Trash & Treasure is a miscellany of monthly opinions on SFF, fandom and general geekness from Foz Meadows.
I was four when I first – and, to my best recollection, last – watched the original She-Ra. I loved her as a preschool-aged kid, and then, because it was the very early 90s and you couldn’t rewatch anything unless it was live-to-air or you’d taped it to VHS, I lost access to her completely. Even so, I was excited when I heard about Netflix’s plans to reboot the show, not least due to the showrunning involvement of Adventure Time alum Noelle Stevenson, whose graphic novel Nimona I profoundly enjoyed. Given that I haven’t seen the original She-Ra in nearly thirty years, it’s fair to say that my memories of it are thin at best: what I recall most strongly isn’t so much the show itself, but how it made my child self feel. I remember lofting a pretend sword at preschool as I invoked the power of Grayskull to become She-Ra, tunelessly singing the theme song, and I remember colourful, disconnected flashes of the show itself, most clearly about an episode where one character was revealed to be the mother of another. To my child self, it was a powerful, formative moment in my understanding of narrative: though I couldn’t now tell you which characters were involved, what mattered was how it felt to gain a new understanding of them – to feel that stories could grow.
In Stevenson’s new She-Ra, teen protagonist Adora and her best friend, Catra, have been raised and trained as soldiers by the Horde. Under the sharp, manipulative tutelage of Shadow Weaver, they’ve been taught to view the princesses of the Rebellion – and their magic – as evil, uncontrolled, dangerous. But when an illicit joyride through enemy territory sees the pair separated, Adora comes into contact with an ancient relic: the Sword of Power, which grants her the ability to transform into the warrior-princess She-Ra, as well as offering tantalising glimpses of the past. Before Adora can come to terms with this, she’s thrust into the company of the rebel princess Glimmer and her best friend, Bow, who try – and partially succeed – to take her prisoner. As the trio wrangle over the sword, circumstances force them into an uneasy alliance, until Adora, already questioning her view of the world, is witness to an unprovoked Horde attack on a peaceful settlement. This prompts Adora to switch sides, only to learn that the attack is being led by Catra, charged by Shadow Weaver to bring Adora back to the Horde. Though Adora pleads with Catra to defect with her, Catra, stung by what she sees as a betrayal of their friendship, refuses – leaving Adora, along with Glimmer and Bow, to combat the Horde and reform the faltering Princess Alliance together.
The resulting story is a magical, coming-of-age, queer fantasy adventure that’s equal parts delightful and moving. In addition to completely revamping the character designs, Stevenson has brought to the show a wonderful, unapologetic deconstruction of heteronormativity that nonetheless pays homage to the original. Princesses Netossa and Spinnerella, though marginal characters thus far, are in a loving relationship, while every aspect of Adora and Catra’s friends-to-enemies narrative is saturated with angsty, romantic tension. In the Princess Prom episode, Catra and Scorpia and Adora and Glimmer respectively go as couples to a dance, and my poor bisexual heart is yet to recover – indeed, may never fully do so – from the aesthetic of Catra in a fitted red suit with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, an untied bow tie hung around her neck.
On the subject of Stevenson’s new character designs: it has not escaped notice that certain adult men have thrown a fit because the predominantly teenage characters in a show aimed at young girls don’t look as adult and mainstream-fuckable as their eighties predecessors. Spinnerella isn’t thin, they wail! She-Ra wears shorts! Scorpia has short hair! Nobody is sufficiently feminine! What is this SJW bullshit, and how dare it ruin a show that was absolutely meant to belong to them and their sexual tastes forever! To which I say, in my very best Rita Repulsa voice: cry harder, babies. Listen: the original He-Man and She-Ra were camp as fuck, and you panting porndogs have the nerve to complain that Stevenson is gaying the story up now? What part of a flying rainbow unicorn and twunks in spandex and crop-tops did you think was heterosexual? Go sob into your favourite anime body-pillow about it; I’m sure your cotton-synthetic waifu will be suitably sympathetic. The rest of us have a show to watch.
In terms of structure, She-Ra is comprised of only partially self-contained episodes: while certain events are resolved each time, the greater emphasis is on their role in a longer, overarching narrative. While She-Ra is far from the first animated show to use this structure in recent years, it really hit home how truly groundbreaking – and, indeed, trendsetting – Nickleodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender and its sequel show, Avatar: The Legend of Korra have been on Western animation. When Airbender first came out in 2005, there was very little like it outside of anime. Though Western cartoons had flirted with long-form narratives in the eighties and nineties, as per cult classics like The Mysterious Cities of Gold and Gargoyles – and, less well-known, The Twins of Destiny – the medium was otherwise dominated by shows which, like the sitcoms of the time, favoured discreet, week-to-week adventures and unchanging characterisation. Airbender was revolutionary, not only in terms of its overarching narrative, but in the depth and consistency of its worldbuilding, the quality of the writing and the diversity of its characters.
In particular, Airbender showcased POC in non-European settings, earning praise for the strength and individuality of its women: heroines Katara, Toph and Suki, and antagonists Azula, Mei and Ty Lee. It was this success that lead to the sequel show, Legend of Korra, being developed around the titular female protagonist: not only was the original setting rich enough to merit continuation, but the fanbase itself had proven that a female lead would be viable. Airing from 2012 to 2015, Legend of Korra ended on another groundbreaking note: with the confirmation of a queer relationship between Korra and her friend Asami. Though showrunner Bryan Konietzko said himself that the Korrasami pairing as depicted on screen “falls short” of being a total representational victory, it was nonetheless impactful. At the same time, Rebecca Sugar’s still-ongoing Steven Universe, which first aired in 2013, has taken the queer rep ball and run with it from the very first season: without these shows, I would argue, we would not have the new She-Ra.
Viewed objectively, it shouldn’t be surprising that the rise of complex characterisation and long-game narratives in cartoons has coincided with their steady inclusion of queer representation: after all, the presence of the latter is closely tied to the existence of the former. Closely tied, but not exclusively so: even in cartoonlandia, there’s room for queerness that just is, as much a part of the story as magic and comic shenanigans. And yet, as with Legend of Korra, it took until the literal final episodes of both Gravity Falls and Adventure Time for the queer relationships long hinted at in each show – Sheriff Blubs and Deputy Durland in Gravity Falls, Marcline and Princess Bubblegum in Adventure Time – to be made explicit. Gravity Falls ended in 2016, a year after Korra; Adventure Time in late 2018. Also this year, Voltron: Legendary Defender – like She-Ra, an eighties cartoon successfully rebooted by Netlifx and now in its seventh season – revealed one of its protagonists, Shiro, to be a gay man. Though fandom responses to the episode in question have been mixed (I won’t weigh in on them here, as I haven’t yet seen it), Shiro’s sexuality is part of the slow yet steady inclusion of queerness in cartoons.
As such, She-Ra owes a debt to both Avatar and Steven Universe: Avatar for paving the way for diverse, longform cartoon narratives, and Steven Universe for proving the appeal of queerness as both a narrative element and a visual aesthetic. And the more I think about it, the more I find this latter element to be more subversive, more powerful and more fundamentally necessary than is often realised. In the wealth of critical discourse surrounding Steven Universe, much is made – and rightly so – of the ways in which Steven’s portrayal challenges toxic masculinity. What I haven’t seen discussed, however, is the fact that the show is likewise subversive of toxic femininity. Or rather, it is discussed, but not in that language: instead, it’s incorporated into the praise afforded the show’s queer female characters – their body-types, personalities and character arcs.
Which brings us back to She-Ra, and the reason why its unapologetically queer aesthetic strikes me as so important. At a fundamental level, toxic femininity is rooted in heteronormativity and performative beauty standards: in the absolute necessity of women meeting a narrow, rigid standard of What Is Feminine And Acceptable to earn the approval of men, even – and sometimes especially – if this means competing with one another. Queerness, however, has a very different concept of beauty, one in which traditional feminine aesthetics are situated, not as the only or most acceptable way for women (or anyone, for that matter) to look, but as one of a number of options; nor is the success of that aesthetic viewed as dependent on the simultaneous possession of a particular bodytype. Non-toxic femininity therefore comes to have significant overlap with representations of what, in contrast, have come to be viewed and accepted as queer aesthetics. What’s so significant about Noelle Stevenson’s designs for She-Ra, therefore, isn’t just that they reject heteronormativity, but that in doing so, they offer young girls a version of femininity which, regardless of sexuality, isn’t predicated on straight male approval.
Which is, in turn, why the aforementioned men online are so very angry about She-Ra. It’s not just that the show itself is aimed at a female audience – that was always true. It’s that this version of She-Ra is actively promoting a version of feminine beauty that isn’t contingent on being a uniform species of thin, busty and, overwhelmingly, white, and which therefore isn’t tailored to mainstream male preferences. It’s princess culture – quite literally, given the premise – but without the toxicity. Glimmer is short and stocky, with mixed-race parentage and short pink hair. Perfuma is tall and blonde, but lanky rather than willowy, with brown skin and freckles. Mermista is brown with compact curves and thick black hair, while Frosta is short and no-nonsense, with Asian features. The closest character to the traditional princess aesthetic is Adora/She-Ra – but even then, her costume is paired with shorts rather than a skirt (a detail I love on multiple levels, not least because it makes for more functional costuming for the thousands of little girls who’ll doubtless want to dress up as her) and her hair as Adora is much shorter, worn in a ponytail instead of lose.
These might seem like small things individually, but while other princess or girl-group shows have often depicted girls with slightly different skin tones and hair colours, this is usually done to create a visual rainbow effect – and, on a practical level, to help differentiate characters whose bodies and faces are otherwise more or less identical. Barbie and Bratz, both doll lines with their own cartoons, are the obvious examples of body-face sameness paired with different colouration, as are the various Disney princesses. But the problem is ubiquitous in girl-oriented cartoons: Winx Club, Shimmer and Shine, Lego Elves: Secrets of Elvendale – even My Little Pony isn’t exempt, thanks to the Equestria Girls spinoff. (And if you think the brony market of adult straight men obsessed with MLP played no part in Hasbro’s decision to make skinny, identical, humanesque versions of cartoon horses, for all that many bronies professed to dislike the Equestria Girls – well. I’d think again.) And whatever else can be said of the original She-Ra, it’s hard to argue that the female characters didn’t share a body-type – something that becomes even more obvious when you put the original women alongside Stevenson’s versions. But now, we have a show where the fun, positive aspects of traditional femininity are celebrated along with diverse bodytypes: where being queer or fat or brown – or all three at once, even – doesn’t mean you can’t be beautiful, or a princess. And that, I would argue, is a deeply necessary message for all young viewers to hear.
There’s a lot to be said about the substance of the new She-Ra otherwise – the characterisation in particular is wonderful, as is the fraught relationship between Adora and Catra – but rather than go into detail about it here, I’d encourage you watch it yourself. I don’t know how long it will be before the next season comes out, but I’m already looking forward to it – and in the meantime, my five year old son has already started a rewatch.