A Grown Man’s Love Letter to She-Ra
A celebration of the groundbreaking ’80s cartoon before it returns to TV
Growing up, I had a friend, a real good guy. We used to hang out all the time, before school and after, and I remember all the crazy adventures we used to go on, although I tended to just be a spectator. One day, after we’d been pals for years, he casually mentioned that he had a sister. I was flabbergasted! He’d never mentioned her before or given any indication she existed. The next day, he brought her over, and I fell immediately in love.
That friend’s name was He-Man, and his sister was She-Ra.
Let me assure you: This is not going to be a tale of a grown man having the hots for an animated character. I was only eight when She-Ra debuted in “The Secret of the Sword,” a special five-episode He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon event in 1985, and then, as now, my affection went far deeper than mere beauty. The reason I loved She-Ra and why I am so excited for Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power reboot series (premiering November 13) is because of everything she represented and the way her existence expanded my reality.
That’s an admittedly heavy load to put on a character created by toymaker Mattel and animation studio Filmation as a naked cash grab to see if they can adapt their blockbuster He-Man franchise to capture a female audience. Certainly, the character and the animated series is a clone of He-Man and Masters of the Universe, down to the way Adora raises aloft her magic sword and says, “For the honor of Grayskull!” to turn into She-Ra, just as her brother Prince Adam bellows, “By the power of Grayskull!” to turn into He-Man. The toys are different in that She-Ra action figures have hair to brush and various outfits to wear. But overall, the blueprint is the same.
This is why I and other boys my age watched the She-Ra cartoon as religiously as He-Man, despite it ostensibly being for girls, which would otherwise have been taboo in the rigidly gender-divided world of ’80s children’s entertainment. Just as He-Man fought the evil Skeletor and his minions on the planet of Eternia, so did She-Ra fight the evil Hordak and his Horde on the planet of Etheria. Just as He-Man’s pals, the Masters of the Universe, all had one defining characteristic/power/gimmick (Stratos could fly, Ram-Man rammed things, Fisto had a big metal fist, etc.), so did She-Ra’s Princesses of Power, including Mermista, Castaspella, and Netossa (I’ll let you guess those).
By using He-Man as its template and targeting a female audience, She-Ra bridged that gap. Both were action-fantasy series; the only difference is that in one, the heroes kicking evil’s collective ass were female. In a world of what were known as “girly” shows, like Rainbow Brite and My Little Pony, where characters were designed to emphasize doll-like cuteness and stories were about as complex as a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper, She-Ra looked like she came out of Conan the Barbarian, even if she also solved more conflicts with friendship and love than with her sword.
She-Ra unknowingly lived a life of loss, was raised to inflict evil on innocent people, and then still had to attempt to overcome an overwhelming foe.
The fact that She-Ra was introduced through the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon made it a seamless transition, and Mattel very cannily put She-Ra’s villains in the Masters of the Universe toy line, meaning that if boys wanted to see those cool characters in action, we’d need to be watching She-Ra anyway. Plus, sometimes there would be other crossovers between the two shows, and He-Man would stop by Etheria to help his sister out. He-Man and She-Ra were my first introduction to the idea of a shared universe of storytelling, and it blew my little-kid mind.
What made She-Ra different — and much more fascinating than He-Man, even to me then — was that her story was much more tragic. If you don’t remember (and why would you?), Adora was Adam’s twin brother, born to the king and queen of Eternia in standard fantasy procedure. But she was kidnapped as a baby by Hordak, taken to Etheria, and raised to be evil. When she’s introduced in “The Secret of the Sword,” She-Ra is a straight-up bad guy, helping lead the occupying force that had conquered the planet and never suspecting anything wrong about her life. It’s only when He-Man brings She-Ra her predestined magic sword that she realizes her true identity and joins the rebellion to defeat Hordak.
There’s a lot of darkness in this origin story that is, of course, glossed over in the lighthearted cartoon, but it sits there in the cracks, waiting for a child’s subconscious mind to slowly process. Being stolen from her parents is a tragedy for all involved—for She-Ra and the parents who surely grieved her loss even through the present day, even if they never told Adam about her existence. And once she’s on the side of good, she joins the losing team. The Horde ruled the planet, and only a small, admittedly Star Wars-esque hope remains for the few who fight.
Of course, there were other popular stories about small rebellions taking on evil empires at the time, but those didn’t resonate with me the way She-Ra’s story did. I think it’s because of the contrast between She-Ra and He-Man. He-Man grew up with loving parents, Eternia was free, and all He-Man had to do was stop Skeletor’s hare-brained schemes to maintain a happy status quo. In comparison, She-Ra unknowingly lived a life of loss, was raised to inflict evil on innocent people, and then still had to attempt to overcome an overwhelming foe. And she was the girl!
I sincerely doubt there was a concerted decision by Filmation to have the female hero face much bigger problems than her male counterpart, just like I doubt the show was aiming to present a group of powerful, capable women as a lesson in gender equality to young boys, but both happened anyway. I thought I was just watching a He-Man spin-off, but instead I was internalizing a message that women could be as strong as men. The expected cliché would be that the female character’s power was intelligence, while the male character’s power would be brute strength. She-Ra was, in fact, smarter than He-Man, constantly finding clever ways to solve problems beyond punching something very hard. But when strength was needed, She-Ra could carry around an entire lake just as well as He-Man could.
With 30-plus years of hindsight, I think we can safely say that She-Ra did not end sexism forever, but it was a wonderful anomaly that I increasingly appreciate as I get older. That’s why I love it and is why I’m so excited about the new Netflix series (in addition to the fact that it’s made by Noelle Stevenson, the Eisner-winning creator of Nimona, and Dreamworks Animation, makers of the excellent and also wonderfully inclusive Voltron reboot). I love the idea of a new generation of kids watching She-Ra and her friends fight for freedom, goodness, and, of course, the honor of Grayskull. Interestingly enough, in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Adora finds her sword and discovers the truth on her own; He-Man is no longer involved in her transformation into the most powerful woman in the universe.
And that’s okay. She-Ra never really needed his help anyway.