Observations on MLP: Destiny

Text version:

There’s been an ongoing debate in the comments of my videos about the nature of Equestrian society. A lot of people have argued that the values of Equestria are meant to reflect American values, and therefore Equestria should be viewed as socially similar to the US (or Canada). I’m firmly in the camp that Equestria has a unique society which isn’t meant to parallel American society, and a big part of that is because of how the show handles the idea of destiny.

American idealism is usually a fight AGAINST destiny. The American Dream is, essentially, that no matter where you’re from or who you are, you can rise to fame and fortune. We say that anyone can become anything, regardless of their beginnings.
But in Equestria, destiny is something to be embraced, sought after, and lived with. Ponies are expected to literally live up to their names, as their parents somehow psychically anticipate what their child will be like when naming them. Some names allude to something specific, such as Rarity or Rainbow Dash or Applejack, while others speak more for potential, like Twilight Sparkle or Applebloom.

Ponies are expected to realize a specific destiny by the time they finish elementary school, and that destiny is permanently emblazened on their flanks. We don’t exactly expect that ponies have a concept of the “midlife crisis.”

Pony society, and pony magical physiology, suggest that the way a pony’s life plays out just isn’t anything like the way an American’s life plays out. Americans are expected to change all the time, never satisfied with the life they have, always shooting for something bigger. Ponies are expected to figure out where their going while they’re still children, and then to follow this career for the rest of their lives.

This, to me, is an incredibly liberating idea, because it means that pony society wouldn’t necessarily reward only the brightest and the best, but would appreciate everypony’s contribution to society. Every pony has their own niche, which they can be comfortable in fulfilling. I want to believe that in Equestria, you could be a one-of-a-kind auteur, and live your life the way you want to.

But of course, that’s me being idealistic. If you wanted to specifically rain on my parade, you could also interpret Equestria as a place wherein everyone is locked into a specific fate, and if you’re a one-of-a-kind auteur who nopony appreciates, then you’re just fucked.
In reality, this is a lot like the real world. I happen to believe in the idea of destiny myself. I think that each of us is set on a causal path through life which is bound to happen exactly one way, regardless of what we think about it. The idea that we’re making choices about who we are and how we see others, is merely an illusion.

But I digress. Whereas American society is all about promoting free will, I think that pony society is more about embracing destiny. These ideals need not be mutually exclusive, but I think that the general systems of Equestria promote the idea of a universe driven by destiny.

Twilight Sparkle is destined to be the most powerful unicorn, because she was born with the ability to summon endless magical power. Rainbow Dash was predisposed to being an incredible flyer from a very young age. Fluttershy has an innate ability to communicate with animals on a deeper level than most ponies. Rarity has a natural magical ability to locate precious stones. Pinkie Pie has a unique disposition, mindset, and memory, which allows her to befriend everypony. And Applejack has followed in her family’s footsteps to continue a generations-spanning passion for Apple farming.

All of these suggest that destiny is an innate quality of being a pony, and is recognized as such in the moral and social foundations of Equestria.

Reading Pony society this way actually brings to mind some interesting thoughts about the way the show handles its characters. For instance, it might be wrongheaded in a sense to expect Fluttershy to change into anything other than Fluttershy. This is what makes her largely unchanged nature defensible. While it bothers Rainbow Dash to no end that Fluttershy is such a scaredy cat, Rainbow has to eventually realize that every pony has a unique disposition, and self-change isn’t necessarily an important aspect of pony society. Maybe Fluttershy really can get along just fine being who she is without needing to change for anyone.

Anyways, I could go on like this, but I’ll save that for future character analysis videos. In the mean time, let me know what you think about all this in the comments.

And while we’re here, let’s address the idea of dramatic readings! Some people have been asking me to do them, and I’m interested, though I’ve never done it before. Someone recommended me to read Vinyl and Octavia: University Days, and I’ve been reading it and it’s amazing, but if I were to dramatically read this, I obviously can’t accurately perform Octavia and Vinyl. I can try my best to do a man-version of their voices, if that’s okay with you, so… is that okay with you?

8 thoughts on “Observations on MLP: Destiny

  1. I know I tend to speak in fragments and assume you’re in my head, so I’ll do my best to be clear.

    I think it’d help if I tossed in a few terms to help complete the suite: determinism, fate, and free will (you already used the word “fate”).

    Okay. Fate is standardly defined as excluding human agency, while destiny is defined as focusing on human reactions or actions within the scheme. Fate says, “Because that had to happen.” Destiny says, “Because he had to do this.” The intimation of purpose and ends, here. Oddly, though, both are *very* arguably dependent on the existence of sentience, in that both play with the question of whether and how much of what goes on in the emotional/mental process or whatever is part of natural law (the “universal rules,” if you will), or not. This is because the overarching hypothetical of determinism—uhh…should it be true—is that, given a span of time, events within that span are fixed as a matter of natural law. Determinism, by the way, is what I’m assuming you’re talking about when you mention your beliefs.

    Of course, we’d need to assume in passing that causes and effects are knowable (in order to actually reach evaluations of natural law), as well as slightly scientistic thinking—but that’s a huge fucking can of worms that I already discussed when you analyzed “Feeling Pinkie Keen.”

    Anyway: is the mind, the emotional-mental complex, the “human will,” an aberration…or completely interwoven within the chain of events? How much of “you” is—well, you? How much of any sentient being is independent of nature? With respect to fate and destiny, you don’t even necessarily have to believe in mind/body dualism (whatever the fuck those two terms are actually narrowed to mean via logic)—but you *do* have to believe in some mysterious X factor. A “you” that linked to “youness” outside of the confines of the natural world. Obviously this gets a little fucked when you consider the pitfalls of essentialist thinking: basically going, “Using the Transmogrifier, Calvin has transformed into an elephant that Hobbes now has to keep hidden from the once-boy’s mother—but the elephant is still Calvin.” Kids do that shit all of the time, and even adults. The fallacy is assuming that there’s still a Calvin-ness to the elephant. Uhhh…there *may* be, but how would we test for it, when science would seem to suggesting everything but that? This is where notions of God, the soul, etc. come in to fill the blanks.

    Lastly, the implications of a deterministic universe. Things become complicated when we consider the linkage of all events. Not only does “agency” become weird, but “responsibility,” too. If things might not be able to go any differently within a hypothetical time span (so we might declare), can there still yet be non-deterministic influence on that time span? In other words, how much are we responsible for in other people’s lives, or even for the “shaping of the universe?” After all, if sentient thought is natural, part of the structure, then responsibility (or the feeling of it) is a construction or illusion—a very practical one, evolutionarily and socially. With respect to destiny and fate, terms both tied to “ends” or “purpose,” it may be that we all rise/fall together. Something like that feels good—y’know, when we watch a corny or epic film. But is it true? I’m shrugging here. I happen to have been raised a Christian (at this point, more committed spiritually than in terms of external or conservative abidance), but even religion fits within the scheme; it’s really a matter of what concepts you use to fill which gaps. And, of course, “evidence.”

    Hopefully all of that was clear; I’m curious about what your video commenters might have written, and it seemed that this might help you—assuming you haven’t research all of this on your own. If you have, all of this is redundant.

    So! To avoid writing a useless comment in that case, please let me tie this stuff into my thoughts about your post, at least.

    You already know my thoughts about world origin: Scholasticism, while allows the freedom of Western Civ myth and society (Persian manticore, Egyptian/Greek griffin, European unicorn, etc.), but also absolutist, “divine” diarchy (also, continued adherence to the idea of greater, “truer,” original beings that give birth to less-perfect subjects). And yeah, medieval thinking with respect to astronomy. I’m not sure how much of an American free will role fans really think the context to have, beyond “modern assumptions”: gender equality (which might not even be the thing, here—at its core feminism is just sympathy, honest and dogged pursuance of the line between truth and lies), killing is brutish (which may just be a “this is a kids’ show” thing), etc. I take your word on that one: I know and care too little about the demographic statistics.

    What you call American idealism is more what the world (and sometimes we ourselves) label American idealism to be. In reality, it’s a culmination of various views a few hundred years ago, facilitated by the Reformation, the rise of Westphalian sovereignty (and excess into absolutism), the collapse of feudalism, and the rise of nationalism. It’s because there’s all this EU complication (and European traditions that we just never had) that people might seem to be avoiding us more actively. But because I see your ultimate point, and it’s sound, I’m thinking along with your argument.

    Most Western Civ stories (from Iliad and Oedipus Rex to Macbeth) deal with fate as something to be fought, destiny as something to be sifted (perhaps slightly changed, perhaps lost). Most, I said. Gilgamesh is a bit different, because the protagonist seeks the face of the gods themselves (and godhood), not just happiness (because, fuck, he had all of that x1000 before his best, truest, and only friend was killed). He persists, no matter how much the ordeal tears him apart, and he fails. But he takes courage, faces his destiny and mortality, and somehow finds a way to pull his face into a smile and live earnestly. Other cultural narratives are notably different, such as in India or Taoism (remember Kara no Kyoukai?).

    I don’t think there should be any real doubt that Equestrians believe in metaphysical uniqueness. Or try to align themselves with destiny. Magic and spirituality is all about personal affirmation; it’s what separates them from science and philosophy. Certain elements in a given universe may be truly magical, not readily subjected to empirical testing because they’re entirely beyond the natural universe (of course, someone would actually have to find this to be the case, beyond a shadow of a doubt).

    A more interesting question for clarification, however, may be what destiny for Equestrians really is, regardless of what they think it to be. In other words, does it actually exist?

    It can be argued that the Equestrian ponies chase destinies (which again, necessitate “purpose”)—but the real difference between the way they live and the way we do would really only be in who bears the knowledge and the agency/control. Since there is magic, and “purpose,” we more easily perceive destiny, as do they—though we have no clue of what this shadowy force wants. It may be that, much like some American Indian cultures did (and others), ponies observe their young for a while before naming them (in that case, names like Fluttershy would make perfect sense). Yet *we’re* the ones with the (imperfect) “knowledge.” Celestia might be second, Discord third (but not giving a shit), and maybe Luna fourth. This assumes that there is no Equestrian pantheon of “true,” metaphysical divinities that surpass us all.

    For example—does Rainbow Dash’s name mean or insinuate? That’s in our heads, a narrative construct. It’s also in the characters’ heads, but we don’t know the degree to which they’re meta-aware of their unique significance. Apple Bloom picked up on the apple familial similarity, but that didn’t help her pick up on what her destiny is with respect to, say, her future occupation (logically incoherent point, as the next paragraph will make clear).

    I will say that “The Cutie Mark Crusaders” explores the interplay of historical events. That ep alone makes it clear that the pony’s belief is sappy, sort of flimsy—and culturally-ingrained (whether by hearsay, guessing, actual experience, or superstition). Think about how fucking subjective Cherilee’s rationalization of her cutie mark comes across at the beginning of the ep. But the belief is definitely there. Again, though, the destiny element is retrospective, and we don’t know the degree to which these sorts of concepts are coherently believed in its entirety.

    Now that I’ve clarified the haziness between control and lack of control, we might consider the complexity of cause and effect (without going in too deeply). Basically, a god might plan the ultimate destruction of the universe. Either he/she/it has the power to bring it about, and has determined that sufficient power to delay it will not exist. Or our own actions, to however small a degree at the individual level, will be part of the scenario leading to the fireball. There’s a strangeness, here, in that it’s unclear what precisely is preventing what: is that god preventing us, or the universe? Could be a mix.

    All the same, this doesn’t necessarily mean that sufficient power is lacking to do *other* things before that point (complicated, as I’ve earlier said, by the interlinkage of events). Fate and destiny are about the relation of events into a thread; not just inevitability, but necessity. Dunno if that was worded well enough. Necessity is not inevitability, nor vice-versa.

    The ultimate point is that Rarity might have been so named because her mother was previously infertile. Rarity’s talent (as a unicorn) is digging jewels. But she will spend her life with fashion—*unless* (for one example out of many) she develops a keen sense for discovering magical artifacts, rather than just jewels. All of this complicates your reasoning a bit. In this case, putting our heads together to think about it, we would likely conclude that a) purposive destiny is limited to differing and variable parsing of events, b) we are primarily the ones stringing together the linguistic and narrative connotations of her name.

    The primary point is also that a cutie mark isn’t all that important, because it’s an inherently subjective thing. My cutie mark might be a carrot, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to deal in carrots or produce. I might sell an orange dye (and be a famous inventor, dying a wealthy stallion in old, old age) that I came across in my odd love-hate relationship with carrots (the dye was originally drawn from beta carotene, let’s say). I give this example to show that the judgment call is inherently based on just that, sentient judgment. We’re only empowered to see that destiny working because it’s written and parsed that way for a very few main characters, not because the epistemology itself given the universe is all that convincing.

    • Dogged, can I just say that you are my knight in shining armor?

      I’ve been getting responses of all kinds to this video. Lots of people who disagree, lots who agree, most who just didn’t get what I was trying to say, or who proved that I didn’t explain myself well enough. Two video responses, and the one by Bronycurious is the one which directly addresses my opinion of determinism. He and I had a long conversation about philosophy over Skype, reaching the usual philosophical ceiling of “who the hell knows.”

      But you have cut through everything. You’ve seen what I meant, and still known why I was wrong and why I was right. You’ve brought what I wanted to bring to the table to fruition, as you almost always seem to (and the other times, it just means I was spot-on to begin with). God damn. What in the hell did I do to deserve you as a commenter?

      I apologize that all I have for a reply is basically a verbal handjob, but the thing is, you’ve thought way beyond where I could have thought, and more than “agreeing” with you, I feel educated. So yeah. Thanks for saving me from awkwardly trying to explain myself to others, when I still didn’t have a complete idea what I was talking about.

      • Of course I thought about Twilight’s brother at your first sentence, and laughed. That’s fandom for you.

        I dunno: it’s weird. When it comes to 2-D, I tend to feel that it’s the other way around entirely, where you’ve got the more interesting, informative views. I think that’s because I’m happy watching a hell of a lot of things, and don’t find it all that helpful to break down all that much of it. Bloggers will intellectually fellate themselves, say utterly nothing, or come up with stuff I already know at face value, which is why I never commented on any blogs for years (and still pretty much don’t). You, GL, 2DT, Bakaraptor, and a few others were different. You 1) helped me see Azuma’s Otaku in a new light back with Fuzakenna, 2) clarified fandom for me, 3) evaluated studios, 4) got real, 5) cut the bullshit with shows that were bullshit (Bee Train, Katanagatari, etc.)

        But my feelings are the opposite with FIM. It’s basically what you wrote in your celebration post, writ large. It’s easier to read, more fun to read, and I feel happier and less pretentious in doing so. My knowledge feels useful for once, maybe because I feel like less of an angry asshole who ends up disliking most of the things claimed to be good. Much less.

        You remember how you wrote about MLP making you nicer and shit? Or making you want to become nicer? That may have happened to me, too, a little bit. I’m just so happy to work through this stuff that I’m not going to split hairs and disagree and whatever. We’re fans at work, here. As long as you’ve got ass to kick, I should be helping, not detracting. ‘Least a NEET can do.

  2. DISCLAIMER: While I’ll try to make my point as clear as possible, I’m not as articulate or as illustrated as misfortunedogged, so bear with me please.

    Ok, I could be wrong, but the overall impression I get from your analysis is that (in equestria) the destiny and the cutie mark of a given individual are extensions of one another (the cutie mark sealing their destiny, or their destiny defining their cutie mark at birth).
    Especially with these statements:
    – “Ponies are expected to figure out where their going while they’re still children, and then to follow this career for the rest of their lives.”
    – “Every pony has their own niche”
    – “Ponies are expected to realize a specific destiny by the time they finish elementary school, and that destiny is permanently emblazened on their flanks”

    And it is indeed one way to look at it. However, I agree with misfortunedogged in that “a cutie mark isn’t all that important, because it’s an inherently subjective thing”. A cutie mark, in my own humble opinion, represents the individuals particular talent. Their niche, as you said. But talent might have nothing to do with your destiny. Take a look at Rainbow Dash or Rarity, or even Fluttershy.
    Fluttershy’s talent resides on her ability to communicate with critters, and her cutie mark kind of represents that. But that’s not her destiny, nor is she limited to only filling a specific role in a specific environment. Fluttershy has other traits and qualities, one could interpret her cutie mark as being gentle, delicate, beautiful. In fact, this facet of fluttershy was explored on “Green isn’t your color”.
    And even though her cutie mark appears after she realizes her ability to bond with critters, its a mixture of knowledge and belief what ultimately defines her role in society. She might have been destined to be friends with Twilight and the others, and to be the element of kindness. But that’s another story to dissect later…

    Rarity uses her talent (her love for jewels and her ability to locate them) to fuel her passion (dressmaking). She is the one choosing why and how her cutie mark influences her behavior. And I believe the same applies for everyone.

    I think that, in the end, each individual isn’t destined to be anything, but rather, its their choices and the choices of the ones surrounding them the ones that define who, what, when and why they are who they are and become who they become.

    I think I got a bit sidetracked at the middle of it all… but hopefully its coherent enough

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