Princesses of Power

There are two conversations pop culture insists on re-litigating. The first is whether or not it’s profoundly skewed towards specific body types, skin tones, sexualities and genders (it is). The second is the belief that everything is a reboot and originality is bleeding out in an alley somewhere. (It isn’t). She-Ra and the Princesses of Power doesn’t just answer those questions, it annihilates them with a rainbow-hued energy beam of togetherness.

Rebooted by a writers’ room led by Noelle Stevenson (Run, now and go read Lumberjanes), the show does three clever things straight out of the gate. The first is adopt a serialized model. The second is strike a constant balance between technology, magic and the struggle between the two. The third is to make it clear this is a show for everyone.

Let’s talk about that first. Look at that piece of art. Count the body types. Count the skin tones. This is a series which is defined by the diverse physicality of it’s characters and in turn never quite lets that physicality limit them. Glimmer (Left of shot, holding an energy ball) is one of several characters who are people of size. Spinnerella (visible in the background left) is another. Netossa, the lady she’s holding? Her girlfriend. Entrapta (Right of shot, purple hair, goggles) is almost certainly somewhere on the autism spectrum,. These are individual elements of nuanced characters. No one carries the ‘I AM FAT’ sign. No one is wearing a ‘FOR I AM GAY’ t-shirt. No one is holding the ‘I AM AUTISTIC’ idiot ball. Everyone gets multiple things to do and a broad spectrum of emotions. Glimmer’s desire to prove herself is tempered by an act of selflessness in the first two episodes that defines the show. Spinnerella and Netossa show up as a couple but save the day working wherever they’re individually needed.  Entrapta’s cheerfully wobbly moral compass has far more to do with her Oppenheimer-like joy of discovery than her ethical choices. Every episode, as new cast members are introduced we get another splinter of the world, another body shape, another perspective. This is a world being torn apart by war but not controlled by it. These are people who make their mark on that world through their physicality but, again, aren’t controlled by it. No wasp waists, no generic big hair. Instead a riotous collection of individuals united under, and strengthening through their individuality, a single cause.

Can you tell I really liked this by the way? Am I being too obtuse? No. Good. I REALLY liked this.

Especially as the central premise of the show sits in some fascinating hinterlands. The Evil Horde (‘Who calls us that?’ ‘EVERYBODY!‘) are technology fetishists who value innovation and industry over individuality. Bright Moon and the other kingdoms value individuality at the risk of unity and strength. She-Ra’s apparently magical powers have a foundation in technology that Thor would nod approvingly at. The Horde’s clear threat is rendered nuanced, straight out of the gate, by the individual child soldiers who make up its front line forces. This is a brightly colored world but it sure as hell isn’t a simplistic one.

And it’s that complexity that the serial format really brings to the fore. Not only does every character get some moments to shine (I especially loved Mermista’s perpetually over it NorCal mermaid) but the show uses the format to really dig in on it’s premise and leads. Adora, the soldier who becomes She-Ra is instantly likable thanks to both the nuanced writing and Aimee Correro’s superlative voice work. She’s troubled, unworldly, desperate to make up for what she didn’t know she was doing wrong and the show’s main arc is Adora making peace with her new found alter ego as the war intensifies.

But it’s the relationship between Adora and Catra where the show really hits another level. Voiced by AJ Michalka, Catra is the Han Solo to Adora’s Luke, with none of the luck of either. The complex nature of their relationship is the show’s main dramatic engine and it comes to a head in episode 11. ‘Promise’ directed by Jen Bennett and written by Stevenson gives us two things. The first is a look at the shared horror of Adora and Catra’s childhoods and the place their profound bond was forged. The second, in the closing moments,is one of the most well-handled, and deeply disturbing, character turns I’ve seen this year. You may not always like Catra (Scorpia on the other hand is adorable constantly) but you won’t be able to look away from her either. Which may be the safest option…

This is how you reboot a piece of drama. This is how you bake diversity, of every stripe, into a piece of drama. This is how you tell a great story, with strength, compassion, humor and enthusiasm. This is one of 2018’s finest pop cultural hours and a crown jewel in the ridiculously good year of animation Netflix has enjoyed. This, is Greyskull well and truly honored and I can’t wait for season 2.

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power season 1 is on Netflix right now.

This piece originally appeared as part of my weekly newsletter, The Full Lid. If you liked it, and want a weekly down of pop culture enthusiasm, occasional ketchup recipes and me enjoying things, then check out the archive and sign up here.