She-Ra reboot earns a lukewarm pat on the back for body positivity
Guess who's back? It is me, the one who wrote a bunch of articles about body positivity in children's media and then disappeared into the void of my senior year. Well, I am now graduated so I had plenty of time to research today's subject: She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, a new Netflix original series based on the 1980s series by a near-identical title.
Let's delve into a little bit of backstory before we start finding or not finding body positivity within this series. We should begin with the backstory of this damn blog. My name is Olivia Luchini and I enjoy scouring children's entertainment for positive examples of female protagonists that are tall, strong, and/or chunky (a TSC if she is all three). I refrain from using the phrase curvy because, often times, this leads designers to patting themselves on the back for throwing a character with a perfect hourglass figure into their mix of typical character designs. I primarily want to see examples of characters with these physical traits that are presented as feminine, as a stereotype that is often lumped in with women of above average height, muscle mass, or weight is masculinity. This is not to say that masculinity is a negative feature. On the contrary, we could definitely use more masculine-presenting women in children's entertainment. This is simply stated because, as you will see today, tall, strong, and chunky characters are seldom allowed to be soft, gentle, or somewhat flowery because of stereotypes put on their body size. Beyond this, we will see that most plus-size, tall, or muscular female characters are villains or sentenced to be background characters. This blog is me deliberately searching for protagonists because I wish I had had more protagonists that looked like me in my developmental stages. (Don't worry, I inhaled Wonder Woman, my 6'0 queen, like she was air to make up for the failures of other creators) (Nonetheless) (I digress)
Now, we ought to move on to the backstory of She-Ra and the Princess of Power. This series debuted in 2018 and, before even gracing the screen, touted how it was going to be a departure from the original series through both diversity in sexuality (the show has far clearer LGBTQ characters than most Y-7 programming) and body size. This claim of changing body representation came after the designs of She-Ra were absolutely roasted on social media, as fans of the original 1980s series claimed that She-Ra wasn't sexy enough and looked like a "boy" because of it. Obviously, these critiques are wackadoo, regardless of how the series looks. Please stop looking to children's shows (remember, team, this is a Y-7 program) for your sexual fantasies. This is not the purpose of children's entertainment, even if it is a reboot of a series that introduced you to the idea of boobies when you were but a spry tween of the '80s. Nonetheless, high hopes arose for us body positivity enthusiasts when the creator and the team working on the show basically said to these people, "You're gross. We're going to make her look how we want."
The debut pictures of the new She-Ra, however, did not display a very radical version of the character. She looked as pictured above. She was tall enough, had hints of muscle, and her waist seemed to be of realistic, human dimension. I'd be lying if I said these pictures made me want to leap from my chair and cheer. After watching all three seasons of this show over the past two days, I can say that my opinions did not change. Both She-Ra and her human form, Adora, are not the champions of body positivity they were made out to be.
This was a disappointment to me because She-Ra's canonical powers are exactly what I look for on this blog. She grows to be eight-feet-tall when her powers are activated and she gains strength and muscle. Therefore, this show seemed to be the perfect chance to show a ripped woman. Alas, the ripped women that you will encounter on this show are not in the main character role. They are casual side characters who maybe see a single episode of relevancy. For example, Octavia (left) and Huntara (right) are the two most obviously muscular women in the show. Octavia is a villain and Huntara is villainous until a redemption arc is thrown in during the last few minutes of the episode. Both women are made to be scary and threatening. In contrast, male characters in most cartoons and comic books are considered more heroic and, in many ways, handsome if they are strong. There is still a disconnect on this supposedly body-positive show on what outwardly muscular female characters can represent, even in a fictional universe that revolves around a war and a rebellion.
With She-Ra being a bit of a disappointment in terms of representation for the traits she was canonically intended to represent (height, muscle), I next reviewed Glimmer, Adora/She-Ra's best friend and definitely a woman with a large amount of screen time. Glimmer looks as pictured below and she falls victim to what I call "fan-art body positivity." If anyone has ever utilized a website like Tumblr, Instagram, or Pinterest in order to follow their favorite nerdy interests, they have certainly encountered a fair share of fan art. This is just as it sounds: fans draw their favorite characters or original characters within the same universe. A lot of people try to draw plus-size women, but they often miss the mark. More often than not, plus-size characters are drawn with very thick thighs and a round bottom, but their waist is still incredibly small, their neck and face are slim, and the are usually very short. Adult characters begin to look like Cabbage Patch Kids in waist-trainers, frankly, and they in no way resemble what a human plus-size woman looks like. Glimmer has very thick thighs and a bottom, but she is incredibly thin in the neck and waist. In certain shots, Glimmer looks plus-size, but in most shots she just looks like a kid because she is so short, only coming up to averagely-sized Adora's shoulder. Therefore, though Glimmer is somewhat chunky in her legs, she is not tall and she is not muscular, dissolving her from the possibility of being labeled a TSC.
One of the main focuses of the show is the Princess Alliance, which is basically the name for the team of princesses that have magical powers, which includes She-Ra and Glimmer. Most of these characters have very standard body types except for the two I was most excited to study and experience: Mermista and Spinnerella. Both characters are of average height, but represent body types usually ignored in cartoons. Mermista has a somewhat athletic, chunky build. She looks how I would describe my own body in that she is chubby, but is NOT curvy. She has thicker thighs and thicker midsection; she is not hourglass. Spinnerella is the first accurately-drawn plus-size woman I have ever seen in a cartoon. She has a belly and she has thighs, but they still choose to costume her very stylishly with a pink and purple bodysuit that does not attempt to hide her figure. This excited the absolute heck out of me. Both of these characters are featured in the title sequence and were advertised to be a huge part of the show.
They were not.
Mermista is somewhat heavily featured. There seems to be an A-Team and a B-Team that is utilized before the full Princess Alliance. The A-Team is She-Ra, Glimmer, and their best friend Bow (an adorable, male archer). The B-Team is She-ra, Glimmer, Bow, Perfuma (earth/plant princess), Frosta (ice princess/youngest princess), and Mermista (ocean princess). They help out in a few episodes, namely toward the end of seasons 1 and 2. Mermista is characterized as very sassy and somewhat rude, but she is still aligned with the heroes, so she is technically a protagonist. She has the best lines of the show because they are often biting and funny, but she is definitely not a sunshine-y character.
No one was done dirtier than Spinnerella (wind princess). Though she is featured embracing her girlfriend (yes, this character is not only plus-size but gives great representation for a wholesome lesbian relationship) in the big, fancy title sequence, she exists but a few times in the series. She is in season 1, but we basically just see her use her wind powers to help fight and then participate in a big group hug. She is not in a single episode of season 2 and she is briefly seen standing behind a table in season 3. Her character is shallowly built with her being described as sweet and comforting because, honestly, the only thing we have seen her do is hug people. She is voiced by the series creator, but this almost feels like it's done out of convenience because the character speaks so little.
There is a TSC within the series, Scorpia (scorpion princess), but she is technically a villain, an asset to the evil Horde. Her main characteristics are how caring she is and how dumb she is. She is constantly confused by her role as a villain, but she blindly follows main villain Catra out of her extreme care for her (many read it as romantic interest). One moment that touched me was when they put Scorpia in a black ballgown during the Princess Ball in the first season, as she had been predominantly represented as masculine prior to this. The choice to clothe her in both masculine and feminine costumes showcased that characters do not have to exist on either half of that binary and that they can have a myriad of presentations.
At the end of the day, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is a show that revolves around the rivalry of Catra and Adora, two averagely sized women, and features a few new body types in their supporters. Would I say that the show is a step in a positive direction for body positivity in children's entertainment? Yes. It is one of the few examples today that has any sense of variety in body type. Would I say it is perfect? Absolutely not. In many ways, it feels like the show uses characters like Mermista and Spinnerella to pat themselves on the back for representation, but these characters are either in the background or usually not there at all. If She-Ra really wanted to rock the world, I think they should have started with She-Ra herself and how she looks. Her powers already perfectly articulate how she could have looked, but they didn't make as bold of a design choice for her. Though this might seem like an awful solution given the criticism they received for her arguably very standard new design, it is always important to think of what will benefit the child watching the show rather than what will please the 40-year-old man who had the hots for She-Ra when he was younger.
Children need to be exposed to female characters who are tall, strong, and chunky so that they do not feel like they are abnormal for having these characteristics in themselves. If you constantly show children thin and short princesses and give them glimpses of other body types in one-dimensional or villainous characters, they will begin to think that they are made for life in the background or that they are undesirable.
Two moments that I did appreciate in this series were when Perfuma went as Bow's date to the Princess Prom and she was noticeably taller than him and, similarly, when they chose to make the queen of Brightmoon taller than the king. Simply showing young viewers that height is not an inherently male trait is a small, important step in the process of removing the stereotype of masculinity that is often attached to TSC characters.
Those are my thoughts on the new She-Ra. I look forward to doing more of these posts soon. If you learned anything at all from this, I always appreciate when people share these articles so that I can hopefully have a successful attempt at showing people what can be fixed in children's media.
Thank you for reading,