Here’s the thing: in 2018, LGBTQ representation in pop culture should be a given. It should be common to see queer characters in queer romances in comics, books, TV shows, movies and more — but somehow, it’s not. And even when it is common, the representation isn’t always very good. So when LGBTQ creators like Noelle Stevenson — the executive producer and showrunner for DreamWorks/Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power — step into positions of power in this medium, we put a lot of pressure on them to deliver the kind of content we want.
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power has received a lot of great feedback from critics, including my review right here at The Beat. The animated series dropped Nov. 13 on Netflix after fan response to the series prompted the streaming giant to release it three days earlier than planned. Before Adora, Glimmer, Bow, Catra, and the members of the Princess Alliance even hit the screen, a fandom was already developing around the show.
On my Twitter feed, most of the hype was built around the relationship between Adora and Catra (ship name: Catradora, who were #1 on tumblr via Fandometrics at time of writing): childhood friends, raised in the Horde, who give off such strong ex-girlfriend vibes in the show that it’s almost unbelievable. Throughout the first season of She-Ra, the dynamic between these two characters slowly crescendoes and then shatters in a desperate moment of genuine heartbreak. Watching the development of their relationship once was painful; watching it a second time, when I was more attached to the characters, their relationship, and their world, was even harder.
She-Ra bites off a lot of angst for its audience to chew, while also leaning hard into queer subtext. In particular, the episode “Princess Prom” gave queer audiences a lot to process: from Adora and Catra ballroom dancing in a fury-filled argument over Catra’s intentions at the ball to Scorpia blatantly crushing on Catra. Entertainment Weekly‘s Darren Franich even called out this tension in his review of the show.
But it’s not just subtext — at least, not wholly. She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, much like Adventure Time and Steven Universe before it, doesn’t shy away from introducing romance, however innocent, into the lives of its teenage characters. Glimmer undergoes a crisis when Bow goes to the ball with new friend Perfuma; Mermista has a bizarre love-hate relationship with Captain Seahawk. And then there are Netossa and Spinnarella, whose relationship is defined by constant touching and one carefully placed usage of the pet-name “Darling.” However, as pointed out by Hypable writer Donya Abramo, these two were the butt of the joke in their most involved episode, which not only altered how she viewed the character Bow (who cracks wise about their princess powers), but also how she interacted with the overall queer-positive aspects of the show.
In an email exchange with Abramo, she expanded on her comments from her review: “While I was watching, I knew that for a general, cishet audience, [Netossa and Spinnarella’s] relationship wouldn’t be explicit enough for everyone to simply get it,” Abramo said. “That’s not a unique phenomenon. We’ve seen it across several animated shows, most recently with Marceline and Princess Bubblegum in Adventure Time [who had years of build-up before they finally kissed in the series finale]…. It took an explicit Bubbleline kiss for everyone to accept it as being more than a close friendship.”
Abramo added that for her, as a queer woman, this kind of queer-coding is “enough for [her] and will be enough — to an extent — for fandom spaces. But outside of that, there’s enough wiggle-room for an audience to assume friendship, above anything else. And that sucks. Changing that default [heteronormative assumption of straightness] is never going to be an easy thing. Not until LGBTQIA+ individuals are represented equally across the entire spectrum.”
— I'm Catnip! ❄️ (@moonseelie) November 8, 2018
Because She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is a children’s show, there are some — like commenters on Franich’s EW review of the show — who think that discussing sexuality in the series at all is harmful. But here’s the thing: it’s only when we’re talking about queer sexuality that these kinds of defenses fall into place. Infant onesies say phrases like “heartbreaker” and little girls are taught that if boys pull their hair or tease them, it’s because they have a crush — which not only reinforces heterosexuality, but normalizes sexual harassment and physical abuse.
To normalize queerness across the spectrum, for all ages, it has to be present. It has to be talked about in the same way that heterosexuality is present and talked about. Queer-coding may be enough for Abramo and for some parts of the She-Ra fandom, but frankly, it isn’t enough. Explicit confirmation of queerness is utterly necessary. In She-Ra, queerness is absolutely present, though admittedly Abramo has a point: because the first season of the show relies mostly on subtext and doesn’t, for example, show two princesses kissing, there are plenty of viewers who will assume that queer audiences are making things up or twisting them to fit our own narrative. That includes the relationship between Catra and Adora.
“There will be people in the audience who will likely view Catra and Adora as more sibling-like, due to how they were raised together, but for me, there was so much hurt in Adora’s defection to the Princesses, and Catra’s refusal to follow her, that it edged into romantically coded territory,” Abramo said in an email. “It was so raw, and so fresh, and they both felt so strongly that they were in the right, that it put me in mind of several of my early relationships that ended badly, and you never quite heal and fit back together in the same way.”
It would be easy to throw a blanket over the entire cast of characters in She-Ra and yell, “THEY’RE GAY!” In the finale, they each glow with a different color of the rainbow, their combined forces knocking back the Horde in an incredibly dramatic fashion. However, it’s clear that Stevenson and her writers are aiming to introduce various types of representation in this series, which is commendable. As Abramo pointed out in her Hypable review and our emails, the “Princess of the Week” format employed for the first half of season one of the show could have allowed for a lot more expansion into how these characters are as people, not just princesses with powers. Ideally, in season two, we’ll get to see their relationships develop further and learn more about them as individuals, too.
I’m especially hoping that we’ll actually get confirmation of a “spoiler” that series star Aimee Carrero (who voices Adora/She-Ra) gave away at New York Comic Con: Bow supposedly has two dads, though we didn’t meet them in season one — why? We see much of Bow and Glimmer’s life at the palace, including significant scenes shared between Glimmer and her mom. The fact that we miss out on the same from Bow and his dads is frustrating, especially because that reveal at NYCC evoked such a massive response.
Plus, there are hints that Bow may be transgender. I’m a cisgender woman, but when I watched the show (for the second time) with my non-binary partner, who was watching it for the first time, they commented a few times on Bow’s possible transness — especially in the episode “In the Shadows of Mystacor,” when Bow, Glimmer and Adora all go to the hot springs together. Although it would presumably be acceptable for a cisgender teen boy to go shirtless in the springs, Bow wears a top just like Glimmer and Adora. Specifically, the top looks like it could be a binder or something to mask top surgery scars.
As the world of Etheria expands, will we meet other transgender and/or queer characters? Will we get to see these teens deal with their hormones? There are so many possibilities at hand; my only wish is to see this series embrace queerness in a way that is ultimately affirming to its audience, especially kids who may feel like they’re broken or weird.
Samantha Puc is an essayist and culture critic whose work has been featured on Bustle, The Mary Sue, SheKnows, The Tempest, Rogues Portal, and elsewhere. She mostly writes intersectional pop culture analysis with a particular focus on representation of LGBTQ and fat characters in fiction. Samantha is also the co-creator of Fatventure Mag, an outdoors zine for fat women and non-binary creators who are into being active, but not into toxic weight-loss culture. She lives in Rhode Island with her spouse and cats.