It’s been a long time since I’ve last blogged exclusively about My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, but I’m catching up with the show again and was recently fascinated by the dystopian two-parter in which the Mane Six travel to a village in the far reaches of Equestria where the ponies who live there willingly give up their cutie marks in the name of equality, or sameness.
At first, Twilight Sparkle isn’t sure why they were led there since all the ponies seem so happy–what help could she have to offer? But Pinkie Pie is immediately suspicious at the villagers’ overly eager smiles and their all-too-welcoming stares. The others, Fluttershy especially, are more willing to keep investigating before making rash judgments.
Led by Starlight Glimmer, the villagers have supposedly achieved knowledge of true friendship and true equality by denying their diversity, i.e., their cutie marks. Several years ago, I wrote a post exploring cutie marks not only as symbols of growing up, but also as symbols of spiritual calling. This season five opener adds another dimension to that understanding.
The situation in this village quickly becomes more Orwellian when Starlight Glimmer catches on to some dissenters, steals the Mane Six’s cutie marks, and locks them in a small shack where they are indoctrinated with catchphrases that espouse Starlight Glimmer’s philosophy: the mere existence of cutie marks fosters disagreement, hatred, and inequality. To relinquish one’s cutie mark is to deny that one is best at something or is in any way better than another. Achieving equality, then, means denying diversity.
On one level, there can be something noble about a pony giving up their cutie mark. After all, we see from the Cutie Mark Crusaders that cutie marks are coveted markers of maturity that can be used to shame those without. In season five, Apple Bloom gets her own episode where she’s stuck in a never-ending nightmare in which she keeps getting cutie marks that she doesn’t like, doesn’t understand, or doesn’t expect. This raises all kinds of interesting questions about identity, growing up, and life’s purpose (or calling). Cutie marks mean a lot, so Apple Bloom’s anxiety over getting hers is completely understandable. This self-induced pressure plays nicely into the rhetoric taught in this “no cutie mark” village (even though “Bloom and Gloom” aired later). They cause young fillies to worry so much about what cutie mark they’ll get that they can’t experience true friendship or happiness, so why have them? Why allow them to be such absolute markers of identity? Therefore, it seems progressive and noble to deny cutie marks–to deny diversity, individualism, and self-identity. Cutie marks should not define a pony; a pony should be more than their cutie mark.
This is all well and good, and it’d make for a very interesting point of tension in the series if it wasn’t a farce and if it didn’t have such visibly negative effects on the ponies who choose to give up their cutie marks. In the end, Starlight Glimmer isn’t interested in equality. She’s interested in stripping power and identity from others to take over Equestria. In other words, she wants to gain power by taking away diversity and replacing it with a shoddy notion of equality that, literally, slaps an equal sign on everything and calls it a day. Demanding more than equality, or desiring diversity, is out of the question. It’s so out of the question that Sugar Belle, who serves the Mane Six terribly burnt muffins, can’t comprehend that they could have a disagreement and still be friends. Diversity of opinion cannot coexist with friendship, so she’s been taught.
As the plot of these two episodes unfolds, it becomes clear that this implementation of equality is not the sort of thing that Equestria needs to strive for. Stripping away cutie marks is not the way to ensure peace or prevent disagreements. What Starlight Glimmer calls “equality” is actually “sameness.” It’s a kind of structure that creates very narrow expectations of how to live and be happy. Maintaining the peace in this village means that each pony is prevented from living authentically, which is exactly what unjust social systems aim to do. Any bit of diversity that might threaten the societal order are erased and discouraged, often violently. In My Little Pony, however, the diversity of cutie marks is erased through a combination of repetitious rhetoric and Starlight Glimmer’s magic. We watch as it sucks the passion and energy out of the Mane Six to the point where some even lose the will to go home.
Really, this village presents the opposite of what Equestria stands for and how it seems to run. After all, the Mane Six represent the elements of harmony, not the elements of sameness. Harmony, in the most technical, musical sense, refers to pitches or tones that come together to form chords. Sure, everyone can follow the melody, but you don’t get chords, or a fuller, complete sound, with everyone singing the same note at the same pitch. It’s easy to hear how harmonies, or diversity in pitch and tone, make a song complete.
This is the kind of ideal that My Little Pony presents. Its definition of harmony is manifested in the Mane Six, who exist uniquely but united. They are harmonious and exhibit a more complete equality in part because of their “specialness” of which their cutie marks are one representative.
The elements of harmony are presented in direct contrast with Starlight Glimmer’s “Staff of Sameness,” whose ridiculous name should be a clue to the farce. Understandably, the entire narrative of these two episodes needs to be simple for its target audience, though it would be fascinating to see a pony or group of ponies who gave up their cutie marks and have much deeper, legitimate reasons for doing so besides being brainwashed.
I also have to wonder about the kind of message the “equality” rhetoric of this episode sends, especially with its hopefully coincidental resemblance to the Human Rights Campaign’s logo. Now, the most interesting commentary to glean would be that Starlight Glimmer’s focus, like the HRC’s, is shallow and only benefits a few. Many people have criticized the HRC–and the mainstream LGBT+ movement in general–for making marriage equality the forefront of all other issues when marriage primarily benefits the middle class and above. The mainstream LGBT+ movement is also very, very separated from its roots at Stonewall, led by two trans women of color. In response to HRC’s popular equal sign logo and its lack of focus on the intersectional queer community, many people change their social media profile pictures to a “>” to indicate that marriage cannot be the end of the movement (or even the goal) when LGBT+ teens are still kicked out of their homes and have a higher chance of committing suicide.
Without this nuanced understanding, I can see how one could easily make the initial connection between this anti-cutie mark village’s logo and the HRC/the LGBT+ movement in general, then conclude that “equal rights” are a sham. Is a children’s show about cartoon ponies really making this kind of negative statement? I highly doubt it.
Still, it’s interesting to look at this overt use of the term “equality” in comparison with Legend of Korra’s Equalists in Book 1. Since I’ve already set a precedent of comparing these series, I may as well run with it. In both shows, “equality” becomes explicitly associated with movements that turn out to be a farce. The Equalist plotline, in my view, had the potential to be compelling, but is plagued by botched writing and an ending that seems to make the oppression of non-benders illegitimate. The “radical” ones that call themselves Equalists–especially Amon–are revealed to not be as substantial as they seemed. Amon was a bender from the start and he used that bending to rile up actual non-benders who believed in his ideals. Likewise, Starlight Glimmer uses her magic to appear as if she has no cutie mark, but hides behind rhetoric and ideology that could actually be a legitimate way for some ponies to live.
So it seems that there’s some kind of criticism about using the term “equality” or “Equalist” explicitly and those terms being attached to leaders who don’t genuinely practice what they preach or who are not actually members of the group they’re supposed to be representing. “Equality” becomes something applied too literally or something that’s harmful because of a disingenuous leader. It becomes associated with goals to erase diversity.
Ultimately, I would call this a misuse of the term, but where Legend of Korra fails to explore alternatives to the Equalists’ extreme goal to get rid of bending altogether (Korra doesn’t restore balance between benders and non-benders), My Little Pony reaffirms uniqueness and identity via special talents. Its homeostasis is diversity over sameness, so Starlight Glimmer loses not only because she’s a fraud but also because the worldview she posits seeks to deny an intrinsic part of ponies’ nature and identity (cutie marks) rather than celebrate it and confront the inevitable discomfort that those differences will bring. Friendship–and diversity–are magic because they let these differences exist in full rather than subduing them.