Friday, September 25, 2009

She-Ra: Princess of Power

Here is the first in what I hope will be a series of reviews of girl's franchises, I'm hoping to find some overlooked gems and talk about what they have to offer and what they might bring to a new generation of girls, but also, why they haven't been snatched up again, or why they shouldn't be brought back. Hopefully through this series I'll be able to illuminate something that might help people looking at these or other girls franchises and see a way to make them stronger, or inspire something entirely new.

Now, idealistic introduction aside, I'm going to geek out this week. This franchise was the very first thing I geeked out on obsessively according to my mom. With the rights to Masters of the Universe in the news again and the cartoon series being up on I figured I'd take another look at this blast from the past.

I was obsessed despite the fact that there were much higher profile properties for girls vying for my head space and spending power. Barbie being the most obvious, and most present, showing up in every store, every commercial break, and everyone had at least one and likely more than one at school. There were also a smattering of baby dolls and other dress-up dolls. I tried to collect dolls of some of the other characters I was fond of April from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comes to mind (though it was later on) and Baroness from GI JOE (which I never saw in the store), and a Wonder Woman action cup holder (it was a doll that attached to your cup) from Burger King. So clearly, when a female action figure with a band of female cohorts and her own flying unicorn came out, I was a ripe section of the market.

She-Ra was my favorite action hero as a kid, I bought every toy I could find: 2 She-Ras (one melted outside... and I died her hair into one large paint-y glob), a Bo (though I usually paired her with batman), the butterfly girl- who may or may not have been Flutterina, and the redhead pictured above- Glimmer I think, it's hard to tell from memory and constantly bugged my parents for the rest, but as it was the days before the internet we were stuck with what was available at Toys R' Us. I can honestly say that I would have purchased a lot more of them had I been able to find them. There were many times where we went to the toy store and I actually chose to not get anything because there weren't any She-Ras I didn't have. I also rented a VCR and the VHS tape of the first five episodes from the local Blockbuster, and kept renting the same thing over and over every week.

The Story

The origin story, The Secret of the Sword, is a 5 episode arc that kicked of Filmation's She-Ra animated series in 1985. It was the only VHS tape the video store had for months, and I'm sure my parents could recite it if I forced the issue. The origin story is where most movie adaptations begin these days, and while He-Man, her male counterpart has gotten several reboots but She-Ra hasn't been touched. They're part of the same universe, literally twins, so it's not surprising that when starting again in that universe companies have chosen the more bankable He-Man as their jumping off point, but She-Ra is a rich and interesting character and it's a shame no one has been willing to give her another shot.

Princess Adora is Prince Adam's (He-Man's) twin sister, kidnapped from Eternia and her family as a baby and raised by the evil Horde, she excels at everything she does and becomes Hordak, the Horde Leader's, brightest pupil and most fearsome deputy in the parallel universe, Etheria.

Meanwhile, Adam's parents cast a spell on him and their kingdom so that they forget that the Horde and Princess Adora ever existed. This is until the Sorceress has a crazy dream where a magical sword like He-Man's appears and she knows that the time has come to reveal the truth to Adam and reveal Adora's destiny to her.

So, He-Man and his comic relief cat, Cringer, are baking a cake. Yes really, I had to put a picture, obviously because if the fur diaper he wears or the lavender tights weren't a clue, He-Man is comfortable with his masculinity.

I mean, just look at that, he is serious about his mixing, look at the intensity; it takes a lot of testosterone to be baking a cake in a pink vest and look that serious about it.

I'd like to take a moment to talk about the aesthetics of She-Ra here, which are often a little distracting, for example, the attire of young male peasants:

I'll admit I was distracted by the general lack of pants in Etheria and Eternia, but hey, I'll give, it was a different time, and as much as Lady Gaga is pushing the no pants revolution, I'm a bit of a square and would think pants would be easier to farm in. She-Ra has a specific aesthetic vision that is both interesting and particularly peculiar. One that rarely uses pants.

Except on Bo, who is himself a strange combination of Celtic Chieftain and Porn Actor who can shoot magic arrows and who is She-Ra's sidekick as the series continues. He often finds himself in the position female sidekicks do in male-dominated franchises, being fairly capable but often being captured in order to lure our hero somewhere or another. The handling of male characters as they relate to She-Ra in the franchise often falls into this pattern, and while I'm sure I ate it up as a kid, it annoys me now because She-Ra could be a lot cooler if she was surrounded by more interesting supporting characters. I feel the same way about female characters in male properties who seem to exist to be protected, even when they have some redeeming skill or ability.

Another distracting element of the property, and of He-Man as well, are the omnipresent comic relief creatures, like Kowl (picture above) who are literally everywhere. Who say distractingly dumb things whenever they can be crammed into frame. They're extranious because no one would miss them if they were gone, they serve no narrative purpose except as product placement for the toy lines that often didn't bother to include them. In a reboot, making these creatures real characters with deeper personalities would be smart, and necessary to make their inclusion worthwhile.

Back to the story...

He-Man travels to Etheria to give the sword to someone he'll know when he sees, it's Adora, she works for the Horde as Hordak's Chief Lieutenant. Adora believes that the Horde acts in the best interest of the populace, but while she has excelled in her education both academic and martial, and acts passionately in what she believes is for the people of Etheria, she is misled. Adam gets captured by Adora along with a band of rebels. While imprisoned Adam argues with and manages to convince Adora that she take a look at the countryside and make up her mind about the "benevolence" of the Horde.

Upon seeing the ravages exacted on the oppressed peasants of Etheria, Adora changes her mind about the Horde and releases the captive revolutionaries. She confronts Hordak but with the aid of his magician he brainwashes her into believing the Horde is good once more. Adam infiltrates the Horde's stronghold once again and is once again taken prisoner, but while imprisoned plants the seed of truth in Adora's mind once again.

When Adora is watching over the captive He-Man she is captivated by the sword of power he has brought. Through it, the Sorceress talks to her, explaining that she is actually Princess Adora of Eternia and that He-Man is her brother. Just in the nick of time she says the magic words "By the Honor of Grayskull" and transforms into She-Ra.

Also her horse becomes a flying rainbow Unicorn. I should also point out that her horse is wise, and smarter than many of the humanoid characters in the franchise. When He-Man transforms his Scooby-Doo-like green tiger, Cringer/Battle Cat (who does get wisdom as Battle Cat, but doesn't translate back), gets some armor and that's where the transformation ends. Advantage: She-Ra.

She and her twin Brother, He-Man then team up to take down some of the horde and return to Eternia to reunite Adora with the family she's never known.

Hordak ends up following her to Eternia, where he's been before, and teams up with his former pupil, Skeletor who has grown in power but who still is somewhat intimidated by his former mentor and who clearly can't overpower Hordak in a strait battle. The pair of villains join forces to take on the royal family though, each for their own reason. Of the two villains whom Hordak is the more powerful, or he's at least the one who has the more powerful army at his back. Instead of choosing a villain for the female hero, Filmation chose to give her an enemy that could both easily handle the male hero and was a clear challenge.

Welcome to Eternia, here we wear tights.

One of the more entertaining moments in the whole cartoon story arc is that Adora allows herself to be captured by Skeletor an Hordak pretending to faint, saving the royal family and putting herself inside his stronghold to get a chance to take them both down. This is shown explicitly to be intentional. She-Ra often plays the damsel in distress card and twists it to her advantage because frankly, it seems to work against her enemies again and again. But, once inside the fortress she manages to take down a squadron of minions, free herself without using any of her super-abilities, reclaim her sword and single-handedly trounce Skeletor (who had betrayed Hordak while she was freeing herself, sending him back to Etheria).

While this was going on Prince Adam had rallied his team to go rescue her, but they arrive just in time to see She-Ra in the aftermath of having trounced Skeletor and to listen to a little witty banter about how they were late to the party. It's important to point out that at no point does Adora or her She-Ra form break down, she's an extremely capable person for whom special abilities are a boon but not truly necessary for her confidence or her ability to get the job done.

She has innate leadership qualities that demand respect, even when she was aligned with the Horde she led teams of older, more experianced creatures by the sheer power of her persona. While Hordak and the other villains violently punish their minions for even the smallest step out of line- or rely on brainwashing and magic spells, Adora kept order with simple words.

One she's returned to Castle Greyskull and the royal family of Eternia, she decides to return to Etheria, while not the land of her birth, it is her homeland where the people need a protector.

I clearly wear the pants here, even though I'm never wearing pants.

So, what can we learn here?

One, that She-Ra is a strong female heroine who handles danger and crisis with a cool head who is unmistakably feminine and seems a bit naive, can and does respond to new information by acting according to an innate moral code that drives her actions.

He-Man and She-Ra's universe continuity overlapped in a way that has often been successful for franchises. While He-Man's continuity had before this been undefined, or defined repeatedly the Filmation continuity influenced the core of all the reboots to follow. Eternia, He-Man's royal lineage, and the possibility of travel to other worlds either in parallel dimensions or space all featured in future story lines.

She-Ra was successful enough to get several toy series of her own, a series of books based on the cartoon episodes and has a pretty devoted fanbase.

From a narrative standpoint, Adora has to make a very difficult choice, that of being with the family she has always wanted, or protecting the world that nurtured her. She chooses Etheria and this choice of taking on the role of protector hero is archetypically mirrored in details of the property. Her catch phrase "By the honor of Greyskull..." rather than He-Man's "By the Power of Greyskull..." notes the difference in their personal journeys. She-Ra's sword is the Sword of Protection, and instead of being the Queen or Princess of the land she inhabits she is the leader of a rebellious army.

She-Ra captured me as a little girl because she was a legitimately powerful heroine, it didn't hurt her at all that I could also dress her up, brush her hair or that there was some pink and a lot of rainbows and hearts peppering the design. Those elements as part of a property with strong core values can broaden its appeal and while the doll came with a brush, she also came with a sword

My husband mentioned that the portrayal of He-Man in the She-Ra cartoon upset him as a kid, in fact, turned him off the whole Masters of the Universe world and I can see why. He-Man's supposed to be a hero and one is hit over the head with how he is inferior to his twin sister. She-Ra also overcomes his villain on her own during their first encounter, something that is the crux of He-Man's heroic journey.

I don't think the diminished portrayal of He-Man is necessary to She-Ra's story, if they were peers, if she were having the same sort of successes against He-Man's nemesis that He-Man might that would make sense, as they're twins. Even setting them up for some sibling competition as each tries to out-do the other would be fantastic. She doesn't have to be better than her brother to be strong or interesting. Nor does he have to overcome her to be a real hero.

While I giggled at He-Man during the cartoon; he should be taken seriously. Plenty of kids were really into him, which is obviously one of the reasons why She-Ra came to exist in the first place. One does not have to diminish the other, it hurts them both that one did. Though she did give me a specific outlet for the ever-present girls vs boys dynamic I encountered throughout childhood, she was my hero and I got to be on her side by virtue of my gender.

From a franchise perspecitive, She-Ra has a compelling narrative and she's not had the same issues of confused continuity He-Man has in his many re-boots. While the two properties are inextricably tied to one another, in this day and age, that can be a boon. While some details don't necessarily translate to a modern audience the core of She-Ra's origin story is still strong enough to lay the groundwork for a quality reboot.

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