She-Ra is an unlikely children’s show, not only because it is about all the effects of imperial power on indigeneity. While the struggle between the imperial force of the Horde and the immanent magic of the planet, Etheria and the rebelling forces called the ‘Resistance’ is the narrative we follow, She-Ra is all about the competing established narratives that dictate one’s life and relationships. It quietly follows in the footsteps of Avatar: The Last Airbender in this respect, taking the audience along as our two central characters, friends turned enemies, Adora and Catra, figure out what it means to live a life that has been determined from the start.
As an adult who has often desired a different childhood, shows such She Ra and the Princesses of Power feels both, like tackling a messy landscape with no answers as well as dipping a toe into a kinder, better past. It does not shy away from complex characters, violence and its implications, and really does so without the moralism or innocence of commonplace children’s shows (better known as family TV). While at the same time, the art and the storytelling impart a sense of ease, assuring us of the possibility of a resolution.
In the case of She Ra, colonial power can be thwarted, oppressors can be forgiven without the assumption that the effects have been mitigated, abandonment is never totalizing, and when faced with absolute choices—one does not necessarily have to choose.
Noelle Stevenson’s (creator, showrunner and executive producer), She Ra was released in November, 2018 and ended with its fifth and final season in May this year. The show is both a tribute and a reimagining of the original 1985 Filmation She-Ra: Princess of Power, a spin-off from the widely popular He-Man and the Masters of the Universe series. While many of these genres globally glorified themes and tropes that are misogynist in nature, whether as shonen or as bildungsroman, She-Ra is of a different attitude and considers alternative models of resolution. The show also pays tribute to the Japanese Magical Girl sub-genre of anime/manga featuring a magical transformation of the protagonist and a quest, such as in Cardcaptor Sakura, Sailor Moon or the famous subversive counter to the narrative: Puella Magi Madoka Magica. In this case, She-Ra takes both the glitz of the magical transformation of the protagonist seriously—artistically as well as thematically—enough to think through the implications of possessing unimaginable strength, magic, and the expectations of heroism.
A lot has been said about She-Ra and its positive representation of queer characters across the spectrum, as well as its complex representation of relationships among them (romantic or otherwise). The main cast is comprised of Adora (who transforms into She-Ra), and her best friends, Glimmer and Bow, as well as her childhood friend, Catra. The supporting cast are queer, with lesbian princesses, Spinerella and Netossa, who support, protect, and compete with each other and Bow’s proud gay parents. While these characters make for a more diverse cast and a more egalitarian public sphere, the show does not tokenise the characters, neither does it give each character a tumultuous back story of shame and acceptance. The show’s focus on the complex web of relationships, (and a lot of them are familial) and its shifting ground run counter to the new tokenistic attitude of liberal media.
Children’s shows, for long, have emphasized the values of family and friendship—but these values have always come in their contained ideologies of unwavering devotion to this presumed structure of authority. Parents know best, and children must love them for this knowledge, even as it denies their agency. In She-Ra, there is no presumption of authorial knowledge, especially not by Glimmer’s parents. Queen Angella is over-protective and quite bad at convincing anyone around her that her actions are necessary, especially Glimmer. And Glimmer’s rebellions rarely prove Queen Angella right, even if they are dangerous. Similarly, Bow’s parents presume that Bow is protected by his field of research. King Micah, due to his long absence has a tendency to idealize and infantilize the young adults around him. But over and over, he is drawn into conflicts because he does not quite understand how to be a figure of authority without this paternalism.
But none of these parental figures are static (they even apologize!) and they learn to make room for their own feelings towards their children while acknowledging that they have their own agency.
Parents do not know best in She-Ra, and the worst effect of these assumptions, especially in an environment that unquestioningly accepts their authority, even lead to abuse. As in the case of Shadowweaver raising Adora and Catra in the Horde, a militarized and hierarchical order that seeks to colonize the planet. The figure of Shadowweaver in the Horde is for most of the children, both a parent and an authority to whom they owe their allegiance. And because she so strongly believes that she is right, Shadowweaver patronizes, manipulates, and lies to her wards to get her way. The violence not only has an effect on the individuals, Adora and Catra, but also on the relationships between them and their other friendships. Her behaviour in She-Ra is characterized by abuse, and while she too, goes through a gradual process of learning that she does not have absolute authority—no one, especially not Catra and Adora, are expected to trust or forgive her.
Adora’s narrative asks explicitly whether the burden of saving the world has been laid squarely on the kids, and whether this expectation can run counter to the cause. Adora is rescued, even protected by her found family, but she still has to bear the burden of a responsibility that is beyond her means. While she runs away from the Horde and is given shelter, comfort and assurance by the Resistance, a mantle of great power and responsibility is also thrust upon her in the form of having to be She-Ra, a legendary hero fated to save the residents of the planet. She cannot be a victim or a survivor, neither can she be hero unmarked by complicity.
Adora constantly desires to know who she is, and none of the answers she seeks (and finds) brings her any resolution—not her past of abuse, trauma and complicity, not where she is from, not the secrets behind her transformation and newfound power, not an absolute destiny or purpose. She loses the ability to become She-Ra continually constantly grapples with having to situate herself between heroism and complicity, choice and destiny, being a sacrificial martyr or selfish traitor. Her indecision, discomfort with her own actions and loss of the power of transforming are effects of self-doubt and abuse, but the narrative does not push Adora into corners of absolute choices.
Catra too is marked by this abuse and complicity, and as the classical villain to the story, pursues the Resistance and Adora as a soldier in the enemy’s camp, trapping and foiling them as a singular entity—a lone wolf—affirming that she has been abandoned in each attack. The hostility that begins as a desire for acceptance and validation from those who are left quickly spins into acts of self-sabotage, where Catra is willing to destroy the world and herself with it.
When Catra does ‘come home’, as Stevenson assured us early on that she would, the dichotomies between good and evil, magic and technology had already become messy. Power and authority was dissolute, disparate and the ground had shifted. The Imperial Horde was all-powerful, and even She-Ra and her power had been revealed to be complicit and suspect in having wrecked the planet once. There could be one solution when the stakes were so high, and Adora would have to finally, righteously accept what it meant to be a hero and give it all up. But what the show affirmed was not heroism or sacrifice, not selflessness, but a selfishness, not righteousness, but desire. Through the penultimate moments, Adora and Catra fight with each other and themselves, authority and ideology, and settle into a confused but determined embrace. It is stance where they refuse to abandon each other and their own desires—to live, and to live full lives with everything in it. It isn’t quite clear why they succeed, but explication of the victory is not as important as the validation of a choice that claims nothing absolute.
As such, She-Ra is among the ambitious shows dealing with our lives and the world we live in—one where categories of right and wrong are already embroiled in oppressive forces. The tools we use, the food we eat, the people we support drag histories of violence behind them. We are both, heroes and villains, survivors and victims and when stakes are high, we come bearing all these laurels and burrs.
It is an unlikely children’s show for this affirmation. For granting children with a full and complete agency, for recognizing both trauma and complicity, and for its refusal to dispense with anyone for the sake of a better world.