The princess of pandemic power: How the She-Ra reboot gave me a glimmer of hope in a broken world
The cartoon's kaleidoscope of queerness nurtured writer Makram Ayache through his isolation
Warm Blanket is a series of personal essays from Canadian writers and artists reflecting on the pop culture that has brought them comfort and coziness during one year of the pandemic.
Growing up, I spent a lot of time watching cartoons. My sister and I would wake up early on Saturdays to watch Digimon — a tradition that's long lost somewhere under the piles of old toys and coloured Play-Doh. Without a doubt, Digimon and X-Men: Evolution are two cartoons that were foundational to my early understanding of kinship (there's a sentence I never imagined I'd be writing for the CBC). Not to be completely overwrought, but I really do think the archetypal representations we see in children's cartoons should take their place amongst some of our modern-day mythologies. These shows taught me the importance of friendship, the necessity of strong values, the courage to fight against injustices, and above all, the reminder to centre love. I loved those stories, and like many childhood memories, I still think fondly of them.
I'll always associate my memories of last summer with binge-watching She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. I don't know if it was the exceptionally sunny weather, the low COVID numbers after a jarring spring, or my whirlwind, sunkissed romance with an adorable singer, but that perfect storm made the summer one of the saving graces of my pandemic woes — and the show is permanently imprinted in my mind as a part of that. For those of you who no longer watch cartoons, Netflix's adaptation of the classic 80s show about the sister of He-Man takes the story in a bold new direction. The characters are softened; they're brighter and eclectic. She-Ra looks like an ordinary young woman, not an impossibly sized caricature born out of misogynistic ideals. She's also accompanied by a ragtag team of princesses that range in shapes, sizes, and colours. But what was most important for me was that the team of writers and artists did something that's been dangerous to propose in the land of cartoons: they dared to be unapologetically queer.
Cartoons brought me so much as a kid. But in watching She-Ra, I realized I had been missing a deeply nurturing experience. The emboldening representation of queerness is hard to understate. I tried to imagine what my 12-year-old self would think and feel if this was available to him then. It was in those early days of adolescence that I began to feel romantic attractions to people of the same gender. And in watching She-Ra, I was teleported back to my days of Digimon and X-Men — but this time, those same lessons of friendship, values, justice, and love were told through a kaleidoscope of queerness.
It wasn't just that we had a Black lesbian princess kicking ass or the first same-gender kiss onscreen in a kids' cartoon (although all of that was, of course, groundbreaking). Rather, it was that the entire cartoon was a celebration of queer ways of knowing. There were multiple examples of non-toxic masculinity, a constellation of gender diversity (a non-binary character voiced by a non-binary performer — amazing), the powerful impacts of queer kinship, and two adorable queer dads of colour. Most importantly, the show was queer in its essence, but it wasn't necessarily about queerness. It was still a fun show about She-Ra and her gang overcoming the Horde's takeover (a fitting, and only thinly veiled, metaphor of the uniform wash of imperialism).
My queerness is not all that I am, but it is an essential part of my humanity. As an adult, I can convince myself that I don't need the affirmations we extend to children. Adults are supposed to affirm themselves, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and grit through. We become desensitized to injustice and we accept the world as a broken place. She-Ra reminded me of the potential for optimism. No, I certainly don't mean to imply that I am now numb to the dangers of the world for having watched the cartoon. But through these characters and their plights, I'm reminded that hope is an act of faith — that is a necessary place to begin healing a broken world.
Like all children's fables, the most successful are the ones that tell us the world as it is and encourage us to make it better. In the middle of a global pandemic, rife with loneliness, empty of the queer spaces we gather, and amidst a necessary reckoning with the social plights of our times, She-Ra and the Princess of Power offered me something I needed: a glimmer of hope.
Read all 12 essays from the Warm Blanket series here.