Netflix has been killing it with female-centric shows lately. I mentioned the sublime beauty of Hilda, Ed has talked at length of Next Gen’s teenage protagonist and her struggles, and the upcoming Carmen Sandiego looks to fill the niche of an awesome lady thief in action without the sexual connotations often associated with that character archetype. She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is the latest from Netflix’s growing library and it knocks it out of the park with well-defined characters and a solid plot, creating a rich experience with promises of more.
Adora has spent her life under the Horde army, marching her way up the chain of command as she is indoctrinated to do battle against the “Evil Princesses” that taint their planet, Etheria. But her days of promotion come to an end when she stumbles upon a mysterious sword. Lifting it, she is compelled to shout “For the Honor of Greyskull!” which transforms her into the powerful warrior princess, She-Ra. Adora quickly discovers the Horde army is not a benevolent military dedicated to order, but a ruthless powerhouse out to conquer the world and rule it with an iron fist. Adora joins up with Bright Moon’s princess, Glimmer and her best friend Bow in their rebellion. Together they must unite the other princesses to their cause and save Etheria.
She-Ra’s greatest strength is its characters. On the surface, they’re defined by stock personalities and matching visual cues — the princess with the flowers in her hair is the leader of the Flower Kingdom, the ice princess is named Frosta, etc. While this creates easy markers on Who is Who, it also provides instant chemistry among the cast. She-Ra gleefully takes advantage of their differences and lets them bounce off each other. Their conversations and reactions feel natural, creating funny and charming scenarios.
What I found interesting about She-Ra is how many shades of gray are in what is otherwise a binary Good vs. Evil narrative. There’s no doubt that we’re suppose to root for the princesses and the rebellion over the Evil, World Conquering Horde. Both the Horde’s leader Hordak and his second-in-command Shadow Weaver are shady, manipulative jerks, reinforcing their hideous nature and offering little to redeem them. Yet She-ra often emphasizes that the people working for the Horde aren’t so cookie cutter, with some serving the Horde strictly as a product of their upbringing.
Throughout the season, select Horde members chide Adora for walking out on them. Not only was she a comrade-in-arms, they grew up together. These were former friends of Adora, so her defection is both baffling and an act of betrayal. Moments like these give the group humanizing vulnerabilities since one assumes that they, too, were indoctrinated with false messages, just as Adora was. On the other end of the spectrum is Scorpina, a muscular woman with obvious scorpion features who acknowledges fairly early that she knows exactly what the Horde is doing. Everything about her screams “evil character design,” and less-competent hands would play her exactly along that one dimension. However she’s never depicted as malicious; Scorpina is affable and kindhearted, friendly to everyone – including her enemies – and valuing her friends above all. She-Ra quickly proves characters do not have to be cartoonishly villainous just because they’re antagonists.
There’s also Entrapta from the rebellion’s end. She stuck out to me because she’s a rare neutral figure who prominently graces an all-ages show. In another defiance of standard Good vs. Evil stories, Entrapta is stuck somewhere in the middle. She first joins the Princess Rebellion, but her mind is truly only interested technology from the First Ones, the original settlers of Etheria, and the machines she builds and the experiments she performs on that tech. Often, her actions are to the detriment and danger to both herself and everyone around her. It’s not that Entrapta is unaware of the danger, but believes that the risks are worth the potential rewards because her projects take first priority. Entrapta does feel betrayed when she thinks the other princesses left her behind halfway through the season and there are hints she wants to find like-minded souls like her, but even after joining the Horde, her behavior remains the same: experiments first and damn the consequences. Entrapta is an example of someone not defined along the Good vs. Evil continuum, but by what works to her interests. I like the idea of a character shifting gears without negatively portraying her as evil for being selfishly ambitious. It doesn’t mean she shouldn’t get away scot-free, and time will tell if she’ll learn the consequences of her actions, but she quickly became one of the most fascinating characters in the entire show.
However, the rising star of She-Ra is Catra: the central antagonist and former best friend of Adora. Her story is a complicated web of tapestry, molded and defined by the people she grew up with. Both of them were raised together by Shadow Weaver, a powerful mage and master manipulator. Right from the get-go, Adora was the favored child; Shadow Weaver specifically ensured she’d rise to the top of the Horde army for purposes yet to be explained, often leaving Catra in the dust. As a result, Catra will misbehave at best and lash out at her friend at worst. Even so, Adora has been nothing but kind and supportive of Catra throughout their young lives together, which makes Adora’s sudden departure a deep betrayal of their friendship, especially after a firm promise to stick together during their childhood. Catra is left without her shield for the first time, and while her early plans involved bringing Adora back to the Horde, Catra succumbs to her resentment by the end of the season. She has tremendous baggage of an inferiority complex finally coming to the forefront from endless frustration on her dependence on Adora. She’s always been jealous of Adora for being the prodigal daughter while she was abused for simply existing, and equally angry her cherished friend abandoned her unceremoniously to join the other side - with new friends to boot. This motivates Catra to move up in the ranks now that she is no longer under Adora’s shadow, and gives very specific context for why she refuses Adora’s constant offers to join the rebellion. Catra is a tangled Gordian Knot of character development waiting to happen. Her backstory provides reasoning and sympathy for her behavior without justifying it. Catra’s story is a highlight of the show, arguably the biggest to convince viewers of the qualities of She-Ra.
She-Ra doesn’t mince on story either. It has an easy-to-follow plot that still takes the time to lay out the groundwork for future seasons. It’s stunningly inspiring with its character designs, too. She-Ra has an impressive array of women of different ethnic backgrounds, personalities, and body shapes without ever shaming any of them for looking or acting the way they do. Major kudos to Adora’s best friends and central protagonists Glimmer, who is plus-sized without any unnecessary commentary directed towards her appearance; and Bow, a male character decked out in a heart-decorated armor that bares his midriff who constantly expresses his feelings honestly without ever compromising his masculinity.
Cartoons have only gotten better over the years because we’ve reached a point where many all-age media can focus on characters, narratives, and themes that aren’t always rooted in simple Good vs. Evil. The fact that we can have stories about the pressures of responsibilities during wartime or people who were victims of abuse prove the sophistication of mature storytelling does not have to be relegated to adult media alone. I’m glad nuanced storytelling has become commonplace in all-age media. She-Ra and the Princesses of Power uses ever piece of storytelling efficiently: the simple narrative and recognizable character traits allows room for growth and complexities and is never duller for it. It’s a show that more than lives up to its potential.
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power Season 1 is currently available for streaming on Netflix. Season 2 is currently scheduled for release on April 26, 2019.