Comparing Matriarchies: My Little Pony and Steven Universe

Both My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and Steven Universe present matriarchal societies in which women fulfill the most powerful roles in their worlds. In My Little Pony, it’s the alicorn princesses. In Steven Universe, it’s the Great Diamond Authority. Yet both of these matriarchies show vastly different applications of power. Equestria’s matriarchy is more caring and collaborative while the Great Diamond Authority is strictly focused on colonialism and conquest.

Reasons why these two systems are so different vary. Some of it certainly has to do with the show creators’ intentions and the target audience for both series (Steven Universe, to me, seems aimed at slightly older children than My Little Pony). But a lot of it also has to do with the core ideals each society is built on.

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In My Little Pony, we’re largely made to view Princess Celestia’s rule as peaceful and just, especially as her court expands to Luna, Cadence, and Twilight Sparkle (who then forms a court of her own). The Elements of Harmony and the magic of friendship are the foundations on which everything else is built. In recent seasons, Twilight Sparkle especially has used her status as Princess of Friendship to reveal not just the power of friendship in general, but the power of redemptive friendship. In the Equestria that Twilight Sparkle now continues to shape through her position in this matriarchal hierarchy of alicorns, nothing that causes separation or despair is allowed to exist. If it does, it’s posited as antagonistic, or at least non-affiliated with Equestrian royalty.

This means that justice occurs through this system. Is it challenged at times? Absolutely. Are mistakes made? Of course. Is Princess Celestia a giant troll? Duh. But we don’t see oppression stemming from declarations made in Canterlot or from subtle notions that one race of pony is superior to the other two. Once Luna is free from Nightmare Moon, we don’t see an alicorn who wants to conquer. More recently, Twilight Sparkle’s actions both in the regular universe and in Equestria Girls extends an invitation to those who formerly tried to disrupt the foundation of harmony and friendship. Equestria’s royal matriarchy seems to adequately provide for the safety and well-being of its subjects. Ponies are allowed to live free, independent lives pursuing whatever occupations their cutie marks call them to. There aren’t many prominent examples of super strict class or gender expectations either.

In these ways, My Little Pony presents the opposite of real-life patriarchal structures that we’re more familiar with. It provides a hopeful answer to the question: what does a sociopolitical system not run by men look like? It’s peaceful, harmonious, and just.

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But Steven Universe gives us the opposite answer, or at least a criticism of the idea that simply placing women in authoritative roles typically held by men will necessarily create a more just society. Gems are an all-female alien race, so women naturally appear in every single role from ruler to techy to lackie. We’ve learned from the recent Steven Bomb (and other episodes too) that Homeworld has very strict and specific ideas about which gems are the most important and which are disposable or common. It’s not just that each gem has their own specific role. It’s that these roles seem hardwired in their very physical structures. Rubies are stout and headstrong because they’re made to protect. Peridots are tiny and have large heads partly because they’re adorable goobers, but also because they’re made to be technicians.

So it seems that gems are crafted to fit a particular role in the colonial and industrial Homeworld structure. It’s not 100% clear at this point if the Great Diamond Matriarchs are actually the creators of all gems, but it’s very clear that they run this well-oiled machine of a structure. This matriarchy is built on a foundation of supremacy and conquest. In our own world, we’ve seen these systems play out in the hands of men who had exclusive access to these powerful roles. Steven Universe is showing the same type of system, only with women filling those roles instead. It flips the script, but it also shows that it’s not enough to just change the gender of those in these roles. The meaning of those roles and the structure itself must also change.

Steven Universe gives us plenty of examples of this. Everything the Crystal Gems have done flies in the face of Homeworld’s values. They have left the structure and now defy it. Garnet is an anomaly not just because she’s a fusion, but because she’s a fusion of two different gems, which was unheard of until Ruby and Sapphire accidentally fused. Together, they redefine the purpose and implications of fusing.

Whereas My Little Pony posits that a system with clear hierarchies and traditional structures can be just if the ruling parties build their systems on foundations of redemption and harmony, Steven Universe suggests that justice can only be found outside of such systems. Homeworld structure cannot be redeemed or changed from the inside. Instead, gems must break away from it and dismantle it from the outside. Redemption and harmony are only possible outside of this system, as we’ve seen most recently with Peridot. In Steven Universe, a matriarchy that functions with the same roles we’ve seen in real-world patriarchies is just as harmful for its subjects, showing that keeping the system but swapping the genders isn’t enough of a step to enact actual change or justice.

This is why many feminist theories don’t suggest that replacing patriarchies with matriarchies is the ultimate goal. Those that do may be presenting a utopia of sorts, and while systems run by women certainly could be different than those run by men, there’s no guarantee that they would be the solution to oppression, especially if the power dynamics remain the same.

If there were to be a totally just matriarchy, it might be more like what we see in My Little Pony where all have access to the fundamental power on which the system runs (friendship in this case). Lack of friendship, no space for diversity, and no room for redemption or harmony are the things that threaten this system. When they creep in, we start seeing familiar things like classism (e.g., conflicts between unicorns, earth ponies, and pegasi). Equestria and its systems were more or less established to dismantle those threats rather than embrace them for the purpose of expanding territory or conquering other nations.

So, these two matriarchies give us different implications of women being system-builders, system-runners, and even system-breakers. As both series continue, we might see some more nuances–for example, other gems with high status might start questioning the system or ruling powers in Equestria might continue to become decentralized. Either way, both shows convey interesting explorations of feminine power and agency.

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2 thoughts on “Comparing Matriarchies: My Little Pony and Steven Universe

  1. Why do you think it has anything to do with gender? Why do you think a matriarchy would be more different from a patriarchy than a patriarchy from another patriarchy? Ultimately, females and males are two groups of individuals who only have their anatomy in common. I’m a male, but I wouldn’t rule a country like Barack Obama does, for example (assuming I would rule a country at all).
    So basically, your article is just about how a matriarchy could be good or bad. In other news, water is wet. But what I really don’t get is how you can even compare these matriarchies with our “patriarchy”. Both Equestria and Homeworld have been ruled by the exact same people (ponies, gems, whatever) for thousands of years. Homeworld is clearly a dictatorship where gems can’t even choose who they are or what they do in life. Equestria seems way more free, but everyone either obeys the Alicorns or needs to be reformed. Celestia’s authority has never been questioned by the “good” characters.
    Now let’s take a look at our “patriarchy”: there’s a new head of state every few years, anyone can be a candidate, everyone participates in deciding who is going to rule the country for the next few years.

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    1. Good points. My interest here was really just to look at two (fictional) systems where women/female-coded persons, creatures, whatever you want to call them fulfill roles that for much of our history were held by men and together helped create the system(s) of patriarchy. Due to this general, system trend (obviously there have been exceptions), some camps of feminism suggest that if women filled all those same roles and powers, there wouldn’t be colonialism or war or other injustices. However, I think you and I are on the same page–that gender actually doesn’t matter and merely changing that while keeping the same roles and structure doesn’t automatically lead to a just system. On the one hand, it is pretty obvious conclusion, but there are certainly folks who don’t really consider that (e.g., I’m sure some Hillary Clinton supporters just simply want a woman in power and she has definitely banked on that message at times). So, in that basic view, the Equestrian system, as the show wants to convey it to the audience, may seem perfect or idyllic. But you’re right in that it doesn’t take much to deconstruct it and reframe it as a system where you either obey or be reformed (I do think many of the show’s reformations are more positive than that, but it’s an easy analysis to make).

      Steven Universe clearly criticizes that idyllic presentation by showing us a dictatorship/colonial-minded system and given its play on gender in general, it shows that it really requires changing or defying the roles/structures themselves rather than just the identities/demographics of the persons filling those roles.

      Admittedly, when I was comparing with real-world patriarchies, I was thinking more in historic terms rather than contemporary democracies. Contemporary democracies obviously create a level of change and balance that aren’t seen in structures that have been around longer like dictatorships and monarchies (not many left now, but they were common for quite some time). Many of these systems exclude(d) women from fully participating anyway (along with poor people or ethnic minorities), although there were clearly some token exceptions.

      Anyway, hopefully that makes some more sense. Speaking in systems is tricky and this post was pretty simple.

      Liked by 1 person

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