I like the Netflix She-Ra reboot. Considering that I’m one of the people who grew up with the original as a kid– in fact, some of my earliest memories are of watching the Filmation cartoon– the fact that it won me over is somewhat impressive. After all, I’ve had about 30 years to remake She-Ra in the back of my mind, thinking about what I would change, and how can someone else’s vision compete with my long-simmering, highly personalized one? I tried to be neutral, but to be honest, I think I went into the show ready to hate it…but I didn’t.
It’s not perfect, but it picked up on the main weakness of the original show and improved upon it, and for that I have to give them a slow clap. Plus, the main things I didn’t like about it are things that I never liked about the show in its original incarnation either, if I’m being honest. Perhaps more importantly, this series brings up several interesting topics– the pitfalls inherent in updating character designs, the arguable responsibility tied to relaunching a property that has a passionate existing fanbase, and so on, that I wanted to discuss a little bit. It’s not that these topics haven’t been discussed, but in relation to this show, the conversations have been VERY polarized.
I’d like to say that I want to bring a little more nuance to these discussions, but that sounds like an incredibly pretentious-ass thing to say. However, the way discussion of this show online has been, I could probably run around hitting people with a literal sledgehammer and still be more nuanced than the current dialogue. So I’m going to go forward with my goal of trying to look at the show with a more discerning eye, my delusional sense of self-importance be damned.
First, I want to talk about the main things the show did right. Then I’ll get into the character designs and the other elements that have made the show more than a little controversial.
The Good: Honing in on Adora
A few years ago, I bought the DVDs of She-Ra: Princess of Power and watched them all. What struck me as an adult viewer was how much of a missed opportunity the show had in Adora’s character. Here you have this woman who was raised very nearly from birth to be a soldier for a fascist government, about two clicks away from being a Nazi SS officer. Then she realizes that everything she has ever been told or believed in her whole life is a sham, and her compliance has been at least partially caused by mind control. She leaves her “family” in the Horde, and starts a completely new life (in hiding) among the people who used to hate her as an oppressor. She also discovers that she has a real family, but they live on another planet and if she chooses to stay with them, she’s abandoning the world she grew up in to a hellish, dystopian future. So she can’t see her real family until Etheria is “free,” which may never happen, and she knows it. Pretty darn rough hand to draw, all told.
This, by the way, is why I always thought that She-Ra had a much more interesting premise than He-Man, who never had any such conflicts in his life. When Filmation launched She-Ra, they could have just done a simple gender-flip of the character, but they didn’t; they added a whole lot of morally fraught stuff that just begged to be explored. The fact that they barely explored any of it is disappointing, but at least some of that can probably be blamed on the perceived limitations of animation at the time. Filmation may have had good ideas for Adora’s character, but played it safe for fear of making the show too complicated for its intended audience of five-year-old girls.
In the original show, Adora adapts to these massive changes in her life so inhumanly well that it’s a non-issue. After the introductory Secret of the Sword miniseries, the only relevance Adora’s background usually has is that she knows how to get around the Fright Zone; one episode deals with her meeting up with an old friend from the Horde. But for the most part, once she gains the ability to become She-Ra, she becomes just like any other cheerful, freedom-loving member of the Rebellion– well, other than the turning into a magic-sword-lady part.
The Netflix reboot wisely focused on Adora’s character and the kind of culture shock someone in this kind of extreme situation would go through, and how others would respond to her. They show it in broad ways (Glimmer’s initial distrust of Adora, to the point of outright paranoia; Adora’s general lack of understanding of social norms), but they bring it home in surprisingly subtle ways as well. I especially liked the detail that Adora felt weird sleeping on a feather bed, because she’s slept in the barracks for her whole life. It also followed logically that sleeping alone creeped her out, since she’s always been surrounded by the sounds of the other soldier trainees at night. Cynically, putting Adora in bed with Glimmer for one night was a little nudge to the fans who want to see lesbian pairings, but on a character level, it made perfect sense.
One interesting change is that while the original Adora was magically mind-controlled by Shadow Weaver to obey the Horde, this new Adora was only controlled by Weaver through mundane emotional manipulation. I think that reflects a difference in attitudes about free will and compliance over the last 30 year or so. For the original creators, a non-mind controlled Adora might have seemed potentially responsible for what she did as a member of the Horde, and thus inherently unheroic. From a more modern perspective, we know that being controlled by a nefarious authority figure can be pretty darn powerful, so the new Adora didn’t need to be outright mind-controlled to qualify as a victim of Shadow Weaver’s manipulation. That’s neither here nor there I guess, but noteworthy.
So to boil it down to a simple bullet point, the new show’s decision to make Adora a more psychologically realistic, and hence sympathetic, character, was a great decision, and one that the writers deserve a lot of credit for. There were attempts to add depth to other characters, with varying degrees of success, but the new Adora absolutely delivers where original-recipe Adora lacked. That’s why I ultimately have to put this show in the “win” column, despite all the other criticisms I’m about to go into.
What I’m more ambivalent about is the way the show seems to be focusing on the relationships between the female characters to the exclusion of the few male characters who were actually important in the original show. In SheRa:POP, it was Hordak who stole Adora as a baby; in the reboot, its Shadow Weaver. Personally, I always found the twisted father/daughter relationship between Hordak and Adora/She-Ra to be potentially very interesting, but that dynamic is effectively non-existent in the new show, with Shadow Weaver having completely taken over the surrogate parent role. I’m afraid that the show is going to continue to ignore Hordak for having the audacity of being a male villain in a female-focused show, but honestly, it looks like they may just be saving his role for later seasons, so I’m withholding judgement on that until I see more.
I do like the fact that this version of Hordak appears to be chillingly competent. The buffoonish nature of Hordak in the original series seemed like it was due to Filmation trying copy their success with Skeletor, but Hordak was just never likable the way Skeletor was; he works better as a flat-out villain than comic relief, and I’m glad he’s being used that way.
Another change that I’m still left scratching my head about is the new Catra. Original Catra was a pretty simplistic, at times outright stupid character. She was jealous of Adora because of the time when Adora was “Hordak’s favorite,” but that seemed to be less due to any deep feelings concerning Adora, and more because she wanted everything to be about her. She was just vain and dumb, and I see why they needed to change her to make her anything more than a one-dimensional villain.
The new Catra is much more interesting and sympathetic than the original (which, to be fair, wasn’t that hard to accomplish), but I find it odd that Adora’s most important relationship in the show is now with her, when that relationship previously didn’t really exist. I do think they needed to expand on Adora’s “family” within the Horde, but I’m not sure if I really wanted the primary character in that family to be Catra. Oh well.
The Questionable: The Character Designs (AKA Who Are These People?)
There are a lot of things to talk about regarding character designs, but for the sake of having a clear place to start, I’m going to focus on one just one character: Frosta. In SheRa: POP, Frosta was something of a femme fatale who famously flirted with He-Man. If you want to see a real classic of the “How did they EVER get away with this on children’s television?” sub-genre, check out the episode Sweet Bee’s Home from the original series.
This lady is on the prowl! Lock up all your young men…perhaps your old men too, she’s not that selective!
In the new series, Frosta is…12. Technically 11-and-three-quarters. Barring the fact that she too has power over ice and snow, she has so little in common with the original Frosta that she may as well be a completely different character.
Here’s the new Frosta: lock up your candy and uh, fidget spinners? What are kids even into these days?
I’m not the kind of die-hard fan who’s going to be kept up at night by this, but still, I find it a little worrisome. What’s the point of rebooting an existing franchise, if you’re going to redesign the characters to the point that they aren’t the same character anymore and the names are just artifacts? Like most of the characters in the original series, Frosta didn’t have a ton of personality, but the personality she did have was all about being a pretty shameless flirt. By making the new Frosta not only completely different looks and personality-wise, but also prepubescent, they took away perhaps the one thing she had going for her as a character, which was her flirty nature.
The thing is, it’s not even like I dislike the new Frosta. The fact that she has some of the most powerful magic in Etheria, but she has to fight for respect due to her young age, is pretty interesting. She’s a good character; she just couldn’t possibly have less to do with the original Frosta if they’d tried. And that can come off as more of a rejection of the original show than a reinterpretation of it.
Why does it matter? Well, when I said that some of my earliest memories were of She-Ra, I didn’t mean just my earliest memories of television, or my earliest memories of cartoons; I meant my earliest memories period. I think that’s true for a lot of people my age. When something has that kind of formative status in your life, you want to see it treated with respect, even if it was silly in many ways. The people who complain “This new cartoon is RUINING MY CHILDHOOD!” are obviously exaggerating (and not helping their cause in the slightest), but hey, childhood memories are precious to us. If you want to ignore the source material and create your own characters, by all means, create a new show; don’t take something that has a special place in many people’s hearts, then make arbitrary changes that go beyond modernization to the point of ignoring the original story and characters.
No, Netflix’s She-Ra is not ruining my childhood; it’s not ruining anyone’s childhood. And the changes to Frosta, or Glimmer, or Bow, don’t make it a bad show. But I think there is a certain amount of responsibility inherent in relaunching something that people associate with their childhoods, and I’m not sure that the creative team behind this reboot was fully cognizant of that. I’m all for inclusion, but if you want to include everyone, “people who loved the original show” are part of everyone; if you ignore that, you aren’t being very inclusive, are you?
On another topic, the attempt to give the characters different body types may have had some results that the creators didn’t necessarily intend. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with varying the body types; after all, the only reason why all the characters on the show had the same bodies originally was because it was cheaper to animate that way. But considering the fact that She Ra herself is still a tall, slender white woman with flowing blond hair, it kind of comes off as a half-hearted gesture. Like “yes, it’s okay for all the less important, darker-skinned women to have more realistic bodies, as long as the main character is still a blond supermodel.” She-Ra’s apparent lack of breasts has sparked some debate, but to my mind, that just makes the supermodel comparison more apt.
In the ’80s, She-Ra and her friends fit the ’80s ideal of a supermodel: feminine face with obvious makeup, hourglass figure. Now She-Ra fits the more modern ideal of a supermodel: androgynous, flat chested, but still long-limbed and blond. And there wouldn’t be anything wrong with that, if I didn’t get the impression that one of the main goals of this show was that they wanted to move beyond the whole supermodel ideal. What’s more hurtful: a world depicted with minimal diversity, where everyone has identical bodies? Or a world where people can have different bodies, as long as the one really important person is still a tall blond? This could just be me, but I find the second paradigm more worrisome. At least in the first case, it was clear they weren’t trying to portray reality at all; in the second, they go halfway there, but stop in a really uncomfortable place.
For the record, IDW’s Jem and the Holograms comic books went a similar route: diverse body types everywhere, except for Jem, who looked like a supermodel. The comic was self-aware about this though, and did some interesting things with it, but that’s another post.
The Disappointing: The Animation
She-Ra: POP was made in the ’80s on a shoe-string budget. The series was notorious for reusing stock animation, and generally being as cheap as humanly possible. What made it even more limited was the fact that Filmation was clearly reusing animation they’d already developed for He-Man, with only minor changes, so the animation was tired before She-Ra even started.
Compared to that, the Netflix/Dreamworks series is better, certainly. The animation is much more fluid, and there’s a lot more variation in camera angles, all that good stuff. So it’s an improvement, but I wonder: is it enough of an improvement for a show that’s been dormant for this long?
Really, it’s 30-plus years later. The Animation Renaissance happened in the years She-Ra was off the air. The technology has improved by leaps and bounds; there are tools available today that the artists at Filmation couldn’t even have imagined. The animation in the new She-Ra shouldn’t just be better than the original show, it should be leaps and bounds better; night-and-day better. The fact that it’s only middling better is just sad.
Yes, the animation succeeds in the sense that it’s adequate to tell the story, but many designs lack detail; character’s heights are inconsistent (especially She-Ra herself), and the whole thing just lacks any sort of wow factor. The sequence where Adora transforms into She-Ra in the original show may have been reused 50 million times, but it was still pretty stunning when you first saw it. By now, transformation sequences are a dime a dozen, and She-Ra’s is nothing special.
One of the reasons people loved the original was because it was so beautiful. It was beautiful in a very ’80s, prefab way, but beautiful nonetheless. I’m pretty sure that’s why I latched onto it as a child, instead of a dozen other cartoons I could have become obsessed with. The new show isn’t beautiful, and the lack of beauty isn’t because they dared to give the characters more diverse body types; it’s not beautiful because beauty doesn’t appear to have ever been an important goal for the project. I don’t understand why you would want to reboot She-Ra without trying to make it beautiful, but it feels like that’s what happened.
There’s probably some larger point here about how, since ideas of beauty were once more limited, instead of acknowledging those limitations, people are now pointing the finger at beauty ITSELF as the problem– but to be honest, I don’t know if that’s really fair. I don’t know if what’s going on is really that insidious, or if I’m just really unimpressed with the animation, and I’m making too big a deal out of it. Putting huge, psychological critiques aside, let’s just agree that the animation could be a lot better looking than it is, okay?
Before I let go of this gargantuan post, here are a few more observations about the show that didn’t really fit anywhere else:
–Bow is another character who has very little to do with his original incarnation, but New Bow is so likable that it’s tempting to forgive it. Even so, if the writers thought a major character like Bow was so boring that he should be scrapped, how much did they like the original show in the first place?
–The dialogue is cringe-worthy at times, which was true of the original; now it’s cringe-worthy in a different way. It used to sound stilted and unnatural, now they were obviously trying so hard to sound natural with the banter that it sometimes backfires and sounds really fake. Sometimes the dialogue is great though; it really comes down to which particular episode you happen to be watching. Every mention of the “Best Friends Squad” should have been stricken from the script though.
–The lack of Kowl bugs me. I know they had about a zillion characters to introduce, and maybe Kowl was one too many, but his sarcastic comments are missed; it’s not the same coming from Glimmer.
–Speaking of Glimmer, I couldn’t decide if Karen Fukuhara was overacting, or if New Glimmer is just the kind of annoying person who would over-emphasize certain words all the time just to make a point; it’s probably the latter. The original Glimmer was pretty much an airhead, so I wish they would have done with her something more like what they did with Perfuma; made her a bit goofy, but with a will of steel. New Glimmer is probably the least likable character in the new show (and I’m including Shadow Weaver here).
–I do not care for this incarnation of Swift Wind, but I admit it’s for pretty silly reasons. I expect my winged unicorns to sound like old Jewish Grandpas, thank you very much: RIP Lou Scheimer. More seriously, the fact that Swift Wind sounded so much more mature than everyone else was what helped him stand out; now he’s like everybody else, except a horse.
–Lauren Ash of Superstore fame plays basically the She-Ra version of her Superstore character with Scorpia, and it’s pretty great. This show needs about 150% more Scorpia. Maybe I’m being hypocritical here, since New Scorpia is nothing like her original incarnation, but it’s different when you reinvent characters who were barely even in it in the first place to make them something special, as opposed to a main character.
–The writers had to walk a pretty difficult tightrope in regards to He-Man lore; they had to put enough references to He-Man in there that it will feel natural for He-Man to show up at some point (assuming the rights for MOTU ever emerge from legal hell and Netflix gets to make the He-Man reboot they surely want to make), but not SO many that the lore is dependent on him, because he may never be available. I think they did a good job of creating something that can stand as its own mythology, but could be expanded if necessary.
–The show is doing something interesting with princesses. When Adora becomes She-Ra, everyone (including her) thinks that she has now become a princess, because apparently being a princess in this world means “girl with powers” and has nothing to do with lineage; at no point does anyone speculate that Adora’s parents must have been royalty for her to be a princess. It’s kind of like they’re setting aside the actual definition of “princess” in favor of the fantasy connotations the word has. I’m interested to see where they go with this.
…okay, that’s it, I’ve written enough about She-Ra. Probably. For now. I think.