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The following is essentially a compilation of all that I say about Fluttershy in these reviews. They are my own conclusions based on watching the episodes, and may not necessarily line up with creators' statements or other source material.
What Fluttershy wants most is to minimize discomfort, whether by alleviating suffering or avoiding confrontation. It's not clear from the show whether she sees her own neediness in others or simply regards gentleness as one of the highest virtues. But this desire both arises naturally and is something she goes well out of her way, even into scary situations, to demonstrate.
The Element held by Fluttershy is most commonly called that of Kindness, for which Princess Celestia substitutes the word Compassion in Magical Mystery Cure. This more specific word identifies the roots of Fluttershy's kind actions; she is moved with compassion for ponies and animals alike. Another word that might be suitable would be consolation, since she most often demonstrates kindness toward those who are hurting or upset.
This is well illustrated by her encounter with the manticore in Friendship Is Magic part 2. When the roaring beast takes a swipe at Rarity, the other ponies attack, but Fluttershy halts the fight before she even knows the monster has a thorn in its paw. The manticore shows her the thorn, and she deals with it in the same way she handles the animals at her cottage. Explaining herself to Twilight afterward, Fluttershy includes the manticore in the same class as herself as she says, "Sometimes we all just need to be shown a little kindness."
Fluttershy's kindness toward the manticore is likewise exteneded to Cerberus in the second season's It's About Time. These examples go beyond the general kindness of the other main characters in that she seeks out the unloveable and tolerates the intolerable. This may also explain her early fascination with Spike, who as a dragon represents a species unfamiliar to and feared by most ponies, Fluttershy herself included. (She explains at one point that her phobia of dragons does not include Spike because he's not "a huge, gigantic, terrifying, enormous, teeth-gnashing, sharp-scale having, horn-wearing, smoke-snoring, could eat a pony in one bite, totally all grown-up dragon."
Kindness drives Fluttershy's actions in most of her featured episodes. She receives her cutie mark through an act of kindness and consolation toward animals. In accord with her cutie mark, we see her providing for her animals in many episodes, and part of her kindness is her longsuffering toward Angel Bunny and her other occasionally greedy charges. Compassion motivates Fluttershy's stealing of Philomena, whom she suspects is being neglected, though she is simultaneously charitable in her view of Celestia, assuming the Princess is simply too busy to care properly for a pet.
Fluttershy is also remarkably kind toward her friends, so much so that Twilight seeks her out first in Magical Mystery Cure. Twilight doesn't yet know that Rainbow Dash's situation is the most urgent, yet she trusts that Fluttershy will be willing to help even without the support of any other "cured" friends beside her. And indeed, it's Fluttershy who gives the episode's moral, stating all she knows of Rainbow Dash is that "She's my friend and I'd do anything to help her."
Fluttershy's kindness to her friends even pushes her to go against her nature: She stands up to an adult dragon, the object of her phobia, to defend her friends when she sees them hurt. She becomes a fashion model despite her shyness in order to keep from letting Rarity down. She and Applejack try multiple times to address Twilight's jealousy issues in the first part of A Canterlot Wedding. I would even contend that Fluttershy's bitter weeping in Ponyville Confidential is not over the claim that she wears tail extensions, but for the Cutie Mark Crusaders who have become so unkind despite their special connection with her from Stare Master.
In keeping with kindness, Fluttershy possesses a humility that provides a stark contrast to the pride often shown by Applejack, Rainbow Dash, and Rarity. Under Discord's questioning, she accepts her limitations without pride or jealousy and is thankful for her friends' support rather than fearful of their opinion of her.
One other thing I'll mention is that kindness is based in action rather than words. We don't often see Fluttershy offering words of comfort; that's more Twilight's deal. She simply acts. Her reticence may lead some to confuse her kindness and longsuffering with naiveté, as her friends do in Keep Calm and Flutter On. However, she understands what she's doing in loving the unloveable. And in Discord's case especially, she never really lectures him on what being a friend is; she simply befriends him and lets that speak for itself.
In Myers-Briggs terms, Fluttershy is an INFP. She's an introvert, preferring time alone or with her animals rather than being in public. Her "freaky knowledge of sewing" fits here since it's a solitary activity, and note that her vision for the gala never involves attending the actual event, but hanging out in the royal garden with the critters. She's intuitive, showing on several occasions that she understands herself and her strengths and weaknesses quite well but often not being sure what to make of others. Feelings such as fear, compassion, even mere attraction to the cute, frequently lead her to take what is not the most reasonable course of action, as seen most tragically in Swarm of the Century. Fluttershy is also more inclined toward perception than judgment, being indecisive and easily swayed, usually deferring to whatever is okay with somepony else. Her curiosity about those different from herself, and her desire to project her deeply held value of friendship onto the world around her are in line with this personality type.
As of the end of the third season, the series has revealed nothing about Fluttershy's family, but what we know of her early life is that she was a weak flier and was subject to bullying because of it. What we see of Cloudsdale's culture and of pegasi in general indicates that they are proud, competitive, and brash, with a militaristic history as revealed in Hearth's Warming Eve. It is unknown how much of Fluttershy's shyness and compassion for others in need might be rooted in her trials in Cloudsdale. What is clear is that it continues to haunt and inhibit her as late as Hurricane Fluttershy, and that when she first falls from Cloudsdale and discovers her life purpose on the ground, she expresses a wish that she had gotten there sooner and would like never to leave.
Many scenes indicate that Fluttershy is easily startled, but she's not generally fearful in the absence of threat, nor is she ever cowardly. She's usually willing to go into dangerous situations when properly motivated and is remarkably daring if one or more of her charges is in danger. However, Fluttershy's feelings are easily hurt. Griffon the Brush Off is the first episode to dwell on her sensitivity: Pinkie Pie dissuades Rainbow Dash from a harmless prank because it would hurt her feelings, even though they had just pranked Twilight, Rarity, Applejack, and Spike (and by extension Princess Celestia). Later that episode, it takes Gilda all of twenty seconds to send Fluttershy running off in tears.
Numerous times in the series, Fluttershy belies her weak appearance and shows herself the equal of Rainbow Dash in her boldness and even her speed. It seems her strength of character can overflow into physical strength in times of extreme crisis. Just to tally up the examples of this, she's approached a manticore, a dragon, a cockatrice, and Cerberus, both befriended Discord and rebuked him when he stepped out of line, joined the other ponies in bucking off enemy Diamond Dogs, stood up to Rainbow Dash against the very ponies RD rescued her from once before in Sonic Rainboom, and cheered wildly for Rainbow in that same episode. Fluttershy has twice intervened with Princess Celestia to take the heat off an in-trouble Twilight Sparkle, rushed into combat with a determined expression alongside her friends in A Canterlot Wedding—Part 2, tackled Pinkie Pie out of joy in Over a Barrel, and chased down Rainbow Dash in Part 2 of The Return of Harmony. She also kept pace with Rainbow Dash when saving Spike and Rarity in Secret of My Excess and when pursuing Applejack in The Last Roundup, and flew her heart out to help create the hurricane in Hurricane Fluttershy. She can even muster the strength to give Harry the Bear an effective massage.
I have a theory about this, and it may also help explain why Rainbow Dash is possibly the fastest pegasus in Equestria. Pegasus flight is powered as much by magic as it is by muscle, and we've seen with the Elements of Harmony that magic draws at least partly from a pony's mind or emotions. (In Magic Duel we learn that the reverse is also true: the use of certain magic can affect one's mental state.) Focus, concentration, study, and confidence are all vital for magic to work properly. Thus it makes sense that confidence and determination can enhance a pegasus' flying ability, while the lack of these would impair it. We see this demonstrated when Rainbow Dash's failures in Sonic Rainboom coincide with her nervousness, and in Dragonshy when Fluttershy's wings lock up from fear. In both cases, they exceed their usual limitations when extreme situations force them to set their fears aside and simply act.
There is a darker side to Fluttershy that surfaces every so often. If you spend enough time washing others' hooves, sooner or later you'll get kicked in the teeth. Because she so seldom expresses her frustration and offense at the abuse she suffers, the ways she's underestimated, and the uncomfortable positions in which she places herself, there's a lot of built-up tension inside her. This manifests itself comically in Green Isn't Your Color, where she screams and kicks a pot, both with about the same enthusiasm as her coached cheering at the beginning of Sonic Rainboom. On occasion we get snarky one-liners reminiscent of Worf in the early seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It comes out more obviously in the form of party-crashing and squirrel-chewing in The Best Night Ever. In Lesson Zero she is the first to chuckle at Twilight's tardiness freak-out (though also the first to express concern as soon as Twilight leaves). And in Putting Your Hoof Down, it's during the "new Fluttershy" portion of the episode that I consider Fluttershy to be in-character, only having shed her usual inhibitions.
Fluttershy gained a mark of three butterflies as animals gathered around her, having been calmed and told it was safe to come out from their hiding after the noise of a sonic rainboom. She had been lowered safely to the ground by her fall by a swarm of butterflies minutes before. In recounting the story, Fluttershy says she had just discovered her ability to communicate with the animals "on a different level." The pets of the Mane Six all seem able to understand pony language, but only Fluttershy seems to understand what the animals themselves are saying. (Twilight explicitly cannot understand squirrels.) And as demonstrated both in The Cutie Mark Chronicles and Magical Mystery Cure, the animals don't just understand her voice but generally heed it. Angel Bunny is a notable exception, both because he often disobeys and also because he has to resort to pantomime. (Perhaps he is a mute?)
One extension of this connection is "the stare," which as far as we can tell only works on animals. It can be triggered intentionally (as in Keep Calm and Flutter On) but is sometimes spontaneous, as Fluttershy explains in Stare Master. The visuals and accompanying sound effects suggest direct mind control, and the stare has interesting parallels with Discord's corrupting influence, though Fluttershy has thus far used it only for good.
The show hasn't told us exactly what Fluttershy is doing with all the animals at her cottage. Since ponies consider it unnatural for animals to fend for themselves (as the creatures of the Everfree Forest do), these may be otherwise-wild animals. She watches Opal in Stare Master and walks Winona in Spike at Your Service, and Gummy is in her cottage in Magical Mystery Cure, but she's also able to offer many of the animals at her cottage as potential pets for Rainbow Dash. I believe at least some of them may be abandoned pets. Caring for the discarded and undesired would be a perfect match for her Element.
One interesting fact about Fluttershy's seven featured episodes is that she's rarely the only pony to learn a lesson. In fact, in Dragonshy the lesson really isn't hers at all, but that of her friends. They learn that she can be "an amazing source of strength." At least, I choose this interpretation of Twilight's letter over the alternate reading that Fluttershy's friends helped her overcome her fears, because in this episode they didn't. She only overcomes her fear because of the dragon's brutality, and it's Fluttershy's strength of will that saves the others. However, this could be considered an episode of self-discovery, in that it's the first time we know of that Fluttershy has stood up to an enemy like this. One thing we know Fluttershy takes away from this adventure is the "Hop, Skip, and a Jump" mantra, which she recalls in Feeling Pinkie Keen.
In Stare Master, Fluttershy learns that her ability to follow through on her kind intentions has its limits, and so she ought not "bite off more than she can chew." However, avoiding overcommitment often requires saying no to requests, and Fluttershy hasn't mastered that yet, as indicated by her modeling in Green Isn't Your Color and her carrying all of Pinkie Pie's supplies (minus the balloons) in It's About Time. But as with Dragonshy, the more prominent lesson is respect for Fluttersy, and it's learned this time by the Cutie Mark Crusaders.
Green Isn't Your Color focuses on a communication breakdown between Fluttershy and Rarity, and while we haven't seen either of them run into a similar problem since, Fluttershy is often simply not listened to on numerous occasions, with examples ranging from Dragonshy to Magic Duel. But at least she's trying.
Putting Your Hoof Down focuses on assertiveness and is the sole Fluttershy-lesson episode so far. But the lesson here is problematic since (1) we've seen Fluttershy employ assertiveness when necessary (explicitly so in Sonic Rainboom), though only for the good of others and never for herself, and (2) her demeanor is not significantly different afterward. There may actually be more examples of assertive Fluttershy before that episode than after it.
Hurricane Fluttershy is part of Rainbow Dash's development arc, but it also includes a Flutterlesson on how to cope with a traumatic past. Fluttershy at first allows her history of victimhood to limit her, to the point that she hides, begs, and literally runs away from a team exercise where she would have the support of scores of other pegasi. After lots of vacillation, she eventually uses her memory as motivation and has a burst of energy akin to the rescues she performs in other episodes.
Keep Calm and Flutter On introduces Discord to friendship and its restraining power, but in the course of events, Fluttershy practices a balance between being patient with a friend and having standards and boundaries she insists on. As expertly as she handles the situation, I believe she's actually learned this lesson already, but she initially doubts her ability to pull it off and is surprised by the assignment. But after handling Discord, Angel and any ponies who might try to take advantage shouldn't pose much of a challenge to her.
Fluttershy has a long history with Rainbow Dash, going back at least to the time Dash defended her honor in Cloudsdale, at which time they gained their cutie marks. But Rainbow's treatment of Fluttershy in several early episodes ranges from dismissive to harsh. Things seem to turn around when Dash sees Fluttershy cheering at her sonic rainboom, and the interaction between these two ponies develops in tandem with Rainbow's own character over the course of the first three seasons. Beyond the most obvious examples such as Hurricane Fluttershy, three moments that stand out for me are their flying around together at the end of the picnic scene in A Canterlot Wedding—Part 1, their jousting in The Crystal Empire—Part 2, and Rainbow's enthusiastic selection of Fluttershy for the "dangerous mission" in Magic Duel.
|Putting Your Hoof Down||753 seconds|
|A Bird in the Hoof||687 seconds|
|Green Isn't Your Color||637 seconds|
|Stare Master||599 seconds|
|Keep Calm and Flutter On||545 seconds|
|Hurricane Fluttershy||541 seconds|
|Games Ponies Play||405 seconds|
|Hearth's Warming Eve||368 seconds|
|Friendship Is Magic, part 2||361 seconds|
|Magical Mystery Cure||359 seconds|
|Bridle Gossip||318 seconds|
|The Return of Harmony Part 1||315 seconds|
|The Return of Harmony Part 2||311 seconds|
|The Last Roundup||311 seconds|
|Sonic Rainboom||296 seconds|
|May the Best Pet Win!||278 seconds|
|Swarm of the Century||273 seconds|
|The Best Night Ever||223 seconds|
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