1985 was a weird year for me. I started 2nd grade that fall, and it felt like my world was kinda falling apart. The only friend I had at school moved away to New York over the summer, leaving me high and dry as far as that sorta thing goes. On top of that, my mom and sister moved from Austin to San Antonio at the beginning of that school year. My sister’s deaf, and my parents enrolled her at a school for the deaf in San Antonio. My dad owned a business in Austin and couldn’t just up and shut it down, so he and I stayed in Austin while he figured out what to do while my mom and sister moved to San Antonio and lived with my grandmother while my sister started school. I was used to my dad being away for extended periods of time, since he traveled for work a lot before I started school, but this was the first time I was away from my mom for any length of time other than, like, going over to play at said friend’s house.
I didn’t exactly make any friends during that first semester of school in 1985. If anything, I made enemies of most of my classmates (as much as 2nd graders can have that sort of animosity), and it was the first time I learned to hate going to school. Going home from school wasn’t much of a reprise either. Since my dad owned this business, and he was needed on-site until a certain time, he usually only had enough time to pick me up from school and take me with him back to his office/shop before he had to get back to work for a couple of hours.
The one saving grace of all of that was the black and white TV he had in his office. It wasn’t a tiny thing– it was maybe 10 or 12 inches– but it was small and black and white and had trouble picking up all the channels. Fortunately it did pick up one of the local channels that happened to run afternoon cartoons, and we’d get to the office with enough time for me to catch the back half of that afternoon block:
He-Man and She-Ra.
Without going back and actually rewatching some of them, I don’t really remember much about either show. Neither show’s theme song is burned into my memory the way I can recall G.I. Joe, Transformers, or even late comers (in my timeline at least) like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or X-Men. I had some toys, but I my fondness of “playing” always hearkens back to my Star Wars toys. I watched these cartoons religiously during that first semester of 2nd grade, but the only real nostalgia I have for them is the way they filled in that hole left empty after losing a best friend and temporarily being away from my mom and sister. He-Man and She-Ra mean something to me only because they mean something to me– their worth in my nostalgia bank has no real concrete weight. I can tell you how Star Wars influenced my tastes in pop culture and helped jump-start my imagination. I can tell you similar things about the comics I read at the time and the picture book/record combos I consumed. I remember specific episodes of Scooby Doo and Super Friends from that time that really stuck in my memory.
A lot of that nostalgia I have from the early 80s has some element to it beyond sheer emotional value, but my fondness for He-Man and She-Ra really are ephemeral. They’re this weird last grasp of my time in Austin– the dying moments of one phase in my life before I was “reborn” in San Antonio– because that’s exactly how that phase of my life feels. Those early days when I lived there, did certain things, liked certain things, feels like an entirely different lifetime from my move to San Antonio onward. I remember it all, but I feel like I was a different person. The kid who discovered Nintendo a couple of years after the move feels like “me,” but the kid learning how to use a VCR before his parents so he can record Saturday morning cartoons feels like a past life more than a part of this one.
That has little to do with anything that happened in either cartoon, and more to do with my life at the time, but I’ll always associate that vibe with He-Man and She-Ra, and as I watched the new She-Ra cartoon, all of these ideas came floating to the surface.
It’s weird, man. Weird.
The actual new She-Ra show is kinda rad.
It’s definitely cut from the same cloth as Last Airbender, Steven Universe, and the new Voltron reboot. It’s playing with animation trends the creators grew up with– mainly old school toy commercial toons, action anime, and magical girl shows– and doing just a little more than rehashing and presenting it for a new generation. You have the transformations and the action sequences and the sparkly colors and everything that fits with the old image of She-Ra. Yeah, the character designs are decidedly “modern,” in that not everyone is drawn as either Barbie or He-Man, but all the surface level stuff is still there.
It’s a shame there isn’t a big toy line for this (yet?), because all the Princesses and Hord baddies are just as toyetic as their old school counterparts. I want a stupidly expensive Entrapta figure with ALL her gadgets.
Entrapta’s best princess, by the way.
With all that surface level stuff still intact (despite what whiny fanboys wanna tell you), what really makes it all work is everything else going down.
The thing that struck me the most is the child soldier angle they have going with The Horde. Yeah, Adora was initially with The Horde in the old cartoon, but she and her compatriots were never really presented as kids in the old cartoon, at least from what I remember. In this new show, they’re all decidedly in their teens– young teens at that. Their ages are never given, but I’d wager Adora, Catra, and most of the other kids in this show are probably 15 years old, give or take a year or two. They aren’t young adults on the cusp of adulthood– the sorts of kids who’d be gearing up for college if they existed in “reality.” They’re kids firmly in the throes of high school age adolescence, and instead of going to school they’re living the life of soldiers. The kids in The Horde have trained since birth for warfare– this is their life.
The show never directly comments on this, but it’s all right there with no attempt to hide the fact. It’s so bad that Adora has never seen a horse before, and we later see that even notable leaders like Scorpia have never eaten things like fruit and pastries.
It’s the sort of bleak, nihilistic thing that won’t shock and scare kids, but it’ll linger in their minds until they get a little older. Then, if they’re like me, it’ll hit them hard, and they’ll realize that this beloved cartoon that brought them joy was also this harrowing tale of the horrors of war and how it affects everyone.
A lot’s been said about representation and all that, and that’s all there too. More than a couple of minor princesses are couples. Scorpia totally has the hots for Catra. Sea Hawk may not be full on Shore Leave, but he’s just flamboyant enough and Bow totally idolizes him in that boyish “I kinda have a crush, but this dude’s also just sorta awesome too” way. And yeah, there’s definitely something going on with Catra and Adora. I think it’s a little more on Catra’s side, since Adora’s a little too naive to really grasp relationships. The girl just discovered that she’s totally into horses, so I don’t think she’s quite as aware of it all as Catra. But Catra? Yeah, she’s all-in on Adora, and that makes their inevitable battle to the “death” all the more awesome.
It’s that wide range of relationships and types of people and all that which allows that Adora/Catra relationship to work. If it were the only instance of two girls maybe-probably-oh-yeah-totally having feelings for each other, pitting them against each other would be kinda lame. But when it’s just another instance of such, it adds more weight to the inevitability.
The better episodes revolve around their relationship, with the Princess Prom episode probably being the best of the first season. It’s that sort of episode where everything kinda comes to a head while an awesome set-piece-that-isn’t-an-action-scene goes down. It also has the season’s best joke, involving Bow, his fondness for midriffs, and ice kingdoms.
Also, Bow might be the coolest character on the show. He’s that sort of super nice type– the “guy you take home to mom” sort– who never crosses over into a saccharine stereotype. He’s just so good, but he’s also totally believable in his decency. It helps that even he has a breaking point when he meets a certain side character.
Poor, poor Kyle. I feel for that kid.
I’m not one to binge a whole lot of shows, but this is one that works best when watched in those sorts of spurts. It takes a few episodes to warm up. The first four episodes were perfectly watchable, but it wasn’t until the fifth, when they introduce Sea Hawk and Mermista (who is also cool with her droll Daria-like personality), and the sixth when super rad mad scientist princess Entrapta appears, that they show really gets its legs. The finale is also kinda meh, since it’s a BIG BATTLE that goes exactly as you’d expect. The real “finale” happens a couple of episodes before when Adora and Catra have a shared revelation. Everything else after that is gravy and season two set-up.
Yeah, I’m down with this show. I think I’ll actually remember this one, rather than have it be some ephemeral memory of a weird point in my life.
Also: Shimmer is worst princess. Her mom needs to permanently ground her in season two.