“She-Ra and the Princesses of Power” Is Queerness and Hope in a Dark World

It’s been a minute since Netflix dropped She-Ra and the Princesses of Power‘s fourth season, but because it happened over the holidays, our TV Team didn’t really have a chance to sit down and talk about it. But now we’re all caught up and full of feelings. Join Carmen Phillips, Valerie Anne, Heather Hogan, and special guest Meg Jones Wall to talk about the triumph, heartbreak, and total gayness of one of our all-time favorite animated series.

Heather: Even in Season One, I thought She-Ra was one of the most important TV series happening for queer humans, and after Season Four, I believe it more than ever! So many themes: finding out the belief system of your youth is destroying the world, the comfort of chosen family, the power of friends fighting together against fascism, navigating toxic family/friend dynamics, etc. What She-Ra storylines have resonated most with you?

Valerie Anne: For me the first thing that hit me, deep in my bones, was that realization that the adults around you maybe weren’t… right. That eye-opening moment where you figure out that just because the people who raised you told you this one thing doesn’t mean it’s the best way or the only way or even a good way necessarily. That your parents could be flawed or your religion could be fucked up or the viewpoints foisted upon you could not align with how you truly felt once you were exposed to something more. And I think that ties into the found family aspect, because once you break out of Plato’s cave and into the light, you need to find other people who can be your support system as you try to break free of the only world you knew.

Carmen: For me it’s right in She-Ra’s theme song: “We’re on the edge of greatness/ Turning darkness to light / We’re right beside you ready to fight / We’re gonna win in the end!” I love what message that sends. I sometimes worry how corny it is to say “There’s darkness and it can be fought with the light,” but you know what? That’s also true. It’s truer now in this country than any other time that I’ve been alive to see it. I need to be reminded that “we’re going to win in the end.” (Sorry! Yes! To answer the question as asked, yes it’s about the power of love fighting together against fascism! That just lights a fire in me. I get excited for the kids who are coming up next and are learning this lesson at a young age, I also get excited for me who gets to receive reminders of this lesson right now.)

Meg: I love both of these answers! For me, I think seeing Adora realize that the side she was defending was seen as evil in the rest of the world, that she was part of a group that was all about destruction and oppression — and also understanding that Catra already knew all of that and was trying to survive inside that toxic system anyway — felt so much like surviving an evangelical upbringing that it completely knocked me out. Adora does what she knows is right and leaves the Horde, but it’s not without its own trauma, and it brings plenty of new pain. She loses her best friend, her team, her sense of purpose, and the only family she’s ever known, and it shakes her to her core. I see so much of my own journey in this show, and of every animated series I’ve watched, it’s the one I most wish I’d had growing up.

Heather: That’s me too, Meg. Two of the things, to this day, that I find it impossible to explain to people who didn’t grow up inside white evangelical Christianity are: 1) No, actually, I didn’t know it was wrong. I didn’t know the Baptist Church was inextricable from a Republican Party literally founded on and sustained by racism. I didn’t know mission work was colonizing. I didn’t know gay and trans people weren’t the bad guys. It’s played for laughs in the pilot that Adora and Catra are absolutely terrified of… glittery, sparkly, rainbow-colored princesses. But that’s what it feels like to grow up in a fear-mongering system that only remains in power because of its ability to suppress the truth, other and villainize people, and then oppress them. 2) Waking up to that reality and choosing to leave, like you said, can be so painful because you can quite honestly lose everything — and the people you leave behind think YOU’RE going to the dark side.

Heather: There are also SO MANY queer relationship dynamics in She-Ra. Which ones jump out at you? Why?

Meg: I know there are so many queer dynamics on this show (and I love them all!), but I am just never going to get over Catra and Adora, and the complexities of their relationship. The ways that they supported each other in childhood, that they found a home within one another when everything around them felt chaotic and confusing, is so intense and powerful – and even with Catra’s destructive actions and relentless anger, it still seems like the pair can’t stay away from each other. Adora has opened herself to new relationships and built a new family while Catra has closed herself off from everyone around her, and while I know that Catra would need a significant redemption arc before her relationship with Adora can be repaired, I’m eager to see how Season Five and Catra potentially teaming up with Glimmer might help them both grow and shift. Adora is back to the person she was at the start, before She-Ra and the sword and all of her magic – she’s like Catra again, only able to use her skills and training, and that could mean that they find common ground in a way we haven’t seen since Season One.

Carmen: Ooooh that would be really exciting! I love the themes you are pulling on here, Meg!

Valerie Anne: I also feel a pull toward Catra and Adora because I think Adora is still seeing things in black and white; what she thought was good was bad, and now everything associated it is bad. She hasn’t really stopped to consider that Catra went through the same thing she did, but just doesn’t have the support system Adora does. Though, Catra could have had that support system, if she hadn’t felt so scorned by Adora (which was not Adora’s fault obviously), because Scoripia was right there waiting for her. Entrapta too. But Catra wouldn’t let herself get close to anyone again in case they Adora’d out of her life. But speaking of queer vibes, I find Scorpia’s “do I want to be her best friend or her girlfriend” vibes really relatable.

Carmen: I mean I think it’s most obviously Catra and Adora, but since Valerie and Meg already outlined that so beautifully, I will jump back in with Scorpia. Scorpia is so in love with Catra and she doesn’t know what to do with the intensity of her emotions! I find that deeply relatable as a queer-specific dynamic. I feel similarly about Glimmer’s kickass, can-do rainbow spirit. In any other show, especially a show geared towards children, Glimmer would be the gayest character; she’d be the fan favorite that everyone made art about and claimed as our own. Somehow on She-Ra she’d probably fall somewhere in the middle?

I actually think that’s the thing about She-Ra overall; the show is just queer. Somethings just are what they are. The queer aesthetics of She-Ra bleed through all over, it’s hard to pull it apart and say “yes this one thing!” It’s all of it! The color choices, the animation style, the emphasis on chosen and found family, the cis boy archer in a crop top rainbow tank, his rainbow haired best friend, Catra’s entire dangerous dapper vibe, the way Entrapta feels like Cosima from Orphan Black who made a wrong turn, Scorpio’s hard femme exterior, Double Trouble’s they/them pronouns, and obviously Spinerella and Netossa. It’s all of it. This show is just joyfully, unapologetically, G A Y.

Heather: Yeah, you said it, Carmen! Also, I am really curious to see where Catra’s story goes from here, because the writers have pushed her to the absolute edge of redemption. By the end of Season Four, she had completely bottomed out. I actually felt the sympathy draining out of me the meaner and meaner she was to Scorpia. Do I understand why she behaved like that? Yeah, absolutely, but by the end, I was like, “Wow, can she come back from this?” (I do think she can because I think Noelle Stevenson & Co. explore the fullness of humanity for all of their characters as well as any team of writers I’ve ever seen.)

Heather: What did you think of the addition of Double Trouble this season? I thought they were consistently hilarious, and there was never a PSA about their pronouns or a need to make them a hero. There’s hardly ever a true chaotic neutral character on TV! 

Valerie Anne: I’m obsessed. I love how fun they are and also that everyone in the show, without anyone ever having a conversation about it, just started using they/them pronouns for Double Trouble. One of the most annoying push-backs to they/them pronouns is when people (usually Boomers, lezbehonest) try to make the argument that it’s not “grammatically correct” even though if they found a wallet on the ground they would likely have said, “Someone dropped their wallet!” without thinking about it. So I think casually using they/them pronouns for a specific person in a children’s cartoon is a brilliant way to raise a generation of people who can never say they’ve never heard of that before or that it feels to new or strange.

Meg: I also really loved Double Trouble, as well as everyone using the correct pronouns for them. Adora is often so black and white, and I loved seeing DT live in the grey areas, offering flexibility and expansion and fresh perspectives. I also loved how they just unapologetically called people out and saw the truth in messy situations, showing no fear of Catra or Hordak or anybody. I would love to see more of Double Trouble in Season Five.

Carmen: Their pronouns are important, but do you know what I love most about Double Trouble? That they aren’t necessarily on the “good team” whatever that is. I think the other danger about having queer or non-binary or gender non-conforming characters on television, especially TV aimed at younger eyes, is the need to make them “pure” or “good” in this overcorrection from the demonization of queerness by the (often religious) right. That gets boring quick! If we’re going to be a least a little honest with ourselves, part of what makes queerness fun is that it’s messy and against the norm and yes, a little bit of a “Fuck You.” I think no one better captures that dynamic than Double Trouble. They delight in the fact that the people around them can’t figure out which way they are going. They stir up trouble just for the fun of watching the tornado turn. Who doesn’t love that?

Meg: I totally agree, Carmen! I love that they so explicitly say that they’re just trying to pick “the winning team,” even if that means switching multiple times and double-crossing people that they are fully aware trusted them — it makes them such a complex and engaging character.

Heather: There’s been some, I think, very unfair and bizarre criticism of She-Ra lately, about it being queer baity, but it includes a canonical lesbian couple in Spinerella and Netossa, Bow’s gay dads, and now Double Trouble. Also, at this point, I think it’s bananas to think Scorpia isn’t queer. Do you feel like She-Ra is doing its gay duty?

Valerie Anne: I think sometimes people say “queer baity” when they actually mean “my ship isn’t canon yet.” Maybe that’s not fair in this case, but I don’t think that there is any other way to play out Catra and Adora’s relationship right now. I agree that the canon queer characters sprinkled throughout make it unfair to accuse it of that because queerbaiting is when you use the promise of queerness to attract viewers but then don’t follow through. I do understand wondering where they are going with Catra and Adora; like why have them dance with each other if you’re never going to explore those feelings, whether they’re past or present. Or why have Scorpia say “friend” so much, instead of just having her realize she has a crush? But on the other hand, why do they have to put such fine a point on it? I understand the questions and frustrations, but I don’t think it’s fair to call it queerbaiting.

Heather: Yeah, I agree. I honestly feel like we’re at the point where the word “queerbait” has lost most of its meaning because it’s SO overused. Like I’ve been queerbaited, okay? I watched every season of Warehouse 13. I lived through the Great Swan Queen Wars. This is not queerbaiting.

Carmen: I’ve honestly never thought of She-Ra as “queer bait” and I think a lot of that is because the term itself has become very overused. When I think of “queer bait” I think of Rizzoli & Isles, an obstinately straight show that uses queer advertising gimmicks as bait to build an audience that it never intends to follow through on. She-Ra isn’t a straight show. Not only because it has cannon queer characters, but also because it’s designed by a queer creator who has been open about creating shows for queer children that didn’t used to exist. By its very definition She-Ra isn’t queer bait. I watch a lot of action cartoons with my nephew, and I also think that action-adventure children’s cartoons in general don’t have much of a romantic focus. So, given that dynamic, I’m not sure that I would push She-Ra to be more romantic than it is right now. (Still, they could afford to be a little more specific about Scorpia though, that is right there in front of them.)

Heather: Hey, speaking of Scorpia, how about her Season Four storyline?

Meg: I absolutely love Scorpia. I love her courage, I love her relentless optimism, I love her compassion, and I love that she was able to gently claw her way into Catra’s heart (in spite of Catra’s best efforts to resist). I also really loved getting to learn more about her backstory this season, and how she came to be a powerless princess working for the Horde. She absolutely deserves better than the constant stream of abuse and pain that Catra dishes out, and after watching her pine endlessly in season three, I was honestly delighted to see her leave that relationship behind and find more confidence and inner strength with the princesses. I really hope that when Catra eventually (hopefully) gets her shit together, Scorpia receives a sincere and heartfelt apology, and that Catra recognizes how cruel she’s been in the face of endless kindness and generosity. I just want Scorpia to be happy.

Valerie Anne: Scorpia’s realization that this friendship that she cared about so much, that she poured so much heart and energy and time into, might not actually be a two-sided friendship and maybe actually was kind of toxic, was a super important story that I wish I had learned earlier in my life than I did. Hell have I even really learned it yet? Unclear. But it was really nice to see, even though it broke my whole entire heart.

Carmen: Same! I think what the show has presented in a lesson that not all friendships are healthy, and it’s OK to choose yourself, even when it’s hard, is very important. Man, what She-Ra does so well is untangling these very adult themes and breaking them down into a format that we don’t often see them dealt with or conquered. I felt that way about the Catra’s abuse backstory in Season One and I really felt that with Scorpia in Season Four. (And those two things are not unreleated).

Heather: I agree! I actually think one thing She-Ra does EXCEPTIONALLY well and never gets credit for is: explore how different relationships and power structures can be toxic, and how it’s not a sign of cowardice, weakness, or bad character to acknowledge that and to walk away. I cannot imagine what it would have been like, as a child, to have someone tell me that it was okay — paramount, even! — for me to love myself, that my own needs should always be at the center of my consideration, and that it wasn’t my responsibility to over-function for people who hurt me.

Heather: What characters on She-Ra remind you most of yourself?

Valerie Anne: I’ve got a little bit of Bow’s optimism, Glimmer’s ability to be easily overwhelmed, Scorpia’s fierce loyalty, Catra’s stubbornness, and Adora’s hope. (Is that cheating?)

Carmen: It’s Glimmer. Specifically it’s chubby fat early seasons Glimmer. My breath used to catch when I watched her! I can’t imagine what it would have meant to me as a kid to have a fat, pink rainbow wearing, kick ass princess who smiled and spoke sweetly but was brave and loyal and not to be messed with. There’s absolutely no contest.

Meg: I think at my best I’m like Scorpia: courageous, loyal, and fiercely protective of her friends – but at my worst I’m definitely Catra: vindictive, bitter, and self-isolating.

Heather: I would have easily said I identified most with Adora when this show started, but the things I’ve been through these last several years, and learned about myself, and accepted about my past, and begun to understand about how I give and receive love — whew, boi! I think it’s gotta be Scorpia now! She’s just about the most tragic tender butch I have ever seen. She has that whole, “It’s okay. It’s going to be okay. I will fix this for you and therefore fix you and then once you’re okay I will tend to my own wounds” vibe that I wrote about Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack‘s first season. Constantly trying to find the balance between admitting she’s not powerful enough to keep the literal world together with her own two claws and being terrified of expressing her actual power.

Heather: What are your hopes for Season Five?

Valerie Anne: I want Adora and Catra to get trapped in an elevator (or a magic pod, I don’t care) so they are forced to confront each other and their feelings without the chaos of battle around them. I want more Double Trouble. I want 100% less Swift Wind being trapped in the Swamp of Sadness. In fact how about 0 call-backs to the traumatizing media of my childhood. I want to learn more about Scorpia. More music!! And just more of the power of friendship storylines that make this show what it is.

Meg: Wow, WOW, I would love a Catra/Adora bottle episode. I also want more Double Trouble, more Scorpia, and for Catra to get her shit together.

Carmen: Yeah we’re very due for a Catra/Adora bottle episode! I’m also very interested to find out where we are going with Glimmer and Catra! I don’t have any hopes around those relationship dynamics, but I think there’s a lot of excitement there for me! I also really want more Double Trouble. (Ok my wishlist is a lot like Meg’s haha). Honestly, one of my favorite parts of She-Ra is that it’s not afraid to get really dark when necessary, and I’d love to see them keep exploring that moving forward. Fighting evil is scary. We need to see that, so that we know how to defeat it.

Heather: I agree with all of this — although, Valerie, YOU KNOW I LOVE THE TRAPPED ELEVATOR TROPE, so now I definitely want that. Beyond y’all’s wishes, my main hope for Season Five is: now that Etheria is back in the larger universe, please goddesses NO HE-MAN.

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The TV Team

The Autostraddle TV Team is made up of Riese Bernard, Carmen Phillips, Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya, Valerie Anne, Natalie, Drew Burnett Gregory, and Nic. Follow them on Twitter!

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  1. Love love love this. Here’s something: I’ve noticed that sometimes in recent discussions “queer baiting” has meant “nobody kissed or came out using the words ‘I’m gay'”, even in the face of relationships that would be very obviously romantic if they were between a man and a woman (see: Netossa and Spinnerella).

    • That’s not a standard that a lot of m/f ships are held to, particularly in kids’ TV. Representation is important, but it doesn’t always need to involve a Very Special Episode or a primer.

  2. “The way Entrapta feels like Cosima from Orphan Black who made a wrong turn” Mind blown! This is so true.

    Re. queerbaiting, I certainly don’t think the show overall can be accused of that for the reasons given above, but I will say that if NONE of the hinted potential queer pairings happen in the main group of characters by the last season, there will be tables to flip.

  3. I love this roundtable, and the queerness of this show! I love the depth and messiness of the characters and the exploration of gray areas, as was discussed in the roundtable.

    One thing I really dislike in this show is the way that white saviorism shows up. Full disclosure, I am white, and I believe that my perspectives on racial/colonial dynamics should NOT be prioritized or centered. I just feel compelled to acknowledge this trope of white saviorism when I talk about this show.

    • I actually meant to bring up colonial dynamics in this roundtable. I thought the biggest twist of the season was that the original She-Ra was, in fact, a colonizer and the “first ones” were only on Etheria to bleed it of its natural resources and harness its magic to consolidate their own power. That messaging would have fucked me up in the best way when I was a kid. I wish I could have seen something like that before my church sent me off to do mission work in less developed countries before my brain was even finished forming.

      • i couldn’t agree more – i can’t imagine how seeing that story depicted in such clear ways would’ve shifted my worldview in a deeply necessary way as a kid. evangelicalism is a trip.

        • I appreciate the point you both raise. I guess when I wrote my original comment, I was mostly thinking of the dynamic most prominent in the first season where the princess alliance is falling apart until the current, white, She-Ra “comes to the rescue.” But it’s true that the show engages with/presents colonial dynamics in more ways than this one trope, especially in season 4.

  4. I think the reason I don’t find She-Ra queerbaity is that I can see myself in the characters and the world so clearly (hi Scorpia… I cheered out loud and punched the air when she left the Fright Zone). I don’t get the feeling of being taken advantage of, or that the writers got chicken, because they built a world which feels like it’s definitely for me.

  5. I love Scorpia so much more than I meant to? Also I would like a tragic backstory scorpion plushie please

  6. i love she-ra! very curious how they’re going to wrap it up next season, but i’m soooo looking forward to it. i think the thing i love most about the show is that it feels like the characters move the plot organically. oftentimes in storytelling, it feels like certain actions or characters are more like plot devices, but on this show every choice/action feels authentic. <3

  7. I am very excited to read your thoughts on Season “5”, (really season 4).

    It was perfect imo.

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