When She-Ra debuted in 1985, the Princess of Power (given name: Princess Adora of Eternia), was meant to sell toys. Mattel, high on the success of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, spun off the animated series with Filmation, its He-Man animation production partner, to create a show that would appeal to little girls.
The core theme of the story is transformation. By wielding a giant sword and chanting a mantra, Adora changes from mumsy space cadet into a disco-interpretation of a goddess: gold go-go boots, matching golden gauntlets, a winged vaguely Nordic tiara, and a crimson cape. Her friends include characters like the monochromatic Princess Frosta, who had butterfly blue hair; Bow, an archer with rippling biceps who bore a resemblance to the Village People’s Cowboy; and Swift Wind, a pegasus-unicorn hybrid with a rainbow mane.
Serendipitously, in trying to create something that would appeal to young girls, Filmation and Mattel also created something LGBTQ fans fell in love with. Allegories about transformation, alter egos, and true selves resonate in particular with LGBTQ audiences. And now, some 33 years later, a new gayer-than-ever and better-than-ever chapter of She-Ra has arrived on Netflix in the newly rebooted She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.
The 13-episode season is a terrific cartoon that also happens to be one of the most LGBTQ-inclusive and diverse shows on television. For people who didn’t see themselves in cartoons when they were kids, it feels like a show many of us wish we’d had growing up. It’s also a fantastic homage to the original — a coming of age adventure about a girl finding her destiny via magic sword, with rainbow metamorphosis and all.
Since it premiered on November 13, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power has become an instant favorite and a beacon of representation for fans. Though that hasn’t stopped naysayers from trying to bring it down.
The Netflix reboot actually gives She-Ra a story fit for the Princess of Power
One of the most depressing things about watching old cartoons today — including ThunderCats and the criminally under-recognized Dinoriders — is being able to recognize that they often came second to the tie-in toys that companies like Mattel and Hasbro were trying to sell. The stories in a lot of cartoons barely scratched the surface of innovation or imagination, and would often become redundant with save-the-day plotlines.
A lot of my enduring affection for these cartoons, I realize now, is much more rooted in nostalgia than in the quality of the cartoons themselves. They make me remember the fun I had watching them as a kid (and playing with the corresponding toys), even if they weren’t always well made.
That’s why the new She-Ra is so remarkable. Showrunner Noelle Stevenson (co-creator of the Lumberjanes comic book) has given She-Ra and her cohort emotional depth and humanity, while also telling a fantasy-adventure story that appeals to both kids and adults. Stevenson and her team stay true to She-Ra’s origin story: She’s a princess named Adora, brainwashed to fight on the side of evil (the Horde), who, by way of magic sword finds out her true destiny to fight on the side of the rebellion. But they also delve into Adora’s psyche and emotions, by asking thoughtful questions.
Questions like: How awful would it be to find out that everything you know was a lie? How would that realization affect the relationships you built? Would you ever be able to trust anyone again? And how weird would the entire experience be if the catalyst for it was brandishing a strange sword, chanting some words, and then transforming into an 8-foot tall, glamorous, and superhumanly more powerful version of yourself? Where does being She-Ra stop and being Adora begin?
The result is an Adora/She-Ra who is more human than the original. Heroism becomes a difficult challenge for her, as Adora must choose when to become her alter-ego She-Ra. Like most decisions we make, being heroic or being good isn’t always simple — even if it’s your magical destiny.
Stevenson also gives Adora’s friends and enemies more dimension. Just as She-Ra doubts that she can trust Bow and Glimmer, two rebellion fighters tasked with rebuilding the princess alliance, Bow and Glimmer don’t really know whether they can trust her. Everything they’ve been told about the Horde that Adora hails from is that they’re evil people. Trusting Adora becomes a leap of faith, a risk that makes them vulnerable.
The same goes for the various princesses like Mermista and Perfuma — they’ve been told that She-Ra is the savior they’ve been waiting for, but putting all your faith in a stranger is a lot easier said than done.
Catra, Adora’s childhood friend, is more than just a villain. Like Adora, she has been with the Horde all her life and has been taught that all the princesses and rebellion fighters are evil. She’s hurt and shocked when Adora — someone she’s known all her life — ends up becoming completely different. You don’t have to root for Catra to be able to relate to the pain she feels of losing a friend.
As a result, Netflix’s reboot is warm and cheerful while not dismissing anyone’s emotions, especially those that younger viewers can relate to. As much as it is about adventure and superpowers, it’s also about kindness and empathy. And Adora is so human that even when she changes into She-Ra, you still can see her uncertainty, her fears, and her humanity behind the razzle-dazzle of the superpowers.
The new She-Ra is one of the most inclusive and diverse shows on television
This past summer, when She-Ra’s redesign was first revealed, a predominantly male faction of the internet got upset that She-Ra was a girl instead of a woman, and that the character had ditched her original go-go boots and short skirt for something more age-appropriate. Some were so upset that they sunk into transphobic and homophobic remarks about She-Ra’s appearance. (There is a growing backlash to what’s known as the CalArts animation style, though this specific backlash against She-Ra seems to be rooted in something deeper than its animation.)
Now that the entire season has been released, it seems as if the creative team heard those complaints, tossed them into a dumpster, and set them on fire by creating a show that’s more diverse and LGBTQ inclusive than most other shows on TV.
She-Ra’s characters vary in size, shape, and skin color — the princesses aren’t all svelte glamazons — and some of the characters are shown to be attracted, romantically and platonically, to the same gender, or not just one gender. (For example, Bow, seems to have a crush on the male sea captain Sea Hawk and on the princess Perfuma.)
Adora and Catra’s pre-She-Ra relationship is a years-long friendship, but it could be interpreted as a deeper kind of love — in a flashback, Catra is shown to sleep at the foot of Adora’s bed. And in one prom-themed episode, all the princesses are allowed a plus-one of any gender, and Catra wears a sharp tuxedo:
What’s extraordinary about this is how the show presents its groundbreaking inclusion as ordinary. It doesn’t approach the idea of LGBTQ characters or non-white characters like an after-school special. Just like in the real world, these people simply exist.
For viewers who have long wished to see themselves reflected in pop culture, this kind of representation is huge. For example, in episode seven, “In the Shadows of Mystacor,” She-Ra and her friends visit a spa. Bow, who is a nonwhite character in the reboot, is depicted in what could be in a bra or a variation of a chest binder that a trans or gender-nonconforming person might wear.
Though the show hasn’t officially confirmed that Bow is trans, fan reception to the character has been overwhelming:
okay but i don’t think ppl realise how important this is if bow is confirmed trans like dude this is deadass the first time ive ever seen a trans character in a CARTOON, she-ra really did their best for the gays pic.twitter.com/2ViviVGtKu— َmax (@bakuqc) November 13, 2018
bow has dysphoria because of his chest but he still wears crop tops and binders only because he takes so much pride in being trans and wants to remind all trans folks out there that its ok to be trans— am ❤️ she-ra spoilers (@bowsdads) November 15, 2018
Okay, I have to admit, when Bow took his clothes off in She-Ra and he was wearing some kinda bra/binder underneath...— Super Pawbeans Always! (@PawbeansAlways) November 17, 2018
I did think 'heh, Bow could totally be trans dude' but I didn't realise that was actually the intent.
This kind of representation won’t please those transphobic and homophobic critics who claim that their beloved show has been corrupted. But with that said, one could pretty easily argue that She-Ra and, for the matter, He-Man have always had an LGBTQ following because of its aesthetics — crop tops, boots, loincloths, muscles, rainbows — and themes like transformation.
In a 2011 interview, Erika Scheimer, the daughter of Filmation founder Lou Scheimer, explained that LGBTQ people were working at Filmation and on the production of the original She-Ra in the ’80s and perhaps that it was reflected in the shows it produced.
“[T]here were a lot of talented gay people working at Filmation,” she said. “Even my dad would probably say he was gay in another life. He loves everybody and he’s always kissing on girls and boys alike.”
To be frank, I don’t see how the reboot can be any gayer than Bow from the original show:
To critique She-Ra for not looking close enough to the original show is to miss the point of a dynamic and brilliant show that is much more than the sum of its aesthetics.
In rebooting the beloved series, Stevenson has created something special, a cartoon that both honors and improves on the original by amplifying its characters’ feelings, and emits equal parts electricity, joy, and warmth. Like its titular hero, She-Ra is so full of heart that it’s easy to recognize its humanity, even with all the super-powered hijinks going on.