Let the Past Die: Examining She-Ra

I’ve been thinking a lot about nostalgia lately. Those who have read my recent posts on The Last Jedi or Halloween (2018) know that I’m growing less and less found of big budget Hollywood’s desire to look back. In a world of rapid change, audiences seem to love a heavy dose of nostalgia in their entertainment – but is this a good thing? Setting aside the toxic behavior going on in some fandoms, I want to examine things from a purely writing perspective. So, let’s talk about Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, the latest show in the He-Man/She-Ra universe.

To spoil things: I had problems with She-Ra. I think it is a flawed narrative that does not do a good job of exploring the issues it raises while containing elements of problematic storytelling. While it is entertaining (it may be the best television entertainment to come from Eternia or Etheria), it is ultimately disappointing. When looking at other recent shows like Legend of Korra or Steven Universe, it falls flat. How so, you ask? Let’s get into it:

Incorporating Themes of Equality

First and foremost, I don’t understand those out there criticizing the new show for its open approach to homosexuality. Firstly because there is nothing wrong with homosexuality and showing representation can help children grow with a diverse array of acceptable role models. Secondly, did you ever watch the first show? Look at this:

Original She-Ra Homosexuality
This looks like a rainbow-infused crusade to me.

Yeah, no legacy was damaged bringing this property to the 21st century. My problem is that Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power appears to go for “token” representation rather than containing actual gay characters.

For starters, the show is weirdly sexless. I say weirdly because we’re dealing with teenagers (there is a line referring to most of our main characters as teenagers) in a high stress situation. I’m not saying I wanted nudity or anything sexual, but I do believe romances would be in play. There’s almost no clear-cut relationships in She-Ra. Are Catra and She-Ra into each other or are they just childhood friends? What about Glimmer and She-Ra? What about Glimmer and Bow? What about Sea Hawk and Mermista?

There is no confirmed relationship of any kind within She-Ra‘s first season, except this one:

Spinnerella Netossa She-Ra
Glimmer’s not a part of this – it’s the other two.

Spinnerella and Netossa are in a relationship. They are said to be “bonded” and refer to each other as “honey.” It’s still not completely direct, but I’ll take it. My problem with these two is they exist to be the gay characters. That’s the only way I can think to describe them. They’re not real people – they’re barely in the show. They exist – they’re gay – if this bothers you, you can lose them completely by omitting less than two minutes from season one’s total run time.

My point is this: Representation needs actual characters to feel fully realized. Just throwing in a superficial gay couple is as lazy as just making one of the main characters black and never really exploring the differences this would create…

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After 13 episodes, I still have no idea who Netossa and Spinnerella are. They are defined solely by their sexual orientation and I feel this is a problem. It’s 2018, shows shouldn’t feel like they have to tiptoe around this issue anymore.

From a writing perspective, it makes She-Ra weaker since we’re stuck in vagueness. If we knew – for example – that Catra liked She-Ra on a romantic level, it would allow the writers to commit to exploring said relationship. Writing gets stronger the more specific it is. Christ – Romeo and Juliet were into each other after 20 minutes, let’s go here.

Improving Character Agency

While way too many blockbuster films still rely on a passive girlfriend, it is good to see character agency overall making strides forward. For those who may not know, character agency refers to a character’s active interaction with the plot. For example, any hero who decides to leave home in search of a quest is exhibiting agency, whereas a kidnapped princess is simply part of the plot.

Historically, female characters have had far less agency than male ones. It’s changing now but there’s still a lot to improve. In an ideal well-written world, every major character has some degree of agency.

I can’t believe I’m about to criticize She-Ra for a lack of agency but here it comes…Hordak. Bet you didn’t see that coming. Hordak is the main force behind the villainous horde and chief antagonist of the show. Without him, there would be no threat to Etheria.

Who is Hordak? That’s a great question. Thirteen episodes in and I really couldn’t say much besides “he’s the new Thanos – he hates getting out of his chair.” I’ve written about badly written villains before. These characters are evil for the sake of being evil, but at least they tend to be active. Hordak merely is.

Hordak She-Ra 2018
Hordak filmed in his natural environment.

Now, it’s very okay that the show focuses on characters like She-Ra and Catra while leaving Hordak in the background. That’s fine. I don’t need to see him every episode. What would help is to get a sense of what it is he does. Since he is in charge of the Horde – does he have a plan? Is he waging skirmishes? Is he looking for something? Is he working a new ass groove into his chair?

Making Hordak a weak character handicaps the world. It isn’t threatening or interesting to have a main villain who is, for all intents and purposes, a housebound invalid. It also makes the worldwide conflict seem smaller than it should be. The Horde has an army but we only ever see one squad – so what do the others do? No princesses really report being that under siege – so they’re not engaged there.

It’s a very peaceful war, fought largely by some teenagers. Imagine Avatar: the Last Airbender season one – only we never see another villain in action besides Zuko.

Subverting Good vs. Evil

The world is not black and white. This is reality. She-Ra is not reality and not bound by the same expectation. However, in the 21st century – the classic “good vs. evil” has very much run its course. It’s boring to have purely virtuous heroes face off against evil-for-the-heck-of-it bad guys. This is one of the reasons Black Panther vs. Killmonger connected so easily with audiences. Those characters felt real.

She-Ra tries very hard to embrace this new look on characters. Catra is far from the typical villain. She has a personal relationship with Adora – the two of them have been best friends since childhood. Until they’re not. In the span of an episode, Adora becomes She-Ra and she and Catra are suddenly enemies…and that’s pretty much it.

Yes, they interact like they have some kind of relationship, but Catra – for all her bells and whistles – did not feel interesting to me. At the end of the day, she behaves very much like a “evil-for-the-heck-of-it” villain. The rigidity of her allegiance handicaps her character.

We’re told she’s struggling with Adora being on the other team, but she never really shows it. She’s loyal to the Horde…for reasons. She openly says she doesn’t like anyone on the Horde and she – at least in the beginning – likes Adora, so why not flip?

Catra She-Ra relationship
Yeah the visuals are interesting but Catra is just too static to be a deep character.

It isn’t until late in season one that Catra states she likes the idea of being separate from Adora (out of her shadow). She likes the attention and the new responsibility. It’s a motivation for sure – but how interesting is it? She-Ra and the Princesses of Power seems to be hanging a lot on the audience being really invested in the relationship between Adora and Catra.

If their relationship remains what season one set it on course to be – a former friend turned rival, then it won’t be very interesting. We saw Kylo Ren flirt with being good a lot before falling to the Dark Side. We’ve barely seen Catra be anything but a villain.

This ties back into nostalgia. The original She-Ra was a very simple show. There were good guys and bad guys – and they fought. New She-Ra is very much the same, despite trying to inject complexity into its characters. The result is a conflict that feels artificial, and characters who feel wasted.

She-Ra Scorpia
Wait, why is Scorpia evil again?

The Importance of History

A lot of the problems in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power boil down to a lack of history in the show. We’re told that Etheria is plagued by war and that the rebellion has been going for at least one generation. That’s it. There’s no culture beyond the basic princess=good, Horde=bad. No sign of any lingering divisions – other than the princesses waffling back and forth on whether an alliance is a good idea.

I rarely get the sense that the setting has any real history, despite being filled with ruins. How long has the horde been invading? Have any kingdoms beyond Scorpia’s been lost? What was life like before the Horde? Why are princesses the ones with the magical powers? What’s up with those glowing stones? WHAT IS HORDAK EVEN DOING?

In Avatar, each section of the world felt like it breathed, full of struggles large and small that occur with the flow of everyday life. If She-Ra wants to take a step forward, it needs to embrace the potential of Etheria.

Doing this – and correcting any of these other problems – will move the show further and further away from its original inception and that’s a good thing. The original She-Ra was not much more than a marketing spinoff of He-Man.

Let the past die – kill it if you have to. Watching season one of She-Ra made me realize that I don’t think remaking this universe is the way to go. Why not have a sequel series that takes the best elements of He-Man and She-Ra and blends them together into something new? Doing this would free the writers from whatever structure they feel they have to adhere to.

This new She-Ra brims with just enough to make me wish it had been more. Here’s hoping it has the courage to fully break the wheel in season two.

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