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The following is essentially a compilation of all that I say about Rainbow Dash 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 Rainbow Dash wants most is admiration and respect. More specifically, she craves being thought of as awesome and cool, knowing her own abilities but feeling a constant need to prove herself and remind others just how good she is. A fear of being thought less than awesome intensifies her deeply-ingrained aggressiveness but inhibits her ability to be herself in other respects. One snapshot example of Rainbow's concern about looking cool is her covert affection for Tank in Just for Sidekicks, while the other ponies are openly nuzzling their pets.
The Element held by Rainbow Dash is most commonly called that of Loyalty, for which Princess Celestia substitutes the word Devotion in Magical Mystery Cure. Rainbow is one case where I believe the traditional term is the best one for her element. We don't really see Rainbow devoting her energies to the good of her friends from day to day, but in times of crisis, she's always there to stage a rescue or recover a wayward friend. As she says in her first episode, she won't leave her friends or her town hanging.
I have read an alternate take that Rainbow Dash's Element ought to be honesty or authenticity, since she's so blunt and brash, not filtering her thoughts and openly airing her opinions. However, the Elements should be virtues their bearers already demonstrate, not something they're still struggling to learn. (See the Rarity article for more on this.) Dash struggles with authenticity issues in most of her featured episodes, so I'd say that's the least likely thing her Element could be. But when somepony is in trouble, the pony most likely to come to the rescue is Rainbow Dash.
Exhibit A for Dash's loyalty is Party of One, where we see Rainbow's determination to bring Pinkie to her surprise party, which is necessary to restore Pinkie's faith in her friends. Exhibit B is Rainbow being at the forefront of the effort to apologize to Rarity and draw her out of her self-imposed exile in Suited for Success. Finally, when Applejack goes missing in The Last Roundup, Rainbow Dash is the first to suggest tracking AJ down, and she attempts to reason with Applejack throughout the episode despite their past clashes.
In Friendship Is Magic part 2, Rainbow Dash demonstrates her loyalty by choosing her friends over an offer to join the (illusory) Shadowbolts. The significance of this choice is clearer from later episodes as we learn that Dash's dream of joining the Wonderbolts is not just a passing fascination but a life-long dream that relates to her chief desire for admiration. Becoming a respected member of an amazing team of flyers would, she thinks, confirm her belief in herself and settle her fears about her reputation. This is what she's potentially giving up by passing on the offer for the sake of her friends.
Griffon the Brush Off challenges Dash's loyalty by forcing her to choose between her new friends and an old friend who won't accept them. It's really Gilda who forces the dichotomy: Reconciliation is a two-way street, and Gilda is essentially making disloyalty to Dash's new friends a condition of their relationship. That's a deal breaker, but the loss of an old friend, particularly over the issue of her Ponyville friends being supposedly "uncool" given Rainbow's other issues, must have hurt Rainbow Dash a lot.
Discord also takes advantage of Rainbow's loyalty by pitting the fate of her Ponyville friends against the safety of her hometown of Cloudsdale and its residents, which would include her family. It's a lie, but under Discord's influence she believes her loyalty is compelling her to abandon her friends, and by the time they find her, she's given up on loyalty altogether. At that point, her friends' loyalty to her is the only thing that can bring her back.
One question remains: How is Rainbow Dash's loyalty distinct from the integrity, faithfulness, and dependability that characterize Applejack? All these are potentially synonymous, but I see two differences between AJ's Element and Rainbow's, one of perception and one of application.
First, Applejack is faithful to commitments, an abstract concept, whereas Rainbow is loyal to people (that is, ponies, griffons, baby dragons, and so on). While it's true that commitments are usually made to others, Applejack's Element also binds her to the commitments she makes to herself, as seen in Applebuck Season, whereas Rainbow appears more flexible, able to forgo her own plans for the need (or whim) of the moment. She's in no hurry to finish her work earlier than she has to, and the flight goals she sets for herself are usually of secondary importance to what she ends up doing in any given episode.
Second, Applejack integrates her Element into everything she does, consistently living to fulfill her obligations and commitments to farm, family, and friends. Rainbow actually spends most of her time for herself but is ready to drop everything if a friend needs help, and she'll always decide in favor of her friends in a moment of truth. Both Elements are about being there for your friends. But whereas AJ is about constancy, a quiet sort of awesomeness, Rainbow is about being the cavalry, the same sort of awesomeness in a more showy form.
In Myers-Briggs terms, Rainbow Dash is an ISFJ. She's an introvert, practically a loner who spends her free time napping and practicing her stunts, and usually suspicious of outsiders. She's intuitive, far more sure of her own thoughts and feelings than those of others, and often introspective when she's by herself. She a "feeler," letting her emotions drive her actions regardless of odds or arguments, with a short fuse and somewhat prone to emotional roller coasters. Dash is more inclined toward judgment than perception; she rushes to conclusions and charges into battle, and she takes offense when somepony violates her personal moral code. She finds disloyalty especially abhorrent, as she demonstrates in Sweet and Elite.
Humans with this temperament are usually quiet and not inclined to leadership. I believe that having been raised in the pegasus culture of her native Cloudsdale, Rainbow Dash has learned to be more aggressive and commanding than she otherwise would be, particularly to make up for not finishing flight school. And while she's a capable leader, she doesn't struggle with the control issues many leaders do. The one time she complains about being "wing pony" in Wonderbolts Academy, she's not wanting to be in charge so much as wanting to see her flying talent recognized. When we take into account Rainbow's inborn temperament, the boisterousness we identify with Rainbow Dash appears to be a product of nurture rather than nature. That doesn't mean it's a mere facade; it's genuinely part of her personality and is likely all she's ever known, but it's a reminder that our natural inclinations are not all-determining. This, by the way, is why I don't plan to write this sort of personality profile on the Cutie Mark Crusaders or other pre-adult ponies. There's still a lot that could change about them before they grow up. What they will ultimately become is still an open question.
Rainbow leads the pegasi in their weather duties as early as Winter Wrap Up, but numerous aspects of her personality can make her intimidating or hard to get close to. She has little restraint when it comes to laughing at other ponies (usually Twilight, including their first meeting) and enjoys a good prank. In Griffon the Brush Off she isn't quite as careful about other ponies' likely reactions as Pinkie Pie is. She revels in mocking the royal guards in A Bird in the Hoof and disrupts Twilight's efforts to introduce ponies to Luna by her lightning pranks in Luna Eclipsed.
In more serious moments, Rainbow can also be quite gruff to ponies she doesn't know. Immediately after the appearance of Nightmare Moon, Rainbow accuses Twilight of being a spy. She takes the harshest tone with Applejack in The Last Roundup, and in The Crystal Empire she has a practically adversarial stance toward the crystal ponies as she drills them for information and drives them away from the fake crystal heart. Her own heart is in the right place, but it's easy to see how mild-mannered ponies could be afraid of her.
Rainbow also suffers from insecurities related to her chief desire. One reason she comes on so strong and pushes herself so hard is that she fears what will happen if ponies she respects see her lose. This leads to her stagefright in Sonic Rainboom, and it also fuels her determination to bring the Equestrian Games to the Crystal Empire in Games Ponies Play, missing obvious clues in her push to make up for a childhood disappointment.
One pony adversely affected by Rainbow Dash's identity issues is Scootaloo. Prior to Sleepless in Ponyville and for most of that episode, Rainbow Dash has always been friendly to Scootaloo, though in a casual, pal-ing around fashion and without any of the tenderness she might consider uncool. Her constant and vocal attention to the coolness factor leads Scootaloo to hide her own fears and inadequacy issues in order to be acceptable to her. Rainbow and Scootaloo open up to each other by the end of the episode, but one can only hope that Dash has learned the larger lesson of the effect her constant efforts to project coolness can have on those who can't compete with it.
Rainbow Dash received a cutie mark consisting of a white cloud emitting a rainbow-colored lightning bolt, moments after her race against two other pegasi led to the creation of a sonic rainboom. She notes that the event was "to defend Fluttershy's honor" (thus demonstrating her Element of Loyalty), and that she had never flown that fast. She discovered her love of racing and "made the impossible happen" through the legendary rainboom. She considers her cutie mark earned, something she went out and got for herself, in contrast to the conventional wisdom that prefers a more passive approach to discovering one's special talent.
Rainbow is certainly fast and competitive enough to be justified in associating her cutie mark with racing, but the more practical and Element-related use of her talent is in the speed necessary to pull of her rescues of ponies in peril. It also aids her in her occupation as captain of Ponyville's weather team, a job that appears to take up little of her time because she can finish her work so quickly.
I've considered whether Rainbow may have misinterpreted her cutie mark, on the possibility that the cloud and lightning bolt relate to her control of the weather. However, Rainbow hasn't shown any facility with the weather that's not also demonstrated by other pegasi beyond sheer speed, and her cutie mark is certainly flashier than that of most other pegasi with weather-related marks. Speed and agility really do seem to be her talents, and she can put them to various uses as the situation demands.
Rainbow Dash gets a lesson in the priority of friendship over competition in Fall Weather Friends. While Rainbow retains her competitive nature after this episode, we don't see her cheating or striving in a way that intentionally causes problems for her friends. Her new attitude becomes explicit in Wonderbolts Academy, where Spitfire agrees with her that being the best shouldn't come at the expense of other ponies.
Dash's tendency to accuse and rush into conflict gets her in trouble in Over a Barrel, when she pushes the buffalo to insist on moving Appleloosa's orchard when the buffalo appear ready to discuss a possible compromise. When the conflict escalates into a threat of war, Rainbow finds herself pleading with the buffalo to reconsider.
In May the Best Pet Win!, Rainbow takes a step toward realizing that certain virtues trump coolness. The fidelity demonstrated by Tank is a form of loyalty, RD's own Element. Rainbow calls this "the mark of a real winner," and while the show doesn't make this explicit, I believe future episodes bear out that Rainbow is beginning to think of her own loyalty as more important than the coolness factor.
Rainbow Dash takes such a leap backward in her character development in The Mysterious Mare Do Well that it's just about as jarring as her friends' deception in that story. Nevertheless, in real life, people do sometimes backslide into immaturity, and that may be the case here. Although it interrupts her character arc, Dash's hostility and jealousy are never directed toward her friends, and the neglect and rejection she faces are just the buttons to push to send her into despair. Does she really learn "humble heroism" from this episode? I'm undecided.
Read It and Weep is one of Rainbow's most important episodes, since it deals directly with her core issue of what others think of her. Anyone who cares overly much about being looked up to is likely to have a good number of guilty pleasures and skeletons in the closet. When Dash's love of reading is forced out into the open, she's able to be more honest about herself with the ponies who share her less "cool" interests. The fact that we see Rainbow Dash continuing to read in several later episodes, sometimes outdoors, suggests she's taking baby steps toward real authenticity, and further evidence appears near A Canterlot Wedding—Part 1, where Rainbow shares a giddy giggle with Rarity during the wedding rehearsal.
Dragon Quest gives us a little moment that shows Rainbow's development, where she holds Twilight Sparkle back from rushing into conflict with the dragons over the destruction of a letter from Princess Celestia. In the past it's been Rainbow who has to be restrained. Here she's the one with self-control.
Much of Rainbow's character development derives from her relationship to Fluttershy. Although Rainbow stood up for her when they were fillies, Dragonshy suggests Rainbow sees Fluttershy as weak, helpless, and useless. At Fluttershy's moment of decision outside the cave, when all the other ponies are giving her encouraging looks, Rainbow can only glare. The camera movement even suggests Dash's lack of support may be the reason Fluttershy can't muster the courage to stay with the team.
A year of adventures later, including one in which Fluttershy transcends her normal limits to chase down a Discorded Rainbow Dash, Rainbow has enough respect for her to simply grab her for a rescue in Secret of My Excess, leading to one of Fluttershy's rare joyful outbursts. She likewise rips Fluttershy out of bed to be first in line for cider in The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000. There's no reason for her to do this other than that she sees Fluttershy as one of her closest friends.
Hurricane Fluttershy focuses on Rainbow's efforts to coax Fluttershy to overcome her childhood trauma in order to help provide Cloudsdale's water supply. Rainbow is still her impulsive, aggressive self, but she reins in her drill-sergeant tone and takes a more gentle approach we've never seen her direct toward anyone else but Tank. The two are ultimately able to celebrate success together. Later, we see Rainbow rescue Fluttershy during the battle with the Changelings in A Canterlot Wedding—Part 2, give her somewhat of a break in the joust of The Crystal Empire—Part 2, and enthusiastically draft Fluttershy as the best choice for the dangerous mission in Magic Duel.
Though not as dramatic a change as with Fluttershy, we also see Rainbow's opinion of Twilight Sparkle soften over the course of the series. Early on, Rainbow Dash calls Twilight a "goody-four-shoes" with a disdainful tone. A few times, most notably in Read It and Weep, Dash regards Twilight as an "egghead," though she usually says this in a good-natured or teasing way. By the third season, Twilight has earned Rainbow Dash's respect, to the point that she can sing, "Since when does Twilight Sparkle ever fail?" It will be interesting to see what becomes of Rainbow's mention of the newly-winged Twilight as a new flying buddy.
Rainbow's friendship with Scootaloo is also important to mention. Our first hint of it comes in The Show Stoppers, when Rainbow shows up alongside Applejack and Rarity to pick up the Crusaders after their performance. Throughout The Cutie Mark Chronicles, Scootaloo is trying to find Rainbow Dash to hear her backstory, and when finally she plops down to hear the tale, Rainbow is visibly flattered. We see them interact in heartwarming fashion in Owl's Well That Ends Well. In The Mysterious Mare Do Well, Scootaloo's interest in the new masked hero is the final straw that crushes Rainbow's heart. Rainbow finally reciprocates all of Scootaloo's attention in Sleepless in Ponyville, and given the nature of that episode's lessons, Scootaloo may be the key to Rainbow Dash being comfortable with who she really is, cool or not.
|The Mysterious Mare Do Well||842 seconds|
|May the Best Pet Win!||829 seconds|
|Fall Weather Friends||699 seconds|
|Wonderbolts Academy||641 seconds|
|Sonic Rainboom||623 seconds|
|Games Ponies Play||591 seconds|
|Read It and Weep||573 seconds|
|Griffon the Brush Off||491 seconds|
|Hurricane Fluttershy||481 seconds|
|Friendship Is Magic, part 2||439 seconds|
|Hearth's Warming Eve||419 seconds|
|The Last Roundup||386 seconds|
|Over a Barrel||377 seconds|
|Sleepless in Ponyville||361 seconds|
|Dragon Quest||307 seconds|
|Bridle Gossip||298 seconds|
|The Return of Harmony Part 1||288 seconds|
|Magical Mystery Cure||285 seconds|
|Keep Calm and Flutter On||279 seconds|
|Previous: Characters: Pinkie Pie||Characters: Rainbow Dash||Next: Characters: Rarity|