It took me wayyy too long to find She-Ra the Princesses of Power, and even longer for me to sit down and give it a chance.
But I did, and I loved it, and now I’d like to explain my journey with the show and discuss why I think it worked so well for me, and maybe even guess at why it’s been so wildly popular.
Based on the marketing and presentation of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, I made a lot of assumptions about the show’s intended audience and how I would feel about it. It definitely seemed to be aimed at a young female audience for the most part, and I don’t doubt that it was sold to Netflix as targeting that demographic.
Now, in retrospect, I’m not surprised that people who aren’t young girls have connected with the show. I also think it would be pretty lame to highlight the fact that I, a man in his late 20s, ended up enjoying a show that, on the surface, isn’t made for me at all.
That’s a little bit blase in 2021, don’t you think? In fact, that’s kind of how we got the Bronies. And the idea that grown adults can legitimately enjoy a show that was originally intended for children is no longer surprising or even that interesting. A lot of animated shows and movies do this now, and I’ve even talked about the shift at great length in this channel’s only somewhat popular video.
But hopefully I can still share a unique perspective on why I fell head-over-heels for She-Ra.
And first up, I don’t want to glaze over the surface-level story and characters that the show provides us with. A ton of video essays like to interpret the supposed meaning behind a piece of media and present that interpretation as the original intention of the creators, as well as the only valid reading of the show or movie. While I enjoy this kind of thing from time to time, I also think it can distract from what’s happening with that piece of media at face value.
In the most literal sense, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is an extremely solid action-adventure show, and to be honest, that was the real hook for me, at least at first.
One of the very first scenes in the show is Adora and the other Horde trainees participating in a battle simulation. Already I had a very good idea of the world of the show, and more importantly, it kicked things off with a taste of the action to come. It doesn’t waste any time with elaborate dialogue scenes or title crawls or voice over.
I also really liked Catra from the very start, and Adora wasn’t annoying, so in other words, I was on board.
The show also had another hurdle when it came to worldbuilding and establishment. Within the first two episodes, it needed to make us like Adora, a member of the Horde, then quickly make it clear that the Horde was actually bad and that these weird, rainbow-shaded fairy people were actually the good guys.
But it pulls it off really well, and it also establishes the very important idea that it’s possible for characters to switch sides.
The worldbuilding continues to develop over all five seasons, really, but we’re given more than enough at the outset to feel comfortable in this setting and understand the major forces at play.
In general, I enjoy stories with solid characters and good pacing, and I’m starting to get the feeling that animated television has a better handle on these qualities than a lot of animated movies, or even just compared to popular movies in general.
She-Ra’s characters start out at what I like to call the toy level. They have enough character development that if you went to buy a toy of one of the main characters, you could make your decision based on those traits. They’re distinct from each other, but you also don’t have so much information about them that it’s dizzying.
But over the course of the series, a lot of these characters become more complex, and I think we could say that most of them have some kind of arc, even if that arc is just personal growth. Personal growth is a classic arc, especially in stories about teens and pre-teens.
There’s also a very high number of redemption arcs, but I didn’t mind any of them. They usually ranged from acceptable to gratifying, and the sheer number of redemption arcs feeds into the show’s overall message about challenging what you know and making positive changes in your life.
I didn’t really expect to enjoy the show’s action quite so much, especially during the 115th robot fight.
If I have one major criticism of the show’s story, it’s that, for a good long while, it really did feel like a repetitive Saturday Morning cartoon. The good guys needed to go somewhere for some reason, then they would inevitably be outsmarted by Catra and the bad guys, then they would feel sad until they remembered that they had the power of friendship on their side, or something.
My least favorite season was probably season 4. I equate this season to something like the next-to-last Harry Potter movie where everyone is pretty angsty and serious and not a lot of fun to watch.
And while I appreciate that Glimmer goes through some major changes during this season, I pretty quickly lost patience for her insistence on being a terrible friend and queen, especially since she keeps complaining about all her newfound queenly duties, which we never really see? I guess she’s in charge of the resistance by default, but outside of that, she seems to have plenty of time for sulking around the castle and being influenced by bad guys.
Some of my favorite characters, in case you’re curious, include Bow, Entrapta, Wrong Hordak, Horse (I only call him Horse because Swift Wind is a pretty cringey name), and Shadowweaver/Lightspinner.
Shadowweaver in particular is an excellent character to watch. Definitely a flawed character. In fact, she’s framed as an emotionally abusive parental figure to Catra, and she’s definitely power-hungry to an unhealthy degree, but the performance is wonderful, and she’s one of very few characters that feels confident and knowledgeable. She’s always got something up her sleeve, but not in an annoying way like when Catra magically seems to know how to defeat the good guys at every skirmish.
And yeah, Shadowweaver also gets a redemption arc that feels satisfying and dramatic, even if the self-sacrifice thing has been done to DEATH at this point. Get it?
Overall, I really enjoyed getting to experience a fun space adventure story where I liked the characters and stayed invested in the storyline. That was more than enough to get me to binge the entire series in a few days. It’s good storytelling at the fundamental level, and I don’t get to experience that very often, it seems.
But now, to switch gears, I’d like to talk about the show’s potential interpretability, which I think has been a big part of why slightly older audience members have latched onto the show so much, myself included.
The Immense Interpretability of She-Ra
Millennials — no wait, adults, — no, that’s not right. Human beings like to assign meaning to all kinds of different things, including many things that probably don’t inherently carry any meaning.
Take a look around your room. Are there any objects that you really like? Maybe it’s a piece of clothing, or a book, or a camera, or a video game console, or a poster. It could be almost anything. Your feelings about that object go beyond its inherent, literal value. And if you handed that object to someone else, it probably won’t have the same amount of value, or it’ll have similar value but in a different way.
When a person finds something they like, whether it’s a product or a piece of media, it’s almost like a chemical reaction, where something new and different comes out of it. Something comes into contact with your unique thoughts and history of experiences, and from that comes a new impression or a new kind of meaning.
When we talk about why a movie or a show is great, we’re not usually talking about the art itself but about this cloud of ether that formed when we interacted with the art.
This is one reason why media criticism, especially internet media criticism is so interesting to me. It’s the height of subjectivity, but there’s still a chance that someone’s highly subjective reading of media will be adopted by others.
With all that said, I’m not going to interpret or analyze She-Ra. I’m not going to “explain” what the ending REALLY MEANS.
Instead, I just want to comment on the endless interpretability of the show, because for me, that’s one of the most appealing aspects.
So if you’re big into media crit, then you probably already know that the original intentions of the creators behind a piece of media should never limit interpretation.
Still, I think it’s worth our time to acknowledge those original intentions here. There seems to be a very clear attempt to promote diversity, both in terms of thought and identity. The show is jam-packed with characters who, in reference to contemporary Earth, tend to not show up in kids’ media, from a pair of dads to characters of color to non-binary characters and characters on the spectrum.
Now, it’s really hard to look at all this representation and acknowledge that Steven Universe paved the way. And we could view their inclusion cynically, as a kind of bandwagoning, capitalizing on the positive press that comes from progressive representation, especially in children’s media.
Personally, I didn’t feel this way about it. I never felt characters were being shoehorned in or made to be a certain way only to win progressive points.
If you want to know what cynical representation actually looks like, check out that same-sex kiss in the Rise of Skywalker, ya know, the kiss that was edited out for the Chinese release.
So even the originally intended messaging of She-Ra is solid and commendable, but we don’t have to stop there. This is the internet. We never have to stop.
In the most basic sense, what’s the overarching conflict of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power? On the macro level, it’s about the big guys trying to assert power and control over the little guys. On the micro (i.e. character) level, it’s very much about identity and purpose.
That macro conflict is nothing new. In fact, it’s been around since the days of the ancients, when THIS was a pretty hip look.
There are soooooo many stories where the protagonist, or an entire group of people, are the underdogs.
It’s not super surprising that these kinds of narratives have been popular throughout history, mostly because there have always been groups of people being in some way mistreated or controlled by another group of people or by one very bad person.
And yes, there are still many groups of people being mistreated by others, so it makes a lot of sense that these narratives haven’t gone out of style. Just off the top of my head, we’ve got Star Wars, Harry Potter, Avatar, the other Avatar, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Selma, Sorry to Bother You, Princess Mononoke, Pocahontas, Ernest and Celestine, Mr. Deeds (the old one), uhhhh District 9, Logan, The Dark Crystal, Peter Pan, Fern Gully, Narnia, Ready Player One, Network, Tangled, V for Vendetta, Parasite, No Country for Old Men, Megamind, Kung Fu Panda, Shrek, Ratatouille, you get the idea.
And a lot of the popular narratives out there that AREN’T explicitly about large-scale conflict and oppression are about the interpersonal conflict that makes up the micro-conflict of She-Ra. Basically every drama revolves around this kind of conflict, and these stories are particularly popular today, as so many of us are engaging with serious questions about what identity really means and how important it is to live a fulfilling life. [Soul]
So, what this means is that She-Ra covers a lot of narrative ground and gives viewers immense opportunities to apply the show’s story to real-world conditions and situations.
You or I could very easily focus on the macro conflict of the show and make a video essay about how She-Ra is actually about privilege, or contemporary American politics, or the Patriarchy, or capitalism, or the environment. These are all conflicts that boil down to existing systems of control that are currently being discussed.
But if we wanted to focus instead on the character drama of the show, then we could make arguments that She-Ra is about coming to terms with sexual orientation or gender identity or political affiliation, or coming of age and finding purpose.
In other words, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power uses the basic ingredients of two extremely popular narrative types, which in turn gives fans a nearly limitless number of ways to view the show and what it’s saying.
In the end, I think it’s both impressive and exciting that She-Ra happens to be so interpretable. This show could be an excellent entrypoint to media criticism and analysis, especially for younger people.
When I went looking around YouTube to get a sense for the discourse surrounding She-Ra, well …
I guess I set my hopes too high. There are plenty of people angry about the show’s apparent ‘wokeness.’ There are plenty of videos trying to interpret the show, but there are also tons of videos arguing about the visuals and the animation itself. And it’s fine to talk about technical details, but those technical details definitely aren’t the point, at all. It kind of feels like criticizing someone’s grammar in a well-told story. If you were still able to understand the story, then those tiny grammatical mistakes aren’t important. And this is coming from a former English major. I paid a looooot of money to learn the intricacies of the semicolon, and I think we can all agree that the semicolon is the most attractive punctuation.
So in just a few minutes, I went from being really excited about She-Ra discourse to feeling disappointed that this is just how the internet operates now.
People can do what they want, I’m not gonna gatekeep YouTube content, like I even could anyway. But I do want to highlight my one big pet peeve with opinion-based video essays.
Please, please, please never present your viewpoint as the be-all, end-all, because it’s not. As I’ve hopefully illustrated with this video, the most exciting part of media criticism is the wide variety of readings and opinions, and you can bet that yelling at other people about their opinions on a show being unequivocally wrong is going to discourage people from engaging in discussion and media criticism, and that’s only a bad thing.
I know that online discourse has been straight-up busted for years now, but it is still something we can control. And I’m really hoping that the videos on my channel can be the start of discussions, rather than the end.
With that said, how do YOU interpret She-Ra? Who’s your favorite character? Why did you stop watching it? Did you show it to your kids? And most importantly, how happy are you that He-Man never showed up?