The Rainbow Fantasy of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power

***SPOILER ALERT FOR SHE-RA & THE PRINCESSES OF POWER AND VOLTRON: LEGENDARY DEFENDER***

 

 

CatrAdora

On May 15th, 2020, the final season of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power dropped to Netflix. I finished it a week later.

I was stunned, giddy, elated.

I couldn’t believe that showrunner Noelle Stevenson and her crew had gotten away with giving us a hopeful, queer ending to what has been one of the most queer shows ever produced. And certainly the most queer friendly cartoon.

Shiro Wedding

Flash back with me for a moment to the end of Netflix and Dreamworks’ Voltron: Legendary Defender. Season 8 dropped on December 14, 2018, and in the flash-forward epilogue we saw the main character Shiro marrying another man.

I admit I cried.

Even though Shiro’s reveal as a gay man was a late addition to the show, it was so emotional for me to see myself represented in an animated series. It was the first time I had seen a gay character not only survive (a thing seriously in doubt with Shiro’s storyline), but get his happy ending.

While LGBT characters have slowly been getting featured in live action media, animation has been another story entirely. Animation is my favorite medium for telling stories. There’s a freedom inherent in bringing an artist’s drawings to life; no concession needs to be made for the believability of live action and the necessity for verisimilitude that brings. 

So to live in a world where animation is constantly looked at by pearl-clutching folks, and relegated to the “kid’s stuff” corner is disheartening at best and heartbreaking at worst. For a medium that invites unlimited imagination, that can feature everything from giant transforming robots to singing princesses, it was more than disappointing that nobody seemed to be allowed to express the idea that two men or two women could fall in love.

Only over the last five years has that taboo been broken, with shows like Adventure Time, Steven Universe, Avatar: The Legend of Korra, Voltron: Legendary Defender, and now She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.

Steven Universe Gay Wedding

Steven Universe Gay Wedding

Korrasami

Korra and Asami from Avatar: The Legend of Korra

She-Ra is a special character to me. She was born into this world the same month and year as I was (October 1985 for anyone who’s counting). However, unlike many others who treasure this character, I didn’t watch the 1980s Princess of Power cartoon as a child. Instead, I came to the Masters of the Universe franchise much later as a twenty-something young adult.

Cartoons have a way of helping me through trying times. I have good memories of watching all 93 episodes of Princess of Power the summer of 2010. I had just finished pharmacy school, and spent the summer furiously studying for my board exams. Jumping into the world of Etheria was my break, my escape from cramming my brain with medical facts and figures.

And of course, She-Ra: Princess of Power is visually the predecessor to Princess Gwenevere and the Jewel Riders. Jewel Riders is a 1995 animated series showcasing the adventures of the eponymous Princess Gwenevere, and her magical, jewel-wielding friends as they try to save their kingdom from Gwen’s evil Aunt Kale. The show has a small but dedicated fan base. I am one of the archivists at “The Jewel Riders Archive,” a fan site dedicated to sharing everything we can find out about Jewel Riders. It has not gone unnoticed by the Jewel Riders fandom that these two blonde princesses both fly on their winged unicorns, fight alongside their talented friends to keep their kingdoms safe, and bring balance and order to their fantasy worlds. There was even an old website in the late 90s that compared and contrasted She-Ra and Gwen! I suppose this comparison is inevitable, as Jewel Riders was the first toy line that tried to revive “action dolls”  – with molded plastic bodies and clothes, and brushable hair – since the old Princess of Power line a decade earlier.

Vintage She-Ra Doll

Vintage She-Ra doll (courtesy of He-Man.org)

Gwenevere Doll

Gwenevere Doll

And kooky as the old Filmation show was, it was a lot of fun! The writing and stories were more interesting than He-Man too. Just by virtue of having She-Ra lead the Great Rebellion, it created an underdog dynamic of a small group of freedom fighters facing a nameless, endless enemy. (Something that has worked in Star Wars’ favor for 40 years).  I ended up really falling in love with the show over the course of watching it that summer, and was thrilled when the Masters of the Universe Classics toy line that started releasing in 2009 eventually added all of the Princess of Power characters to its roster.

MOTUC She-Ra Full (Fwoosh)

MOTUC She-Ra Full (via the Fwoosh)

She-Ra vs Catra

A picture I snapped of my She-Ra vs Catra

All this is a long explanation to say that I was over the moon when I found out that She-Ra was getting a reboot on Netflix. (He-Man has had TWO reboots in the time between the end of the original She-Ra and Netflix She-Ra). Not everyone was as excited as I was, however. When the new character designs dropped, some people lost their minds over the fact that She-Ra now had shorts instead of a mini skirt, and her chest was smaller. That was fine by me – I can accept that this is a new show for a new generation. And if any toy or media  brand wants to be relevant and live beyond nostalgia from the people who originally enjoyed it as children, they have to appeal to kids of today.

Not that they should throw out the core elements of what made a property successful. But every minute detail can’t be held sacred if viewers still expect a quality product to be created. That would be like working inside a straitjacket.

I was pleased that the new show leaned into the mythology of the First Ones, the original settlers of Etheria that had been mentioned in the 1985 cartoon, but never explored. I was also pleased that the secondary members of the Great Rebellion were flesh out and given greater depth and motivation. SPOP breathed new life into these characters in ways that just weren’t possible in the 80s, and that was incredibly exciting to watch.

So imagine my satisfaction when She-Ra and the Princesses of Power took the initial setup of the 1985 show – that Adora was raised by the Horde from infancy to believe that they were good, and bringing order to the universe – and went deeper. In the 80s show, She-Ra goes from baddie to heroic leader in about three episodes. But this newer show asked the question: what would it really be like for someone raised as a child soldier to leave that life behind?

The main emotional conflict in the show comes from the split between Catra and Adora. Raised together in the Horde by the witch Shadow Weaver, the two girls’ friendship appears to be over after Adora leaves the Horde to become She-Ra and fight her former masters. Catra doesn’t understand how her best friend could leave her, and as Adora gains new friends and allies, Catra gains rank in the Horde. It’s a reverse mirror image: as Adora learns about friendship she grows in power and wisdom, while Catra’s ruthlessness and backstabbing make her stronger but more isolated than ever.

And yet, the two never truly give up on each other. Adora risks herself time and time again to reach out to Catra, who always bats away the hand of friendship but can’t deny her interest and feelings for Adora. Catra’s original toy tagline was “Jealous Beauty,” and the new show leans into that. Catra was jealous of the attention that Shadow Weaver gave Adora growing up, and a central theme of her character development is how that jealousy has poisoned Catra’s other relationships.

Catra Jealous Beauty

Vintage Catra with her “Jealous Beauty” tagline

By the end of season four, Catra has driven away everyone who ever cared about her, and is truly, utterly alone. Yet when Adora and friends rescue Glimmer from Horde Prime, Adora finds out that Catra is still being held on the ship. She turns around to rescue her best friend and greatest antagonist. Adora’s love finally brings Catra back from the brink. It’s a powerful moment, and the beginning of Catra’s redemption arc. Catra proves her redemption when the love that she shares for Adora saves Adora from sacrificing her life for the good of Etheria in the series finale. This prevents the Heart of Etheria from literally destroying the entire universe.

Love is a powerful, driving human emotion. In so many series, we see love save the day. But I don’t think we’ve ever seen a series before that has shown queer love saving the universe. Like I said, I was shocked that the showrunners got away with giving us a queer love story as the defining relationship of SPOP. But I was floored and so, so pleased that they were able to give us a landmark presentation of queer relationships in storytelling. 

I suppose I should not have been so surprised looking back when the end of the first season had the heroes win the battle with a giant rainbow. 

And there are lots of other queer relationships and representation in the show! Netossa and Spinerella are married, Bow has two dads, there’s a hint of relationship blooming (heh) between Perfuma and Scorpia, Double Trouble is non-binary, and my favorite character Entrapta is somewhere on the spectrum.

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power has been a true gift in these dark times. It’s themes of forgiveness, reconciliation, and fighting for the freedom of all people are powerful and ever-resonant. I’ve looked forward to every new season of this show, and I’m sad to see it concluded. 

But damn, what a beautiful journey. 

For the Honor of Grayskull!

Rainbow

***To read our retrospective article about the original incarnation of She-Ra, click here.

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