The first thing you need to know going into She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is that there are way more robots than you’re probably expecting.
If you have even a passing familiarity with Netflix and Dreamworks’ thoroughly of-our-time reimagining of the legacy Masters of the Universe property, you might have been expecting me to lead with any number of other facts. Like say the fact that, led by the creative sensibilities of Noelle Stevenson, the graphic novelist behind Nimona and Lumberjanes, the series places both monster girls and the tender tenacity of friendship dead center. Or the fact that, also under Stevenson’s watch, the majority of the show’s creative staff and cast are female. Or the fact that—again, with Stevenson’s deliberate blessing—the new She-Ra is super, super queer.
But look. Before I finally sat down to inhale Stevenson’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power to get ready for this week’s Season 4 return, I was the one with only a passing familiarity with this progressive ‘80s power ballad of a fantasy show, and those were all things I both knew and was looking forward to. The robots, though? Those were a total surprise.
So, I will say it again: If you, like me, are coming to She-Ra and the Princesses of Power for the first time—and you should; the magical mermaid princess water is lovely here—then whatever number of robots you’re expecting to see, be ready for double that. Possibly triple. Really, considering the nature of technology on/in Etheria, it’s probably best not to set any bar for how many robots might eventually cross your screen. Let the magic be in the discovery.
That basic groundwork laid, let’s use it to build up the real reason we’re all here: She-Ra-vangelism. She-Rangelism? She-Ra Evangelism. It doesn’t matter. Basically, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, like so many of its animated contemporaries elsewhere on Netflix (The Dragon Prince; Voltron: Legendary Defender), Cartoon Network (Steven Universe; Adventure Time) and Disney (Gravity Falls; Star vs. the Forces of Evil), has been putting up season after season of compellingly nuanced stories about the power of friendship and mutual support over the forces of fear-mongering and hate that fans of all ages (and their families) can enjoy, and we want to make it as frictionless as possible for you to become one of them.
To that end, here are five (non-robotic) things we love about She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, any one of which might be the reason you finally take the Etherial plunge:
1. You don’t have to be familiar with the original to “get” what Stevenson and her team are about.
Now, this isn’t to say that everything about She-Ra and the Princesses of Power’s mythology will be clear from the start. On the contrary, most of the Big Questions you might have before “The Sword: Part 1” (Episode 1.01) is even over—what/where Etheria is; where the Horde comes from; what the Horde wants; where She-Ra’s sword comes from; what this world’s relationship is between magic and technology—don’t start getting answered until late in the second season. But as far as a new viewer’s ability to enjoy this new series goes, familiarity with the original isn’t at all required. On several levels, in fact, coming in fresh is ideal, as it won’t occur to you to compare characters and story elements, or to constantly be on the lookout for the arrival of He-Man. (Spoiler through Season 3: Never.) Bonus: You get to be surprised by all the robots!
That said, knowing it’s possible to get invested in Princesses of Power with zero She-Ra background and being ready to jump feet-first into a cult-favorite fantasy property whose fandom spans two wholly separate generations are two different things. So to help you out, here is the basic set-up of Stevenson’s version:
On the precipice of being named a Force Captain of the Horde, the ruthless military organization she and her half-feline best friend Catra (AJ Michalka) have grown up and trained in, an inherently kind human teenager named Adora (Aimee Carrero) stumbles upon a magical broadsword that sends her reeling into a vision. In that vision, an AI hologram named Light Hope (Morla Gorrondona) tells her that the whole planet of Etheria has been waiting 1,000 years for her to protect it by using the sword—and the honor of Grayskull—to become the mythical hero She-Ra. Upon waking, Adora is taken captive by one of the princesses of the rebel forces the Horde has trained her to hate and fear. On their way back to the princess’s palace, they stumble into several situations which lay bare the truth of the Horde’s callous, mercenary ruthlessness. This somehow being a complete surprise to Adora (don’t worry—her new friends are as baffled by that fact as you will be), she switches allegiances and joins Glimmer (Fukuhara), Bow (Marcus Scribner), and the rest of the Princess Rebellion to use love and friendship to fight off the Horde and all the evil they represent.
And… that’s it! Well, that’s obviously not it it. But in terms of being ready for the story Stevenson and her team weave together through the end of Season 3, that’s all you need. Etheria is supposed to be a mystery. The Horde is supposed to be inexplicable. The relationship between the sword/magic and technology is supposed to make you wonder. What you’re not meant to leave the first episode confused by is the complicated emotional relationships between the characters, which inherent tensions will lead to the other answers later down the line.
To that end, one of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power’s greatest strengths is …
2. The friendships! (And …that friendship.)
It’s not surprising with Stevenson at the helm, but the inherent power of deep friendship is one of this series’ central themes. Of the representations of the positive side of that power, the friendship between Glimmer, Bow and Adora (dubbed the “Best Friend Squad” by Bow) is the most important. Aside from a few episodes in which the writers investigate the natural insecurities spurred by the arrival of new members to any friend group (“Princess Prom” being a standout example), the value of this core trio isn’t found in the exclusion of others. When other princesses join Glimmer, Bow and Adora’s fight, their skills and personalities are folded in as strengths. This inclusive approach extends, even, to non-princesses, welcoming in Adora’s talking rainbow unicorn pegasus, Swift Wind (Adam Ray), as well as Mermista’s (Vella Lovell) erstwhile pyromaniac pirate boyfriend, Sea Hawk (Jordan Fisher).
Interestingly, this positive dynamic is reflected on the opposite side of the Horde v. Princess battle, Force Captain Scorpia (Lauren Ash)’s self-styled “Super Pal Trio” bringing an unwilling Catra (and a spoiler third member) together in a kind of inside-the-Horde survival squad. But as fascinating a negative film take on Bow’s Best Friend Squad as Scorpia’s Super Pal Trio is, neither of those (mostly) supportive friendships drive the narrative as much as does the poisoned dart that is the fractured lifelong bond between Catra and Adora, the former who sees Adora’s abandonment of the Horde as a personal betrayal, the latter who can’t let go of the belief that if she just says the right thing, she’ll be able to convince Catra to turn away from cynical ambition and join the side of good.
This is meaty stuff, for sure, but again, anyone who has even a passing familiarity with this show will know, that toxic knot of betrayal and mismatched ideals isn’t all there is to the tension between Catra and Adora. For that, we need to turn to…
3. The gay (and more) agenda*.
While the temptation is high to just drop this chillingly good compilation of all the times Catra has purred Hey, Adora and move on, that’s probably cheating. Because while it is true that the queer dynamic between Catra and Adora is far too nuanced to do justice in a single, short blurb, theirs isn’t the only queer relationship represented in the show, and nor is queer where the show stops in terms of deliberate and prolific diversity.
On the queer side, see: Bow’s academic dads, George and Lance (Chris Jai Alex and Regi Davis). Drop-in adult partners Netossa and Spinnerella (Krystal Joy Brown and Noelle Stevenson). Scorpia’s obvious unrequited crush on Catra. In terms of everything else, see, literally, everything else. Following the model of the original, Adora is canonically white, but for the most part, everyone else in both the Rebellion and the Horde—Bow, Glimmer, Mermista, Entrapta, Frosta, Netossa, Castaspella, Mara, Lonnie, Shadow Weaver—is not. In Scorpia’s claws and tail, Shadow Weaver’s magical disfigurement, Hordak’s [spoiler] physical limitations, and Entrapta’s laser-like scientific obsessions, both physical diversity and neurodiversity are represented. Between Bow’s love of crop tops, Catra’s masculine-coded fashion sense, and the Season 4 debut of non-binary actor Jacob Tobia as new character Double Trouble, a non-binary, shape-shifting mercenary, gender normativity is given a pass. Just solid, intentional diversity of every kind, across the board, and all in the service of telling a story about identity, destiny and the inherent dignity of individual life in the strongest, most organic way possible.
*This phrasing from Stevenson herself, on the “Battle of Bright Moon” episode of the “She-Ra: Progressive of Power” podcast. (Start around 48:30 for this specific part of the conversation.)
4. The skepticism of destiny.
If friendship is She-Ra’s central theme and diversity and inclusivity its main framing elements, the burden (and skepticism) of destiny is its narrative engine. As the only person currently living on Etheria who has the power to become She-Ra when wielding the Sword of Protection, Adora has classic “chosen one” energy, and all the frustrations and insecurities that come with it. But she is only one powerful princess in a constellation of them, each burdened with their own “chosen one” powers and responsibilities, and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power never forgets that.
Nor does it forget that you don’t have to have powers or a magical legacy to feel the suffocating burden of destiny—one of the series’ best episodes is “Reunion” (Episode 2.07), in which Bow returns home to his academic dads’ expansive library to seek out She-Ra lore the Princess Alliance needs to win the next battle, only for Adora and Glimmer to learn that he became a rebel without their blessing, and that in addition to keeping his family secret from his friends, he’s been lying to his dads for years about attending university to become an historian. The stress of this burden is small potatoes next to the expectations Adora is facing as She-Ra, or Glimmer is facing as her mother’s daughter, or Catra is facing as her own worst, most ambitious enemy, but it’s still important, and She-Ra gives Bow plenty of space to explore it—and, of course, to use the powerful support of the Best Friends Squad to level up in his ability to handle it.
5. Finally: The villains.
As antagonists, The Horde don’t have much going for them beyond being evil. (To quote Bow exclaiming his shock at an aghast Adora early in their first adventure together: “You’re literally called the Evil Horde!”) What does the Horde want? To overrun Etheria! Why? Reasons! While they definitely want to win, as a collective, the Horde doesn’t seem to have much of an ideology beyond “annihilate” driving their campaign.
Given that She-Ra is technically a cartoon, some level of cartoonish evil is fine—even expected. But in the year of our She-Ra, 2019, even animated villainy needs greater dimension. This isn’t an impossible task—storytellers work hard to internalize the idea that everyone is the hero of their own story, a truth that animated villains like Zuko (Avatar: The Last Airbender) and Eclipsa (Star vs. the Forces of Evil) have thrived on.
But when it comes to the deeply traumatized Catra (and, to a lesser extent, Shadow Weaver), She-Ra puts the lie to that whole “everyone is their own hero thing” being a universal rule. There are plenty of people, it turns out, who aren’t the heroes of their own stories, because as far as they’re concerned, being a hero isn’t a real thing. It’s a mug’s game. All that’s real is power—who wields it, who’s crushed by it, and who can get enough of it to make sure no one else comes out ahead of them. Even, as Catra sneers in Adora’s face in their final showdown of Season 3, if that means burning down the whole world (“I don’t care! I won’t let you win. I’d rather see the whole world end than let that happen.”)
For a kids’ show, this is a lot. But there is something so chillingly familiar in it, especially at this moment in history, that it’s impossible not to be impressed—and just as impossible not to hope that the tools Adora, Glimmer, Bow and the rest of their friends fight back with as the series continues will be ones we can use in our own lives, back here in the real world.
For the honor of Grayskull, Season 4 of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is streaming on Netflix as of November 5.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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