Graphic by Kit
The popular streaming platform Netflix has been releasing large amounts of original media in the past couple years. Some of these productions are entirely new, such as the animated series The Dragon Prince or the movie Bright, while others are reboots of old media, like the series the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina or the movie Deathnote. One such Netflix show is She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (SPOP), a reboot of the 1985 She-Ra: Princess of Power. The new series has received praise from fans and critics alike, applauding its queer representation, emotionally complex character arcs, and diverse cast of characters. Though SPOP is already remarkable on its own, the show’s evolution from the original 80’s series is both interesting and humorous to trace.
The original She-Ra only came into being after another show grew popular: He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Produced by Filmation and based on Mattel’s toy line “Masters of the Universe,” He-Man ran from 1983 to 1985, with two seasons of 65 episodes each. The original He-Man action figure was released in 1982, and Filmation created the franchise backstory that would be used for the series. He-Man was one of the most popular cartoons of the 1980s, and by 1984 it was being shown on 120 U.S. stations and in more than thirty countries. The series featured early script-writing work from J. Michael Straczynski (the eventual creator of Babylon 5), Paul Dini, and Brynne Stephens, both of whom went on to write acclaimed episodes of Batman: The Animated Series. Also on the production team were Beast Wars story editor Larry DiTillio and eventual head-writer for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Real Ghostbusters David Wise.
As is explained in every title sequence for every episode, the show follows the story of Adam, Prince of Eternia, and his many friends and allies. With his magic sword, Adam can turn into the all-powerful He-Man by saying the special phrase, “By the power of Grayskull!” He-Man protects the secrets of Castle Grayskull from various bizarre villains, led by Skeletor, He-Man’s main rival. He-Man, Battle Cat, Man-at-Arms, and many others work together to stop whatever evil Skeletor is planning, without ever leaving the moral high ground: and they always finish out the adventure with a life lesson based on what happened in the episode. However, what most of the younger generation (and therefore most of SPOP’s viewers) know about He-Man is a popular YouTube video from 2010 featuring short scenes from the TV show with the audio replaced with 4 Non Blondes’ song “What’s Up.” The video showcases He-Man, Adam, Cringer, Skeletor, the Sorceress, Man-At-Arms, Beast Man, and King Randor. Though humorous, the video has little to do with the actual series.
He-Man’s overwhelming popularity spawned the spin-off series She-Ra: Princess of Power in 1985. She-Ra had an almost entirely female cast of characters in an attempt to appeal to young girls and thus complement He-Man’s mostly male audience. The characters and plot were developed by He-Man’s J. Michael Straczynski and Larry DiTillio (though they were not credited for it), and designed by Mattel, who also funded the series and created an accompanying toy line. She-Ra likewise lasted for two seasons, each with 93 episodes, until it was canceled in 1986. The spin-off was unusual in comparison to other 80s cartoons, because most of them followed the Smurfette Principle: having only one female character against an all-male cast. In contrast to this, there are only two men in She-Ra that could be considered main characters: Bow and Hordak. The rest of the principal group are women.
The first five episodes of She-Ra were an interconnected introduction to the premise of the show, beginning with Adam on Eternia being sent by the Sorceress to another planet called Etheria in order to give the Sword of Protection to “someone worthy” (the Sorceress doesn’t tell Adam who it is). Adam discovers that Etheria is being controlled by the Evil Horde, led by Hordak, and that the Great Rebellion is working to dislodge their rule. Adam meets rebels Bow, Glimmer, and Cowl. Eventually, Adam and the rebels run into some Horde force captains, including Catra, Scorpia, and Adora. When Adam (as He-Man) fights Adora, he notices that the Sword of Protection is calling to her; this is the person he was sent to find. It is revealed that Adora was kidnapped from Eternia as a baby, and brainwashed/cursed to believe in what the Horde was doing— but once she sees the horrors for herself (with the influence of He-Man), she breaks the curse and switches to the side of the rebellion. He-Man gives her the sword, and she transforms into She-Ra, a female version of He-Man. Her special phrase is “For the honor of Grayskull!” Adora also turns out to be Adam’s twin sister. Though He-Man and She-Ra win the day, Adora decides to stay on Etheria to continue fighting Hordak and save the innocent citizens from his rule. After this introductory episode, Adam and Adora have some crossover adventures, but for the most part, their stories remain separate, possibly in an attempt to let Adora stand on her own as a protagonist. The rest of the series plays out similarly to He-Man. Adora and her allies fight the evil Hordak, maintain the moral high ground, and give a life lesson at the end of each episode.
Though neither He-Man or She-Ra had explicitly queer characters or content, there are some common queer interpretations of each cartoon. An article from The Telegraph about the history of gay characters in children’s media argues that Adam’s double identity (hapless prince of Eternia vs. undefeated warrior He-Man) could be interpreted as a fictionalization of a young man trying to come to terms with his sexuality. It is additionally significant that Adam hides his identity as He-Man from almost everyone, including his parents, which could be interpreted as queer. In the title sequence, Adam says that “fabulous secret powers were revealed to him,” a word which has since gained a queer connotation. He-Man’s costume is also extremely sexualized: he wears only boots, furry briefs, and a chest-shield harness. In fact, most of the male characters wear form-fitting clothing and/or spandex–even when not in superhero mode. The hypersexual outfits of Adora, She-Ra, and her companions are rather typical for animated heroines of the 80s, and thus don’t imply as much queerness as He-Man’s outfit. However, like Adam, Adora too keeps her identity as She-Ra a secret, pursuing the same double life that could be seen as queer. There is also an inherent queerness to the two characters loudly announcing their pronouns at nearly every chance they get, leading some modern viewers to see both Adam and Adora as trans.
Outside of some unpopular remakes and the aforementioned meme video, He-Man and She-Ra disappeared from TV and were thus lost to nostalgia. That is, until the release of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power on Netflix in November 2018. Developed by Noelle Stevenson and produced by DreamWorks Animation Television, the show’s fourth season was just released on November 5, 2019. Stevenson’s other works include the Eisner Award-winning comics Nimona and Lumberjanes. The voice cast of SPOP stars Aimee Carrero as Adora/She-Ra, Karen Fukuhara as Glimmer, AJ Michalka as Catra, and Marcus Scribner as Bow. The series has an all-female writers’ room and only one man in the regular voice cast. The show was even nominated for a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Kids & Family Programming.
SPOP is similar enough to the original She-Ra to give fans of the 80’s cartoon a feeling of connection to their old favorite. The main plot still follows the adventures of Adora, Glimmer, and Bow as they fight against the Horde (led by Hordak) with the rest of the Rebellion. Almost all of the characters in SPOP are direct recreations from She-Ra’s cast, though in some cases, certain individuals are given more or less importance in the new series. And of course, Adora still has the Sword of Protection, and must raise it above her head and say “For the honor of Grayskull!” in order to become She-Ra. Even the names of the two shows are alike, except for an added “es” and some punctuation.
Being faithful to the source material is an important consideration for any reboot, and I believe SPOP paid their due respects to the original. That being said, the changes Stevenson made to the story of She-Ra were clearly very thoughtful and, in my opinion, excellent improvements. At the surface level, the character redesigns in the Netflix show are phenomenal. What was once a gaudy collection of copy-pasted white women with the same supermodel body is now a colorful and varied cast of individuals. The skin tones, facial features, and bodies of each of the main cast are wonderfully diverse. Besides the many previously-white characters that now look much more ethnically varied— which is incredible— characters like Scorpia, Huntara, Netossa, and Glimmer have much bigger thighs, arms, shoulders, and stomachs than what was previously allowed for a female cartoon character. In the original She-Ra’s defense, it was much easier for animators in the 80s to use the same body model for multiple roles. However, modern workers have no such constraints, and Stevenson clearly took advantage of this new capability. Even the aesthetic appeal of the characters has improved, transforming their ridiculous and sexualized costumes into believable, personalized, and interesting outfits for a planet full of magical aliens.
On a story level, Stevenson has made some specific, valuable changes to the history of Adora, the Horde, and the princesses. For example, although it is still revealed that Adora was kidnapped as a baby from another place, there was no curse placed upon her to make her follow Hordak. She was raised by the magic-wielding Shadow Weaver (a character who also appeared in the 80s version) to believe in the Horde’s mission, but there was nothing supernatural about it. It is only when Adora ventures out of the Fright Zone and witnesses the Horde’s destruction that she decides to fight for the rebellion. There was no man to show Adora the way: she found it herself. In addition to this, Adora’s connection to the other members of the Horde is strengthened and explored in a way that was completely overlooked in the original, evidenced mainly through her relationship with Catra. In this version, Shadow Weaver raised Adora and Catra together, and the two were nearly inseparable for most of their lives. Adora’s decision to join the Rebellion hurt both herself and Catra because of their existing friendship, and this is shown to have long-term consequences throughout the series for the two women. The problems caused by Adora abandoning the Horde were rarely explored in the 80s— Catra was merely another wacky henchwoman of Hordak’s. There is also a new tension between Glimmer and her mother, Queen Angella: Glimmer wants to push forward the Rebellion’s cause with more offense, but Angella is worried about losing too many people (and her daughter) in the process. 80s Glimmer and Angella had no such dilemma, and if they did fight, it only ever lasted until the episode resolved the problem. Stevenson performed a considerate, well-crafted overhaul of nearly every character, from their outer design to their inner motivations, and the result is an incredibly compelling show. And, of course, she also made it gay.
From the start, Stevenson includes explicit queer representation in the show. The first of these instances are the two princesses Spinnerella and Netossa shown to be in a romantic relationship in season one, episode thirteen, “The Battle of Bright Moon.” They work together during the fight and become more powerful by combining their abilities. The two have also appeared in later episodes, clearly still in a loving, committed relationship. Season two episode twenty “Reunion” revealed my personal favorite couple: Bow’s two dads, George and Lance. George’s outfit even resembles the appearance of the original Bow from the 80s. Viewers meet Bow’s parents in an emotional yet funny episode, which paints an adorable picture of George and Lance as a happy, healthy couple. In season three, episode two, Adora and the gang first find the buff, terrifying princess Huntara openly flirting with a female bartender, who seems to be returning Huntara’s affection until Adora interrupts their conversation. And finally, season four introduces a new character named Double Trouble: a Horde ally who uses singular they/them pronouns, identifies as non-binary, and is voiced by non-binary actor Jacob Tobia. The Los Angeles Times even wrote an article about them. There was a Double Trouble hero in the original series, but she was— like nearly every other character— a straight, white, cisgender woman. Besides these canonical, explicit examples, there are significant romantic subtexts between both Catra and Adora, and Scorpia and Catra. The show radiates queer energy.
SPOP’s creators aren’t doing this by accident. Stevenson and her co-workers have explicitly stated that they want the series to have queer representation. She Ra and the Princesses of Power is clearly a concerted effort made by dedicated, experienced artists to recreate this old classic for a modern, diverse world, complete with all the sexualities, body types, genders, and ethnicities that belong there (and, truthfully, always have belonged there).
The original versions of She-Ra and He-Man were nearly entirely white, and most assuredly heterosexual and cisgender. But even in these “straight” shows, queer viewers still found characters and motivations to connect to— that is, if they could look past the cliché dialogue, repetitive and predictable plots, and garish outfits. Noelle Stevenson and her team took the bizarre concepts of these shows (and the gay subtext within each) and transformed them into a brilliantly crafted, explicitly queer, compelling series, both giving homage to the original concepts while also building on the more intriguing plot points that 80’s She-Ra and He-Man ignored. I highly recommend the show to fans of fantasy, excellent animation, or positive queer representation— but I also hope that as you watch and enjoy, you remember how far the series has come.