Conflict is one of the ingredients necessary to good writing. Without it, a character’s motivations and actions can seem arbitrary or pointless. This principle applies just as well to kids’ cartoons starring prismatically varied ponies as it does to any other kind of fiction. What better way to once again explore this concept than to look at Ponyville’s own fabulous fashionista, Rarity?
Rarity, boutique owner and known as the element of generosity, also happens to be stubborn, selfish, fussy, and temperamental. She loses her temper at the drop of a hat. And yet, she’s also brave, caring, and willing to give to her friends without any prompting. Rarity is an excellent example of how the writers find ways to generate plot, character development, and conflict without forcing it into the show.
The world of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic runs on conflict, and why not? All too many shows for kids reduce their conflicts to the pure-hearted, flawless, and boring one-dimensional heroes versus bombastic but clumsy or downright stupid villains. It might be sufficient for marketing, but it’s not good storytelling and it’s certainly not good writing. Friendship is Magic offers us a central cast of six very different ponies. It’s a classic piece of marketing to kids: if your show has a variety of easy to grasp character types, you can sell more merchandise.
Within this group, Rarity represents the classic “snob” archetype, yet she also stands in for the element of generosity. Rarity doesn’t always show her generous nature; not only can she be snooty, she can also be combative and downright selfish. It’s exactly this sort of character flaws that make the show worth watching in the first place. A character without these handicaps might be more admirable or heroic, but she would also be as dry and dull as a paper cup full of sand.
One of the more interesting aspects of Rarity’s character is her creativity. Her love of fashion doesn’t just fuel her ambitions; it allows her to express herself. Art of the Dress may be a Sondheim pastiche, but it’s also about the happiness, and the stress, she gets from her work. On a larger level, her fashion stands in for both her dreams and her pretensions: the desire to be an upper-crust Canterlot pony (and impress the suave Fancy Pants), to escape the mundane life of Ponyville, and to shine all over Equestria. Rarity’s worst fear is to be revealed as just another ordinary pony, so she slaps on some false eyelashes, affects a strangely nonspecific accent (which no one else on the show has), and aggressively markets her fashions. Anyone who has ever wanted to escape from the confines of small town life can understand how she feels, but it’s not an easy thing to do. Rarity doesn’t just get what she wants on a silver platter; she has to pay her dues like anyone else.
Still, Rarity can’t help but want these things. When Twilight Sparkle gives her the opportunity to stay in Canterlot, Rarity first feels she should make a dress for Twi’s birthday. Instead, she ends up chasing her dreams and becoming a social butterfly among the Canterlot snobs. Except for Fancy Pants (and Princess Celestia), most of Canterlot’s so-called elite seem to be pretty dull, engaging in trivial gossip and caring more about being seen and how others think of them than about what they actually do in life. It’s all too human and, er, pony-like to put personal interests ahead of those of your friends. Rarity could just be the same conventional snob character as the rest, but she isn’t. She stands out in more ways than one.
When her friends do finally crash the boring garden party, Rarity owns up to being one of them. When her friends can’t afford fancy gala dresses, Rarity instantly offers to make them and give them away as gifts. She feels so sorry for a sea monster with only half a mustache that she cuts off part of her tail in order to make him look fabulous again (and to get him to calm down, so she and her friends can actually cross the river to track down Nightmare Moon). She impulsively switches between selfish desires and selfless giving at the drop of a (giant) hat. It can even work backwards, from selflessness to selfishness: she can recognize that Rainbow Dash badly needs moral support during the Best Young Flyers competition, but then give her a shiny new pair of magical translucent butterfly wings and Rarity will thoughtlessly overshadow her friend, try to steal her thunder, and thoughtlessly pull an Icarus.
Rarity is often characterized by the fandom as being shallow and horrible, but while she’s capable of being those things, she can also be the big sister who realizes that she needs to reach out to her little sister Sweetie Belle. Rarity can be the pony who knows when her friends need cheering up, or free gala dresses, or jewel-encrusted bow ties. She is anything but the one-dimensional snob character that any other cartoon would have. She can play the bad guy in a conflict, or be the sympathetic protragonist and victim. She doesn’t always live up to her element (generosity), but that sort of internal and interpersonal conflict is what makes for good storytelling, and good writing. By constantly embodying the conflict between the selfish and the selfless, Rarity becomes a compelling and interesting character.
This sort of nuanced characterization is unheard-of for entertainment aimed at young girls, and it’s at the heart of why Friendship is Magic can attract such a wide audience and fanbase. By embodying the benefits and perils of fabulousity, Rarity shows us both what to do and what not to do to be a good friend.