Commissioned vlog for Suzyn Smith-Webb
One would expect, based solely on the titles, that 1985’s She-Ra: Princess of Power (hereafter She-Ra ’85) is more tightly focused on its singular titular character than the plurality of characters implied by 2018’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (hereafter She-Ra). This is very much not the case, however, at least where the two series’ respective multi-part introductory stories* are concerned; the degree to which She-Ra was not the main character of the first story of She-Ra ’85 is remarkable.
That main character is very clearly He-Man, which makes more sense when one realizes the circumstances under which this five-episode arc originally aired: as a theatrically released movie under the name The Secret of the Sword. More specifically, despite being produced as the first five episodes of She-Ra ’85, it was framed as a He-Man and She-Ra ’85 movie, because She-Ra ’85 was an as-yet little-known and unaired spinoff of He-Man.
She-Ra is thus framed from the start not as a character in her own right, but an extension and reflection of He-Man, who is the primary locus of agency in the movie. She is his long-lost sister, her sword a counterpart to his, her villain the mentor of his; his coming to Etheria in search of her is what kicks off the plot. Even her departure from the Horde and joining of the Rebellion–which should be her character arc here, the transformation from unwitting villain to hero–is easily accomplished once she is out of range of Shadow Weaver’s mind control. The rightness of the Rebellion, in other words, is framed as obvious to any good person, so once her nature as such is no longer being magically suppressed, she switches sides easily.
By contrast, She-Ra presents Adora as its main character from the start. Its first story is about her development entirely, her gradual (at least compared to She-Ra ’85, despite that spending more than twice the time on its first story) transformation from someone who sees Princesses as a monstrous enemy to someone who embraces becoming one in order to fight her own former comrades. To put it another way, The Secret of the Sword is the story of how She-Ra was discovered; “The Sword” is the story of how Adora left the cult that raised her. The former is passive, the latter active.
A key distinction, too, is how the two shows construct the titular character. She-Ra ’85 views her as She-Ra, who happens also to be Adora. She essentially asserts this herself, as she not only leaves the Horde but also turns down living with her birth parents; the one genuine choice she makes for herself is to be She-Ra, defender of Etheria, rather than Princess Adora of Eternia. Her agency lies not in making a moral choice, but in severing herself and her show from He-Man; necessary to establishing the spin-off, but also necessarily near the end of the movie, guaranteeing she remains in his shadow for most of it.
She-Ra instead centers Adora-as-Adora from the start. She is given far more personality and focus, and her life with the Horde far more detail; in particular, her best friend/love interest Catra and abusive foster-mother Shadow Weaver are fleshed out much more than in She-Ra ’85, where neither had much depth or relationship with Adora at all. Here they have both, especially Catra, a complex study in contrasts, not just between her prickliness and obvious deep caring and affection for Adora, but in her status as a rebellious loyalist, an iconoclast who nonetheless chooses to remain an agent of an authoritarian regime.
More to the point where Adora is concerned, she has no one to explain to her what She-Ra even is. She stumbles onto the Sword of Protection seemingly by accident, and initially transforms unintentionally. She-Ra is a role she assumes, not a discovery of her true self, with her transformation occurring independently of any revelations about her parentage or origin. (Which is not revealed in “The Sword,” or indeed the first season at all.) Ultimately, she does become She-Ra deliberately, but only after an internal struggle between her loyalty to and misconceptions about the Horde on the one hand, and her moral objection to the violence she witnesses firsthand in Thaymor. Adora doesn’t become She-Ra and therefore join the Rebellion; she chooses to rebel against the Horde, and therefore becomes She-Ra. To put it another way, becoming She-Ra doesn’t change who Adora is; she becomes She-Ra because of who she is.
Ultimately this difference lies in the very different environments in which the two series emerged. Partially that’s the already-addressed difference between a spinoff and a standalone series, but perhaps even moreso it’s a difference between cartoons of the mid-80s and cartoons of the late 2010s–and for once I’m not just referring to the difference between the dark age American animation was struggling through in 1985 and the golden age it’s experiencing now. Instead, I’m referring to what for lack of a better term we can call “lineage”–the works that most visibly influenced the work in question.
For She-Ra ’85, the obvious influence is He-Man, but that doesn’t tell us much. If we push back a little further, however, to the question of what works influenced He-Man, we can see two apparent choices, both dating to the 1970s. Visually, it has much in common with Star Trek: The Animated Series, in the sense of being quite detailed, imaginative, and static. (Not to mention sharing a studio, Filmation.) Settings are visually complex and generally alien, with bright, bold colors reminiscent of comic books; non-human characters are similarly imaginative and frequently grotesque, such as the new aliens introduced in ST:TAS or, in She-Ra ’85, butterfly-wing-eared owl-creature Cowl or the bug-eyed goblin-thing Mantenna; human characters, by contrast, are limited to a couple of narrowly defined base designs onto which costumes are added, to facilitate easier creation of dolls based on them (or, as with She-Ra ’85, to reflect that they are based on dolls); the animation of those figures is awkward and stiff. Narrative elements, meanwhile, bear a strong kinship to the lineage of action cartoons exemplified by Hanna-Barbera’s Superfriends: the characters are depicted as essentially superheroes, with names reflective of their abilities or visual design, and their heroic identity is the focus, with little attention to characterizing or humanizing the individual taking on the heroic role.
The two strongest influences on She-Ra, by contrast, are not from the 70s or 80s–She-Ra ’85 contributes a premise and some superficial details, but it is (thankfully–we’re still talking about a Filmation cartoon from the 80s here!) not all that strong an influence on the way the show presents its story. Instead, it seems to draw most heavily on cartoons from around 2005-2015. The most obvious comparison storywise is to Avatar: The Last Airbender. Like that show, it presents us with a main character who is themselves first and their destined heroic role second, even initially resisting that role; it starts with their discovery by a couple of close allies who receive significant character development of their own–Glimmer and Bow even have similar personalities to Katara and Sokka!–and it also includes a sympathetic and nuanced depiction of a conflicted antagonist character, without forgiving their actions or losing sight of the evil of the villains as a whole; later it depicts the “good guys” as severely flawed as well, ATLA through the corruption and authoritarianism of the Earth Kingdom, She-Ra through the disastrous raid on Horde HQ and consequent dissolution of the Princess League and defection of Entrapta.
Visually, She-Ra shares in common with She-Ra ’85 that the backgrounds are exotic and highly detailed, but little else. Its color palette leans toward less intense colors, and character designs of humans are highly stylized and varied, often placed in contrasting pairs–tall, slender Angella and her stocky daughter Glimmer, or lean, lithe Catra and the simply massive Scorpia. Non-human characters largely depart only slightly from the human, essentially looking like humans in costumes–there is nothing here as alien as eyes on extendable stalks or owls that fly using their rainbow ears, just human-with-antlers, human-with-fur, lizard-ish-human. Even Scorpia and Catra, who as a scorpion-woman and catgirl are more “monstrous” than most, are still depicted as more attractive than grotesque, as emphasized in “Princess Prom.” Perhaps most importantly, character animation is far more fluid than in She-Ra ’85: characters flow through motions, stretching and squashing, exaggerated facial expressions and postures emphasizing their emotions and actions. At the same time, when characters aren’t doing anything, they are less mobile than in She-Ra ’85–there’s a lot more blinking in the older show.
These are again features common to shows of the last 15 years, but with a somewhat different origin: the combination of detailed, naturalistic backgrounds and heavily stylized characters, fluidly animated movement and complete absence of “unnecessary” movement, are hallmarks of Japanese animation. The “anime boom” on American television in the late 90s and early 2000s led to a host of imitators, followed closely by a generation of creators for whom 90s anime are as much a part of their youthful influences as the American cartoons of the same period, and She-Ra follows closely in that tradition.
All of this, in turn, is why the greater focus on Adora in the newer series: in 1985 She-Ra was a reflection of He-Man, who was essentially coded as a superhero, with a superpowered alternate form, secret identity, sidekick, and small group of close companions who know both hero and secret identity. In 2018, however, she’s a magical girl. Her transformation is not a bridge across two halves of a fractured identity, but rather an accelerated maturation, from young teen to adult hero who is nonetheless entirely the same person. There is no neurotic need to maintain separation between the identities, no questioning of who is “the real person”; She-Ra is a tool Adora uses to kick ass.
*Neither is, strictly speaking, a pilot: both were produced after their respective series were already greenlit. Nor does She-Ra technically have a premiere: all episodes of the first season “aired” on Netflix simultaneously.
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