[Hey little ‘uns – enjoy this guest post by Oscar Moralde! – Ed.]
The My Little Pony toy line has always been a flashpoint for debates on gender representation and consumerism, and its latest incarnation in the animated series My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is no exception. Kathleen Richter at the Ms. magazine blog mounted an attack on the show, calling it “homophobic” and “smart-shaming” – criticism that comes off as a bit incoherent because the show is neither of those things. Creator Lauren Faust, who previously worked on The Powerpuff Girls and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, writes in her rebuttal to Richter that in developing this series she wanted to show that:
Cartoons for girls don’t have to be a puddle of smooshy, cutesy-wootsy, goody-two-shoeness. Girls like stories with real conflict; girls are smart enough to understand complex plots; girls aren’t as easily frightened as everyone seems to think.
In that respect she has succeeded. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (hereafter referred to as MLP: FiM) is sharply written and gorgeously animated, and features positive role models in female characters who defy stereotypical gender roles. The show also teaches lessons about confidence, self-expression, and overcoming adversity.
But the strong feminist themes of the series are built on a foundation of political contradictions. The most fantastic element of the show is not that ponies can talk or that dragons exist; it is the illusion that an egalitarian society can be maintained among groups with massive biologically inherent gaps in ability and economic utility. By even the most cursory of sociological and economic analyses, the society in MLP: FiM should be highly stratified along class and racial lines. And there are clear signs of that stratification, except they are obscured by a propagandistic focus on the power of “friendship”.
Now I know the question you all must be asking: “But don’t the historical theories of capital accumulation presuppose a world defined by scarcity and industrial development?” Of course they do. The setting of MLP: FiM, a land called Equestria (and specifically the city of Ponyville), is populated by three types of ponies. There are the earth-ponies, the most mundane type which most closely resemble real ponies. There are pegasi, flying ponies that are able to manipulate the weather. And finally, there are the unicorns, horned ponies that have a wide portfolio of magic powers, including telekinesis, alchemical transformation, and teleportation. There are also other sapient species in Equestria, such as cows; the concept of one intelligent species keeping another for milking purposes is quite disturbing if interrogated closely enough.
One potential objection to an economic analysis of MLP: FiM is whether such analysis is even warranted. The economy of a fictional world may be abstracted without consequences in some stories; after all, any flow of capital in Harry Potter is insignificant in comparison to the existential battle between good and evil that is at the core of the story. However, many of the stories in MLP: FiM focus on the performance of economic tasks: crop harvesting, production of baked goods, and the maintenance of the town. Other episodes are about characters finding their roles in society. These kinds of stories rely on a plausible economic base to be meaningful.
In fact, most of the stories written by Faust and her staff, although ostensibly about the power of friendship, also happen to be about the allocation of scarce resources (“Ticket Master”), correcting inefficiencies in the organization of labor (“Winter Wrap-Up”), or averting famine in the city of Ponyville (“Swarm of the Century”). Several of the threats in the series—the prospect of eternal night, an infestation of locust-like pests, and a blanket of dragon’s smoke over the town—are presented in the context of permanently crippling Ponyville’s economic productivity. Unlike The Smurfs, which proposed a fantasy world centered on a collectivist community, Equestria has a market economy through which a wide variety of goods and services are bought and sold. And in this economy, there is an equivalent to industrial technology: unicorn magic.
Other stories which make use of magic in their settings usually have a caveat which prevents easily equating magic with industrial technology. Perhaps magical power is biologically tied to rare individuals, or is physically debilitating, or has effects that are dangerous and unpredictable, or is restricted by a higher power. Any of these caveats would make magic problematic as a source of increased economic efficiency. However, none of these applies to magic as presented by MLP: FiM.
For a case study, take the episode “Applebuck Season”, which teaches the lesson that it’s OK to ask others for help if you need it. On closer examination, there’s an economic lacuna hidden in the premises and everyday workings of the episode. The story follows Applejack, an earth-pony, as she attempts to harvest her family’s apple orchard by herself after her brother is injured. The process of apple harvesting is shown in very specific, step-by-step detail: Applejack walks to a tree, kicks it to knock the apples loose, collects them in an apple basket, and then walks to another tree and repeats the process.
However, at the end of the episode, Applejack accepts the help of Twilight Sparkle, a unicorn. In the final harvesting scene, Twilight Sparkle is shown using telekinetic magic to pluck hundreds of apples from dozens of trees simultaneously; then she floats all the apples across a great distance to their buckets. Combine this with her ability to teleport from place to place at will and the process is staggeringly more efficient than what a mundane earth-pony can achieve. Applejack’s livelihood depends on selling these apples at market – she even claims in one episode that she needs to pay for her grandmother’s hip replacement. So the question becomes: why hasn’t she been run out of business? Any unicorn running an apple orchard would be able to harvest with a significantly lower investment of labor, and therefore be able to sell those apples at a discount far beyond what any earth-pony could hope to achieve.
The situation would be less problematic if this degree of ability were limited to Twilight Sparkle alone. However, unicorns as a race inherently possess some level of magical power. Twilight Sparkle may be in the upper echelons of ability, but Rarity, the other unicorn in the central cast, can telekinetically stop and redirect high velocity projectiles; she also transforms a tree branch into a series of perfectly manicured leaf sculptures with a single thought.
The pegasi can perform functions that the unicorns cannot, such as repositioning clouds to create rain or flying to guide migratory birds. But where does that leave your proletarian earth-pony? It certainly wouldn’t be as co-equal participants in the economic life of Ponyville. There are rudimentary stabs at the development of mechanical technology by earth-ponies, as seen in the character of Pinkie Pie. In fact, Pinkie Pie is the best representation of the tension between the show’s strong feminist themes and its questionable economic foundation; although she appears to be the ditzy party animal of the group, she also displays considerable skill in science and engineering. She devises a technical solution to Ponyville’s infestation problems in a scenario where magic has failed, and in the episode “Griffon the Brush-Off” she channels Leonardo da Vinci and builds a flying machine in order to keep up with the pegasus Rainbow Dash. However, Pinkie’s flying machine is smashed by a jealous griffon, showing that technology can be destroyed or expropriated more easily than innate magical ability can.
There is ample evidence that Equestria is already highly stratified, and the mantra of “friendship is magic” is nothing more than a mythic-religious creed designed to perpetuate false consciousness among the ponies. For confirmation, take a look at the professions of the main cast. The two earth-ponies work in agriculture and the service industry. Of the pegasi, Fluttershy can be classified as a naturalist and Rainbow Dash aspires to be a pro athlete.
In contrast, the two unicorns work in the professions that have the most cultural and political cachet. With the fashion designer Rarity, Faust does avoid portraying the mindless consumer typical in girls’ cartoons; Rarity’s character traits show that she is more than a clothes horse and has an engagement with the fashion industry “not as a shopaholic but as an artist.” And as a business owner, she is certainly a figure to aspire towards. But how much of her success can be attributed to the fact that textile production and delicate piecework is much easier when you have magic at your disposal?
As for Twilight Sparkle—the protégé of the ruling monarch Princess Celestia—she seems to control the means of knowledge production in Ponyville. She has access to unfettered telecommunications through Spike, her dragon companion. She also lives in the town library; how many books in that library were written by unicorns as opposed to the other pony races? (Not to mention the voices of griffons and dragons and cows, which are most likely also marginalized in the Equestrian narrative?) Whenever a non-magical pony tries to write, the image is comical at best; they must hold their implements awkwardly in their mouths. Unicorns, on the other hand, can easily manipulate and create texts using magical power. Twilight Sparkle drafts documents simply through the power of her mind.
With this inherent publishing bias in Equestria, how slanted is the historical narrative towards the unicorns? Small wonder that “Winter Wrap-Up”, a story entirely about Twilight Sparkle’s attempt to find her role in society, ends with her discovering that she is best suited for managing the laborers in Ponyville and succeeding at a task that the earth-pony mayor has been trying for years to accomplish. The episode’s titular song also betrays Twilight Sparkle’s bourgeois anxiety at the fact that her magic (and thus her economic advantage) is restricted in this single situation by social convention.
The fact that Equestria is governed by a monarch that is also the creator-goddess of the world is the real capstone of Equestria’s thinly-veiled social stratification. Princess Celestia possesses the horn of the unicorn and the wings of the pegasus. However, since pegasus and unicorn have all the physical characteristics earth-ponies have, the earth-ponies’ representation in the embodiment of their own deity can only be assumed; it’s a virtual presence at best. Do earth-ponies experience body dysmorphia when they realize they don’t have horns or wings like their princess-creator and the other races of Equestria? If your society is governed a literal god-empress, the focus on “friendship” may be nothing more than an attempt to suppress racial consciousness and dissent.
And in fact, perhaps Ponyville can be seen as a site of resistance for earth-pony culture; the prohibition against magic during Winter Wrap-Up is a gesture, however token, against the complete dominance of their goddess’s magic in their daily lives. A stronger and more visible sign of dissent is sadly improbable in Equestria; the difficulties of overthrowing a ruler who literally controls the movement of the sun would prove daunting to even the staunchest revolutionary. Unless, of course, Pinkie Pie were to construct a machine that replicates this function…
Oscar Moralde is a filmmaker and writer whose work can be seen at The Hypermodern and The House Next Door.
(My Little Pony propaganda posters courtesy of http://equestria-election.deviantart.com/)
[Can magic unicorns be reconciled with scarcity theories of economics? Do pegasi and earth ponies have different utility functions? Sound off in the comments!]
Somebody should have taken a picture of my face when I saw this article posted, my eyes, glittering with unfettered, girlish delight. And then a little sad, because I wanted to write an MLP: FiM article.
All in all, I think it’s a pretty solid article, considering at first I was thinking it was basically everything I’ve read on the 4chan boards, until it was all put into perspective by the mention of the Winter Wrap-Up episode, where it all eerily made sense. However, I think that Celestia’s and thereby all of society’s) focus on friendship is exactly what makes the society function without each class of pony turning against each other. I think that a society that works harmoniously, even under the pretend guise of equality, is one that works more effectively than one where each class resents each other. Also, it suits an animated show with bright colors and pretty ponies better.
Also consider the title, “Friendship is Magic.” If magic is the ultimate thing to desire in this world, perhaps this is a false promise of power to the underclass Earth and (somewhat) pegasus ponies? Orrrr, what if there was already a devastating uprising before? If we consider Celestia to be a truly benevolent dictator, perhaps in all the bloodshed, Celestia made friendship the absolute law. This might also explain the lack of male ponies that were perhaps either killed, or sent away to another country outside of Equestria to escape being drafted.
And about Pinky Pie’s inventions: I think another aspect overlooked about earth ponies is that we have also found them to be the most widely talented, as all other ponies (except, perhaps Fluttershy) to be very reliant on their race’s attributes. I imagine it must have been very difficult to built her flying machine without fingers. Maybe it’s the earth ponies’ trait is that they’re the real talents of the pony world.
That…that ended up with me thinking way more about pony propaganda than I expected. I still kind of want to write an article myself about another aspect of the show, but no need to flood the place with full-on, unadulterated FRIENDSHIP. Good article, keep rockin’ on.
Also, Rainbow Dash for best pony.
I have a thought about what you said about earth ponies, actually. It occurred to me when watching the show that earth ponies seem to perform a much wider range of tasks (i.e., baking, inventing, as well as agricultural work) than pegasi or unicorns. I sincerely doubt that pegasi or unicorns couldn’t also do these tasks, but they don’t. It seems to me like they are often locked into specific roles, especially the pegasi. This could account for why everything doesn’t descend into chaos– social norms keep ponies in certain fields based on their abilities.
Also, what do we make of the episode where technology actually shows up for a minute? (“Feeling Pinkie Keen”) Does it mean anything that Twilight is the one with access to it?
Also, psh, Pinkie Pie is where it’s at.
That may be true, but also look at the city centers we’ve seen so far. Canterlot, the capitol and center for learning and commerce in Equestria also has the highest concentration of unicorns, and therefore could also be considered the epicenter of magic. Cloudsdale, a pegasi city, is a bustling metropolis, an economic center due to the production and control of weather effects. Moreso than that, the pegasi there can relax from time to time with sporting events held at the Colosseum-like stadium they have.
Compare those two cities to the veritable hamlet of Ponyville, founded and mostly populated by earth ponies. They are primarily engaged in agriculture and general labor. While they do have holidays, most of their entertainment comes from participation events that usually involved the manual change of the seasons, and, as it is mentioned in Winter Wrap-up, they often fail at that. I also see such events not so much as a method of rebellion against the ruling elite, but as a method of the ruling elite controlling them. With the prohibition of magic the earth ponies have no more efficient method and thus must spend most of their time working, keeping them from studying things like magic.
I don’t suppose it occurs to you that you all are the laughing stock at the MLP Arena? If you knew anything about the world you were writing about you would know (as stated in Winter Wrap Up) that Ponyville is a city that was founded by Earth Ponies, without any help from magic or wings at all. It is only now that other species of pony have moved in that magic and moving clouds seems to be in anyway normal in Ponyville. And the reason why Twilight has such a hard time finding her place in Winter Wrap Up is because she is dependent on her magic. She isn’t strong like applejack and she doesn’t have wings.
The Pegasi moving the clouds seems to be a matter of convenience that was in time considered normal. In one episode the ponies are all afraid of the woods because it’s a place where clouds move on their own and animals take care of themselves. The only real problem I see with the ponies is that they clearly tend to Micro-manage everything.
And Twilight isn’t a good supervisor because she is magic. She is a good supervisor because she is a nerdy, studius, book worm that is super organized and likes making lists. The fact that she is magic has nothing to do with it.
And the whole point of the different ponies having different jobs and different strengths and weaknesses is to point out that not everyone has to be the same. Not everyone has to have magic or be strong or athletic or brainy. Or if you want a more basic reason for the way things are: Ponies don’t have hands or fingers. They need unicorn magic so that cloths can be sewn and pages can be turned. It would be impossible for a Pegasus or an earth pony to do any of the more human functions and Megan isn’t in the show to do it for them anymore.
And why are you complaining about a social and economic structure that seems to work? Jealous that we can’t have it in real life?
Look unless you like being laughed at by people who actually watch every episode of the show and who have been collecting these little darlings for the last 30 years, I would find another topic. This one clearly doesn’t play to your strengths.
This is amazing.
I started out writing an article about how Friendship can be personified as a form of societywide-held mutual respect that prevents usurping of other industries (ie, Applejack’s inefficient harvesting technique) but lost track around three paragraphs in. Instead, I’m just going to say that this was a fantastic article and beg one of the writers to do a piece on the feminist themes present in Adventure Time.
If I don’t get to this, I second this motion.
One important thing to remember here is that “friendship is magic” is *not* simply a philosophy – it is an actual fact of the mechanics of unicorn magic. Twilight Sparkle might be Celestia’s star pupil, but as of her first day and night in Ponyville, teleportation (for example) was difficult enough to be physically taxing on her, and even in “The Ticket Master” she was unaware (!!) that she was capable of moving more than herself with it. But three or four months after making friends and unlocking the Elements of Harmony (a puissant magical power source which literally requires that the user have positive intimacies before it can be harnessed) she is able to essentially teleport at will, using the ability to follow around Applejack in “Applebuck Season”. Unicorn magic may be an overpowering advantage as compared to the relatively mundane “physical strength and endurance” that is the birthright of the Earth Ponies, but it can’t be used to its full potential without the devotion to harmony that keeps society functioning.
Wow, if that’s true that’s an absolutely shameful thing for the writer of the article to miss, since it goes a long way toward making the whole article wrong. Or perhaps that’s why it wasn’t mentioned…? Let’s hope not.
I think it’s still valid, to a certain extent; after all, unicorns can always make friends with other unicorns (and if Canterlot is as unicorn-heavy as it seems to be in the pilot, this might be the norm for magic-users in high society). It’s just important to keep in mind that friendship as a cultural pillar is positively incentivized by natural law, and in mixed society this probably helps to keep the different pony subspecies from falling at each others throats.
Well, it fits into a Marxist critique of My Little Pony (holy shit I can’t believe I just typed that) in that “Friendship” is essentially capital; the bourgoisie Unicorns control and exploit that capital for their own benefit (and in fairness, generally to the benefit of pony society) and are the system itself ensures they are the only ones who can do this, but it is essentially the proletarian earth ponies that provide the means of production.
As a further thought, I wanted to point out that glorifying the unicorns and pegasi as somehow better than the earth ponies thanks to their caste isn’t inevitable or necessary to making a good children’s show about magic. Avatar actually does a pretty good job with this; bending prowess is shown to be as much about hard work, practice, and wit as it is about innate ability, and the character whom we learn the most about (meaning, the character with whom the creators want children to most closely identify) is Sokka, who has no powers but works hard to contribute.
That’s an insightful comment, and the show does point out the limitations of unicorn magic on a number of occasions.
I would be cautious, however, of generalizing the Elements of Harmony as something that is representative of the societal role of unicorn magic. The show presents it as a superweapon capable of defeating a god; it’s perhaps the pony equivalent of the atomic bomb. While the A-bomb can be seen as a testament to industrial technology, it’s not essential for basic economic activity. (Also, I’m sure that Princess Celestia is glad that such a weapon is in the hands of her star pupil, one who is regularly asked to deliver reports on what she’s learned about friendship.)
I’m also not certain that the Elements (and friendship) are responsible for magical development in general, regardless of the title. Twilight Sparkle is often seen studying practicing her magic in isolation with her dragon, Spike. Remember that other than Twilight Sparkle and Rarity, the show has presented The Great and Powerful Trixie as an exemplar of unicorn magic. While the show paints her boasting and tall tales as the mark of a charlatan, her powers are most definitely real, and I doubt that TGAPT holds much truck with the concepts of friendship or harmony.
But the Great and Powerful Trixie, while capable of what appears to be minor levels of telekinesis and matter altering ability, doesn’t even come close to what Rarity was capable of in her own work shop and during the sleep over. Granted, we don’t know for sure that the limits of Trixie’s abilities were reached in the Ursa incident, but considering the situation presented itself as life or death, I’d say that Trixies abilities are rather weak compared to Twilight and Rarity.
On top of that, not every unicorn is shown to have magical ability. Between Snips and Snails, Snails is the one who ignites his horn, and it takes him several tries. This implies to me that while most if not all unicorns have latent magical ability, not every unicorn has the opportunity or the will to cultivate said magical ability.
In a sense, to claim that every unicorn is amazing at magic is like claiming that every African American is amazing at basketball.
I love this so much.
The thing that you need to remember out Twilight Sparkle’s magic powers is that her talent (and all ponies have talents, reflected by their cutie marks) is her skill at magic. We see this when casts a spell on Rarity that gives her wings, which despite being a unicorn, Rarity is incapable of doing. I think that the extent of a unicorn’s magical powers is tied to the talent their cutie mark reflects. So while Twilight Sparkle can cast almost any spell or perform any task with her magic because her cutie mark signifies “talented at magic”, Rarity’s powers seem to be more limited to things that help her with her talent of “fashion designer” like fine control over tools like needles and scissors and the creation of light shows.
I think this is why unicorns can’t simply take over the businesses earth ponies run with manual labor, because their magic has limited abilities outside of their cutie-mark talent. In reference to the apple harvest, while Twilight Sparkle is able to harvest a large amount of apples using magic I imagine most unicorns would be incapable of that feat, and would probably become fatigued quickly. Also, even if a unicorn was able to harvest apples faster than an earth pony, their magic would probably not give them greater knowledge or skill at maintaining the apple orchards. All of the apple orchards of Equsteria seem to be run by one family whose cutie marks are all of apples, reflecting their special talent at cultivating them. Even if a magically superior unicorn would try to go into business against the earth pony Apple family, she would probably fail without the proper cutie mark.
Also, it is possible that cutie marks are hereditary within families, as shown in the Apple family and their apple-based cutie marks. It would also explain why the ponies’ names frequently match their cutie marks, because their parents were able to make an educated guess based on family history what their child’s cutie mark and special talent would ultimately be. So if the cutie mark that signifies “good at cultivating apples” is restricted to earth pony families, a unicorn would be unlikely to have one and create a magically superior apple cultivation business. In that way the inequality that would seem to arise between earth ponies and pegasi and unicorns would be dampened, because while unicorns control magic and pegasi can fly and control the weather, earth ponies would have a wider variety of cutie marks that unicorn/pegasus families don’t have, and thus would be much more talented and capable at those tasks.
So in short, even though only unicorns posses magic, they cannot control all aspects of society with that magic because their magical abilities are only powerful in the areas their cutie mark-talents require it to be. Because earth ponies have a different set of cutie marks and thus a different set of talents than unicorns (and pegasi) they all work together on equal footing because Equastrian society could not function without the talents of all of the different types of ponies working together.
I agree with this. In “Boast Busters,” Spike notes that unicorns only have a little magic that reflects their special talents, whereas Twilight Sparkle has at least 25 different types of tricks. Twilight agrees, saying that other unicorns are talented at cooking, singing, or math, while her special talent is magic. When the other ponies are helping Applejack with the harvest, Rarity is shown collecting apples without using her magic, which implies that she cannot use her magic in the way Twilight does. The unicorns’ powers are limited to their professions, which is why they must cooperate with the other ponies.
Besides, it’s a kids’ show, and the underlying message is that you can be friends with people (or ponies) who are different from you.
This is exactly what I was thinking while reading the article! Well said. (See also how worn out Twilight was after using an incredible amount of magic after battling the Ursa Minor)
One additional note that I was surprised the author did not point out was the manner in which the Earth Ponies are segregated by the towns in Equestria. In episode 16 (Sonic Rainboom) we get our first glimpse of Cloudsdale, a city accessible only by Pegasi or by skilled unicorns (Twilight creating wings for Rarity or her spell to make let ponies walk on clouds coupled with using a hot air balloon (technology)). Also, the town of Canterlot is located on a cliffside. In the first episode we see that Twilight is chauffeured to Ponyville via a chariot pulled by Pegasi. It would be very difficult for any Earth Pony to access either of these two towns. This gives Celestia the ability to pick and choose when she has audiences with Earth Ponies.
One other note: I love this article and all the people who have been commenting seriously on it. The fact that this is happening brings such joy to me….I cannot adequately describe it!!!
I’m mainly pleasantly surprised at the amount of respect everyone has been showing even when pointing out difference in opinion.
I’m really not used to this, I’m very glad.
Welcome to the Pony fandom! :D
I’ve only recently stopped being stunned at the politeness of this fan community, and have started to expect it.
I suppose that would be the ‘Magic of Friendship’ at work. XD
Canterlot is the captial city so I would say its probly has a lot easier ways to get to it and Pegasi taxis is just the fastest
as for Cloudsdale some have guessed it used to just be the weather factories and that homes for workers were built around them. It happens in real life.
Plus there are at least three other towns/cities Fillydelphia, Hoofington, and Trottingham so other than being bad puns I’m sure they have good diversity ammoung them.
We only really have one example of a town to work from, Ponyville, and while it was founded by Earth Ponies, there seem to be roughly equal proportions of all three sub-species living there. I did however go back and check, and in the initial scene in Canterlot, the only ponies seen were unicorns.
I saw the preview for next weeks episode, Pinkie Pie makes sunglasses that reveal the unicorns true skeletal alien form and all the cutie marks say “No Independent Thought” and “Stay Asleep”, it was weird.
After reading this I watched the winter srap up episode. Interesting thing about it was taht the moral seemed to be that everyone individually fulfilling their roles to the best of their ability wasn’t enough you needed a centralised organisational structure, al a Adam Smith pin factory, the correct organisation of labour is what is important not the net quantity, or even the enthusiasm and skill of the workers. So in some ways it’s a proto capitalist system being established. Each pony is specialising their labour for greater efficiency.
So friendship = division of labour, magic = economic efficiency.
this is ridonculus totally ridonculus
Both Griffon the Brush Off and Boast Busters have the sub-moral of “some people (griffons/ponies) are just so obnoxious or unpleasant that the deserve to be publicly humiliated and then totally socially shunned.” I suppose it’s not a totally inaccurate moral.
Not so, Pinkie Pie’s entire plan in Griffon the Brush Off was not to humiliate Gilda, but to overwhelm her with kindness and friendship, Gilda just happened to stumble into all of Rainbow Dash’s pranks due to her selfish nature, and took it all personally.
Also G&P Trixie ran away at the end of her episode, I am sure if she didn’t all the ponies would have still been her friend, because she is so great and powerful.
The suggestion that the unicorns would attain complete market dominance is predicated on the implication that their powers are limitless and not time constrained. In a real market, the higher the potential production capacity of an individual, the higher their opportunity costs are if they decide to engage in something less productive or less exclusive, i.e., apple picking. So, all parties benefit in trade between the earth ponies and the unicorns: the earth ponies, being able to produce apples at a lower opportunity cost than the unicorns, enjoy a relative advantage in that market. Likewise, the unicorns enjoy an absolute advantage in magic-related fields such as alchemy, etc. Trade between them allows both to exceed their normal production possibilities frontiers.
tl;dr: My Little Pony: Friendship is Pareto Optimal
But the question is not necessarily what achieves maximum productivity, but rather maximum economic liberty and self-determination. Twilight Sparkle can be a fashion designer, or write a book, or pick apples. Pinkie Pie (or whoever the earth pony was) can pick apples. Unless Equestria is a Marxist state where the fruits of everyone’s labors are spread equally by fiat, capital is absolutely going to collect in the hands (hooves?) of the unicorns simply by virtue of the fact that they have more ways to pursue it.
If apple picking were as profitable as fashion designing, the unicorns would pick the apples and that would be that.
This is amazing. I really can’t express what I was thinking as I was reading this, but it was akin to Archimedes running through the streets after discovering water displacement in the bathtub. I had flirted with these ideas in passing as I watched the show, but I had never seriously considered it. As a History and Political Science major, my mind naturally tends to analyze things like this, but you have done a wonderful job in putting all of my thoughts and more into this very in-depth and thought-provoking article.
Well said, good sir.
One thing to consider; in connecticut yankee in in king arthors court (the book), it was posed that the only perfect government is a benevolent dictatorship, something that inevitably crumbles upon the passing of said dictator.
Perhaps, with a seemingly immortal dictator, Equestria could be viewed as the fruition of Hank Morgan’s vision of an effectively organized capitalist/dictatorship society.
Starship Troopers: Friendship is Magic
An excellent and thought-provoking article, which mirrors a few long discussions I’ve had with my girlfriend on the inherent inequality of the show’s setting.
One caveat, though: much of the article hinges on the premise that most unicorns could do the sort of things we see Twilight doing. The writers must have realized the problems this could bring up, as one episode features a wordy bit of dialog which establishes that most unicorns are only capable of doing magic relating to their one special talent. Twilight is unique among all unicorns introduced thus far, in that her special talent is magic itself. Twilight thus can’t really be used as a good example of her race, as she is a singular prodigy (she MUST be exceptional if the unquestioned ruler of the world has taken a personal interest in her, after all.)
Rarity is a better example of a typical unicorn. She unquestionably has a serious advantage over the Earth Ponies when it comes to the sort of delicate work which goes into clothes-making (though oddly enough, in one episode we are introduced to the world’s top fashion designer, who is an Earth Pony.) It also makes sense that Rarity could turn a tree branch into a wood sculpture since her talent is making aesthetically pleasing things, as suits her profession. Yet this limits her from creating anything with more practical applications.
In a later episode, the ponies want to go to a Pegasus city in the sky, so Rarity asks Twilight to magically give her temporary wings. Twilight does so, but the spell is so tiring that she is unable to do this for anyone else. Yet at no point does anyone suggest that Rarity attempt the spell herself, and the weaker spell the other ponies use as a substitute (which allows them to walk on clouds) is also cast by Twilight. It seems to go without saying among their group that Rarity’s magic is far inferior to Twilight’s, and not suited for something as practical as wings.
Thus it seems that while Earth Ponies are limited by their lack of special abilities, unicorns are limited by whatever magical specialty they happen to have, in that they are stuck working in a field suited for it. A unicorn whose magic involves making crops grow, for example, would make an excellent farmer who could outclass Applejack easily, but would be stuck in that role for life, while Applejack could be free to pursue other careers, say, as an athlete or a merchant, both of which she has been shown to excel at.
The true strength of Earth Ponies, then, lies in versatility. They are the Renaissance Ponies, or at least have the potential to be. This of course carries all the pitfalls it would in real life. Likewise, unicorns are confronted with all the pros and cons of being highly specialized. Imagine being a unicorn whose magic is suited perfectly to a outdated industry. No amount of talent would alter the fact that your destined field is a dying one. Even worse, the phenomenon of Cutie Marks would publicly advertise this fact to everyone.
While unicorns’ access to magic would give them clear advantages in most cases, I don’t think they’re quite as dominant as this article suggests, at least not on an individual level.
As for Pegasi? They must balance the anonymity of all having the same special ability, with the security of knowing it is an essential skill which will always be in demand. Unless, of course, Celestia finds a way to outsource weather control to lower-paid Griffons from the third world.
“…long discussions I’ve had with my girlfriend…”
“The true strength of Earth Ponies, then, lies in versatility. They are the Renaissance Ponies…”
You are my new favorite person.
(It is worth noting though, that while the Earth Ponies could seek other work, without the cutie mark constraining them (like it would the magic abilities of a Unicorn Pony), cutie marks are a reflection of the special talents of a pony. The cutie mark, even in the case of the Earth Ponies hints at the activities that that pony is especially gifted at. While Applejack could do things besides running an apple orchard, it is difficult to believe IMO that she would ever be as happy doing them.)
I would like to pose a hypothesis. Could it simply be that the current God-Queen Princess Celestia be a lie? A false reality pushed unto the masses by Celestia’s inner circle, similar to what has transpired in North Korea. I offer up as evidence the Evergrow Forest. It has been said that everything in the forest grows without the help of magic, it’s sentient beings being non-magical as well (at first glance) with the exceptions of a basilisk or two. But no denizens of this border territory have entered Ponyville proper, and those that have have taken measures to hide their identity. When one of them Zecora was found out she was tailed and chased out of town as a “corrupter of youth” (Socrates anyone?). Furthermore, her medical technology at least, outpaces anything the ponies of Ponyville have by leagues. They aren’t even able to diagnose the poisoning that they have surfed, something that Zecora did within seconds after warning them beforehand of the toxins of the blue plants.
This information gap and closed border. Has lead me to believe that the Everfree forest has been segregated by the Royalist forces, who disperse propaganda over it as well. But why? It is simple. The Everfree forest is a, or a part of a, free country with all races held in equal by the law or a country populated entirely by earth-ponies. The latter is not likely, for the Royalist forces surely would have dominated this country like they have done before to other free earth-pony communities. What communities you may ask? Ponyville itself. It is said that the winter-wrap is a tradition created due to the fact that earth-ponies settled Ponyville. This is key. The settlers certainly did not come Celestia’s home territory, that would set a dangerous precedent of earth-pony self rule. Note that the show said settled. Not built but settled, this means that primitive earth-pony tribes did not build it as Royalist society just took it. Settled means colonized, so there must be somewhere to colonize from. The Everfree Forest and what lies beyond. Like Equestria, this colonizing society is majority earth-pony. Equality before the law would allow earth-ponies to start their own society with Pegusi or Unicorn “supervision”. It also explained how Zecora, a zebra, seems to have equal rights, or at least those to property. Naturally a colony would remain loyal to the colonizer meaning that this would be a foreign extension of this “Freeland” (I will refer to this hypothetical land as such from this point onwards).
Now, Celestia must have taken Ponyville in a war of conquest to both, enlarge her kingdom and eliminate this idea of equality. She must not have been able to conquer the Everfree forest though, instead spreading out the reports of evil from the forest and closing the border. After that, she must have constructed these god stories about her to maintain the statues quo. All of this must have occurred during the period of dual rule with her sister, which explains why the sister didn’t try to expose this fallacy in her bid to gain power.
And so Equestria stands to this day
Did…did..did you just compare Celestia to…Kim Jong Il?
This post and this comment thread are made of win.
*Trots in a Pony with a Book Cutie mark, A book with Celestia’s own cutie mark on the cover.*
In my own personal examination of the show, Celestia has a much better comparison to the God Emperor of Mankind, from War Hammer 40k.
The simple fact is, she has ruled for a long, long, long time. Presumably long enough that even the oldest Pony on the show was a filly and she had ruled then. And still looks as good as she does. More, if Celestia is more powerful than her star Pupil, Twilight (likely), then Celestia’s power is most likely comparable to, well… a God.
In regards to the Everfree forest: It is clearly not the ‘last bastion of freedom’ in Equestria. The neighboring forests to that one have all been shown to be similarly wild places. And, more importantly, incredibly DANGEROUS places. For example, the Everfree forest has among it’s inhabitants the elusive Cockatrice. Which is capable of defeating even the single most powerful mortal in the entire show (Twilight Sparkle). Fluttershy was able to defeat it only because of her special talent. Zecora is likely only to survive in this hostile environment only because her own talents match up with it.
In regards to the Wild Joke, it’s likely a plant that only grows in the forest. Since it grows only in that forest, and since the forest is forbiddingly dangerous, it’s unlikely any of them would have encountered it before.
Regardless though, a thought provoking post from yourself. I do much appreciate it.
Isn’t Luna’s old castle located on the far end of the Everfree forest? That would add a few complicating ideas there.
Indeed, it was stated that what once was a palace for BOTH of the sisters lies in “what is now the EverFree Forest”, implying that the forest in its current feral, over-grown state must not have been that way originally. It is also mentioned that Zecora, being a Zebra, is from a very far away land and would realistically not be a native of the Forest or anywhere else within the kingdom of Equestria. The fact that the EverFree Forest is forever free from the intervention of the Equestrians seems to lend more credence to it being forgotten, forlorn and neglected only after the Sisters’ ancient palace was abandoned, perhaps at the same time Luna was imprisoned in the moon. Without the dedicated leadership from the goddess of the night, it seems the creatures of the night and darkness roamed free and without hindrance, leading to the dangerous and unpredictable state that the forest now finds itself in.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that the EverFree Forest is a testament to the inability of Princess Celestia to adequately maintain sovereignty over those who were never originally a part of her natural domain.
But this is based largely on the assumption that the rampant overgrowth of the forest lends itself to maintaining a night-like atmosphere at all hours of the day.
I have another hypothesis about the Everfree Forest. Since the old castle was the place that both Princess Celestia and Princess Luna ruled from, Princess Luna’s transformation into Nightmare Moon and subsequent rebellion seems likely to have take place there. It seems likely that the battle for dominance between the two may have cursed or drained the land immediately surrounding the castle, the Everfree Forest, of magic. Also, a battle between two gods would likely involve massive amounts of magic power, which would also explain the dangerous creatures in the forest, this animals may even be mutations or splicings of normal, far less dangerous animals. Griffons themselves may even be a product of this, and since they’re highly mobile, much more so then, say, the water serpent, they were able to leave the dangers of the forest for the relative peace and safety of Equestria proper.
Another side of the story is why most of the population didn’t even know there was a castle in the forest in the first place, or even much of the story of Nightmare Moon. Celestia may have been embarrassed by it, and so didn’t make much information on it public, or she might have been actively trying to keep mortal ponies away, actively warning the ponies away from the danger, or even to the point that she may have intentionally created the monsters of the forest, to protect her secret. The castle may have even held a way for Luna to return before 1000 years pasted, and she may have been trying to prevent that. Heck, she may have been raising and nurturing Twilight Sparkle’s magical abilities in order to replace Luna with Twilight. Celestia and Luna may not always have been gods, one or both of them may have discovered a spell or process that turns a mortal into an immortal, a spell that would be jealously guarded obviously, and shared only with their closest relations, each other.
On the matter of the relation between friendship and magical power levels of unicorns, it seems pretty clear that there’s a significant power increase when magic is used for and with friends. Twilight’s method of harvesting apples supports this, she may have only been able to attain that power because she was helping Applejack, and wouldn’t otherwise. The Elements of Harmony Support this as well, seeing as Twilight was only able to activate it once she understood friendship and accepted the other 5 ponies as her friends. Even the way the Elements defeated Nightmare Moon, and returned her to Princess Luna, who almost immediately accepted her elder sister’s love and offer of friendship, to the point of apologizing for her actions and seeming to harbor no resentment about being imprisoned alone for 1000 years. Also, Rarity’s speed and ease at cranking out dresses for her friends may be based on her feelings of friendship for them, and the process may have been more physically draining, as shown by her rather frazzled appearance while redesigning the dresses, since she was probably feeling rather disheartened after the others told her they didn’t like the first set of dresses.
Your mention of Luna becoming instantly repentant implies that there’s some mind control involved in the Elements’ effect… rather disturbing, especially if it can be used on one of the two most powerful characters.
I liked what you had to say about the fact that Celestia and Luna my have been mortal (or may still be moral given the fact they do have a nephew, therefore another sister).
I have some thoughts (thoughts that are not well rounded yet) that maybe Celestia and Luna’s creation story mark the point in history where mystical creatures left this dimension creating another one with the use of magic.
Some reasons for this.
1)Luna and Celestia most likely wouldn’t make several sentential beings. When gods make things sentential, they usually make they in their image, and they make one sentential race.
2) Their are other normal species with a few of them being sentential creatures (like the talking cows, but not rabbits). They might have followed Celestial and Luna in their new world and a few species somewhere given sentential powers.
3) Twilight seems to be the only one to notice Zecora was a zebra. She most of read this in a book which might have knowledge of the world that Celestia, Luna and other might have left behind. Though believing this would make Twilight prevailed to certain knowledge that isn’t for everypony.
You make note of Rarity using her magic to craft cloths and create the atmosphere of a fashion show, but you also explicitly leave out the fact that in Suited for Success and Stare Master, she is seen working without her magic. We’ve seen her using a sewing machine and guide the fabric by hoof, and Stare Master had her cleaning-up a mess caused by her powerless, though unicornian, sister without so much as a twinkle from her horn. Both of these events show that there is no ‘magical’ short-cut to getting something done, right or wrong. She even delivered the robes from Stare Master herself, rather than have a pegasus who could fly faster than she could run do it for her.
Also, it has never been said that the cows were under someone’s ownership. Maybe they happen to work in the dairy industry. It’s clear we’re not going to see horses producing milk.
And why not? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kumis / http://www.davidlebovitz.com/2007/04/horse-milk/
This is an amazingly well thought out article. And from a present day snapshot, I can see how such conclusions would be drawn, but it fails to take into account the history of the world that led to the present day.
Now, I grant that said history is not easy to find…indeed, it is obscured and mostly forgotten in the present day stories. It is not unicorn domination that is the concern, but rather the accumulation of power by Earth Ponies and the problems and tyranny that have occurred because of it.
I present the Tail of The Madness Kingdom of the Earth Ponies: The Dark History of Ponyville
We see evidence of this lost history in the modern stories. Applejack’s horror/hatred of the use of magic by her best friend in Winter Wrap Up is less about a breaking of tradition and more of a deep shameful repressed memory beginning to surface. And what else explains Pinkie Pie than a full on embrace of the racial madness that nearly destroyed her world. Thankfully, she uses that power for good….but for how long we can only wonder?
I’ve seen too much of the fandom itching for Celestia to secretly be an evil tyrant not to find this approach a little bit like a self-fulfilling prophecy. That doesn’t invalidate this article, of course, but as with surveys and most scientific experiments, when we WANT to see that something is present, we are likely to see what seems to us ‘evidence’ that we are right, and it is there.
Ponyville is not indicative of the setting at large; I think that’s the biggest flaw with the reasoning of this article that I want to address. I feel like it’s a very well thought out argument, but that’s a huge point of contention I have here. We have never seen any other populated locale. The “Canterlot” glimpse we saw in the opening of the first episode was not conclusive enough for us to get an idea of how things work up there. Is there a slum where the earth ponies live in Canterlot, at the end of their grueling physical-labor shifts? We don’t know, and assuming that there is is faulty. We can’t assume that there is or isn’t. All we DO know is that, after meeting people she inexplicably could relate to after being a bookish hermit all her life, Twilight Sparkle opted to live in a small town (arguably, a backwater small town) instead of the royal city because she enjoyed their company.
The article also discusses pony society without acknowledging the most important fantasy element of the setting, which is that it is ruled by a god-figure who is tangible, real, and interacts with the people within her scope of power daily. There is no analogue to such a pony in real life because we do not have magic. The sun rises and sets because our planet spins around it. Cosmology is not dependent on the watchful guidance of a deity. And if it is, that deity never deigns to show us that it is present, let alone interact with us. There is no real-world comparison to such a setting, and while it’s fun to try, it’s important to remember that the analysis breaks down there.
I would love to see more about the history of Equestria, but given the show’s wildly positive response, it’s likely that we will have time to learn it. Hopefully people will continue to enjoy the product, and speculating on the possibilities, as it continues to come out. If we’re lucky, given time and continued success, Faust’s team may even get to address more complicated politics, racial interaction, and history of the region.
In the meantime, our speculations are only speculations, each as potentially valid as the next. Personally, I think any class disparity we see is likely to come from the fact that Ponyville IS a small town. I can’t say for certain, though. We won’t know until we see other locations in the setting in action, and get to know more characters!
Of course we search for evidence, unless the show take a total U-turn do to its peripheral demographic (which may or may not be a good thing) she’ll always be portrayed as a benevolant ruler.
As for me, the most obvious evidence of a possible tyranny is the sun and moon thingie.We already know that everything outside of equestria runs by itself, so it’s pretty sure now that the sun raise itself either. Maybe magic can produce eternal night too, as threatened in episode 2, but fact is the world would still exist without Celestia’s help. That’s why her as a tyrant would be a very probable scenario: If she keep her position on a lie that she MUST keep this position for the sake of everyone, that means she CARE about that position.
She showed no evil side because so far the simple minded ponies really dig the lie, and the only “threat” (her sister) apologized at the beginning of the season. But if her spot was really threatened, you can bet she’d panic and start abusing power to keep it at all cost, using the fact that everyone die if she will to keep control on everybody.
I also doubt Celestia ever being anything but a benevolent dictator, but we do know for a fact that she has been perpetuating at least one deception: her own true appearance.
We know that Nightmare Moon/Luna has two appearances, one smaller and relatively normal, one larger and more “magical”, with amorphous star-hair. When she loses her “armour”, the helm and collar, she reverts to the lesser form. Both of her forms appeared in the “prologue” at the beginning of the first episode. Celestia, as she normally appears, is also larger than normal, has amorphous rainbow hair and wears a collar and a crown; if you scrutinize the prologue, this form appears there, but only at the end. Before that, Celestia is depicted as a smaller, pink-haired pony, analogous to Luna’s smaller form. It is implied that the smaller forms are the two sisters’ original appearances.
Celestia has never been shown in that form outside the prologue, however, even in brief scenes where she was in apparently relaxed and in private.
One minor comment about the Earth Ponies. I have noticed they seem to have an inherent advantage over both unicorns and pegasi. Endurance. Applejack worked nonstop for a week, while still helping her friends out. She certainly was worn out doing it, but she did not stop. If you examine Fall Weather Friends, during the Running of the Leaves, you notice that after the race, there are a group of exhausted pegasi, collapsed, after a race that Rainbow Dash and Applejack are both willing to run again. Rainbow Dash has the advantage of her cutie mark, but Applejack’s cutie mark has nothing to do with running.
Pegasi are faster, unicorns have the ability to break the laws of physics, but an earth pony will not stop until the job is done. This may well explain their role in society. And why the Mayor is an earth pony.
This also, I note, makes Pinkie Pie a lot scarier. She is the Partynator. And she will not stop until you are having fun.
Earth Ponies may be physically stronger in general. One can assume that pegasi, as flying creatures, are lighter and that their legs are less developed, as they don’t use them as much. Rainbow Dash is depicted as a particularly athletic pegasus, and yet in the competition between her and Applejack, she had to cheat to match Applejack’s abilities in press-ups and the longjump; both contests in which you’d think her lighter body would give her an advantage.
Meanwhile, in Winter Wrap-up, Twilight Sparkle is completely unable to shift a plough under her own physical power, while all the Earth ponies shown seem to have no difficulty with it. This is somewhat less reliable, since Twilight may simply be weak as an individual, but it still leaves the impression that Earth ponies are more physically powerful.
I made the same basic point on RPG forum. To balance out the innate abilities of unicorns and pegasi, I suggested Earth ponies have Constitution and Strength bonuses, and from what I’ve read here, I’d add bonus skill points to reflect their versatility. If I had to give them special abilities, it would be something like Damage Reduction, or Horse Stance (bonus to opposed Strength tests for being moved or knocked over when standing on the ground).
Awesome article. My only problem is that you make the assumption that Friendship is some sort of country-wide mantra. Where do we see this? The only thing we know is that it’s Twilight’s sole assignment to “report on her findings about friendship”. Friendship is important to the ponies, and was important for the Elements of Harmony. But it’s really only the series premise. Just because a cartoon has a theme doesn’t mean the cartoon’s entire world revolves around it.
As for what keeps the pony races in harmony? That’s a difficult question. It could be that there was never strife in the past, leading to a society that just plain doesn’t worry about it too much. Our culture is bombarded with messages about racism, so it inversely makes us more constantly conscious of our differences. Perhaps ponies are simply raised in an environment that doesn’t highlight their differences. Ponies are almost always refer to each other as a whole.
You make a good point about the peacefulness and apparent lack of crime on Equestria, and considering they’re a herbivorous species that makes sense. Violence is genetically more predisposed to carnivorous species, it’s the basis of how they feed themselves, and peace, and even herd mentality, are more herbivorous traits. That herb mentality is probably why they gather in towns and cities, they subconsciously feel more relaxed and safer in groups like that. This peaceful nature also explains the ponies generally lower level of apparent maturity, even though Mrs. Faust has stated they’re actually young adults. A society with very little crime and no large scale violence like wars and terrorism would be much more trusting and friendly, and have no understanding of some of the darker things that we has humans are exposed to even from a very young age.
Trixie is easily explained as a simple mutation, since she seems to be more of a wanderer, a mutation that would be quickly weeded out, since she’s a wanderer she would be less likely to breed, and much less often.
This story is missing some elementary textbook concepts, like comparative advantage. Twilight Sparkle might be able to run a vastly more efficient farm for much cheaper than Applejack can, but that doesn’t mean it’s a more optimal allocation of unicorn magic for her to do so. Etc.
You’re assuming that Equestria works on a demand basis. But in an early episode the ponies refer to a forest in which the animals take care of themselves and where the weather isn’t controlled by pegasi as “unnatural.” As the system which they consider “natural” has the ponies simply acting on the supply side, it implies that they have the preternatural ability to predict demand and thus the ability to act on it before it appears. This could be the basis for them having a largely communist economy where everybody works according to the future needs, according to their abilities.
The only currency transaction we see is Applejack being paid for apples, and she muses that if she could sell at the Grand Galloping Gala that she’d have enough money to fix up the barn and pay for a new hip for Granny. But is there any denying that if her need was great that friendship would take care of both to the community’s best ability?
Ruthless capitalism doesn’t fit the friendship theme.
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I hope you make an update with new data after the season is over.
Also Im calling it, there is a forth pony type are baset on
Hippocamp but will by more of a call back to the old toy line and not have that much to do with the plot.
You make a massive, crippling mistake in the article by assuming that Twilight Sparkle represents a standard unicorn in magical abilities. The very first pair of episodes (a 2-parter) cast doubt on this claim by showing that Twilight is a very powerful Unicorn- in fact, she is the LIVING EMBODIMENT (“element”) of magic.
Expecting other unicorns to have similar skills is absurd- teleportation is a very difficult spell; in fact, as far as I remember, Twilight is the only pony to /ever/ show ability to teleport, and it is only for short distances at the beginning (later in the series, she can teleport VERY long distances, but this is after she becomes an Alicorn (a powerful being with much more powerful magic) AND is carrying the combined magic of 3 other Alicorns, two of which are regarded as quasi-Deities and are over 1000 years old.
It’s safe to say that Twilight is very powerful, and when she is shown lifting apples from several trees simultaneously, she is likely casting several spells simultaneously (one to find apples, the other to levitate them), then she has to select and move each apple independently. Imagine trying to write two very different, very long texts that you are having to make up as you go along. With both hands simultaneously. While dancing. And they have to be good.
This is roughly what Twilight is doing at that moment. Most unicorns can’t do that- the only other main Unicorn character in Season 1 is Rarity, whose ability extends to magically controlling two objects- one is a piece of fabric (which she just has to keep steady) and the other is a needle and thread.
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Wow! A discussion held in 2011 where all sides listen to each other and have a debate in the spirit of constructive criticism. I wish discussions like that were less rare now that we live in 2019.
I love MLP:FiM and I can fully see how it can inspire respectfulness!
Now that the series has ended after 9 delightful seasons, some of the mysteries of the first seasons have been clarified and some speculations – fed by a previous lack of information – can be dismissed. Nevertheless, I think that the question about how politics and economy would run in a country with three sub-species (four if you consider Alicorns to be a separate race) is still relevant.
Let me start by drawing a parallel between Equestria and a feudal system. To which extent can the following be applied? Is it an oversimplification or does it hold some truth for the series?
Earth Pony = farmer
Pegasus = soldier
Unicorn = priest
Alicorn = ruler
This is what you could get when you start with an idealised Disney type fairytale aristocracy. As the technology mostly points to the 19th century, there is even more room for (false) romanticism. But it’s fair to say that Lauren Faust and the writers have tried to bend this setting to modern social standards, within given limitations. Let me try to demonstrate this by adding knowledge in hindsight to the discussion of 2011:
In the first two episodes of season 1, the magic of friendship has started out as a small experiment, delegated by Princess Celestia to her apprentice Twilight Sparkle.
If ‘magic’ is to be interpreted as ‘technology’, the way it works through the Elements of Magic is that you need to feed it with ‘friendship’ to be more powerful. ‘Friendship’ at large can be a metaphor for a rule-of-law society based on (legal) equality. Being able to act in unison will make any group stronger, even a diverse group. It has been shown in the series (or at least in the IDW comics) that the Elements don’t work if one of the friends is missing.
In season 8, Twilight extends her teachings to other species through the School of Friendship, basically applying diplomacy. The forged union is weak at first, but ultimately enables the defeat of the greatest enemies of Equestria in season 9.
Note: in the ‘thousand years ago’ past, Luna and Celestia, and later Celestia on her own were able to use the ‘Elements of harmony’ without assistance of other sub-species. This becomes clear at the start of season 4. Unfortunately, the Elements needing an Alicorn to fire is a weakness. I’ll get to that.
The idea of a union between the pony sub-species is not of Celestia’s making. In season 2, the Windigo’s are introduced as a part of the Hearth’s Warming Eve story. Perceived by most ponies as a fairytale, it proved to have a ‘real’ basis in the season 9 finale: if the pony sub-species stop having ‘warm’ relationships, it gets colder in a literal sense too.
It can be argued however that the Windigo concept weakens the notion of ‘Friendship’. The Windigos force the ponies to work together by threatening their survival if they don’t. Does Friendship need evil spirits as a fail-safe device?
Concerning the special abilities of Unicorns, the show has made clear that Unicorns need to exercise to apply magic; it’s a skill that requires training and not all Unicorns are created equal. This has been demonstrated many episodes: the school for gifted Unicorns, which Twilight attended (see S1 episode The Cutie Mark Chronicles), Sweety Bell gets private lessons from Twilight (S4, Twilight Time), Starlight is teaching Trixie with mixed results (S7, All Bottled Up). As has already been put out by responders in this discussion, the magical abilities of Unicorns are limited and are nowhere near the formidable power that can be achieved through powering the Elements of Harmony with Friendship.
Having said this, I believe that the need of an Alicorn to wield the Elements of Harmony implies that Equestria is stuck with a benevolent dictatorship at best. As only Unicorns can promote to Alicorns, Unicorns are a de facto aristocracy from which other races are excluded. The abundance of Alicorns in Canterlot makes this all too clear. A French revolution will not happen soon. There is no simple way to change this system. Without an Alicorn, rising the sun and the moon will be much harder, but maybe even worse: there is no effective system of defence.
[Note about rising the sun and such: we may assume that there was a weather system and a system of planetary rotation and orbiting satellites before ponies existed; without pony interference, the worst case scenario is a roll back to prehistoric environmental conditions].
The instability of the feudal system is demonstrated in the S5 Cutie re-mark episode. An almost trivial fact like Rainbow Dash not being able to perform her sonic rainboom has a butterfly effect. The many dystopian storylines show how easily things can go wrong if the Elements fail to work. Magic is power and when it falls into the wrong hands, less benevolent dictatorships arise. So Twilight is bound to rule the next thousand years by ‘noblesse oblige’. There is simply no alternative, at least not on a nationwide level. Not in this world.
I’m glad that there are hints of at least local systems of Trias Politica and a kind of democracy. In the comics, mayor Mayor gets elected. There seems to be some system of law, even international law (again, in the comics). I haven’t seen a judge yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they have law suits in Equestria. And if lawyers are in short supply, then you can turn to the Cutie Mark Crusaders to defend your case (S5, Appleoosa’s Most Wanted) … OK, maybe we need more than a hint of Trias Politica here.
To conclude, I think there is no longer a true feudal system, but the remnants of such a system place a burden on further development. Although individual ponies are not limited to a role imposed by a feudal system and have various career opportunities (presuming that their cutie marks express both what they can do and what they desire), I suspect that sub-species statistics are skewed nevertheless.
Actually, I think there is room for a few extra seasons to face these challenges. However, that would mean that we definitely lose the original group targeted by toy company Hasbro. But I really hope that some of these RL issues that grown ups face will be included in MLP Generation 5 story lines.