Commissioned Essays are a series in which I write on MLP-related topics requested by Kickstarter backers. This is the last of the backer rewards for Volume 2. Which is on sale now! See the Books page for details.
There is a tendency among Friendship Is Magic fans--progressively less pronounced as the number of princesses increases--to treat alicorns as gods. There is some support for this: Nightmare Moon is clearly operating in a mythic register in the series premiere, specifically an eclipse myth, and so by extension Luna and Celestia also function as mythic beings. Celestia's arrivals at the end of "Feeling Pinkie Keen" and especially "Lesson Zero" have the feeling of the divine descending to bestow blessings or, in the latter case, deliver judgment upon mortals. And of course Twilight's transformation in "Magical Mystery Cure" is, as I have discussed previously, an apotheosis, with all the theological implications thereof.
But there is nonetheless quite a bit mitigating against this reading. First, there is the problem of Cadance and, apotheosis aside, Twilight: they simply are not treated with the awe and respect of the two sisters, nor are they mentioned in ancient legends of the ponies as the two sisters are. Second, they are materially present in a way gods generally are not. They are not spiritual entities, nor do they live on some distant mountaintop, a transcendent plane, or otherwise outside the normal physical space of Equestria. They are not merely imminent, but immediately available; they can touch and be touched at any time, without need to manifest themselves or be sought out. Third and perhaps most importantly, none of the princesses are treated as gods by the other ponies. There is no worship directed toward them, no one seeking blessings before a venture or making offerings. They are accorded the type of respect shown toward royalty, not the awe with which one approaches the gods.
But on the other hand, we see little actual political rule by them. Certainly Celestia and Luna have made occasional decrees with the expectation of being obeyed, such as when the former assigned Twilight to live in Ponyville or the latter first canceled and then reinstated Nightmare Night. But the day-to-day governance of Equestria seems largely to be handled on a much more local scale, if at all.
A third option is that the princesses are viewed as celebrities within the culture of Equestria, and that may well be the best fit. In our own world, though there were precursors centuries prior, celebrity as we understand first really emerges in Europe in the 18th century. As the system of patronage, in which individual artists received financial support for their work from individual wealthy or noble backers, broke down, artists increasingly had to rely on popular support, which in turn meant they needed to maintain a reputation with the general public. The rise of newspaper gossip columns, "hot spot" clubs, and similar accoutrements of celebrity soon followed, as artists (particularly within the Romantic movement) deliberately cultivated fame and notoriety as a means of attracting the audience necessary for their work. The simultaneous rise of the film industry and organized marketing and advertising campaigns in the early 20th century proved the perfect environment for the full development of the celebrity, as early movie stars became walking advertisements for their films, and in turn loaned that capacity to other products, cementing the celebrity as a keystone of marketing.
This form of celebrity is definitely present in Equestria, as we see in two episodes in particular. In "Green Isn't Your Color," Fluttershy is swept up in exactly the same kind of celebrity as supermodels in our world, with her face plastering magazine covers and billboards, expected to endorse products and pose for pictures and generally play the role which Photo Finish wants the public to assign her, a deliberate attempt to construct a persona for her which the public can enjoy. Something similar, but less organized, happens to Twilight Sparkle in "Twilight Time." Here, there is no publicist involved, no deliberate marketing campaign. but the same forces are at work. Twilight is a mysterious and awesome figure to the young ponies, a Princess, not the ordinary pony they are used to seeing around town. The fact that she does ordinary things like eat at the local burger dive imbues those places with an echo of her status; rather than humanizing her, it elevates the burger bar.
Like a celebrity, and unlike a ruler, Twilight's power in "Twilight Time" is contagious; the Cutie Mark Crusaders become popular just because they know her, much as the families and close associates of celebrities frequently acquire a degree of celebrity status as well. And most importantly, like a celebrity, it is constructed around her rather than created by her; while celebrities frequently do actively participate in creating their own status, ultimately it is bestowed upon them by gossip columnists, publicists, marketers, and the willingness of the general public to play along. This is where the phenomenon of "famous for being famous" arises: individuals who have done nothing of public interest, but who are frequently featured in the gossip columns, gradually become celebrities as the audience starts to follow their gossip-created personae, which in turn leads publicists and marketers to begin working with them to further craft and profit from these personae, which in turn makes them more famous.
The constructed nature of the celebrity persona is reflected in the dualism that seems pervasive to the established princesses (that is, all but Twilight). Celestia's public persona is of a wise and caring, yet frequently stern, ruler, but in more private settings we often see signs of other traits. She shows a mischievous streak in "A Bird in the Hoof," while in "Best Night Ever" she admits to finding the Grand Galloping Gala boring, and the flashbacks in "Princess Twilight Sparkle" show her sorrow and grief at having to banish her sister. These feelings, however, are not part of her public persona, and so she hides them most of the time. Similarly, Luna in "Nightmare Night" shows that she is actually fairly lonely and anxious, but by the end of the episode agrees to play into the public perception of her as monstrous and terrifying as a form of entertainment. For her part, Cadance is not particularly well know, but also shows signs of finding her role as a Princess constraining; in "Three's a Crowd" she admits to finding going on an adventure with Twilight a relief from her role in running the Crystal Empire.
The Princesses are not perfect matches for celebrity. While they are famous for constructed roles, these roles do not seem to be the product of deliberate campaigns, but rather of the assumptions of the public. Of course, it's possible that there are gossip columnists writing about the doings of the Princesses, but it seems unlikely. Still, they are subject to what might be called the paradox of celebrity, that everyone knows who they are but relatively few actually know them. It seems like a rather lonely existence; no wonder that Twilight struggles so strongly against being subject to it in "Twilight Time"! Hopefully, as the fifth season explores her new role as Princess of Friendship, she will continue to be able to be herself.