In addition to many other elements, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (2018-2020) differentiates itself from its source material with a more racially diverse cast of characters. To discuss how and by what means these identities were constructed, we should not approach this text as we would a live-action equivalent. None of these characters have a race in the same way that a profilmic actor would. Instead, we should understand these animated figures as complexes of visual, aural, and narrative components that complement and contradict each other in the formation of racial identities.
Etheria, the primary setting for this series, is a fantasy world, built by adapting real-world referents, filtering them through what Rosemary Jackson (1981, 19) calls “paraxial areas.” Thus, this diegesis features a range of real-world identities (e.g., race, gender, sexuality) as well as fantastical ones (e.g., human and non-human sentient species). However, they are not addressed directly by the narrative or the characters. There are no explicit depictions of systematic discrimination or personal prejudices on the basis of race. Without overt narrative indicators, racial identities in She-Ra are constructed and ascribed primarily via visual (e.g., facial features, skin tones) and aural (e.g. vocal performances) components.
There is a long history in U.S. animation of character designers using exaggerated facial features – eyes, noses, lips, hair, and brows – to mark figures as racialized Others, as deviations from the assumed “default” (i.e., white, cismale, heterosexual) human body. Because television animation production requires extraneous details to be streamlined, such features were deemed necessary for conveying the desired identity. Writing about comics, Scott McCloud (1994, 30) refers to this quality as “iconicity.” The character designs of She-Ra notably do not suggest racialized Others in contrast to a “default” human body. Instead, they rely on skin tones and occasionally hairstyles to connote racial identities. Looking at the core three human characters, these design decisions mark Adora as white, Glimmer as East Asian, and Bow as Black (see Figure 1).
Popular discourse on race and animation has emphasized the role of voice actors, especially in regards to “whitewashing.” For live-action film and television, this term refers to when a person of color is rewritten to be white. For animation, it describes when a white actor is cast to voice a person of color. The typical targets of these criticisms have been celebrities in feature films, such as Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) and Isle of Dogs (2018). More recently and especially in the aftermath of the television documentary The Problem with Apu (2017), these discussions expanded to include less-publicized voice actors, most notably Hank Azaria as Apu Nahasapeemapetilon in The Simpsons (1989-present) and Alison Brie as Diane Nguyen in BoJack Horseman (2014-2020). Last month, this discourse resulted in multiple high-profile voice actors vacating their roles, including Jenny Slate as Missy Foreman-Greenwald in Big Mouth (2017-present), Kristen Bell as Molly Tillerman in Central Park (2020-present), and Mike Henry as Cleveland Brown in Family Guy (1999-present). It should be noted that these original casting decisions do not erase the racial identities conveyed via writing or character design. However, they did deny work for people of color in an already insular and white-dominated field, and they blocked them from having input on how their communities were depicted. In the past few years, some series, including She-Ra, have hired racially appropriate voice actors to match their racially diverse cast of characters, such as Karen Fukuhara as Glimmer and Marcus Scribner as Bow. Most but not all exceptions still privileged hiring people of color, as seen with Aimee Carrero as Adora.
Of course, the problem with Apu was not just that Azaria was voicing him but also how he was voicing him. Rosina Lippi-Green (1997) and Sam Summers (2018) have both observed how children’s animation utilizes accents and dialects to distance certain characters from a presumed North American audience. Again, She-Ra largely avoids this trope, with the majority of the cast speaking English with generic North American dialects. The main exception is Queen Angella, voiced by Reshma Shetty, whose British dialect denotes the generational rift between her and her daughter, Glimmer. Difference is conveyed without transforming either character into a racialized Other. In a departure from the original, She-Ra employs racial signifiers to create a diverse cast of characters. The usual markers employed by previous decades of animation – exaggerated facial features and accents – are absent. Instead, the series relies primarily on skin tones to connote racial identities. It thus conveys diversity rather than designates Other-ness. By hiring people of color to voice these characters, the casting process underlines this goal. As seen with newer shows, such as Kipo and the Age of the Wonderbeasts (2020-present) and Glitch Techs (2020-present), these tendencies are becoming more common in U.S. television animation.
Jackson, R. (1981). Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. London: Methuen.
Lippi-Green, R. (1997). English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States. London: Routledge.
McCloud, S. (1994). Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperPerennial.
Summers, S. (2018). ‘High Fantasy Meets Low Culture in How to Train Your Dragon (2010)’, in Holliday C. and Sergeant A. (eds.), Fantasy/Animation: Connections Between Media, Mediums, and Genre. London: Routledge, pp. 227-42.
Francis M. Agnoli is an independent animation scholar. He is scheduled to receive his PhD July 2020 from the University of East Anglia, where his research focused on race in contemporary U.S. television animation. His work has been published in the edited collection Fantasy/Animation: Connections Between Media, Mediums, and Genres (Routledge, 2018), and he was a co-editor for a special issue of the journal Animation Studies (2019).
 An inherently imperfect term, I have elected to use “person/people of color” as an umbrella category for those who experience systemic racism under white supremacy.