Considering SHE-RA

THERE really is no way for me to be able to write a single, unified take concerning She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, which concluded on May 15th. My thoughts are too giant, too varied. So consider this a start.

And there’s going to be massive spoilers for the entire series.

If I could summarize the entire show in one frame, I’d pick this one.

TO begin with, I was just little enough that I missed the heyday of She-Ra: Princess of Power and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. (I do remember my cousin had the Crystal Castle playset.) By the time I was old enough to get into Saturday morning cartoons and action figures, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was the apple of my eye. That said, I’ve never not been conscious of She-Ra, especially in nerd culture circles, where it’s treated with alternatively ironic appreciation and deep, heartfelt love. (I have friends who grew up with the original show and they have zero interest in the new show.)

In the midst of my complete series watch, I looked to Wikipedia to read about the 80s cartoon and watched several episode of that same show. Apart from all the characters being female except Bow and Hordak…it was basically the same as every 80s action-adventure cartoon. A whole lot of people with magic and weapons fighting each other, with an explicit moral lesson at the end.

That’s maybe the first of many things I appreciate about She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. We’ve witnessed so many attempts to resurrect beloved bits of pop culture that try to add weight and grandeur to them, and usually we get things that spin out of control and collapse under their own weight or self-seriousness. She-Ra adds weight and grandeur (and keeps teaching good moral lessons while thankfully not having a magical creature to sum it up for us) but does so by telling one complete story in 52 episodes and filling it with a tone that mixes seriousness and humor in a perfect balance, and also never tips too far into darkness. For that, Noelle Stevenson and her writing team deserve so much credit. (Disclosure: I’ve been friends since college with Josie Campbell, the story editor who also wrote some of the show’s best episodes, so I’m a touch biased here.) But credit also goes to…

THE DESIGN.

I mean, damn!

She-Ra is one of the best-looking animated shows I’ve ever seen, something in the tradition of Miyazaki and the best of anime. Every aspect demonstrates thought and care. The different environs, from Bright Moon to the Fright Zone to the Crimson Waste to the giant network of technological marvels under Etheria, is so vivid you want to step right into them. No characters look alike at all, and the mixture of body types, shapes, and shades stands out after years of seeing even the best Disney movies use homogenous design. (It also helps in building character and watching different dynamics play off each other.)

Finally, the color palette of She-Ra creates the sensation of being in the universe’s greatest art museum. When I make the comparison to Studio Ghibli, I think of how obsessed the animators must be with how MUCH color is out there, what colors to put side by side, what colors can stir an emotional reaction in us. How brightness can be terrifying (the neon of the Crystal Castle grows more and more foreboding) and darkness can be beautiful (I want to go into all of the night skies and vastness of space and sleep within those purples and blues and tones of black) and how contrast can be as dramatic as any story you could write.

PARTICULARLY with the show’s one true villain, Horde Prime.

Stevenson has said that she was inspired by cults when creating Horde Prime, his massive army of clones, and their megachurch-like flagship.

I would go one further and say—as someone who has followed Stevenson’s work since her tumblr days and considers her autobiographical comics to be masterpieces of the form—Horde Prime goes beyond a cult leader into a depiction of the Judeo-Christian God, particularly in how American Evangelicals see God. All through season five, the language of Horde Prime is not just religion-tinged but apocalyptically Biblical, filled with a longing for both purity and destruction, and the white masculinity of the Horde matched against the multi-colored queerness of the Princesses and Etheria adds up to some pretty strong symbolism.

It’s another of the show’s greatest strengths that they held back on Horde Prime until the finale of the penultimate season. Not only would it have been a bit boring for She-Ra to fight the same enemy over and over in a stalemate, but it also allowed for one of the deeper themes to emerge: how complicated antagonists react to even more tyrannical oppression, and the changes they can undergo.

(This is where I will add that Lorraine Touissant’s performance as Shadow Weaver is gold standard voice acting. Touissant’s voice is spectacular and demands your listening, able to convey Shadow Weaver’s changing moods and alliances, and her gift for dropping a dryly comic line into her speech is magic. Shadow Weaver, especially in the final seasons, deserves this portrayal: she is the living embodiment of Lee Marvin’s maxim that he never played villains, just people trying to get through the day with what they have. Even when she’s switched sides and helps save the universe, Shadow Weaver never casts off the parts of her that caused pain to others, and her never having even a thought of atonement works.)

SPEAKING of the seasons, since so much of this website is supposed to be about writing, it’s time to break down how well this show was structured over five very different seasons.

My longtime friend and fellow She-Ra fan, playwright Lisa Huberman, expressed a wish that there had been longer seasons to give us even more time to get to know these characters and have their emotional beats hit harder, as happened with Avatar: The Last Airbender. This definitely would have been a great thing because I’ve rarely watched a show that made me fall in love with every character as this one does and want to see more of them: Netossa and Spinnerella, for instance, get introduced out of nowhere in Season One and it does a disservice to them. On the other hand, the show fits in with Stevenson’s writing style, in which plot, action, mystery, and laughs take precedence and the themes/character moments get woven in. She’s one of the best at this, and that she assembled a writers’ room who shares these traits was a major victory. And even with short seasons, they still managed to give each act of the story a unique character while telling a cohesive whole.

Season One plays like a superhero origin movie. The two-part premiere episode introduces all the most important elements for the rest of the program: the battle between the Rebellion, including the reforming Princess Alliance, and the Horde, Adora and Catra and Glimmer and Bow, and Adora discovering the Sword of Protection and switching sides when she learns the truth about the war. Then the other elements get introduced one at a time. Madame Razz. Light Hope and the Crystal Castle. The other princesses. And did somebody say Swift Wind? Adora gets to learn about her new powers. There’s hijinks. There’s a tragedy and a dark night of the soul where everything almost falls apart. And then Adora commits to what kind of hero she’ll be and a final, heroic battle ensues. It’s a very familiar shape, but the high-quality writing, the engaging voice work, and the terrific-from-the-start animation draw us in despite the familiarity. And both “Princess Prom” (played almost entirely for laughs) and “Promise” (an emotionally wrenching episode) hint at where the show will go once everybody’s on board.

Season Two is the one most reminiscent of the old Saturday Morning shows: there’s barely any connective tissue, just stand alone adventures that let us get to spend time with the established characters even more and deepen them…and since what’s to come depends on audience empathy, having this sort of pause before going even more plot heavy is an excellent bit of timing. “Roll With It,” containing a homage to the classic cartoon, may be the single funniest episode, while “Reunion” ends it by giving us George and Lance (the best couple?!) and Adora’s first glimpse of the history of She-Ra and the First Ones, which will kickstart the next three seasons of plot.

Season Three, the shortest at just over two hours’ total running time, is also the one that tells the most compact and tight story. And each of the three acts plays out in the corresponding number of episodes.

  1. One episode of Shadow Weaver tells our heroes how Adora came through a portal in another part of the universe, thus setting up Hordak and Entrapta’s plan to create a new portal.
  2. Two episodes in the Crimson Waste (giving us the gifts of Geena Davis as Huntara and the episode title “Once Upon a Time in the Waste”) where Adora and Catra battle for Mara’s ship.
  3. Three episodes in which Catra activates the portal, reality nearly disintegrates, and Adora, unable to transform into She-Ra and stuck in a parallel dimension, has to save the planet.

The fascinating aspects of this season include how little time Adora spends as She-Ra, the apex of Adora and Catra’s antagonism (culminating in Catra’s desire to create the portal even though it would kill her and everyone just to get a victory over Adora), and “The Portal,” one of the show’s greatest episodes and the first to bring me to “The Constant” level tears, both in Adora’s overcoming her self-doubt after an adventure full of failure and Queen Angella’s “I am a coward…you made me strong” speech before her sacrifice.

Season Four is tremendously constructed because all of the problems Adora needs to solve, from the personal to the universe-spanning, stem from how Glimmer and Catra move on exactly the same arcs. Lisa pointed out how the two’s similarities are established in “Princess Prom,” where they both deal with negative self-perception and feelings of abandonment. In Season Four, with Glimmer taking over Bright Moon and Catra assuming command of the Horde, both of them grow defensive and single-minded in trying to make their plans reality, to the point where they distrust and push away everyone who wants to be close to them and help. Their mutual stubbornness nearly results in personal isolation and the destruction of Etheria, But it also means Adora works harder to help Glimmer, to show Glimmer her ideas are wrong, and defeat Catra, leading to her finding the answers she needs about She-Ra and the First Ones in “Protocol” (a bottle episode in an animated show!), “Hero” (which plays like rhymed epic poetry), and “Destiny” with its “this changes everything” finish.

And then Season Five is pretty darned close to perfect. Everything, and I mean everything, that was set up in the first four seasons comes back to pay off, and it pays off while the show’s canvas is opened up larger than ever, sending the main characters into outer space and revealing how giant the universe is. All relationships get resolved in satisfying ways with zero annoying conversations. The alliance between our heroes goes through twists and ends up stronger than ever. And because of all the previous work, there isn’t a single bad or “I’d skip the poor parts” episode. It’s not only great children’s television or an animated show. It’s great television. Full stop.

These seasons would not resonate without the characters. I have THREE favorites.

I LOVE a sassy, cultured, kind-of sort-of villain who might lie from time to time but ultimately tells people the truth—there’s a reason George Sanders as Addison DeWitt is one of the finest performances in film history in my book. And so, even though they only appear in Season Four and two brief flashes of Season Five, Double Trouble won me over from the start.

If so much of the depends on reinventing characters from the original show, Double Trouble may mark the most drastic reinvention. The character always had the power of shape-shifting, but the 80s cartoon depicted Double Trouble as a female secret agent working for Angella against the Horde. Now, Double Trouble is a nonbinary mercenary who considers their craft to be the height of acting, obsessing over replicating all the details of a person, and who will work for any side as long as the price is right.

In a show lacking in purely comic characters, Double Trouble’s flamboyant, crafty presence stands out all the more, and they have the benefit of being portrayed by Jacob Tobia, the LGBTQ activist whose performance can only be called delicious…walking up to the edge of the most unbelievable camp but not getting there. Tobia knows what they are doing.

Having a committed Yojimbo figure on the show was a great idea from the start, but the satisfaction found in Double Trouble’s role doesn’t lie in how they ultimately turn to the good guys’ side. It lies in how their shapeshifting shenanigans drive the plot along. In three crucial ways.

First, disguised as Flutterina so they can sew dissension in the Rebellion, Double Trouble exposes the cracks in Adora, Glimmer, and Bow’s Best Friend Squad…but they ultimately face the cracks and come out stronger than ever.

Second, in one of the most viscerally satisfying moments I’ve seen this year, in the Season Four finale after switching allegiance to the Rebellion, Double Trouble tells Hordak how Catra betrayed Entrapta—the sequence of Hordak destroying his lab, sobbing, and then trying to kill Catra was, even though I didn’t want Catra to die, a heart-pounding moment where someone who you did want to get some payback for misdeeds GOT that payback.

Third, and most importantly, Double Trouble tells Catra the truth about herself and the person she has become, and in one of their only genuine moments declares “it’s for your own good, darling.” And it’s debatable if Catra would have had the capacity to transform herself if Double Trouble hadn’t shown her how she drives everyone away.

That Double Trouble returns in Season Five to cause positive chaos is icing on the cake. I hope they’re still acting somewhere.

THEN, there’s Scorpia.

I don’t trust someone who doesn’t love Scorpia.

Scorpia is the character who straddles the line: a Horde Force Captain who got her rank because her father collaborated with the alien force and gave up the Scorpion Kingdom, where Scorpia was…a Princess, the role she ultimately embraces.

Scorpia looks awesome. She’s taller than She-Ra, has a fantastic mohawk, and is in possession of pincers as opposed to hands and a tail that can sting you, but she’s also the brightest, most positive person under the sun. (The vocal portrayal by comedian Lauren Ash is one of pure exuberance.)

Why I love Scorpia is that even though initially she wants the Horde to win, that’s not her driving motivation. She wants to belong. She wants friends. And she tries so hard in everything she does because she thinks that it will earn her friends. (One of the show’s most hilarious and heartwarming moments comes in “Whiteout” when Scorpia and Sea Hawk decide they are mutually awesome and people should like them.)

But Scorpia never does anything underhanded or mean to people.

This is key.

Scorpia emerges as someone who is ecstatic at the “Super Pal Trio” of herself, Catra, and Entrapta. She’s the only character who is good to Entrapta start to finish, and she tries so hard, on the verge of romantic feelings, to make Catra like her as well; she’s the last one standing when Catra pushes everyone else out of her life. When Catra finally unleashes her last and deadliest insults, it breaks your heart. When Scorpia calls Catra a bad friend and leaves for the Rebellion and her princesshood, you stand and cheer.

And that cheering becomes more potent when Scorpia, freed from the Horde and its expectations, grows into her own person, freed of her fears and trying to live up to what she perceives as others’ expectations. Her performance at the speakeasy could be compared to a coming out, especially since it and subsequent episodes reveal the mutual attraction with Perfuma (the New Agey, perpetually kind princess who can control plants), someone with whom Scorpia can be her most open, fullest self.

But in the end, Scorpia wants friends, and she gets a lot of them by showing in surprising ways she’ll do anything for them. She shows over and over, from urging Catra to stay in the Crimson Waste to sacrificing herself in the speakeasy, that nothing drives her as much as desiring friends. She may be misguided, but you can’t help but love her. I certainly do.

Yet none of these characters as important to me as…

ENTRAPTA

How I love Entrapta.

How I want to express all Entrapta means to me.

When I was little, I was diagnosed on the autism spectrum with a mild form of Asperger’s disease. I have spent my entire life working on this: mastering social behavior, social cues, how to act with others. To quote a famous book on the condition, I couldn’t look people in the eye for the longest time and to this day it takes me some concerted effort.

Entrapta, the Princess who doubles as a tech genius, was written as an autistic woman. And from her first appearance, I got it. She had the same way of talking and thinking as me. The same way of relating to the world as me. The same way of trying to understand and connect with others as me.

And it wasn’t treated as a joke.

Entrapta is a hilarious character. Christine Woods plays her with a Jean Harlow-style screwball squeak and her zealousness for things everybody else considers dangerous is a source of constant delight.

(Entrapta is also a possible commentary on the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, who are so caught up in what technology can do they never think of what it should do. Ian Malcolm shakes his head.)

But the humor and love for Entrapta have nothing to do with what sets her apart from others. What sets her apart is never even referred to except in some episodes where it becomes the crux of emotional arcs.

Entrapta recognizes that she sees the world in a different way. That she isn’t good with people. To the point where she almost subsumes herself in a world where she never has to interact with others again. Until she learns there are people she can trust and love and makes that clear the best way she can. (“Launch” is such a moving episode, FYI.)

The show never suggests Entrapta can change the fundamental nature of who she is. Rather it shows her embracing it, dealing with it when others attack her, and integrating it into her personality.

“Launch” is basically about Entrapta desiring to be part of something bigger and showing she has her own special way of fitting in.

But the key episode is “Huntara” from Season Three. Most of it takes place in the Crimson Waste but it keeps cutting back to the Fright Zone where Hordak and Entrapta are hard at work.

Hordak and Entrapta bond because she understands his experiments in a way no one else does. They become the world’s greatest lab partners. Until a moment when Hordak bemoans his state as an inferior copy of Horde Prime, whom he wishes to make proud.

Entrapta, who feels herself to be abandoned by both Adora and Catra, responds. “Imperfections are beautiful. At least to me.”

It’s an amazing moment. Entrapta is lit by a solid golden glow no other character gets. And Hordak, whom we the audience don’t like with good reason, looks so taken aback. Vulnerable. As if he’s been seen for the first time ever. (No wonder he cries when he learns the truth of what happened to her.)

And that’s what the entire show is about!

Everybody has flaws. Even the biggest heroes. Their flaws are on display for us, enumerated. Their impetuousness, apathy, frivolousness, greed, evil.

Yet by the time we hit the end, we love these characters to death even knowing they have flaws.

And the people who have flaws manage to come together and save the universe from a being who wants everything to be perfect according to his design.

What does this say about society?

What does this say about how we treat the people who have what society sometimes deems flaws?

Including loving, caring, wanting to help others too much?

How we should value them?

THERE’S a lot of great lines in She-Ra. Late in Season Five, during a major confrontation, Perfuma confronts foes who laugh at her for not going all out in battle since she is afraid she’ll hurt people. Her response is that caring for others isn’t her weakness. It’s what makes her strong.

Loving others and believing in the capacity for change feel so important right now.

My friend Chris Baugh, who writes about politics with an insight I wish I possessed, has a favorite line: that people confuse the moment for the person. That it isn’t the best individual who rises, but the individual best responding to the time and place they’re in.

I would still be writing about She-Ra and the Princesses of Power if it had come out any time, not only between 2018 and 2020. It’s a masterpiece of the form, and its writing goes to incredible depths. But I remember, the same weekend of the last vote for a certain Supreme Court justice, looking at the giant She-Ra statue DreamWorks and Netflix erected at New York Comic-Con, and thinking “this might be what we need.”

Of course, while we need art, we don’t NEED specific bits of art most of the time, but this moment might have needed a show about how being strong and brave requires not hatred but love, requires you to work for change and believe people are capable of change, and celebrates a world of all genders and races and sexualities in the process, and does it with this imagination, intelligence, humor, and warmth…it may have been the show of its moment.

I COULD go on about She-Ra in all its facets, including the fantastic Sunna Wehrmeijer score which sounds like James Horner producing a Tegan and Sara album (although in my dreams Jim Steinman is writing a She-Ra musical), and THAT SCENE. You know the one. The one seven and a half minutes from the end of the series finale that the entire show was building up to, and it makes me ugly-cry every time I think about it, and I’m ugly-crying right now thinking about it again.

But instead I want to wrap these thoughts up by talking about  what we most need to talk about. The two people involved in THAT SCENE.

ADORA AND CATRA.

Catradora if you will.

(And to get this important point out of the way, Aimee Carrero and AJ Michalka make these characters who they are. The depth and emotion of their voice acting never strikes a false note, and even at their most exasperated or sarcastic, they draw you in.)

For an intergalactic, hilarious, mammoth tale of magic and science and war, in the end it’s a story about two people’s relationship.

Stevenson herself described the show as a tragedy about two women who are so close and so happy, until one has her idealism awakened and realizes that she cares about everybody and wants to help them, while the other can’t understand how or why anyone can care about other people, and it drives them apart.

And everything about that relationship which gets set up in the first episode—in the very first moment they have together in which Adora and Catra’s actions sum up everything about who they are—pays off in the final ten minutes and a scene that almost didn’t exist—that Stevenson had to fight to get made—that is the ending which this story and those who experience it required and wanted. (This doesn’t happen enough.)

It’s the polar opposite of the ending of The Rise of Skywalker and the Star Wars saga.

And it took me a while to figure out what exactly it meant.

Riley Dennis’s YouTube videos initially gave it a very simple binary: Catra learned to give love, Adora learned to receive it.

I think in one way this is true. But it’s only partially accurate. The more I read from comments by Stevenson and others, it doesn’t fully describe what’s happening.

Adora, for all her awesomeness (including a wacky sense of humor at odds with her straight-laced persona), always ran the risk of being a little…boring in a show where people keep switching between light and darkness. She seems to keep learning variations on the same lesson, inspiring as it may be: have faith in yourself, you make your own destiny, etc. What deepened Adora’s character were the relationships she had with other people: Mara and Razz, her nemeses, her best friends. And what got established from Season One on is that Adora has always been capable of receiving love from others as soon as she gets an honest expression of what that’s like, but in a way she’s also incapable of it.

The love of others is what inspires her to continually try to sacrifice herself: from an attempt to all but singlehandedly win Bright Moon to her nearly stopping the portal to destroying the Sword of Protection to the last encounter with the Heart of Etheria. She is not truly taking the love in because she does it selfishly, transforming it into a sense of duty and need; hence why she tries to fight the Horde even after she loses She-Ra’s powers for a brief while, since she thinks to act otherwise will be letting people down. The last and most valuable lesson Adora learns is when Mara tells her “You’re worth more than what you can give to other people. You deserve love, too.”

In other words, Adora needs to be able to accept love without feeling she needs to lose everything about herself in the process. Because that isn’t truly love at all. And when she does receive Catra’s love, with no sacrifice required…that’s that.

With Catra, things get even simpler: it takes her the entire span of the show to learn more than simply giving love. She has to admit to herself that she has the capacity for all things related to love.

Catra’s personal journey is a balancing act. Again, it’s set up in practically the first episode that Catra hates Shadow Weaver, doesn’t care for the rest of the Horde or Hordak, looks out for herself above all, but sticks to Adora, the person who promised they would always be together and take care of each other. What I think…and this is pure theory on my part…is that what breaks Catra in “The Sword” when Adora says she’s leaving and begs Catra to come with her, is that Adora dared to even think about leaving. Dared to turn her back on the life they’ve known and which they both, especially Catra, endured. It’s as if Adora was telling her all of those years were meaningless and could be discarded. And, referring back to Stevenson, it’s also Adora telling Catra that she cares about others…and Catra is not the one thing in her universe, let alone the center. That in a world where she’s never anyone’s first choice, Catra believed she was Adora’s only choice, and she cannot accept otherwise.

So even when Adora makes the offer and honors the promise, Catra says no. And subconsciously she sees Adora as weak, running away from the pain that made them strong. Therefore, Catra sets out to prove she can best Adora. She can become what Adora would not become. And there’s no love involved in that.

We see how that turns out. Catra goes too far. She dominates Shadow Weaver with a version of the same cruelty which hurt her, she manipulates Hordak, she betrays Entrapta, she pushes away everyone who tries to get close (even Scorpia!), and she nearly breaks reality (killing Angella in the process) and definitely gets her own army massacred. None of this makes her happy. She is fierce and terrified, constantly growing colder and crueler . (She even rejects happiness in the Crimson Waste.)

Only after all this, and her confrontation with Horde Prime, does Catra come to accept that this isn’t who she is, and besting Adora isn’t what she wants. It’s actually in this moment that Catra becomes equal to Adora: she publicly sacrifices herself to save Glimmer and give them a last chance to defeat Horde Prime.

But it is through this atonement that Catra gets what she doesn’t want. To be saved, to be taken back in, to show she can do more than scheme and destroy, and once she’s on that path, there is no turning back. She can only save Adora (and the universe) the same way Adora saved her, through an act of love that she has to first admit she wants to do.

This leads to one final question some friends of mine proposed: did Catra deserve redemption? Should she so easily be taken in by the people she spent the first four seasons trying to kill or subdue?

On the one hand, Catra did all of the terrible things above. On the other hand, I think back to a key line of dialogue in “The Price of Power,” the Season Three premiere that kicks off all the rest of the show’s plotting, when Adora explains to Glimmer and Bow why she needs to talk to Shadow Weaver.

“I was just like the rest of them, and then I left! Not because I picked up this sword but because it was the right thing to do. I have to believe the others can change too.”

This line, which has nothing specifically to do with Catra, leaves such an impression that to me it leaves no question why Catra is forgiven and accepted. Our heroes do not desire retribution. They desire change and transformation. And both Catra and Adora get that.

And they get a happily ever after ending in the process. (It’s canon! Stevenson said so!)

All because they learned to love themselves and each other.

Or, to use language from before, they learn how they should value themselves and each other.

What if we all could do that?

Consider it.

(LAST NOTE – If you want to hear a lot more and better about She-Ra straight from the experts, watch or listen to Noelle Stevenson and Molly Knox Ostertag’s charity livestream.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s