“When did you get so weak?” snarls Catra, punching She-Ra in the gut. She-Ra falters, trembling as she struggles to fix the crumbling, magical sea gate – under attack by the electric beams of the evil Horde. One of many confrontations between She-Ra/Adora, Catra, and the forces of the Horde in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, this scene is evocative of many of the show’s central themes. While She-Ra soon finds backup in her friends, Bow and Mermista, and the Horde is eventually defeated (crawling away to reappear in the next fight), this tense moment between Catra and She-Ra is a confrontation between ideas of power and strength – a vivid demonstration of the complex relationship between two former best friends.
She-Ra is a recent Netflix reboot of the 1980s He-Man spin off, She-Ra: Princess of Power. The show tells the story of Adora, a former child soldier of the Horde, who discovers her destiny when she stumbles upon a magical sword. Transforming into the eight-foot-tall warrior, She-Ra, Adora joins forces with her new friends, Bow and Glimmer, to rebuild the Princess Alliance and bring balance to the world of Etheria. As the series’ name suggests, power is a significant part of it. While She-Ra treads familiar ground in its exploration of what it means to be powerful – Adora’s mentor informing her that she must let go of her earthly attachments to save the world is a strong callback to Avatar: The Last Airbender) – it also offers a nuanced representation of powerful young women. While the young women of She-Ra deal with the burden and responsibility of power, they also struggle with questions of power that are distinctly shaped by their gender and age.
Although many of the major characters have magical powers, power in the show is not unlimited or infallible. Despite the strong message that She-Ra is her destiny, Adora must learn how to become her. This includes struggling to reconcile her upbringing in the Fright Zone with her new life as a member of the Princess Alliance, leaving old friends behind for new. Adora must also learn how to physically transform into She-Ra – something she initially has difficulties with – and how to use her powers. She is repeatedly presented with tasks that she has no idea how to accomplish, from fixing the forest to healing Glimmer’s glitching magic. As the latest incarnation in a long line of She-Ras, Adora is overwhelmed by the legacy of her predecessors, and the expectations of those around her. Despite her great power, Adora’s magic is completely dependent on the Sword of Protection. When the sword is stolen by the Horde, she is unable to transform. The fallibility of magical powers is similarly embodied in Glimmer, the battle-ready Princess of Bright Moon. Glimmer’s magic allows her to teleport and produce blinding balls of light. Despite her eagerness and ferocity, we quickly learn that Glimmer must regularly recharge her magic. Draining too much of her power, Glimmer passes out after teleporting Bow, Adora, and herself to safety in the second episode. Later in the season, her magic is corrupted by the Horde when she is captured, and she is left unable to teleport at all, racked by painful glitches.
Yet, in exposing the limits of power, She-Ra embraces different forms of strength. A running theme in the show is the importance of doing something – anything – even if you don’t have magical powers or special abilities. The message of being strong in your own way, while heavy-handed at times, allows the show to represent alternatives to conventional embodiments of power. First highlighted in Princess Perfuma’s episode, “Flowers for She-Ra,” Perfuma and her subjects learn that they can’t depend on the universe to save them. Although she tearfully admits her own limits – “I grow plants. We’re not strong enough to go against the Horde” – the episode concludes with her and her people successfully driving the Horde away with a gutsy attack of flowers, vines, and wind chimes. In another episode, “System Failure,” the kitchen staff and Bow defeat the evil robots, saving the magically endowed Adora, Glimmer, and Princess Entrapta. Sword-less Adora still manages to infiltrate the Horde with the help of the Princess Alliance to save Bow and Glimmer. Even without She-Ra, she is a formidable soldier – her childhood of intense training in the Horde leaving her strong and capable in combat. Even without her powers, Glimmer still insists on fighting in the season finale’s battle to save Bright Moon from the Horde, declaring, “I don’t need magic to fight.” While magic is central to She-Ra, it isn’t the only thing the show declares powerful.
Magical displays of power, such as She-Ra, are also not always simple. Adora’s fraught relationship with her powers is one of the most engrossing storylines. She struggles at times to believe that she’d still have value without her powers, demanding, “What good am I if I can’t even heal one princess?” and declaring that She-Ra can take on the Horde alone. When Bow protests, Adora shouts, “Then what good is she?!” These raw moments vividly expose Adora’s complex relationship with She-Ra, and with her new life. Thrust into the Princess Alliance and a magical destiny, Adora still struggles with a lifetime of Horde indoctrination, and a fear of being weak or worthless. Despite the glowing sword, inhuman strength, and visibly defined muscles, She-Ra/Adora is flawed, and consumed at times with self-doubt.
Beyond Adora, young women in She-Ra must fight at times to be acknowledged as powerful beings. A clear example of this is found in Princess Frosta, the eleven-year-old ruler of the Kingdom of Snows. Adora cannot believe that Frosta, described earlier in the episode as “incredibly powerful,” is so young. Frosta’s eventual outburst at Adora – “That’s enough! You look at me and see a child. But I have worked too hard to gain respect” – is a striking moment, as Frosta reveals a lifetime of struggling to be accepted as powerful, young, and female. A similar scene occurs with Glimmer, who admits that people don’t take her seriously, declaring, “Try being the daughter of an immortal queen when your powers are sparkles.” Glimmer spends much of the season attempting to prove her worth as a commander. After being captured by the Horde, she admits to her mother, the Queen Angella, that she feels like a failure. Glimmer is shocked to learn that Queen Angella also feels like a failure, equally dragged down by her decisions and the weight of her responsibilities:
Glimmer: I’m sorry I couldn’t be perfect like you. You have no idea what it feels like to be such a screw-up!
Angella: I don’t know how you feel? I got your father killed! I ordered the battle your father perished in. I’ve never forgiven myself.
With this conversation, an important moment of bonding in an often-strained mother-daughter relationship, She-Ra refuses to pull any punches. To be powerful – to be a leader – means making and facing the consequences of difficult decisions. And everyone, even the seemingly perfect Queen Angella, struggles sometimes.
One can also look to the wider power structures in Etheria. In the two competing forces, good versus evil, there are two very different societal systems. The evil Horde is a patriarchy with a male ruler – Hordak – but the show focuses more intently on his female second-in-command, Shadow Weaver, and the force captains, Catra and Scorpia. In the Horde’s Fright Zone, it is vital to appear powerful. Adora informs a shocked Glimmer and Bow that she would hide when sick, as “Displays of physical weakness are strongly discouraged in the Horde.” Power in the Fright Zone is largely manifested in the manipulation and twisted magic of Shadow Weaver. Like Glimmer and Frosta, Catra also fights to be respected. The difference between these bids for power is a strong reflection of the contrast between the Horde and the Princess Alliance. Freed from her position as Adora’s sidekick, Catra seizes the opportunity to be ambitious, ruthlessly chasing down power. In “Promise,” we see brief moments of Adora and Catra’s life growing up in the Horde, a stunning episode that vividly depicts their close bond and balance of power in their former relationship. In one simulated memory, a preteen Catra laughingly tells Adora that she does not mind coming in second place, before excusing herself to stifle tears alone in the change room. The episode ends with Catra slowly cutting the web that Adora, hanging off the edge of a cliff, is desperately clinging to. “I am so much stronger than anyone ever thought,” asserts Catra. “I wonder what I could have been if I had gotten rid of you sooner?” Fighting for respect in the Horde means viciously taking control, stepping on others to succeed, and Hordak delights in setting his ambitious female leaders against each other.
The Princess Alliance, in contrast, is presented as a matriarchy. With Queen Angella and Glimmer as the leaders, the rebellion is almost entirely comprised of young women – Bow (and later Sea Hawk) being the exception. As Glimmer, Bow, and Adora travel Etheria recruiting Princesses, it becomes clear that the majority of Etheria is ruled by women and girls. No one ever questions this matriarchal structure, beyond Bow remarking, “Everyone here is a princess – I’m like the only one who’s not a princess.” The ultimate power for the Alliance comes when they are united, looking past their differences to come together for the good of all. Supported by the princesses around her, She-Ra is able to conjure the rainbow wave that returns balance to Etheria, healing the broken runestones and sending the Horde fleeing.
In addition to power within the show, the She-Ra reboot is arguably a powerful act itself. Led by showrunner Noelle Stevenson, She-Ra has an all-female writing room, and features the work of female composer, Sunna Wehrmeijer. It offers a refreshing update to the 1980s version, which is painfully unwatchable for anyone who didn’t grow up watching it. Unlike the original, which credits He-Man/Adam with rescuing Adora from the Horde, Adora saves herself here. The character redesigns, which were met with fierce backlash in some circles, are one of the best parts of the show. The new She-Ra, complete with boots, skort, and chest-covering armour, looks ready for battle. The rest of the cast is diverse, representing a variety of body types. As someone who spent all of her teen years incredibly self-conscious of her thighs, Glimmer’s redesign, wearing shorts with a body that isn’t twig-thin, is incredibly welcome. She-Ra also casually offers canon LGBTQ+ characters with an ease that belies the long wait for such confirmation in other animated shows. Spinnerella and Netossa are clearly established as a couple, from constantly being depicted holding each other, to Spinnerella calling Netossa “darling.” It is also wonderful to find a show that focuses on women and girls, while still dealing with conflict and complex ideas of power. The princesses of She-Ra are warriors and leaders – a far cry from most of Disney’s princess canon.
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is a refreshing response to shows with only a couple of female characters. For once, the viewer is given a variety of girls and young women to relate to, rather than eking out some sort of connection with the token female character. The predominately-female cast is supplemented by Bow and Sea Hawk who, in turn, offer unconventional representations of masculinity. Bow is kind and warm-hearted, while Sea Hawk spends much of the season either setting boats on fire or being held in Mermista’s arms.
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is a show that holds so much promise moving into future seasons. Now that the initial world-building and introductions are out of the way, it is exciting to think about future areas of development. The complex relationship between Adora and Catra, one of the strongest elements of the show, will hopefully continue to be developed, along with its nuanced representation of power. She-Ra is, to take a line from the power-ballad theme song, “on the edge of greatness,” and I am excited to see where it goes next.