever pony comes closest to those values is best pony. Change that definition, and the best pony changes.

The question thus can be said to have no answer, or more accurately to have as many answers as there are ponies. Every pony is best pony for some value of “best,” and so the challenge of arguing that a given pony is best pony is actually the challenge of identifying the value-set for which that pony is the closest fit.

For Rarity, that is very, very easy to do, especially if one has already written dozens of analytical essays on Friendship Is Magic. It was, admittedly, rather less easy before I began this project; when I started, Rarity ranked ahead of Applejack, but behind the rest of the Mane Six, the Cutie Mark Crusaders, and assorted other secondary ponies.

My reasons for disliking her were simple: she is vain, a social climbing status-seeker, harshly critical of others at times, fussy, and affects an accent that isn’t hers because she thinks it makes her sound posh.

All of which is, at least arguably, true. But once I started writing in detail about ponies, I discovered something: Of all the characters in the show, Rarity is, by far, the most interesting to analyze and the most fun to write about. As a result, over the course of this project, Rarity has leaped up my personal rankings until she is now my second-favorite character in the show, a position above which it is impossible to rise without entering into the pantheon of best characters in anything ever.

The value of best for which Rarity is the best pony can be summed up in more or less one word: complexity. Rarity is the most complex and layered character in the show, bar none. Consider her role in “Sweet and Elite”: on one level, she is a shallow social climber who temporarily abandons her friends and shirks her responsibilities because she is too busy being the latest favorite toy of the elite. She clearly loves having wealthy, presumably powerful ponies hanging on her judgment, listening to her opinions, and allowing her to function as a trendsetter.

But set aside that she breaks promises and lies to her friends to maintain this situation and look at the actual status she gains. Is there really anything wrong with wanting people whom you respect to respect you? Perhaps we may question the basis on which Rarity chooses whose respect is worth pursuing–I would consider the respect and friendship of Applejack, Twilight Sparkle, or Fluttershy to be a far higher token of worth than the respect of Hoity Toity or Jet Set–but we really have no basis to do so; she values what she values.

And note what she does with her newfound power and status: she aids other underdogs. She brings attention to struggling artists, garners bids for unpopular auction items–she does not forget where she came from or look down on people who are not in the elite. In this respect she is much like Fancy Pants, who gives her access to high society in the first place; she wants to be in high society because she values the elite status, but that does not mean she shares the norms and values of that society. She is a trendsetter, not a trend follower, and because of that she is ultimately resistant to the decadence, corruption, and judgmental arrogance that is typical in depictions of high society.

Those same sequences also showcase how fantastically generous Rarity is. Of all the Elements of Harmony, Rarity’s is the only one that inherently requires sacrifice; Rarity is most freely giving of the things she values most. The easy and obvious route for the Element of Generosity would be a character who throws herself into charitable causes and gives away everything she acquires, but that’s not Rarity; Rarity is no saint or savior. Her generosity takes the form of self-sacrifice; she gives others what she herself values, freely and without hesitation, but it would never occur to her that others might need what she herself does not want. She thus is not charitable in the way, say, Applejack would be charitable; the latter would most likely donate apples to food banks or give her winnings in an athletic competition to make repairs around town, while Rarity’s generosity takes the form of chopping off her beautiful, carefully maintained tail and giving it to an unhappy sea serpent.

Nowhere is Rarity’s generosity more evident than in “Green Isn’t Your Color.” She spends that episode intensely envious of Fluttershy, who has the high-society and fashion-world attention Rarity craves, yet when Fluttershy (apparently) makes a fool of herself on the runway, Rarity does not hesitate to turn the crowd in Fluttershy’s favor. Whether she currently possesses status or not, Rarity is generous in bestowing it on others–or, to put it another way, she is always willing to give away the single thing she values most, no matter how much of it she currently possesses herself.

Rarity is also quick to criticize others, as I said, but her criticism does not appear to be judgmental in nature. Rather, as an artist, she values beauty and presentation, and equally values honest critique of her work. One of her main artistic media is her own appearance, and so when she criticized others’ appearance and presentation she is once again giving something she values, honest, constructive criticism. Her very first appearance is an example of this form of generosity at work; she does not criticize Twilight’s mane out of a desire to put Twilight down or position herself as superior, but rather out of concern, and she immediately tries to help Twilight improve her appearance. That this isn’t what Twilight wants or needs points toward Rarity’s genuine flaws as a character, in particular her difficulty in understanding that her personal values are not universal, objective truths of the pony condition, but it nonetheless stands as an example of Rarity’s giving nature.

“Suited for Success” is yet another outstanding example of Rarity’s incredible generosity. In the course of this episode, she dedicates enormous quantities of her time, raw materials, and artistic skill to make not one, but three dresses for each of her friends. In part this is with the intent of catching Hoity Toity’s interest as a potential client, but initially she embarks on the project solely so that her friends will have something nice to wear to the Gala that will meet the approval of the high-society ponies attending; once again Rarity is trying to give others what she herself most wants. At the same time, she is also completely willing to take their wishes and desires into account once they tell her what those wishes are, even to the point of sacrificing her artistic vision. She knows that the second round of dresses aren’t good enough to impress Hoity Toity, but she is perfectly willing to sacrifice her career and artistic integrity in order to give her friends what they want.

Where her complexity comes most into play, however, is with consideration of those flaws I mentioned above. Rarity’s social climbing is, as I said in regards to “Sweet and Elite,” tempered by her willingness to aid others. She is not the typical social climber character, who is as willing to push others down as lift herself up; Rarity wants to enter the elite, but she is not particularly competitive, and does not presume status to be a zero-sum game. In almost any other media for girls her character would, as the beautiful, fashionable social climber who’s a little bit too willing to mention the flaws and errors of others, be depicted as a bully and a villain. Rarity, however, is genuinely happy to share her successes, and has no desire to be alone at the top. She simply wants to be surrounded and adored by elites, which is really no different from Rainbow Dash’s ambitions, except for how they respectively define “elite.”

Her other flaws are equally balanced or contradicted by virtues. She is fussy and vain, but at the same time will reluctantly get dirty if it’s necessary. She doesn’t enjoy camping and insists on bringing along a ridiculous pile of supplies, for example, but if she needs to go into the Everfree Forest to save the world or follow Spike for days across Equestria she seems to rough it without complaint. Her second significant act in the series, after Twilight’s makeover, is to join the rest of the Mane Six in insisting on accompanying Twilight into the Everfree to find the Elements of Harmony; her third is to kick a manticore in the face. She is not the fainting flower she at first glance appears to be.

Instead, her fainting flower persona, accent, and upper-class manners are all a conscious affectation. Her accent is the most obvious; she speaks nothing like her parents, which is not that surprising–Sweetie Belle also has a different accent. The difference between the two sisters, however, is that Sweetie Belle has a typical accent for Ponyville citizens, which makes sense–a person’s accent is defined largely by the community in which they grow up, not their parents, so her accent is easily explained by the family moving to Ponyville at least a few years before the present of the series. Rarity, however, speaks with an accent not associated with any location in the series, implying that it is not the accent where she grew up, but rather consciously chosen to make herself sound wealthy and sophisticated. That the same accent (called Trans-Atlantic or Mid-Atlantic) in real life is not associated with any geographic community, but instead deliberately cultivated by the upper classes of the Northeast U.S. and by Hollywood to combine elements of American and British English, suggests this is a deliberate implication; we are “meant” to read Rarity’s accent as affectation.

She has deliberately shaped her persona, in other words, to fit in with the elites she hopes someday to be accepted by. But affectation is not the same as fakery; one could equally say that Twilight’s scholarly knowledge or Rainbow Dash’s aerobatics are affectations, as those are skills have acquired as a means to accomplish their goals. More accurate would be to say that Rarity has consciously pursued a program of self-improvement, to more closely approximate what she sees as her ideal self. The show does not judge; Twilight is a scholar, and therefore building academic skills is valuable self-improvement, not fakery or living a lie; Rarity is a social climber, and therefore building the skills to fit in with the upper classes is likewise.

And so we arrive at a picture of Rarity: vain but not selfish, fussy but hardworking, critical but giving, status-conscious but not a bully. No one in the series approaches her for complexity–not even Luna comes close–and so we can say that, in this regard at least, she is without question Best Pony.