We’re on the edge of greatness, turning darkness to light
We’re right beside you, ready to fight
So begins the theme song to She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, whose fourth season was posted on Netflix this past November. The campy original from the 80s was a He-Man spin-off and glorified toy commercial, and is remembered with arm’s-length ironic fondness by the few who remember it at all. This new version is a ground-up reinvention led by Noelle Stevenson, the brilliant award-winning comics writer and artist behind Lumberjanes, Nimona, and more. With the fifth and final season slated for release in May, now is the perfect time for a catch-up binge, so you can be ready for the finale.
Surprised at the recommendation? Dismissive of a kid’s cartoon? Don’t be. It’s one of the shows that’s been getting me and my two daughters through this crazy time. We watch and re-watch the episodes. We talk about the characters and their stories. I even enjoy hearing the theme song over and over, as my daughters have been repeatedly asking Alexa for it. In its full version, the song has a gloriously corny vibe, like Pat Benatar singing a Julie Bell painting, that sticks in your head in the best possible way (“We’re bound to the struggle with mighty sword and flame / We’ll never fail you, when you call our name”).
Seriously, it’s one of the best animated stories currently running. It’s more than a kid’s show; it’s truly all-ages entertainment, accessible to younger viewers but with deeper levels adults will find rewarding. If it maintains its level of quality and sticks the landing, it will deserve to be included in the conversation with Steven Universe and Avatar: The Last Airbender, the latter of which I consider to be one of the greatest television series ever made, full stop.
Plus, I think it’s the perfect show for right now. I don’t know about you, but in these dark, difficult times, I deeply appreciate a story dedicated to complex characters and piercing emotional honesty that simultaneously wraps itself in escapist fantasy-world artifice. I get to be carried away by the action-packed adventures of magical warrior princesses, while in the background I’m absorbing genuine wisdom. And as intense and harrowing as the conflicts in the story can sometimes become (the climax to season four raises the stakes and escalates the danger in a huge way), it’s all underpinned with the optimism that if the characters can overcome their differences and fight as a team, things will, somehow, eventually work out. These days, that’s a fiercely welcome feeling.
If you’re familiar with Noelle Stevenson’s work, then you will recognize some aspects of what she and her team of writers1 are doing with She-Ra. In Lumberjanes, she helped establish a story dynamic that nimbly juggles an ensemble of mismatched personalities as they navigate their contradictions and cohere as a group. In Nimona, she fearlessly flips heroic conventions firmly on their ear while somehow simultaneously observing and fulfilling their requirements as needed to construct a satisfying story. In both of these, and in her other writing, Stevenson has proved endlessly adept at character work, quickly and efficiently introducing people as specific individuals while laying the groundwork for later exploration and surprise.
In leading She-Ra’s creative team, Stevenson gets to leverage all these skills. On the character front, especially, the show is populated with a hugely varied cast, diverse not just racially but in personality. The main princess is headstrong but impulsive, unfailingly leaping without a plan; the loyal sidekick archer keeps a cheerful face, but hides family secrets; the mermaid with a sweet tooth uses cutting sarcasm to keep the world at a distance; and so on. Even the Big Bad looming behind the main antagonist eventually reveals his back story and desperate motives. On top of that, She-Ra knows people come in many shapes, sizes, and styles, and She-Ra includes all of them. One princess is a slender blonde waif; another recalls a chubby anime cosplayer; and on, and on, all on equal footing, without comment.
But Stevenson and her writers display another unexpected talent, which is to make all of this child-accessible without oversimplifying anything. Remember how thrilled you were at your first recognition of the long game Avatar was setting up with Prince Zuko? The emotional crisis driving She-Ra’s central antagonist is equally as complex and heart-rending. Compared to Stevenson’s “mature” work, the characters in this series are just as compelling, but they express themselves in terms kids can understand and translate to their own experience. It’s a remarkable trick to watch them pull off.
In fact, many episodes even make a point, at the end, of putting a little button on that show’s emotional journey, doing the familiar kid-story thing where the lesson is plainly laid out for the younger viewer. (“Today I learned, that’s not the kind of queen I want to be…”). Similarly, there’s conscious effort in showing the heroes relating to each other in a healthy way, communicating openly and talking about their feelings as they try to resolve conflicts, modeling good behavior for children to emulate. Lurking under this apparent kid-friendly simplification, though, there’s almost always an element of subversion. With their words, the heroes may sound like they’re delivering neat and tidy morals, but you can tell what they’re really doing is trying to talk themselves into believing they’ve transcended some persistent flaw, or even, sometimes, explicitly choosing the wrong takeaway from their adventure. These devices are creaky old clichés, rightfully mocked, but She-Ra cleverly twists them back on the viewer.
There’s one other aspect of the show that sets it apart: it’s really, really, super gay.
The thing is, though, it’s not gay the way you might expect a show like this to be. There are no predictable coming-out stories, or struggles for acceptance; there’s no wrestling with fear of discovery or guilt about disappointing loved ones. Character orientations are not specified or differentiated with the conventional labels or categories. In fact, the show never even uses the word gay, or anything like it. This has led some militant-woke commenters to dismiss the show as queer-baiting, i.e. using gay signifiers to attract an audience starved for representation, and then using code words and euphemisms to shy away from explicitly reflecting the audience’s experience.
Those commenters are wrong, for a couple of reasons. To begin with, when you start introducing those labels, you invariably begin thinking of the characters in terms of their sexuality. As good as it is, this is still a kid’s show, and sexual relationships are out of bounds. Instead, the connections between the characters are portrayed and explored in purely emotional terms, as reflected by their attitudes and behaviors. We can see the cheerful archer sidekick crushing hard on both the sparkly princess and the flamboyant swashbuckler; we don’t need to be told that means he’s probably bisexual, and we don’t need him to consummate his crushes by trying to bang one or the other of them. The show’s depiction of romantic interest as an emotional compulsion is perfectly appropriate for a kid’s show, given that children are feeling creatures before anything else, and can identify with a personal attraction to someone long before it occurs to them to try to get into their pants. And if you think about it, exclusively using emotion to portray gay romance instead of sex in mainstream media is pretty revolutionary, considering how obsessed straight people are about what others do with their genitals.
Labels and categories can also have a subtle “othering” effect, even in something that’s well-intentioned about education and positive representation. If you are not a member of the category being depicted, however approvingly, there’s still a sense of the “them” versus the “you, who are not them.” And if you are in the category, you may feel the inherent separation between “them, who is everybody other than you,” and “you, who are different from them.” By choosing to dispense with labeling, She-Ra eliminates all of this, erasing the concept that orientation makes people fundamentally different. We see that two of the princesses are in a committed relationship, and it’s meaningful that the show chooses not to use any of the words society would assign to that kind of love. It’s not “that kind of” love, anyway — it’s just love. This makes it possible for the viewer to identify with whichever character or characters they find most emotionally appealing, period.
Basically, She-Ra flips the script on the usual premise of mainstream storytelling, in which we take for granted that every character is straight unless the story explicitly tells us otherwise. On She-Ra, the exact opposite is true, and the effect is amazing. When people talk about “normalizing” gay people and their experiences, this is exactly what it should look like. If you have to label it, explain it, you are inherently putting one set of experiences in contrast with another, which conflicts with the intent to normalize, however well-meant. She-Ra just lumps everything together and deletes the boundaries between them. This is true normalization.
When you get down to it, when you really look at how the series is constructed, it’s clear that She-Ra is not merely showing us gay characters. Instead, it simply is gay — or, rather, queer — down to its bones, in a way I’ve never really seen before. Everything about it is filtered through the queer experience, but translated and transformed for maximum accessibility. Consider the standard coming-out story, where a character keeps the secret of their identity from their loved ones, until circumstances force a confrontation, for better or worse. One of She-Ra’s episodes does this story, to the letter, except that it’s about someone hiding his participation in the rebellion from his parents, who oppose everything about the war and are expecting their son to follow in their academic footsteps and take over the family library. How can you tell the show is deliberately transplanting coming-out tropes into a parallel plot line? Because the son’s parents are two married men.
Better yet is the relationship between the titular heroine and the show’s primary antagonist. At the beginning of the series, they’re best friends, fighting together in the ranks of the show’s evil invading army. After an awakening, the heroine realizes she’s on the wrong side, and defects. Her friend is deeply hurt, and becomes the main antagonist, eventually leading the evil army herself, not because she believes in their mission, but because she wants personal vengeance for her friend’s betrayal. If you take a deeper look, though, this can be read as frustrated, unrequited love, where one person has chosen to leave a metaphorical closet (joining the team of rainbow princesses, ahem), and the other is now angry and resentful at her freedom and self-actualization. If I can’t have you, she says, nobody can, and she does everything possible to tear down the friend she can’t admit she still loves.
Although this stuff is great, and is stunningly sophisticated for what is ostensibly a kid’s show, one aspect of it did briefly give me pause. For a while, it looked like the really overt queer relationships and themes were being explored primarily on the villains’ side, which can obviously lead to troubling thematic implications, however inadvertent. One of the most heartbreaking relationships on the show, for example, is between the main antagonist and her sidekick, a fallen princess. This princess has a mad crush on the antagonist, pouring love and affection into her, oblivious to the antagonist’s infatuation with the heroine, and in denial about the scorn and disregard the antagonist displays in return. This imbalance in representation isn’t helped when the show introduces its first true non-binary character, a shapeshifter who uses “they/them” pronouns, and is quickly aligned with the villains.
But I should have trusted Stevenson and her team to recognize and avoid this trap. The fallen princess begins to rediscover her true self, and is revealed to be on a journey that transcends her relationship with the antagonist. And even better, the non-binary shapeshifter gets to be more than a bad guy. They’re a scoundrel and a mischief-maker, entirely self-interested, and can’t really be trusted, but they’re also hilarious and creative in how they wreak havoc on both sides of the war. My daughters are obsessed with this character, and have had endless discussions about why the shapeshifter prefers “they” over other pronouns.
Indeed, the shapeshifter character provides a perfect illustration of how the show’s range of representation sneaks around the viewer’s cognitive biases and expands our perspective without our conscious realization. As my daughters began processing the pronoun issue, they asked me directly: why does the shapeshifter want to be called they? Considering quickly, looking for an explanation that was true and accurate but also fit with the show and would be understandable to them as children, I said, “Because they are neither a he nor a she. They can be anybody. They contain the potential to be anything they want to be. So ‘he’ and ‘she’ aren’t enough for them. They’re more than either one.”
My daughters nodded, taking this in, and continuing their discussion. But I paused, because I realized what I said, really hearing the words that had just come out of my mouth. I’m an extremely straight guy, and I try really hard to be an LGBT+ ally, but it wasn’t until this moment that a lot of free-floating pieces suddenly clicked into place for me. They contain the potential to be anything they want to be. That’s it exactly. Not just for this character — it’s the show’s ethos in a nutshell, and the viewpoint all of us should have for ourselves, and for other people. We all contain endless potential, beyond the limitations imposed on us. We can be, we are, who we want and need to be. It was the perfect unifying thought. And it was She-Ra that taught me how to put it all together.
I won’t claim the show is without flaws. While the characters are rich and complex, the worldbuilding is a little thin and perfunctory, lacking the depth and thought of The Last Airbender. When they take the time to focus on something specific, it’s interesting and well-developed, but the various incidentals feel like spare parts taken off the shelf as needed. The animation, too, is frequently pretty janky, cheap and shoddy and rushed, not up to the nuanced emotion in the writing and voice acting, and frequently making the hugely ambitious action sequences less satisfying than they could be. To be fair, while these issues do nag a bit, they’re minor complaints compared to everything the show does get right. They do, however, nag, and you should be prepared for that.
Nevertheless, they don’t detract significantly from the overall experience of the show. If you’re lucky enough to have kids, watch it with them, and you’ll truly understand what a triumph it is. It’s a model of representation, giving young queer kids a fully realized set of characters who validate their interior selves and struggles, while planting seeds of understanding and acceptance in every young viewer, queer or not, that will take root and flower as they mature.
That, for me, is the real optimism of She-Ra, and the real reason it’s such a perfect show for right now. If this is the media the kids of today are consuming and internalizing, if this is the moral foundation they will be carrying into their adulthood, then we can be hopeful that they will insist on making a better world than the crappy half-assed one we adults are dumping on them. In the crisis of today, when we fear what the next month will bring, She-Ra gives me — gives all of us — genuine hope for what life could be many tomorrows from now.
I’m convinced that Noelle Stevenson is a genius, and the creative team she assembled and leads has made She-Ra into a shining gift to the future. In the darkness of today, you owe it to yourself to accept it.