Retroactive Continuity: She-Ra and Monsters

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Commissioned entry for Susan Smith Webb. This doesn’t fit the normal rules for Retroactive Continuity entries, but (1) I like the topic and (2) she gets special treatment for Reasons.

We’ve talked a lot about monsters and what they represent. To recap the main points briefly, monsters are primarily defined by their association with the grotesque: they are distortions of the “normal” human form or other familiar creatures and objects, most commonly either by proportional distortion (such as the small body and large head, hands, and feet of a goblin), chimerization (such as the animalistic features of a werewolf), or death and decay (either literally as in the case of a vampire or zombie, or figuratively as in the extremely aged appearance of a classic witch). The grotesque, in turn, has two major functions: first, it is the aesthetic of carnival, which is to say representative of the transgression of boundaries and therefore the violation or inversion of social norms–a chimera implies a forbidden union of different species, for example. Second, it is the visual representation of the abject, that which is neither subject nor object, the rejected elements of the self. The grotesque is a reminder that you are a body, that you are filled with blood, guts, and shit, that you will age and are mortal.

These two aspects combine to make the figure of the monster a powerful representation of the Other, members of the extended self, the community, who are rejected and expelled for violating social norms or not conforming to the idealized “normal” human body and behavior–the marginalized, in other words. This, in turn, often leads to a reclamation of monsters and the grotesque by the unjustly marginalized–indeed, this analysis of abjection and the grotesque comes entirely from feminist scholarship, especially Kristeva’s Powers of Horror.

She-Ra contains numerous characters who are arguably monstrous in the sense of deviating from the “normal” human body plan. In particular, characters are frequently chimerized: deer-people populate the village of Thaymor and the area around Bright Moon in early episodes, Mermista and her people are mer-folk, lizard-people, goat-people, and more populate the Crimson Waste, and Angella has wings, among many other examples. It is in the Horde, however, that we see the figure of the monster most used to represent the Other.

Consider Scorpia. She is unquestionably chimerized, with her scorpion claws and tail. But she is also “distorted” in the sense of being unusually tall, stocky, and immensely muscular, which deviates from the “norm” of what women are “supposed to” look like. (The supposer being, as it always is with our culture’s beauty standards, white supremacist cisheteronormative patriarchy.) Her relationship with Catra is also heavily queer-coded: while she talks about wanting a friendship with Catra, their trip to Princess Prom is in many ways framed as a date, she bonds with Sea Hawk over their mutual pining for someone who doesn’t seem to want or respect them, and she suggests essentially running away together to Catra near the end of Season 3. She is, in short, physically gender-nonconforming and sapphic.

It is no accident that her character is defined by exclusion. Her family, according to her, joined the Horde voluntarily and gave Hordak the Black Garnet runestone, because they were rejected and excluded by the other peoples of Etheria. (There is some reason to doubt this story, but it has not actually been contradicted by anything we’ve seen in the show, and that the rest of the world calls their home “the Fright Zone” suggests at least an element of truth.) She mentions being rejected and excluded by the other princesses at past Princess Proms, and most importantly, her overtures of friendship are repeatedly and consistently rejected by Catra. Scorpia is a warm, friendly person who wants badly to be loved; she is an aggressive fighter her derives satisfaction from defeating her enemies, but so is Glimmer. It’s pretty clear that her rejection by the princesses, and by extension the rejection of her people, isn’t about behavior; it’s about her monstrous appearance.

Catra is likewise defined by rejection, but in a different way. Where Scorpia’s rejection defines her circumstances, Catra’s rejection by her foster mother Shadow Weaver and best friend/primary love interest Adora has shaped her personality. Her chimerization is also more subtle: she has fur, cat eyes, ears, and tail, sharp nails, but in this art style most of her fur is indistinguishable from light brown skin, and most of the rest of her features are familiar by way of catgirls, who have been sanitized and defanged by pop culture in much the same way as fairies. And, too, cats are a familiar creature that is often found in human homes, treated as part of a human family; generally speaking, that’s not true of humans.

But underneath, Catra is far more monstrous than Scorpia. She has internalized her monstrosity, her rejection, and so unlike Scorpia she plays out that monstrous role, deliberately embracing being “the bad guy” because she feels unworthy of being good. This comes to a head in the Season 3 finale, when she first opens the portal knowing the havoc it will wreak on Etheria, and then becomes an avatar of sorts of the portal, becoming even more monstrous as she chimerizes with it.

In this choice to embrace and internalize being defined as a monster, she is a microcosm of the Horde itself. Hordak is a “defective” clone–someone who fails to meet the arbitrary standards of a “correct” body in his society–and a literal outsider, having come to Etheria from another world, and he embraces this role of invading Other, which is to say monster. In the Horde, we see lizard people, bear people, octopus people–chimeras of human with animals seen as scary or particularly alien, not the deer and bird people that seem to make the bulk of the Alliance. Entrapta, possessor of monstrous hair and mad scientist, permanent Other because of her struggles with basic socialization, ends up joining the Horde. Double Trouble, a nonbinary lizard person–like Scorpia, queer and a chimera–joins the Horde.

But again, we see fish-people and deer-people and bird-people in the Alliance. We see varied body types in the Alliance. The difference isn’t just that the “ugly” monsters are in the Horde; scary-animal-chimeras are more prominent in the Horde and friendly-animal-chimeras are more prominent in the Alliance, but we see both in both, and the diversity of real-world body types is comparable in both. The real difference is that the Horde internalizes their monstrosity. They have learned that there are acceptable things to do be and unacceptable things to be, Us and Other, but rather than try to end that extinction, they make a new Us and start Othering everyone else, rejecting all difference from their own new norm.

And in that respect, Catra is the Horde. It makes more sense than ever that she has refused to leave it, and instead sought dominance within it.

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