It has been several weeks since I finished watching She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (2018-2020). As with so many things in 2020, it feels a lot longer, and in that time I have reflected on how much there is to love about this DreamWorks and Netflix reboot – from its diverse contributors and affirmation of LGBTQ+ experience, to a climax in which consummating a repressed queer romance literally defeats a law and order obsessed dictator. Yet, as I write this in Pride Month, in the midst of both the isolation of social distancing and street protests against institutional racism, it strangely does not feel too early to go back and revisit aspects of She-Ra that feel different than they did the first time around.
What does She-Ra –which is after all a fantasy not only of love and gender empowerment but also violent rebellion against a police state– have to say about inclusive resistance? For a show that seems to take every opportunity to prioritize inclusion on the basis of identity, it is perplexing just how limited the bounds of this participation seem to be. Perhaps not. This is about a squad of princesses. In this post, I will briefly examine how this exclusivity is accepted and challenged, both part of the show’s core appeal and a rare if significant gap. The elitism of the Princess Alliance is positive in the sense that it grants BIPOC, queer, and neuro-diverse audience members almost unprecedented access to the identity possibilities of what being a princess means in a world where this is the norm. It is problematic because it reduces most of those termed the ‘regular’ citizens of the planet to comic relief, people to be fought for, not allies to be listened to.
Just how inclusive is the New Princess Alliance? First, let’s talk about Princess Prom. Season 1, Episode 8 introduces us to the Land of Snows, where Adora and the Best Friend Squad have been invited to take part in the once-a-decade All Princess Ball. The main tension here is not fighting a war, but the perils of teenage angst. This is compounded by the tradition that Princess Prom is neutral ground. Every princess is invited – including Scorpia, Princess of the Fright Zone, and her date Force Captain Catra. Accordingly, if you thought Frozen (2013)’s Queen Elsa throws a queer party, Princess Prom blows that out of the water. Over 83 years, Disney has dabbled with the possibility of a princess with agency and racial diversity – even the occasional queer reading if you really push it. But this is a space that normalizes – and is overtly for – BIPOC, queer and neuro-diverse princesses. Instead of a familiar prom trope of socially stunted wallflower, criticized for observing from the sidelines, confirmed autistic-avatar Princess Entrapta is free to do prom her way – ethnography and all. Even Catra’s destructive take on Prom is celebrated here, rocking a blood-red tuxedo, owning the dancefloor, and tearing the whole place down. This depiction of princesses and villains is not only refreshing but deeply cathartic.
In combination, these give us the clearest indication of what it means to be a princess on Etheria, both in terms of inclusive distribution of power and personal relationships. This is a world where matriarchy is the norm and everyone gets a prom (even if they just want to burn it down) – where heteronormativity does not exist, even for the baddies. In this light, we see the invitation of Princess Scorpia from the Horde as another mark of inclusion, challenging the heroes to accept also her differences – being objectively the most reliable friend on the show (sorry Bow). But consider the alternative. How would this look to the common Etherian, living in between a rebellion and a police state, that they invited the very person whose family literally invited the Horde to stay? Completely out of touch.
“You may all have magical powers and alien pets, but what we need now is the team’s resident regular guy” – Bow (S.5 E.9). She-Ra and the Princesses of Power has a problem with ‘regular’ people – i.e., how the Princesses refer to their non-magical subjects, an othering that slightly undermines the normalization of the princesses themselves. Granted, like the princesses, the supporting characters are visually sophisticated. Citizens of Etheria are as diverse as their rulers, with differences in design – from lizards to mushroom people – that reinforce the body positivity and gender-fluid ethos of the show. However (Bow and Double Trouble notwithstanding), what they don’t possess is political agency. Locals are defined only by how fun they are, the effusiveness of their hospitality to princesses (e.g., Elberon in S.4, E.3 “Flutterina”), or the strangeness of their ingratitude (e.g., Erelandia in S.5, E.9 “An Ill Wind”).
In the latter case, this attitude is confounding to Princess Glimmer in particular, despite hearing that citizens have been subject to repeated false flag attacks – using the mind-controlled Princess Spinerella to terrorize the town. This might be understandable if these feelings of betrayal were new. Instead, we see the same perspective from Bow’s dads in Season 2. We learn George lost his faith in magic princesses when they failed to protect his village. Being a non-magical citizen of Etheria –between the Horde and rebellion– doesn’t seem much better than in any other fantasy setting –from Star Wars to Game of Thrones– albeit with less blood and slightly more flying unicorns.
The bigger problem is that at no point does it really feel that this is a fight that just anyone can contribute to. This is a top-down rebellion, and nowhere does this gap feel bigger than the disjointed resolution of Bow’s dads. Despite ample opportunity in the narrative, very little attention is paid to George’s change of heart towards the rebellion. It is simply taken for granted and the inclusive value of this contribution is squandered. Throughout its run, the show grants us two very different conceptions of intellectual advocacy –the royal magical academy of Mysticor and the independent scholarship of George and Lance – ultimately in competition to serve the needs of the plot. Bow’s Dads toil for untold hours of field archaeology to discover the secrets of the Heart of Etheria Failsafe only for Shadow Weaver and Castaspella to announce they knew about it too. Academic implications aside, this representation of a rebellion completely out of touch with its base is hardly encouraging.
Magic for Everyone? Princess empowerment feels good, but this is no way to run a revolution. To conclude, unquestionably She-Ra has raised the bar for representation in animated fantasy. The inclusive portrayal of the princesses –and the uncompromising resolution offered to Adora and Catra in particular– makes overt space for audiences previously asked to make do only with subtext or, worse, representation by retcon. However, all of this is set against a stage of popular resistance, and on that front She-Ra shows there is still a lot of work to be done, not least of all to encourage empowered audiences to examine their own privilege and become effective allies to others. Indeed, the stated objective of our heroes in the finale of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is to “free the magic for all of Etheria.” While this is ultimately not explored –they seemingly forget to do this–, we are left to wonder what exactly this would look like, and what it would mean to actually return power to oppressed people.
Timothy Jones is Assistant Professor of Media Arts and Director of the Academic Media Center at Robert Morris University in Moon Township, Pennsylvania where he teaches courses in media culture and production. His research interests include animation production culture and the relationship between education and sustainable professional media communities. His case studies include Indian animation, visual effects outsourcing, and most recently, independent cinema and craft beer. Tim is Membership Officer of the Society for Animation Studies. His work appears in Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Animation Practice, Process & Production, Animation Studies Journal, Reconceptualising Film Policies, and the South Asianist.
 We learn in “Reunion” (S.2, E.7) that Etheria might have a conventional education system. It’s at least plausible to Bow’s dads that there is a boarding school where Glimmer is a physics major and Adora an art, art history, history, and language major who teaches on the side.