The nineteen eighties had little to recommend them, other than the long-prophesised birth of yours truly. Unless of course you were a toy executive, in which case you were about to embark on an unprecedented era of cartoon tie-ins that would make everyone a lorra lorra money, especially Mattel. Turns out I wasn’t the only hero to emerge in 1982.
Thanks to Netflix docu-fodder The Toys That Made Us and The Power of Grayskull, every man and his battle cat now knows how Roger Sweet mashed modelling clay onto a Big Jim doll and sort-of almost invented a barbarian. The He-Man toy went on to sell 70 million units in its first two years alone and the Masters of the Universe franchise grew to outsell heavyweights Barbie and Hot Wheels. When market research showed that 40% of sales were played with by… g-g-girls, the cigar-chomping big-wigs upstairs decided that, instead of adding women to the line, they needed a different female-fronted spin off.
Thus in 1985 She-Ra was born. Retro-fitted to be a long-lost sister of the jacked-up gym-bro Prince Adam for the accompanying Filmation cartoons, the Princess of Power was kinda self-contained in the initial toys. She stood apart from He-Man with her own look and feel. With ‘real’ hair, soft furnished clothes and a comb in every box, the manufacturer hoped to straddle the divide between ‘action figures’ and ‘dolls’.
Though fun (in a glorified toy ad sort of way), the eighties cartoons are very much of their time, with the subsequent two nineties and noughties He-Man adaptations not really straying far from the nest. A twenty-first century reboot of his overlooked twin was welcomed by many with progressive values. She-Ra and the Princesses (plural) of Power is an animated Netflix series, developed by Noelle Stephenson. It ran from 2018-2020 to critical acclaim and with an ardent fan following.
The show serves as a revitalised take on the old stories whilst offering something new for a younger generation. I’ll confess that despite hearing good things about it, I wasn’t sure if the world needed another rehash of old ideas. Can’t you TV hotshots come up with anything new??? But then I rinsed through all five seasons during the 2020 lockdown and, spoilers, fell head over heels in love with it.
At its core are the same key elements: Adora was raised by the Horde but runs away when confronted by their repressive acts against the kingdoms of Etheria (‘Did you really not know any of this? I mean, your army is called the Evil Horde’); Hordak serves as the big baddy; Adora gets a magic sword that turns her into She-Ra then leads a rebellion of specially-powered princesses; all the original female characters are reprised along with good guy Bow.
It differs, and improves on, the original by having a diverse and well-rounded cast. In the original, the women characters were all essentially the same, just in different colours: slim, athletic and big-bossomed. Much like the toys, this was to facilitate an easier production process. Good for animators on a budget, but not especially representative for a global audience of children. By contrast, the modern show gives the teenage girls (for that’s what most of the characters now are) a more realistic variety of body shapes, personalities and skin colours.
When it comes to gender and sexuality (mostly absent from the Filmation run) Stephenson’s version is more inclusive with openly gay peripheral characters (Spinnerella and Netossa; Bow’s amazing dads), a non-binary character (Double Trouble) for whom everyone uses the pronouns they/them, and generally more ambiguous relationships between characters. The latter makes it more interesting and less predictable for a TV show, there’s room for more warmth between characters. These might seem like small details but they are significant in a kids show. A quick dip into YouTube shows the number of queer creators who feel emboldened by the way LGBQT+ is normalised in this programme. Pitching inclusive ideas has been made easier by the success of Princesses of Power.
Having a strong lead that isn’t in some way dependent on a man is still kinda a big deal. With He-Man completely absent, She-Ra is empowered not by virtue of being related to him, but on her own merits. (In fact the only nod to Eternia is the carried over line ‘For the honour of Grayskull’, whose meaning is left as an unresolved mystery to the protagonists).
This isn’t limited to the heroes. Most of the original bad guy gang are gone or diminished, replaced by more relatable human(ish) characters. Though Hordak is technically the villain, Catra has a far more prominent role, much as she did in the toyline where she was more mischievous than evil. This key shift in focus immediately makes the whole thing more interesting. Instead of foiling a weekly ruse to build a mega-ray or chase a crystal McGuffin, all by a baddy drawn to look like a baddy, we instead see how a friendship unravels. The supposed ‘bad guys’ look similar to the good guys. We genuinely care about Lonnie, Rogelio, Entrapta, Scorpia and yes, even poor Kyle, as much as we do the Princesses. They are all as dorky and uncertain as each other. You don’t have to look far to find that there are a ton of people who relate to Catra and Scorpia as much as Adora or Glimmer.
Aside from the improved diversity and compelling characters, the series excels at drama. The set up of Adora quitting the Horde is more artful, positioning two best friends on opposing sides (‘I wanna be the best She-Ra, I wanna protect the planet. But Catra, she’s just in my head’). Catra’s sense of betrayal, abuse and abandonment underpins the whole series and makes for a compelling dynamism between the two. On the other hand, no longer in the shadow of Straight-A Adora, Catra also finds she is good at being bad, and really leans into the role.
There are more themes at work as well, some more subtle than others. At our story’s start, the princesses are divided, extolling a sort of island isolationism (sound familiar British readers?), and the rebellion is a tattered joke, existing in name alone. As the characters (and viewers) learn the value of working together we are treated to literal rainbows of glowing colour. Asked by a network executive what the rainbow finale meant, Stephenson replied, ‘the gay agenda’. There are blurred lines between friendship, love and romance. There are heartbreaks, unrequited loves, abusive parents, plus plenty of bullying and uncertainty – basically just like school but with the occasional talking horse.
There are arcs galore too, with half the ensemble cast going on some sort of journey. This Adora is not born a hero, but has to figure out how to become one, learning that just waving a magic sword around is not enough. She struggles to process her acceptance in the self-proclaimed ‘Friendship Squad’, and the praise she is showered with as She-Ra, whilst dealing with the irreconcilable animosity from former bestie Catra. There is subtlety and depth all over the place, from the messed-up mother figure of Shadow Weaver to the gradually revealed motivations of Hordak. Sure he wants to take over the world, but can ya blame him, really?
Adora can’t happily be a swashbuckling save-the-day hero either. She anguishes over whether she is only liked, nay needed, for her alter-ego (‘your friend over there can turn into an 8-foot tall lady with a sword and I want her on my side’). She-Ra is routinely ‘othered’, if Adora was replaced by her, would anyone care? If that weren’t enough, there are additional pressures that come with being all-powerful. Before her defection, Adora had always been the best. Now she must now live up to, and better, her forebear Mara, who supposedly went mad under the pressure of being She-Ra. This is not a toy commercial for five year old kids and is surely pitched to an older demographic. Frankly it would be wasted on adults who aren’t used to telly this good. Or funny.
SRATPOP is not short on lols, from the cute ‘n’ dorky Bow, to the singing Swift Wind, to the boat-burning insanity of Sea Hawk. That’s to say nothing of Wrong Hordak’s blind faith, Mermista’s sarcastic brilliance, Scorpia’s brimming positivity or pretty much any of the other supporting characters who all have their comedy moments.
But above all, what gets me is the emotion. It just hit me, unexpectedly, with all the feels. Maybe it was the effects of lockdown, but the five seasons were an emotional rollercoaster – and yes, I know it’s a kids’ cartoon. Of course there are throwaway ‘adventure of the week’ episodes, but there was a definite dramatic narrative driving the bigger plot, craving resolution from start to epic finish. I am not ashamed to say that I cried at the climax, punching the air and making the neighbours wonder if I had got into crowd-less Korean football or something. This isn’t just top children’s television, but first rate story telling full stop.
I don’t want to oversell it, but this is hands down the best television programme of the last ten years and you should stop whatever you are doing and watch it now. Maybe I need to get out of the house a bit more. Anyone seen my talking horse?