In the late summer of 2002, when I was five years old and fidgeting on a carpet square in my Kindergarten classroom, I learned I was a girl.
My mom had dressed me in a blue-jean watermelon pattern dress, complemented with little white socks and shiny black shoes, my hair done up nice in two braids and decorated with plastic barrettes. I’m sure I looked like an adorable child model, all soft round cheeks and chubby arms. But I didn’t feel adorable or like a model. I felt, cheeks burning with shame, like a girl. Frilly and stupid, exposed, uncomfortable. Under the unabashedly curious stares of other students, I tugged the dress down over my skinny knees, the corners of my eyes stinging and my nose squinching up to prevent tears. I hated the dress and the shiny shoes, and I couldn’t understand why I had to wear these clothes when my brother got to wear pants like a normal person. I fumed and buzzed under the scrutiny of my peers. At the time, I thought they were staring at me because of how wrong I looked–a boy, like my brother, wearing a watermelon-patterned dress!–when in retrospect, they were staring because of my panicked behavior. I didn’t understand this, any of this, at the time. Stop staring at me, I yelled, leaping to my feet, sprinting away from the circle of eyes and out of the room, crying freely, my shiny black shoes squeaking on the linoleum.
It isn’t quite accurate to say I thought I was a boy. But I knew I was not a girl, and that understanding grew, along with feelings of confusion, resentment, and embarrassment, as girlhood was pushed on to me, throughout middle and high school, and even into college.
But Jem, you’re probably wondering, this (very) personal story is great and all, but what does it have to do with She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (SPOP)?
Well, reader, I discovered SPOP in late 2019 and it was a monumental moment that, like Adora finding the Sword of Protection, changed my world forever. Yes, that’s dramatic, but it is also true. Here’s why: She-Ra and the Princesses of Power was the first time I felt represented on screen (in more than one character, no less).
I see myself on screen because none of the characters fall into stereotypes or cliches; they all have a balance of masculine and feminine traits; they all, subtly and not-so-subtly, represent a broad range of sexualities and LGBTQ+ identities; the characters have a diversity of skin tones, body shapes, physical attributes, and personal styles. While I’m sure this is up for debate, I personally have never seen a show as representative as She-Ra, especially in regards to gender and sexuality (*Note: I haven’t watched Steven Universe yet).
The abundance of queer representation in SPOP resonates with me for several reasons, but at the forefront, it is impactful to see LGBTQ+ characters whose lives are not negatively impacted because of their identity. Writing for Spectrum South, Rachel Abbott argues, “Although queer representation in film and television improves every year, our media tends toward the dramatic. Blue is the Warmest Color, Call Me By Your Name, Brokeback Mountain, Carol, Pose, even Queer Eye—the biggest titles in LGBTQ media lean in on the tear-jerking” (Abbott). While beggars can’t be choosers, it is emotionally draining to rely on dramatic, tragic, and traumatic representation all the time. And yes, She-Ra has a hefty (and I mean HEFTY) share of angst, most of which stems from the cult-like Evil Horde raising child soldiers and an abusive mother-figure named Shadow Weaver, who you can read all about here.
But the drama is not a direct result of the characters’ queerness. In fact, in the universe Noelle Stevenson created, queerness is normal, if not standard. In discussing the Princess Prom episode for them, Mey Rude writes, “It’s completely normal for a girl to take another girl to the Princess Prom. In fact, She-Ra creates a world in which it would be weird to see a Princess Prom without a bunch of LGBTQ+ couples and an entire galaxy of gender expressions” (Rude).
No one questions Bow for wearing a crop top or antagonizes Catra for wearing a suit. Netossa and Spinderella are married and that’s normal. Scorpia has two moms and Bow has two dads, and that’s normal. Huntara is ridiculously buff and Grizzlor has a beard and that’s normal. Double Trouble is nonbinary and that is so normal that even the bad guys get their pronouns right. The women in the show—Catra and Adora, as an obvious example—are strong, athletic, confident, messy, ambitious, protective, angry, heroic, and capable, all traits that are typically attributed to male characters. They’re also both very gay, and that’s
fantastic normal in this universe.
Seeing this diversity in a mainstream series makes me incredibly happy. I honestly don’t know how to explain how much it means to me. But I can say that seeing these characters made me more comfortable with who I am as a queer person, and I’ve found a supportive, loving community in the fans of the show. Moreover, I’m not the only one who feels the impact of the series. She-Ra represents the LGBTQ+ community in a unique and refreshing way, for children and adults alike. Kids watching She-Ra are learning about gender expression, about identity, about love, and about friendship in a way that is exciting and fun. We’re learning that it’s cool to be gay, to be kind, to be emotional, to depend on and support your friends.
Compared to that sticky summer of 2002, when I was a little girl trapped in a jean dress and the wrong body, to where I am now, comfortable with my identity as trans and nonbinary, I wouldn’t change a thing. I wonder, of course, what impact a show like She-Ra could have had on me, and other confused kids, twenty-odd years ago. Maybe, seeing girls as strong as Adora or Scorpia, I wouldn’t have hated my body. Maybe, seeing Catra confidently wearing a suit, I would have felt brave enough to go to school dances. Maybe, seeing all the characters balance and complement and rely on each other, with their diverse body types, backgrounds, and interests, my understanding of gender roles wouldn’t have been so limited. Who knows? And honestly, it doesn’t really matter.
Because the fact that we have She-Ra now, and other shows like it (Steven Universe; Kipo and the Age of the Wonderbeasts), is revolutionary. I’m grateful to be a part of that revolution, and I’m glad kids today will grow up with this representation and the increasing normalization of difference, of diversity. The Crew-Ra are taking us on a wild ride and I can’t wait to see where it goes. What about you?