Inside the Groundbreaking Queer Reboot of ‘She-Ra’
We’re all shaped by the myths we grow up with, whether it’s the stories we learn from holy books or Saturday morning cartoons. Kids who see themselves as the hero learn to center themselves in their own life stories. Kids who see their experiences relegated to the sidelines, or not represented at all, come away with a very different lesson — one that can take years to unlearn.
Which is exactly what makes a show like She-Ra and the Princesses of Power so vital. Since its premiere in 2018, Noelle Stevenson’s reboot of the cult Eighties cartoon has joined a revolution in the world of children’s animation, combining classic genre storytelling with diverse representation and a progressive worldview (see also: Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra, Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time and Steven Universe). In its fifth and final season, which dropped on Netflix last month, She-Ra rounded out its 52-episode run by centering a queer romance — specifically, between its hero, Adora, and her best frenemy Catra — and positing that such a love can, quite literally, save the world.
“I knew from the start that it wasn’t going to be easy,” says Stevenson, speaking via phone from Los Angeles. “Because this is She-Ra. To have the culmination of her arc be this lesbian love plot is a big deal! And I understood that. But I also felt that it was really important.”
The original She-Ra: Princess of Power was a 1985 Filmation spin-off of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, which itself was based on a line of Mattel action figures. Set on the planet of Etheria, She-Ra follows a band of magical princesses in their rebellion against the Evil Horde, a totalitarian sci-fi regime bent on global domination. Adora is an ex-Horde soldier who joins the rebellion after she gains the ability to transform into She-Ra, a superpowered Chosen One with glowing blue eyes, a mystical sword, and a very cool outfit.
In 2015, when Stevenson, then 23, found out that DreamWorks Animation was looking for someone to pitch a new take on She-Ra, she jumped at the chance. She was already an Eisner Award-winning cartoonist and writer who had made a name for herself with works like her web comic-turned-graphic novel Nimona and the Boom! Studios series Lumberjanes.
“The world [of She-Ra] is so incredibly vibrant, and has so many powerful female characters. It’s this world that has all my interests rolled into one: It’s got the flying ponies and superpowers and all of these things that, immediately, I was like, ‘I want to do this. I want to be the one to do this,’” she says.
While Stevenson’s reimagination of the world of Etheria pays tribute to its predecessor, it includes some key differences. The reboot transforms the musclebound, scantily-clad grownups of the original series into awkward teens in much more practical (but still very sparkly) clothing. In addition to embracing a diversity of races, genders, and body types, the She-Ra reboot fleshes out the characters and their backstories, giving them fully-fledged arcs and complicating the good/evil binary of the original. The princesses of the rebellion aren’t simply heroic, and the soldiers of the Horde aren’t simply villains; everyone’s just a human being (or scorpion person or alien clone or flying horse, as the case may be) trying to make their way in a world that doesn’t offer easy solutions. It’s also, incidentally, really funny.
For Stevenson, it was crucial that the characters felt three-dimensional, and that it was their choices that guided the direction of the storytelling. “The characters all began with a deep personal flaw, and the process of making the show was kind of giving them the room to process those flaws. But we wanted it to feel organic. We wanted the characters to feel like real people that we knew,” she explains.
From the start, She-Ra’s most compelling tension was always between Adora (Aimee Carrero) and Catra (AJ Michalka), Adora’s childhood best friend who becomes her bitterest rival after Adora leaves the Horde to join the rebellion. In the show’s first four seasons, the two continually fight and reconcile and break apart again, their obsession with each other marking them as something more than frenemies.
“It’s a dynamic that I find really interesting: the attraction and the tension between the villain and the hero, especially when they know each other better than anyone. They love each other, but there’s something between them that cannot be overcome,” Stevenson says.
Stevenson always knew that she wanted the relationship between Catra and Adora to be a romantic one; but she had to walk a fine line, because she didn’t know if the studio would give her the go-ahead to put an explicitly lesbian love story front and center. At first, as in Steven Universe, Rebecca Sugar’s radically progressive series that aired its final episodes earlier this year, she steeped the world of the She-Ra reboot in queerness. The show features multiple side characters in same-sex relationships, characters who flout traditional gender roles, and even a nonbinary character (Double Trouble, voiced by transgender writer and activist Jacob Tobia).
Still, Stevenson, herself a gay woman, wanted young viewers to be able to see a queer relationship that wasn’t just incidental, but central to the plot of the entire series. “I’ve loved these stories my entire life, you know? I was a huge Star Wars and Lord of the Rings fan as a kid. But there weren’t a lot of characters that I felt personally represented by,” she says. “We love what makes these stories classic, but we’ve seen them all culminate in the same kind of romance so many times: The hero gets the girl, he gets the kiss, and then he saves the world. And it’s not just [swapping] the man and the woman for two women. You have to actually approach it from a standpoint of: How do you make these stories, at their roots, queer?
“So that’s what I was trying to do — for little queer kids to see that this is normal, that these are stories that can happen and that exist, and that can center them and make them feel seen and understood.”
Whether or not Adora and Catra’s romance would become canonical was in the hands of the studio, and it was a risk Stevenson couldn’t be sure it would be willing to take. So the show played a long game — hinting at a romantic dynamic between the two without making it explicit, for fear of disappointing fans in the end if they weren’t able to deliver. Fortunately, a groundswell of viewer support for a potential relationship between the characters — a phenomenon known in the fan community as “shipping” — allowed Stevenson to make a case to the studio for supporting the story she wanted to tell with She-Ra.
“Just as I had hoped, people started picking up on this tension and getting really passionate about it,” she says. “It was immediately one of the strongest fandom ships right out of the gate. And that was when I finally showed my hand and was like, ‘Look. We’ve got a bunch of people who, just off Season One, are really, really excited about the gay representation in this show. I have been planning for this. And here’s how it needs to end, and not just because I want a moment that everyone’s gonna talk about. It’s the logical conclusion of both their character arcs. They need each other.’”
Finally, after years of hedging their bets, Stevenson and her collaborators got the go-ahead from DreamWorks. “I really wanted it to be so central to the plot that if at any point they were like, ‘Oh, we changed our minds, we want to take it out again,’ they wouldn’t be able to, because it would be so baked in,” she explains. “The temperature is not always right, and depending on what’s happening in the world, not everyone wants to be the studio that sticks their neck out and makes a statement like this. You will get a flat ‘no’ sometimes. But if you bide your time, or you come at it from another angle, that can change. You just have to keep pushing.”
Feedback for the conclusion of She-Ra has been overwhelmingly positive both from critics and fans. Viewer support has been pouring out in the form of social media posts, YouTube reaction videos, and fan art and fan fiction. Stevenson, who first made a name for herself online with Lord of the Rings and Avengers fan art, has been blown away by the support from She-Ra lovers. “That’s how you know that you’re successful at what you set out to do — if people are getting inspired by the stories that you’re telling. I think that that’s the beauty of fan work, is that it’s an evolution of the genre. We take that inspiration and create something new all the time.”
Unfettered by restrictions, the final season of She-Ra is a tightly plotted, character-driven masterwork, featuring a slow-burn redemption arc, a harrowing villain, and a timely message about the power of love and unity against the forces of repression and tyranny. It’s a show about becoming kinder and more open in the face of unrelenting darkness, about banding together to prepare for the worst, but always hoping for the best in spite of overwhelming odds.
Stevenson says that she and her team began work on She-Ra in the aftermath of the 2016 election. “The veil was ripped off, and we had to reckon with a world that we hadn’t expected. And that theme of relying on each other and being stronger together became so much more relevant,” she recalls. “I remember writing one script after a particularly bad news day where it just felt like nothing was ever going to be OK again. It’s an episode where Adora realizes that there are supposed to be stars in the sky, and there aren’t any more stars. And as Aimee [Carrero] was recording the lines, she was crying, and we were crying, because we were all experiencing this together — the idea that things were changing in maybe irreparable ways.”
The refrain of She-Ra’s catchy-as-hell power-pop theme song is “We must be strong, and we must be brave.” According to Stevenson, that’s easier said than done; but the whole point of the series is that you have to try anyway. It’s a message that rings especially true at this moment in our world when it seems like everything is spinning out of control, and it’s all too easy to feel helpless.
“It always comes back to this — when you realize that there’s a great evil or a great darkness that won’t just go away from one fight,” Stevenson says. “It boils up, and it can be pushed back down, but it’s something that we’ll probably have to be fighting for the rest of our lives. That’s really hard to do, and it makes you really tired sometimes, and it can be really scary. But when you are surrounded by the people that you love, and when you have that love for the people around you, then that strength is possible.”