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.