In 'She-Ra And The Princesses Of Power,' True Strength Is In Being Yourself

18 hours ago
Originally published on May 15, 2020 6:40 am

Showrunner Noelle Stevenson has always been a fan of science fiction and fantasy. As a kid, she loved it all: the epic space battles, the magic, the quests that seemed larger than life.

But there was a problem with her favorite childhood stories, like Star Wars and The Lord of The Rings series. "I never quite saw myself reflected in them," Stevenson says, "certainly not at the heart of the story."

There weren't a lot of women.

Of course, there's interstellar rebel Princess Leia and Nazgûl-slaying Éowyn. But Stevenson wanted a female version of Luke Skywalker and a terror-inducing femme Lord Sauron.

So when she started writing stories of her own, she made sure kids like her felt seen, in more ways than one.

I know I'm not the only one that my first-ever crush on a female character was Velma from 'Scooby Doo.' I think it's important to know that this is an OK way to be. You don't have to hide. - Noelle Stevenson

"I know I'm not the only one that my first-ever crush on a female character was Velma from Scooby Doo," Stevenson says. "I think it's important to know that this is an OK way to be. You don't have to hide."

Stevenson began her career as a comic writer and illustrator. In 2015, her graphic novel Nimona was a National Book Awards finalist and her series Lumberjanes won two Eisner Awards.

When Netflix and DreamWorks wanted to reboot She-Ra: Princess of Power — an epic showdown between magical princesses and an evil alien invader — Stevenson was all in.

She kept much of the original show's action and adventure — like the original, the reboot takes place on the planet Etheria, and one of the princesses who is trying to stop the evil Horde army from taking over is named Adora.

She grew up behind enemy lines, taken from her home by the Horde and raised as a soldier. But eventually, Adora realizes the atrocities the Horde has committed against the Etherians and leaves to join the rebellion — and she quickly finds a magical sword that transforms her into a giant warrior princess named She-Ra.

Stevenson did make one small but important change to the show: Its name. The Netflix and DreamWorks version is She-Ra and the PRINCESSES of Power. All the princesses are important.

She also gathered an all-female writing staff to update this team of powerful women. In the original show, the princesses are white, skinny and presumably straight. The new rebellion includes women of color. They're women in all different shapes and sizes. And there are women who love other women.

Princess Weekes is an assistant editor at The Mary Sue, a website that covers the intersection of women and fandom. She's been writing about the She-Ra reboot since the beginning.

Weekes says that because the team behind She-Ra is made up of LGBTQ people, the stories on the show give genuine representation of queer life for kids.

"You allow queerness for young kids to be just normalized in general," Weekes says. "What I think Noelle Stevenson and the entire She-Ra team has done is create a society and place where characters can exist, but their biggest problem isn't that they're gay."

One of the many LGBTQ artists on the She-Ra team is Jacob Tobia. They're the voice of She-Ra's non-binary character, Double Trouble.

Double Trouble is a non-binary, shape-shifting mercenary, who is voiced by actor Jacob Tobia.
DreamWorks/Netflix

Double Trouble uses their power of shapeshifting to transform into any character on the show, and they cause chaos on both sides — the Horde and the rebellion. Tobia says Double Trouble's ability to create conflict without squarely fitting into a box of good or evil shows how dynamic the character is.

"They inhabit a complicated moral tapestry," Tobia says. "That's what having access to full personhood looks like, is being able to play characters that aren't just there to be the moral of the story, but are there to advance the story, to escalate conflict and just cause trouble."

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is far from the first children's show with LGBTQ representation. There's decades of history with queer characters and story lines present. But for a long time, it had to be subtle.

"It's not accidental that every gay person I know loved Sailor Moon growing up," Tobia says. "It's because there was embedded in the story a transformation narrative for each of the characters. You went from the clothes you had to wear to school, to then getting your magical uniform that gave you your special powers that was shiny, and sparkly and cute."

I didn't know before that I could act this way — that I could love this way, that I could dress this way — and have a loving family and friends. Shows like 'She-Ra' show you that you can be. - Mey Rude

Tobia says as a gender nonconforming kid, shows like Sailor Moon and now She-Ra tell children that they're most powerful being their true selves.

What's important now is that She-Ra and the Princesses of Power — as well as shows like Steven Universe and Craig of the Creek — can take these same LGBTQ stories and put them out in the open, showing kids that being queer is an option.

Mey Rude is a journalist and a consultant for writing transgender characters in entertainment. She worked with Stevenson, in fact, on the coming-out story of a trans character in the comic series Lumberjanes.

"It's like 'Oh, I can be this,' " Rude says. "I didn't know before that I could act this way — that I could love this way, that I could dress this way — and have a loving family and friends. Shows like She-Ra show you that you can be."

This story was edited for radio by Ted Robbins and adapted for the web by Victoria Whitley-Berry and Petra Mayer

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The final season of "She-Ra And The Princesses Of Power" drops today. Dreamworks and Netflix rebooted the kids' TV show from the '80s. Now, in the original, all the princesses were white, skinny and presumably straight. NPR's Victoria Whitley-Berry says the reboot reflects a wider range of people.

VICTORIA WHITLEY-BERRY, BYLINE: For starters, it was originally called "She-Ra: Princess Of Power." The reboot is "She-Ra And The Princesses Of Power." They're all important. It still takes place on the magical planet Etheria. And it's under attack by an evil army called the Horde. So a group of powerful princesses fight back. Adora is a princess who discovers a sword that transforms her into a giant warrior princess named She-Ra.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHE-RA AND THE PRINCESSES OF POWER")

AIMEE CARRERO: (As Adora) For the honor of Grayskull.

WHITLEY-BERRY: "She-Ra And The Princesses Of Power" is your classic science fiction and fantasy story. It has the epic fight scenes, the space battles and, of course, magic. Showrunner Noelle Stevenson grew up on these kinds of stories.

NOELLE STEVENSON: Like "Lord Of The Rings" and "Star Wars" and things like that.

WHITLEY-BERRY: But there was a problem with her favorite childhood films.

STEVENSON: I never quite saw myself reflected in them, certainly not at the heart of the story.

WHITLEY-BERRY: There were a few women - Princess Leia and, much later, Rey. But where are the female Luke Skywalkers and Lord Saurons? So when she started writing stories of her own, she wanted kids like her to feel seen in more ways than one.

STEVENSON: I know I'm not the only one - that my first-ever crush on a female character was Velma from "Scooby Doo." And I think it's very important to know that this is an OK way to be. You don't have to hide.

WHITLEY-BERRY: Stevenson started out as a comic writer and illustrator, writing the graphic novel "Nimona" and the comic series "Lumberjanes." So when Netflix and DreamWorks started working on a She-Ra reboot, Stevenson was all in. She and her all-female writing staff updated the princesses. There are women of color now, women of different shapes and sizes and women who love other women. We also meet a nonbinary character named Double Trouble. They're voiced by actor Jacob Tobia.

JACOB TOBIA: Double Trouble is a nonbinary shape-shifting mercenary and a method actor. So their whole sort of shtick is that they're like, well, sure I can be anybody physically. But it's being people emotionally that's the real art.

AJ MICHALKA: (As Catra) This is what you really look like?

TOBIA: (As Double Trouble) More or less. Of course, we all wear costumes. I just happen to be able to wear other people as costumes - for a price.

WHITLEY-BERRY: Double Trouble is a fully realized character, even though they aren't one of the main ones.

TOBIA: That's what having access to full personhood looks like - is being able to play characters that aren't just there to be the moral of the story but are there to advance the story and escalate conflict and just cause trouble.

WHITLEY-BERRY: Now, "She-Ra And The Princesses Of Power" isn't the first time we've seen LGBTQ stories in children's entertainment. But what "She-Ra" and other shows like it do is bring queer stories that used to be subtle and puts them out into the open. Mey Rude is a journalist and trans character consultant. She says that because the team making "She-Ra" is made up of LGBTQ people, the stories they tell feel more genuine.

MEY RUDE: It's definitely this feeling of just comfort in queerness. It just feels like, oh, yeah, OK. This is me. This is my life. This is how my brain works, too.

WHITLEY-BERRY: Because throughout the five seasons of "She-Ra And The Princesses Of Power," everyone discovers they're strongest when they're being their true selves. Victoria Whitley-Berry, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WARRIORS (SHE-RA AND THE PRINCESSES OF POWER THEME SONG)")

AALIYAH ROSE: (Singing) We're gonna win in the end. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.