The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Future Fragments: What’s in a Label? You’re a Slytherin, he’s Divergent, and she’s a Rainbow Dash

Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor


A search for “Which My Little Pony Character Are You?” yields over a million results, including pages and pages of “personality quizzes” ready to confirm your suspicions about which of the “Friendship is Magic”—or more classic Pony ‘verse—characters your personality really fits. Search for Hogwarts Sorting Hat and there are even more options, including the official and much hyped test at the beginning of Pottemore which holds the ultimate mystique of being J.K. Rowling approved. These types of identity quizzes have been around for about as long as HTML has had forms—so what’s the appeal? Why do we keep defining our online identities around the characters of somebody else’s worlds, and why do we want a computer to tell us what our D&D alignment is?

Dahlia Lithwick posted a fantastic theory of “Muppet Types” on Slate, suggesting that we are all either Order or Chaos Muppets—though we may not be the best judges of this tendency ourselves. Thankfully, we have the internet to make that vital decision for us, and tons of social networks on which to announce the outcome. Back in the days of Geocities and other free websites, when the internet was divided into neighborhoods and just having a website was a sign of cool, home pages were filled with badges and downloaded “pets” and all sorts of silly markers of self-identity. Those same concepts transferred to LiveJournal, MySpace, and just about every social network until Facebook came along and briefly imposed order onto the madness with a clean layout that discouraged that type of clutter. But now, Facebook is just as chaotic as any of its predecessors, and quizzes can be embedded right into Facebook and shared around circles.

In My Little Pony, the characters are hit with labels for which “element of harmony” they represent right from the show’s start, and those same labels appear in the credits. In Harry Potter, the characters are almost never seen at school (or even out of school) without some reference to the colors of their house, and house loyalties and hatreds seem to follow grown-ups far into their adulthood as they still snipe and backstab over contests between the children in different houses. Labels like these not only tell us who in pop culture we can expect to identify with or root for—they also act as a shorthand for shortening complex identities into something comprehensible and coherent.

Veronica Roth’s world in Divergent—a sci-fi-esque dystopian trilogy whose second novel, Insurgent, was recently released—also has factions, and a process of sorting that is akin to the most absolute choice of boarding schools ever, as those sorted at their coming-of-age into different factions are never coming home again. Perhaps the coolest aspect of Veronica Roth’s world is that the story follows an unusual girl who has a choice between several factions that seem on their surface to be extremely different. Her strength comes from her flexibility, which makes her unpredictable to the rules-following, faction-defined folks she normally encounters. But despite this great character, there are plenty of “Which Divergent Faction are you?” sorting tests out there too, ready to tell you if your defining characteristic is Erudite (the scholars), Candor (the honest), Amity (the peaceful), or Abnegation (the selfless).

There are less extreme examples of this reminder of power between and outside of labels throughout current pop culture. In My Little Pony, ponies occasionally step out of their labels, often with results that reinforce this same type of lesson about the flexibility of self-perception. I have two personal favorites: first, the moment when Twilight Sparkle, an intellectual “egghead” sort of pony, joins the “Running of the Leaves”—which seems to be the pony equivalent of a 10k.

Another great moment has Rainbow Dash discovering that she likes to read, even though she’s a jock. These are not exactly stunning to us grown-ups—but they are a reminder of how limited we can be by the labels we identify ourselves with. (And I say this remembering full well how I justified my own utter lack of athleticism as a teen by focusing on the mind and my books instead—if only I could go back and lecture my younger self, maybe I’d be in better shape now!) The desire for a clear box with defined rules and strengths makes sense as a kid, and all these sorting quizzes promise to give us not only that box but also a pop culture role model to follow.

It’s not like we get over the idea of labels as a shortcut to self-understanding either. Ever take the Myers-Briggs sorting tests? (I’m an INTJ or an ENFP depending on the year and the test—I’m hoping that makes me divergent, but what it really makes me is noncommittal.) And there are still plenty of adults not ashamed to announce which My Little Pony they are on their Facebook wall (before you even ask, Twilight Sparkle.) Do we ever grow out of the desire for these labels?

If the ‘net can really be said to offer fluidity of identity given the separation of the  virtual assumed self from the physical self, than idealistically speaking it should be a place to try out many hats, alignments or even factions. Of course, this sort of abstraction is far too simplistic to be believed, particularly as so much of online discourse is now tied to the real self rather than an assumed identity. Before Facebook, everything online might have been conducted anonymously; now, there is an expectation of “real identity” presence that consumes much of our online time. Identity quizzes are another way to play—a quick escape to a world of hypotheticals, with the satisfaction of an easy-to-articulate label at the end for identities ultimately too mutable to ever capture.