Pony Theory: Why Did Rarity Win The Hub's Best Pony Poll?
So, Rarity won best pony this year, in an online poll that allowed hubworld.com users to vote for their favorite ponies multiple times a day if they answered some MLP trivia questions. I wasn't upset by the way this went, even though I'd voted for Twilight Sparkle and Fluttershy. I just wanted to think about some of the attributes of Rarity as a character that might explain why she's such a fan favorite.
1. Rarity as the "classic unicorn"
In Rarity, we see the associations people in Western culture primarily make with unicorns as a species; grace, beauty, elegance, femininity, and the color white. Sure, unicorns show up in popular culture in Fantasia and calendar art and such in many colors, but usually these colors are either white or another very light color, and if I asked most people at random to describe a unicorn, they'd probably describe it as a white mare with a horn. Traditionally, unicorns' whiteness had a symbolic meaning in Renaissance tapestries and other art forms; the whiteness represented the unicorn as a divine being associated with purity and virginity. This was because theology of the time associated light with God.
This is also seen as a convention used with Princess Celestia, who is the ruler of Equestria, and a white alicorn. More about the significance of Rarity, and some of the other ponies, being white as opposed to some other color, can be read here: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/WhiteStallion
In any case, it's not meant to I think be thought of as a racial characteristic, but rather, the color of a pony is a symbol designed to tell the viewer something about her personality. You see this with "mellow yellow" Fluttershy and loud, boldly pink Pinkie Pie. Rarity's whiteness represents her as a symbol of old-fashioned virtues, nobility, and the deep purple color of her mane is a color that's been associated with royalty and affluence since Roman times. This makes her the classic image most people in this culture have of a unicorn as a regal, majestic animal with graceful movements.
2. Rarity Embodies Commonly Romanticized 19th Century Sentiments
When discussing Rarity as a character, one has to wonder about the many ways Rarity's character has been associated with what some people might call "the good ole days", or at least, a time period that for many people is associated with sophistication, class, romance, and a refined sense of style. I'm talking of course about the Victorian era.
Although this poll was presumably accessible worldwide, I'm looking at this issue from an American perspective, mostly because I think American viewers of MLP would have made up the majority of poll participants. Though in England, the Victorian era symbolized industry taking a big wrecking ball to tradition in order to bring in new ways of life, in America, the time period is thought of with fondness. In America, this was a time when our industrialists really shined and we became a respected superpower for the first time, influencing culture in Japan and Europe. It was the first time American artists gained acceptance and followings in Europe, and the time of Manifest Destiny and our overwhelming desire to put a 7-11 and a Starbucks everywhere from New York to California. We were exploring Alaska, building homesteads out west, discovering gold and silver, forcing Japan to trade with us OR ELSE, and many people were making huge amounts of money. This makes it an idealized time period for many Americans, that's often romanticized in our popular culture.
What the hay does this have to do with Rarity, you're probably wondering. Well, everything about Rarity says "Victorian era": her insistence that males behave chivalrously, her desire to better herself as a business pony and mingle with high society, even her profession, as a seamstress, since it became possible in the 19th century with the first smaller home-based sewing machines for women to choose that as a home-based business as an upper class alternative to factory-produced clothing. Women with an eye for design and a steady sewing hand soon found themselves a lucrative trade, which might even help explain the rise in women's roles in government and the rise of the first wave of feminism in America. And, if you notice, a lot of the dresses Rarity makes are Victorian in design, and, though Fluttershy made it, this is also true of her gala dress.
There is also the idea of Rarity's personality. She's over-dramatic, a lot of times comedically over-reacting to minor setbacks as if they were major tragedies. This references, I think, the idea of romanticism in the 19th century. Romanticism was a rejection of the previous prevailing beliefs in rationality and empiricism. It was interested more in personal psychology and in expressing the emotions, in giving emotions value and purpose, than in cataloging the world according to a merely rational viewpoint. Romantic painters painted landscapes, with a focus on the power of nature and the smallness of human beings, in addition to painting images of suffering and emotional melodrama. This idea of 19th century romanticism seems to give rise to Rarity's penchant for over-dramatization in her personal life.
I feel like in American culture right now, romanticism and associated conservatism, a longing for the "good ole days", is definitely common. Rarity, with her theatricality, high society sensibilities, fashion sense, and romantic longing (as well as a definite resemblance to Scarlett O'Hara), make her the image of America's ideally virtuous Victorian woman. She also has the potential, since it is mostly a comedic show, to parody these 19th century cultural values she represents, to add to the social commentary and humor of the show.
3. Yet, Rarity Still Defies Culture-based Stereotypes
Since Rarity embodies many traditional feminine virtues, the audience probably, prior to seeing A Dog and Pony Show, would have expected her to be passive and weak, like what we think of as a traditional high-class Victorian-era woman. But then the episode A Dog and Pony Show (which is one of my personal favorites, for this very reason) shows that Rarity is not weak just because she's feminine and classy. It shows that Rarity is not the Distressed Damsel that every pony else seems to think she is, in need of rescue, but that she's actually capable of taking care of herself. In fact, it's kind of funny that throughout this episode, Spike has delusions of being the heroic male who will save her, like in a story. This shows that the writers were deliberately trying to show the audience that one should not make assumptions about a person's strength based on their gender or social class.
Also, Rarity is something of a feminist role model, as one of the mane six who run their own businesses. In comparison to other members of the mane six that do this, Rarity is the most self-reliant; Twilight is merely a student, who has yet to partake in her own business endeavors, Pinkie Pie is a helper in a subservient role to the Cake family, Apple Jack's work depends a lot on her family, Rainbow Dash works with a team most of the time, and Fluttershy also works alone, but with less of a focus on marketing herself to the public that Rarity has. So Rarity becomes not only a role model as a successful entrepreneur, but an embodiment of the American spirit of commerce as an individual endeavor and the work of an individual creative genius. I think that many adult fans of MLP are themselves artists, so seeing Rarity as an artist whose medium is textiles is also part of what makes her favored in the fan community.
Seeing Rarity as an artist with creative passions also shows her as a defiance of another stereotype, the Alpha Bitch. Although a true Alpha Bitch shows up with Diamond Tiara in the Cutie Mark Crusader episodes, Rarity is a character who had the potential to be this one-dimensional shallow, self-absorbed bully character, if the writers hadn't decided to give her more complexity and depth. As a unicorn, which we see in Hearth's Warming Eve is a race associated with snobbery, and an obviously high-class fashionista one at that, most viewers early on in the show probably had an expectation that she would be a whiny, narcissistic, bratty diva who belittles others. I had this expectation myself, and it's because of popular culture and bad teen movie after bad teen movie. In Rarity, they show that it's ok for someone to not only be feminine but also very into fashion, which is often seen as superficial and pointless, and that this doesn't mean that person is worthless or a bitch.
So, Rarity defies many cultural expectations of what someone who is upper class, feminine, and who has a high level of interest in fashion, should behave like.
4. Rarity's Stories are the Most Interesting
None of this is to say Rarity doesn't have her flaws and weaknesses. For example, I went off a bit here about how I didn't like the way she acted towards her Ponyville friends in Sweet and Elite.
However, the issue Rarity struggles with in that episode is not only relate-able to many people (since I'm sure most people have been caught between conflicting loyalties to different groups of friends before) but also shows one of the best examples of character development in My Little Pony. Another episode that's great in terms of Rarity's character development is Sisterhooves Social, an episode where she learns how to talk to her sister Sweetie Belle in a nicer way and to respect Sweetie Belle's feelings. The end shows her covering herself in mud in order to show Sweetie Belle that she cares about her, which, given Rarity's penchant for cleanliness, shows that she is willing to make what is for her a real sacrifice to show what Sweetie Belle means to her.
Rarity also seems to have the most learning experiences when she's involved in a story with the rest of the mane six. In Sonic Rainboom, she learns from the experience of strutting her beautiful wings for the pegasi in Cloudsdale, that her vanity caused her to almost plummet to her death. In Winter Wrap Up, she struggles as not just a unicorn being forced to not do magic, but also as someone with a set of skills that lends itself more to decorativeness than utility. While the rest of the mane six have most things figured out, Rarity seems to be the pony who is the most actively engaged in the process of learning important life lessons and bettering herself. She doesn't have life as concretely defined and figured out as other characters, which makes her interesting to watch. Her lesson also isn't repetitious, as is sometimes the case with Fluttershy and the Cutie Mark Crusaders, who often end up learning the same lesson over and over again but in slightly different ways.
So Rarity's imperfections as a character are actually what make her better than the rest of the mane six in terms of narrative possibility. She's not weak and helpless, but she does seem to show the most potential to see real growth from the magic of friendship.