She-Ra, the sword-wielding princess who battles evil with the power of friendship, is back on Netflix. After being off the air for nearly thirty years, the Mattel franchise has come back in a major way. Noelle Stevenson, who’s worked on some of my favorite shows of the past decade including Wonder Over Yonder, Bravest Warriors, and Ducktales helms She-Ra and the Princesses of Power with exacting vision. Mostly, that vision is focused on giving audiences a spectrum of powerful, competent, and deeply flawed women.
At the beginning of the series, Shadow Weaver trains Adora to be the next Force Captain in the army of the Horde. In an emotionally manipulative relationship, Shadow Weaver heaps praise and adoration onto Adora. Everything Adora does is a victory. But Catra, Adora’s best friend and equal in nearly every way, is shunned, physically abused, and degraded by Shadow Weaver. In the Fright Zone, a technological wasteland controlled by the Horde, ‘family’ is an unknown concept. For all intents and purposes, Catra is Adora’s sister. Shadow Weaver is her mother. When Adora decides Catra needs a break from the abuse, she steals a military vehicle and takes her sister on a joy ride. They get lost in the Whispering Wood where Adora discovers the Sword of Protection before being captured by Princess Glimmer and her best friend Bow. From there, Adora’s on a quest to unite the Princesses of Etheria in rebellion against the Evil Horde.
For research purposes, I watched the first five episodes of the original She-Ra: Princess of Power, which is also currently available on Netflix. Created by Lawrence G. DiTillio, the show was a follow up to the He-Man series. A film Secret of the Sword acted as a bridge from He-Man to She-Ra, as a way to get girls to buy in on the toy line. She-Ra: Princess of Power was born.
I instantly understood the initial appeal of the show. I loved the Barbie movies when I was a kid. They brought my beloved dolls to vivid life. I learned intimate details about their existence, which I could later expand upon during play.
The many princesses of Eternia looked like Barbies in their initial run. Like Barbie, their features remain the same between models. Each princess possessed a different power, hair color, and outfit. Snappy comebacks similar Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman made She-Ra a girl power symbol. However, He-Man, who made his debut three years prior on his own show, gets a lot of feature time in She-Ra’s series. Worst of all, like every ’80s cartoon, the animation is stiff, and the story-telling is slow and uninspired.
A New Era:
She-Ra looks like a cocaine-chic model. High cheekbones, bundles of golden hair, and a perfect white mini dress in which she’s poised to take over the world. Even in her human form, Adora’s confident and ready to take on any impossible tasks. When she learns she has a long-lost twin brother, she easily accepts him as her blood. They even fight crime together. When she gets magical powers, she automatically knows how to use them. Easily she heals her horse, Swift Wind, with the wave of her sword. Everything comes naturally to She-Ra. In the mid-’80s, this positive, kick-butt kind of woman was refreshing and awesome. Now, she’s demeaning and boring.
So Stevenson breathed some life into She-Ra. Instead of a powerful, goddess woman, She-Ra’s a hard-studied, lost, naive and golden-hearted teen. Instead of interchangeable Barbies, each character is given looks to match their wildly different personalities. These are just the first of many brilliant augmentations made to the original material. The end result is a series full of diverse men and women (but mostly women) trying to navigate a receiving battle line.
Noelle Stevenson crafted a team of some of the best story-tellers in animation to present She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. Together with Josie Campbell (Justice League Action Shorts), Sonja Warfield (Will & Grace), and James Krieg (Green Lantern: The Animated Series) along with several promising newcomers, She-Ra represents everything a remake should be. Using the roux of the original series, which featured elements of girl-power, magic, and rainbows and combining it with today’s social body, gender, and emotional health conscience, Stevenson and team have created a show for the ages.
The New Story:
Like Avatar: The Last Airbender, the show doesn’t shy away from kids at war. All over the world, war is a daily reality for kids. It’s brave for a show to try and meet them on their level. I won’t guess what it’s like to survive a war. I do know the look of hate that spans generations. Adora is indoctrinated to view the princesses as evil. When we first meet her, Adora is punching a demonic caricature of Glimmer’s mother. When Glimmer first meets Adora, she accuses her of attacking a peaceful village. If Adora and Glimmer are going to work together, they’ll have to overcome their own prejudices, for neither has engaged the other in a non-violent manner.
One of the best aspects of the show was its portrayal of abuse. Catra is easily one of this year’s best characters. She is quick to react, emotionally vulnerable, stylish, and a natural born leader. Watching her try to bring Adora back to the Fright Zone is a heartbreaking journey. There’s no relief for her anywhere. Her best friend has abandoned her. Her abuser tasks her with bringing Adora back. Each time she fails she is physically or verbally assaulted, on top of the hurt that her friend no longer wants to live with her. Finally, Catra is seen, by the guy the audience is supposed to hate, Hordak. When she’s given a badge and when Catra is supported by new friends, she blossoms. Yes, she tries to take out an entire city with her newfound power, but damn it, she told off her abuser and achieved her dream.
Diversity by Design:
I got my dream with the variety of body shapes on the screen and the impeccable amount of diversity amongst the voice cast. One of the new changes made in the show is She-Ra is incredibly tall. Many of the princesses and Horde soldiers cite different measurements for the giantess. Twelve, nine, and seven feet tall are all given as probable measurements. Her shoulders are broad and her hair is always pulled back in a neat ponytail.
Adora is voiced by Dominican actress Aimee Carrero (Princess Elena.) Mermista is my favorite princess. She controls water, is naturally tall, and is voiced by the perfectly angsty African-American Vella Lovell (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). Perfuma, the lanky flower-wielding hippie assassin, is brought to life by Venezuelan and Cuban-American actress Genesis Rodriguez (Big Hero 6). Japanese-American actress Karen Fukuhara (Suicide Squad) voices Glimmer, Adora’s big-hipped bestie, and a princess on a mission to prove she does more than sparkle. Other notable talents include Sandra Oh, Jordan Fisher, AJ Michalka, Keston John, Marcus Scribner, Anthony Del Rio, Lorraine Toussaint, and Dana Davis.
None of these body shapes ever face critique. Ever! There’s no teasing about how clothes look, no self-doubt that relates to physical appeal, none of the men on the show comment on anyone’s body. They all co-exist beautifully. When it’s time for Princess Prom, the makeover scene spends its time getting people to feel confident in their skin. A standard of beauty does not exist. Finding the right fit and feeling beautiful is everyone’s goal.
The world-building put into Etheria is outstanding. The Whispering Wood reminds me of the ocean forest floor. Aquatic-like plants with top-heavy leaves miraculously remain standing without the assistance of liquid water. Unique designs distinguish each kingdom. Using natural elements like crystals, flowers, and stones to inspire them, there’s no Earthly connection to these spaces. Beds float twelve feet off the ground, crystals create light prisms of protection, and water suspends in the air to craft a gate.
This culmination of deep world building, beautiful artistry, and vocal performances makes She-Ra and the Princesses of Power a remarkable cartoon. `I look forward to seeing how and if Adora’s brother Adam, aka He-Man, will make an appearance. Will she learn of her parents or has something tragic happened to them? Also, how far can Catra climb the corporate ladder of the Horde? Season 2 can’t get here soon enough.
Header Image Source: Netflix