The Netflix Originals by DreamWorks Animation Studios have been a mixed bag. On one hand, we have “Kipo and the Wonderbeasts,” a fantastic show with probably the most unique take on post-apocalypse I have ever seen. On the other hand, we have “Voltron: Legendary Defender,” whose writing is uneven and repetitive.
“She-Ra and the Princesses of Power” is a 2018 DreamWorks Animation Studios reboot of the eighties cartoon. The original, like many of the cartoons of the 1980s, was mostly a show designed to sell toys, profiting from the success of He-Man, a character in the “Masters of the Universe” franchise.
The reboot shares nothing but a name and a few characters with the original. The team behind “She-Ra” gave it a complete overhaul with new character designs, an entirely different plot, revamped animation style, and a character-orientated narrative focus. The “She-Ra” team cuts He-Man out of the story, rewrites the plot, and makes the show something it never could have been in the 1980s, making it the gem of Netflix Originals that it is today.
“She-Ra” focuses on Adora, a young adult who was raised on the planet of Etheria by The Horde, one of two occupying forces of Etheria. Adora was raised alongside four other characters but is particularly close with Catra, a major antagonist for much of the show. In the first few episodes, Adora goes on a joyride through an enchanted wood and ends up with a sword that can transform her into a magical being of unrivaled strength.
When she meets the Rebellion, the other occupiers of the planet, and shows them her new form, they explain that The Horde is destroying the planet and only Adora can save it. Adora decided to abandon the only home she’s ever known in favor of doing the right thing, but things are complicated when The Horde, led by Catra, attacks her and her new friends. Adora uses her magic sword to become She-Ra and destroys the forces with her powerful new form, cementing her place with the Rebellion and completely rejecting the Horde. Catra feels abandoned when she learns that her only true friend has left her, and Adora feels Catra made the wrong decision by not leaving The Horde as well. The two spiral from friends into enemies fairly quickly.
This show has five seasons but the plot itself isn’t what makes this show so great. It’s the characters. There has recently been a shift in television towards character-driven storytelling, helping invest viewers in the show by giving them people to care about and fear for while giving the story an open-world feel where anything can happen. She-Ra does this masterfully by having a very simple plot: save Etheria from The Horde, and by putting an equal focus on Catra and the other “bad guys” and Adora and the “good guys”. Few characters are truly unsympathetic and none of them are unlikeable. The more you watch the show, the more the lines blur between the usually-clear-cut good and evil and you find yourself just wanting everyone to get along so that no one gets hurt.
Season five is the best season of this show. It’s less angsty than the previous season while not being as lighthearted as season one through three and somehow manages to hit a perfect balance of the two emotions. Horde Prime, the recently introduced villain is excellent, but he takes a backseat to the moment “She-Ra” fans have been waiting for: Catra’s redemption arc. Catra is a great character. Her complexities and self-destructive nature make her an interesting character is most evident during her redemption arc.
Redemption arcs are very common in cartoons and Catra’s arc is one of the best in recent years. She redeems herself for selfish reasons, not because she sees the light or wants to be better, but because she realizes the way her life is going isn’t making her happy and she needs Adora back. This is more realistic than wanting to be a better person. Sorry optimists. Another part of what makes this a great arc is that, after the rescue, Catra does not immediately start acting altruistic. Even on the good-guy team, Catra is morally ambiguous, she never wanted to be a better person or change her life. She just wanted to be with Adora.
When it becomes clear that Adora expects her to be a better person, that’s what she does. Catra’s drive to be better and make amends with the long list of people she’s hurt is entirely motivated by her desire to rekindle things with Adora, at least at first, which is what makes her redemption arc realistic and well-written. It’s what a real person would do.
Catra and Adora’s relationship is handled really well in the show. The entire show is painted with romantic tension between these two and it really culminates in the final season in a way that makes their getting together feel really earned as opposed to thrown in at the end.
This show’s team is mostly LGBTQ+ and it really shows. Catra and Adora isn’t a nod to the queer audience, but an intentional choice that was built up for five seasons. It’s a masterpiece of a relationship and easily a fan favorite “ship”, but it is far from the only one. The show offers a very full cast of characters for viewers to fall in love with, even outside of the main ones. All these characters are good on their own, but they eventually form relationships with one another and those are all great too.
What is great about this show is that, yes, it is known for its queerness, but it has the perfect balance of “look at us we’re gay” and actual good television. Oftentimes a show can gain attention simply for having representation.
The LGBTQ+ community is really desperate for representation, to the point that we will sometimes flock to a show, regardless of its quality. We can see this with examples like “Steven Universe” or “Voltron” where the fanbase revolves mainly around a single gay character or ship. “She-Ra” is a good show that happens to feature an enormous cast of queer characters, including nonbinary and transgender characters, bisexual characters, old and young lesbian and gay characters.
“She-Ra” doesn’t talk down its audience or tell us how to feel. It has hidden narratives, such as the cycle of abuse, hidden in the more obvious takeaways. The characters behave like real people by holding grudges, avoiding difficult conversations, ignoring sound logic in favor of a preexisting opinion, things that animated characters rarely do.
So, should you watch “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power”? Yes. Even if you’re straight or don’t care about the LGBTQ+ aspects? Absolutely. This show explores friendships and romances, dysfunctional families, the death of loved ones, reconnecting with friends and family after years away, discovering a wider world beyond your own, and lots of other things that everyone can relate to. It is an animated television show, but it is not a cartoon.
It has made its mark on Netflix and has upped the stakes for queer representation in animation by tenfold. Already, shows have been making strides to match “She-Ra” and even exceed it. Things can only get better from here and I’m very much looking forward to it.