I simply cannot let such a crime against fabulosity go uncorrected. (Sweet and Elite)

You realize this means there was a pony version of Dali, right?
Has anyone drawn him? I want a drawing of him.

It’s December 3, 2011. The top song is still Rihanna, and the top movie is still Breaking  Dawn, but at least the The Muppets are at a close number two, so theaters at least aren’t completely devoid of joy. In the news, scientists develop an artificial bone scaffold that can be made with a 3D printer, leading to speculation that we may someday be able to print artificial bone for injured people, Egyptians take to the polls in the first elections since they overthrew their government early in the year, and Herman Caine drops out of the U.S. Presidential race, disappointing fans of avant-garde performance art everywhere.

On TV, Meghan McCarthy writes and James Wootton directs the aptly named “Sweet and Elite,” an astoundingly good episode that sadly tends to get overshadowed because it’s in a season full of astoundingly good episodes. This is Rarity’s star turn in more ways than one, as the second (and last to date) time she is sole focus of an episode, coinciding with her entry into Canterlot high society, which is only everything she ever wanted.

What we get is effectively a high school drama–a kid who isn’t normally in the popular crowd joins and forgets abouther unpopular friends. Then she has to choose between popularity and her friends, and chooses to bring the two together, shattering the high school class system. It’s basically the plot of Mean Girls and countless other films and Very Special Episodes, which isn’t at all surprising; high society and high school are both cases of forced association between people with very little productive work to do, so they turn to petty internal politics instead.

What’s interesting about Rarity is a character is that she is equally readable as the villain of a high school drama: she is (to judge by the reactions of other characters) beautiful, status-conscious, fashion-obsessed, materialistic, and judgmental. She is a classic “Queen Bee” character familiar from countless stories set in high school, and in many such stories would be the bully picking on our Everygirl heroine, who would probably resemble either Twilight Sparkle or Rainbow Dash.

But that’s what makes Rarity one of the most fascinating characters in the show; in McCarthy’s hands she evades that stereotype. Even when she prioritizes associating with Canterlot society over finishing Twilight’s birthday dress, she never stops caring about Twilight. She does not at any point blow off her friends. Even when she pulls the sitcom-cliche “two parties/dates at once” she never actually admits to her friends that she’s embarrassed by them.

Take Mean Girls for an example, as it’s probably the best recent version of this story type. Cady starts that film as one of the outcasts, which this episode clearly positions Ponyville as being equivalent to. After she is accepted into the popular crowd, however, she quickly absorbs those attitudes and begins rejecting her former outcast friends, up until the end of the film when she finally turns on the Plastics and helps bring down the school’s clique system.

Rarity does basically none of that. She never turns on her friends; we neither get a scene where she attacks or betrays the Mane Six nor one where she tells off the society ponies. Quite the opposite; though some of the society ponies are initially horrified or amused at the antics of the Mane Six and Rarity’s association with them, Fancy Pants sways them to accept her. High society stays intact, and Rarity find herself able to move between worlds.

Which, honestly, is far more realistic than the usual story. Cliques are an inevitable result of people having little real power and too much time on their hands, which is why you see them so often among high school students, trophy spouses of rich people, and noble courts. When people have actual work to do, there are always a few petty people who play political games, but by and large most people just want to get stuff done and work together to accomplish it. Adult life, in my experience, has vastly fewer cliques than high school, and for most people part of growing up is accepting that.

It sometimes seems like the people who have the hardest time letting go are the people who were at the top and, surprisingly, the bottom of the high school hierarchy. I think sometimes it’s hard to accept that a bad experience is actually over; I know for me I was out of high school for more than a decade before I realized that in college, there were just too damn many kids for their to be a popular crowd; we all split off to do our own things and left everyone else alone. There were factions, sure–I was on the newspaper staff, and the underground newspaper saw us as rivals while we ignored their existence–but there was no hierarchy per se. Every club and group had its members and allies, who generally thought they were awesome, and its detractors, who obviously didn’t, but most students were just too busy to give a rat’s ass about any group they didn’t belong to. That’s largely remained my experience in adult life, with two exceptions: bigotry, which is a different (albeit massive) problem entirely, and those rare occasions where petty people and bullies are encouraged to get together and assume power (one very poorly managed workplace; the condo board/housing association everywhere I’ve lived that has one).

Really, in adult life, when people of very different interests and goals encounter one another the reaction is hardly ever horror, especially if (and, as I said, it’s a big if) bigotry is left out of the equation. Case in point: I work in a government office. It is a place of Very Serious People ranging in age from late 20s to early 60s. My ringtone has been “Smile, Smile, Smile” since before I started working and I’ve kept a Lyra Heartstrings figure on my desk. My desktop wallpaper is a rotating set of images including schematics of the TARDIS, Starfuries in flight past Babylon 5, Kanata from the first-season opening credits of AKB0048, Lina Inverse, and a screencap from the second Gurren Lagann movie. No one has ever cared.

I know not everyone’s so lucky. Some people are stuck in situations where the people around them are unusually judgmental and conformist, or the levels of background pettiness are high enough that cliques happen. If you’re in such a situation, please accept both my sympathies and my assurance that not everywhere is like that. Most people really do have too much going on to give a shit that your dress is a simple design from a shop in Ponyville–and sometimes the people you least expect will turn out to actually like it.

Next week: Remember how I said Season 2 was full of outstandingly good episodes? Yeah, this ain’t remotely one of them.

14 thoughts on “I simply cannot let such a crime against fabulosity go uncorrected. (Sweet and Elite)

  1. The thing I still like about “Sweet and Elite” is that, even when Rarity seems to be at her greediest – ignoring Twilight's birthday present to climb the social ladder – what we see her actually doing at those social functions is mostly selfless, like helping an artist's debut go well and working the crowd at a charity auction.

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  2. Also, I look forward to seeing how your analysis of “Equestria Girls” compares to that of “Sweet and Elite,” since they work around many of the same tropes.

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  3. You know, I was waiting waiting waiting for you to get to this episode so I could make some insightful comments, but then you cut me off by saying everything I wanted to say in the main article anyways. Now I don't get to add anything.

    Side note, we totally need to come up with a punny name for Pony Salvadore Dali. Any takers?

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  4. Really, in adult life, when people of very different interests and goals encounter one another the reaction is hardly ever horror

    A point wonderfully emphasized by Fancy Pants, in a fantastic departure from the usual formulation of this style of story. He's a genuinely friendly guy who seems to really enjoy spending time with others, with no indication of the usual petty and myopic maneuvering we see from almost every other Canterlotian. It's easy to see why people would want to spend time with him. Typically we'd see Jet Set and Upper Crust as the ones at the top, and the departure is just as pleasant as the “pretty and popular girl” Rarity being a kind and generous sort who wants to elevate others to her level.

    Though one wonders what would happen were Twilight to reveal that she's the Princess' star pupil and trusted agent, a person of vastly more courtly influence and power than all of them combined?

    Remember how I said Season 2 was full of outstandingly good episodes? Yeah, this ain't remotely one of them.

    *sigh* Yeah, were there ever a difference between grasp and reach… They hit so many correct things, and nail a perfect allegory for their moral lesson, but when it comes to sticking the landing?

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  5. This episode is one of the reasons why IMNSHO, Rarity is best pony. However, as has been mentioned, perhaps the reason she didn't get any episodes in S3 is because she's basically achieved every goal except actually opening her shop in Canterlot, which I understand if they want to save for a later season, along with the CMCs getting their Cutie Marks.

    I did wonder why, then the society ponies asked her who Rainbow Dash was, she didn't just feign an aw-shucks look and say, “Well, I suppose you probably haven't heard of the winner of the Best Young Flier competition in Cloudsdale, though I guess the contest was important enough for Princess Celestia to place the trophy crown on the winner…” thus casually working her royal connections into the conversation and pretending to ignore the awed stares she would have received.

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  6. I really wanted to bring this up in the article, but never found a place to. Thanks for putting it here, because it's a huge part of Rarity's characterization.

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  7. Fancy Pants is pretty awesome. My roommate ships him with Rarity; I instinctively oppose all ponyshipping, but I'll admit that's one of the least bad pairs I've seen suggested.

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  8. perhaps the reason she didn't get any episodes in S3 is because she's basically achieved every goal except actually opening her shop in Canterlot

    And Rarity opening a shop in Canterlot is one of those premise-shattering events–there's basically no reason for her to stay in Ponyville and every reason not to once that happens.

    That said, there's TONS of stories available involving Rarity encountering and reacting to things outside her comfort zone–the Rarity microseries comic proves that.

    I did wonder why, then the society ponies asked her who Rainbow Dash was, she didn't just feign an aw-shucks look and say, “Well, I suppose you probably haven't heard of the winner of the Best Young Flier competition in Cloudsdale, though I guess the contest was important enough for Princess Celestia to place the trophy crown on the winner…” thus casually working her royal connections into the conversation and pretending to ignore the awed stares she would have received.

    Because while Rarity will fish for compliments on occasion, she'd never be so indecorous as to brag like that. Which is good, because if Rarity just comes out and says “Oh, by the way, I'm a bearer of an Element of Harmony, savior of the kingdom twice over, met the princesses multiple times,” there's no episode.

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  9. Possibly it's not so much that she wouldn't brag (although she doesn't) as that she is overcompensating for her mistakes in Green Is Not Your Color–the last time she tried to use one of her friends to boost her career/social standing, it made both of them miserable. So to compensate she doesn't want to name-drop at all, not even when it's situationally appropriate like here. And that's probably for the best; imagine what a jerk she would look like (and perhaps be) if she'd tried to namedrop Twilight, the single most impressive name she has available, to get in good with these guys. She only even let slip that she was staying at the castle on accident; Rarity wants to be recognized for her own accomplishments.

    More likely though, in a split second of panic her mind blanked out and she couldn't actually come up with a way to spin Rainbow Dash as high society. As viewers we immediately seize on something that was an episode plot. But for someone who's known her for years a single contest that took a single day probably a few weeks ago isn't the first thing that'll pop into her mind when thinking about about a friend. So she blurted something out and then was stuck with it.

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  10. What Rarity is trying to avoid saying is “Rainbow Dash is the Ponyville Weatherpony.”

    I don't have that much to say about this episode. I do think it's interesting how Twilight has everything Rarity wants but doesn't value it. I think they probably understand each other the least out of their respective friends. They certainly spend much of this episode talking past each other.

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