“On the Edge of Greatness”: First Ones’ Tech and the Non-Binary Politics of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power

Editor’s Note: Today I have the pleasure of publishing the third of Nicholas Miller’s posts as a regular writer on The Middle Spaces (and seventh overall), examining one of the finest shows of any style or genre of the last few years, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. I hope you find it as enlightening and joyful to read as I did, and I look forward to what Nicholas has to offer in 2021.

Figure 1. Adora transforms into She-Ra for the first time and activates the Sword of Protection. “The Sword: Part 1,” She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (Netflix: November 13, 2018).

As a child of the 1980s and an avid follower of Noelle Stevenson’s work in comics, I will admit that I openly squealed when Netflix announced that Stevenson would helm a reboot of the beloved She-Ra: Princess of Power in 2018. Although I have long imagined the He-Man and She-Ra fictional universes of the 1980s as bright, colorful, and queer properties, I was still eager for Stevenson to develop an explicitly and unapologetically queer version of the series. As Mey Rude has noted, Stevenson and their team have largely succeeded: “She-Ra is about girls of different ethnicities, sizes, sexualities, and personalities, all rendered with color and curves and brightness, who come together in celebration of their differences, not in spite of them.” Indeed, by all counts She-Ra and the Princesses of Power marks a triumph of representation in animated children’s programming.

Yet if you have followed my work on The Middle Spaces (or elsewhere), you have likely noticed my interest in looking beyond representation in comics, television, and other media. It is not that representation is unimportant—it matters a great deal—but rather that, by itself, representation is insufficient. This is particularly true for queer studies, where representational justice is often contingent upon homonormative assumptions about how “authentic” LGBTQ+ identities are made visible. Taking my cue from the work of Ramzi Fawaz, I find myself shifting from “a stress on the numerical expansion of minority representations, which measures the political progressivism of superhero comics [and other media] by a quantitative accounting of the visual or narrative presence of minority characters, and their supposed ‘accuracy’ in capturing the realities of particular minority experiences” (25). Instead, like media studies scholar Amy Villarejo, I seek to imagine critical paradigms that look beyond “representational injustice or invisibility” by articulating the need for “other potential genealogies of inquiry . . . that [invite] reflection on facets other than televisual representation” (5-6). Identifying those genealogies requires us to be attentive not only to the quantifiability of ‘authentic’ representation, but to the contexts that inform them. In other words, we must also consider the narrative structures used to build queer storyworlds. To this end, I turn to She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, a series that succeeds on both fronts.

A reboot of the 1985 Filmation series, She-Ra: Princess of Power, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is an animated series produced by DreamWorks and released on Netflix in 2018. The series ran for five seasons and tells the story of a teenager, Adora, who transforms into the hero She-Ra and leads a group of princesses against the evil Hordak and his Horde minions. Much has been written about the LGBTQ+ representation in the series, and it has been nominated for multiple GLAAD awards for children’s programming. The final arc of the series, where Adora and her arch-frenemy, Catra, confess their love for each other and share an on-screen kiss has been rightfully praised as “groundbreaking” and “game-changing” for LGBTQ+ representation in animation. Yet I also want to think more carefully about other modes of queer meaning-making in the series. More specifically, I want to consider how the narrative of First Ones’ tech and the planet Etheria reveals a non-binary politics that runs deeper than on-screen representation. By looking at the role the First Ones’ tech plays in attempting to (re)produce heteronormativity in the series, I argue that the She-Ra reboot offers an important critique of the relationship between gender and technology.

To follow this argument, there are several key narratives that we need to understand. First, the series largely takes place on the magical planet Etheria, and that planet’s magic was, at one time, being harvested by an intergalactic race of colonizers known as the First Ones. Sometime before the events of the series take place, the First Ones engaged in a protracted war with Horde Prime, a megalomaniac whose army of clones eventually claimed victory over the First Ones. Over the course of the series, we learn that the First Ones had retrofitted Etheria with tech which siphoned magic from the planet’s runestones (which connect each princess to their power) to the Heart of Etheria—a powerful weapon stored at the core of the planet and capable of destroying all of Etheria when activated. The weapon was designed so that the combined power of Etheria would accumulate in the figure of She-Ra, through whom it would be involuntarily channeled when activated. The First Ones then created the Sword of Protection—an amalgam of technology and magic—to empower the She-Ra who wielded it and connect her to the Heart of Etheria. They also developed an artificial intelligence system (Light Hope) to train and guide the She-Ra. When the previous She-Ra (Mara) discovered that the First Ones had programmed Light Hope to activate the weapon at all costs, she used the last of her strength to open a portal and send the planet into Despondos, a hidden dimension effectively cut off from both the First Ones and Horde Prime. The series picks up many years later, after Light Hope has temporarily opened the portal in order to bring a baby First One (Adora) to Etheria where she is brought up by Hordak, a disgraced clone of Horde Prime, and his minions.

Figure 2. Three clones of Horde Prime raise their weapons, looking identical and visually coded as masculine. “Heart: Part 1,” She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (Netflix: May 15, 2020).

What this means, put simply, is that Etheria is a world in which colonizing technologies were used to superimpose an “order” or “balance” over the seemingly chaotic magic of the planet (i.e. its natural resources). That technology is what initially enables Adora to transform into She-Ra but also limits her ability to be comfortable with herself. From the moment she first takes up the Sword of Protection, Adora becomes susceptible to corrupt technologies, shifts into and out of her She-Ra identity based on her emotional state, and finds herself tethered to a centuries-old legacy that shapes the expectations placed upon her. By the end of the series, similar technologies are used to disrupt the magic of the princesses and to decimate the natural ecosystem of the planet. Moreover, technology plays an assimilative role as Horde Prime uses it to clone himself and create unthinking followers who dress like him, act like him, and pursue his patriarchal desires to domesticate the universe. In the fourth season, with Light Hope programmed to activate the Heart of Etheria, Adora decides to break the Sword of Protection, which interrupts the potentially world-destroying process. Yet doing so temporarily makes her unable to transform into She-Ra, and ultimately leaves Etheria vulnerable to the colonizing efforts of Horde Prime and his army of clones. The final season, then, becomes an effort to re-harness the magic of Etheria and to save the universe from Horde Prime—one that culminates in the groundbreaking kiss mentioned earlier.

While the description above makes it easy to see how She-Ra can be read as a narrative of queer resistance, I want to specifically examine the function of technology in the series with more care. Here I find myself drawn to questions posed by Margaret Rhee and Amanda Phillips in their 2010 HASTAC Scholars Forum, such as “How does queer theory intersect with […] technologies?” and “Is technology historically closely entangled with sexuality?” With those questions in mind, I propose that She-Ra not only provides us with LGBTQ+ representation but also gestures toward the limits of technology to make spaces for queer, trans, and non-binary experiences. These concerns are present from the outset in She-Ra, as Adora grapples with the simple binaries of good and evil (i.e. Princesses vs. Horde) and her own binary identity as Adora and She-Ra. Yet they also speak to our lived experience in a digital age in which computation and databases are similarly limited by infrastructures built on binary code. At the most basic level, the architecture of our information systems—including computers, tablets, and phones—are engineered from mere ones and zeroes. And that binary is then used to index names, gender, preferences, and other identifiers on a broad scale.

At no point in the series is the connection between She-Ra and conversations about technology and gender more evident than when Adora makes the decision to break her own First Ones’ tech: the Sword of Protection. Her need to destroy technology to save Etheria from a hard-coded destruction shares much in common with contemporary concerns about technology and binary code. As Meredith Broussard has written for Future Tense, modern computing has its origins in a cultural moment that largely saw gender as a fixed category with just two options. Broussard opens their essay with the following anecdote:

College student Manahil Bandukwala recently tweeted a complaint about her computer science class. In a gesture of solidarity with her trans and nonbinary classmates, she wrote that a professor had said that ‘programs can only have two genders and you can’t change your gender and how people changing their gender broke the university’s system . . . as though trans and enby folx are an inconvenience to code.’ But the real problem, she said, was ‘shitty code erasing [people’s] identities.’

In She-Ra, we see a similar binary (although not the same one) operating in the character of Adora. When tethered to First Ones’ tech—in this case, the Sword of Protection—she has only two options: she can be Adora, or she can be She-Ra. And the creators of the series repeatedly gesture to the problems that this causes Adora as she ponders her identity. As Shannon Miller notes in a preview of the fifth season, the series wraps up by posing the following questions: “Who are we outside of the legacies we inherit? When you can’t be a queen, a warrior, or even a cog in someone else’s destructive mechanism, what do you stand for?” That Adora spends four seasons imagining herself as a “cog” gestures to larger questions about how technological systems inform, and sometimes determine, how we are identified. When our lived experiences collide with those systems, we can find ourselves confronted with so-called “errors” that must be corrected or reconciled. Too often, such conflicts are seen as “user errors” rather than systemic problems, leading those with identities that do not “fit” to internalize the idea that they are faulty. As Broussard notes in their essay, “over and over again, we have seen technical problems arise because the people designing computer systems were committed to replicating a rigid, retrograde status quo.” It is this technology-driven status quo—one reinforced in every prior iteration of She-Ra—that leads Adora to feel somewhat broken without her She-Ra persona.

Broussard notes that the messiness of the “real” world and people’s identities are rarely consistent with the empiricism required by systems of binary code. Since most attempts to think about gender and computing revolve around superimposing human social values on a mathematical system, Broussard claims that the relevant question is: “Whose values are encoded in the system?” It is this question I find most striking in terms of the rebooted She-Ra universe. The creators have given us a potential model for other modes of thinking. I argue that, in destroying the First Ones’ tech and rebooting the planet through magic, the princesses and their allies have developed what Kara Keeling and others have called a Queer OS. According to Keeling, “Queer OS seeks to make queer into the logic of ‘an operating system of a larger order’ that unsettles the common senses that secure those presently hegemonic social relations that can be characterized by domination, exploitation, oppression, and other violences.” In other words, if we imagine public norms and expectations as products of a society-level operating system that was constructed through a heteronormative worldview, Queer OS creates an alternative (and queer) logic capable of disrupting that system. By challenging the technologies that oppressed and exploited Etheria, Adora and her friends work toward a similarly queer logic—one that is capable of completely disrupting previously-established hegemonic (and heteronormative) social relations.

Keeling goes on to describe Queer OS as an orientation that “makes available pressing questions about eccentric and/or unexpected relationships in, and possibly alternatives to, social norms.” While Keeling is thinking about Queer OS primarily as a mode of scholarly inquiry, the creators of She-Ra have constructed a narrative operating system that functions similarly. As Broussard notes, the natural operating systems of the world are significantly messier than the “clean and efficient” binary systems that govern our digital lives. Similarly, the natural operating system of Etheria (magic) was considered chaotic and messy by the First Ones and Horde Prime. As a result, both tried to hack that system and overwrite its programming to meet their colonizing desires. The result is a series of binary choices for each character, which often lead them into trouble. In the broader arc of the series, we see characters such as Adora, Catra, Entrapta, and Glimmer all attempting to use the technologies themselves. Adora, for instance, sees her sword as the key to fighting back the Horde. Catra and Entrapta regularly seek out First Ones’ tech—Catra to defeat the princesses, and Entrapta to explore the limits of its power. Even Glimmer tries to activate the Heart of Etheria at one point. All of these efforts are tied to a binary mode of thinking (good vs. evil) or serve as an attempt to de-hack Etheria using the same infrastructure that has been used to exploit and oppress the planet. Along the way, we see technological infections spread virally into characters such as Adora, making them act contrary to their natures. For example, when Adora is first infected by a corrupted First Ones’ data disk, she is imbued with an uncontrollable rage and then left weakened in a child-like state and unable to fight. In fact, it is not until Adora has an Audre Lorde moment and realizes that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” that she understands: fighting the system within the system will not work. Instead, the system itself must be decolonized, or in the words of Sara Ahmed, “vandalized” in order to escape its oppressive, heteronormative frameworks.

Acts of queer vandalism in She-Ra are analogous to the installation of a new operating system; they represent the practices of disrupting usage and reoccupying space, practices Ahmed classifies as acts of “queer use.” As anybody who has reinstalled an operating system knows, such disruptions are preceded by multiple warnings about the potential for lost information, the inability to recover data, and the permanence of the act. Similarly, as Adora makes the decision to break the Sword of Protection, Light Hope offers a number of flickering warnings about the risks of doing so. Yet as Adora faces the threat posed by Horde Prime and the First Ones’ tech, she (perhaps unknowingly) initiates the queering of Etheria through the installation of a new operating system.

This proves to be no easy installation, of course, as breaking the Sword of Protection leaves Adora without access to She-Ra’s power. Breaking a system you have long relied upon is difficult—particularly for Adora; the technologies of that system (seemingly) make her powers possible. Indeed, the opening episodes of the fifth season foreground Adora’s struggles with having to live under the restraints of a single, static identity. Yet that time and space away from being She-Ra allows her to understand herself outside of a technologically-conditional identity. That this evolution of Adora’s identity is tied to the technologies of the series serves as a striking commentary on how trans and non-binary people similarly need spaces in which they can see themselves beyond the ones and zeroes of a binary life. The technologies which are ubiquitous in our classrooms, professional settings, and digital communities often require non-binary folks to select one of two gender options or trans folks to deadname themselves in compliance with the limits of databases, forms, and imaginations. And those technologies function that way because systems of binary code reward “elegant” and “efficient” practices incapable of mirroring the complexities of human life. It is only after Adora breaks free from such technologies that she discovers an innate potential to transform into She-Ra, and to summon a magical sword that is no longer reliant on the violent, colonizing technologies of the First Ones.

This time, however, She-Ra takes on a new form, and the transformation visually liberates her from the constraints of the First Ones’ tech and their expectations for She-Ra. As creator Noelle Stevenson has noted:

Adora’s original She-Ra form was like this uncomfortable suit she has to wear. She never really feels at home in the original She-Ra form. It combined the militaristic aspect of Adora’s upbringing in the Horde with the role She-Ra has with the First Ones. There’s the top that’s buttoned up, the large pointy shoulder blades, and then these elements of femininity that Adora is very uncomfortable with: the skirt, the tiara, the long flowing hair. She’s really trying to fit this version of She-Ra, but it’s not her. She’s never comfortable in that form.

Yet her new form also brings its own struggles, as the transformation into She-Ra is no longer activated by the presence of a technology but is instead maintained through her emotions and love. As such, Adora finds herself struggling at times to transform when she is plagued with self-doubt or feels unloved by her friends. Without the false security of rigid binaries and technological power, Adora finds herself constantly overcoming doubt and anxiety to draw upon her abilities. Ultimately, it is in moments when she must protect or save her loved ones that she becomes most powerful—highlighting her need to draw upon community and solidarity for power. This is evident when she must save Catra from Horde Prime and later when she is called upon to destroy the Heart of Etheria to save the planet. Having discovered a fail-safe that can disrupt the Heart of Etheria after Horde Prime has tapped into it, Adora carries it with her in her body where it can absorb the Heart’s power. It is made clear that only She-Ra can carry this fail-safe with her, as the absorption of that power would destroy a normal person. Yet after battling her way to the Heart of Etheria, accompanied by Catra, she finds herself wounded and weakened—unable to transform into She-Ra one last time. It is here that we get the culminating moment where Catra professes her love for Adora, with the power of that love giving Adora just enough strength to summon a magical shield as she absorbs the Heart of Etheria’s power—saving both her and Catra.

Figure 3. Catra cradles a weakened Adora before professing her love and imploring Adora not to give up. “Heart: Part 2,” She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (Netflix: May 15, 2020).

The importance of this moment is not limited to the visible representation of lesbian love. We should not underestimate the fact that it is queer love that allows Adora to transform without technology; it is queer love that restores magic to the princesses and heals the planet. Adora’s transformation activates the fail-safe, which destroys the Heart of Etheria and sends magic back to the princesses—including those under Horde Prime’s control via microchips implanted in their necks. As the destruction caused by the Heart of Etheria and Horde Prime halts, She-Ra appears and uses the restored magic to heal the damage done to the planet and cover it with greenery and light. In this way, that moment of queer love not only provides a sense of representational justice for the viewers, but it installs a new (queer!) operating system on Etheria, providing a more organic, fluid, and responsive structure to a world filled with fluid and queer persons. That this operating system is reparative—or healing—seems important.

This approach to She-Ra and the Princesses of Power might expand what Eve Kosofky Sedgwick called “reparative reading”—a mode of reading that affirms queer pleasures and potentially repairs the damages of homophobia—in ways that invite queer meaning-making at a structural level. She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is not merely a series with queer characters; it is a queer storyworld with its own queer operating system. As such, I argue that we might use She-Ra as a prompt to interrogate the heteronormative operating systems governing our digital lives. I do not propose this as—in Anna Lauren Hoffmann’s words—“an interesting conceptual or philosophical problem to ponder,” but an urgent call to recognize the “real and lived challenges . . . the rapid rise and adoption of data-intensive technologies and platforms generate for already vulnerable trans and queer populations” (11). In extending Sedgwick’s notion of reparative readings, we might look for the reparative possibilities of storyworlds and narratives structures that combat what Hoffman calls “the data violence” inflicted on trans and gender-nonconforming people.

As media studies scholars continue to examine animated series like She-Ra and the Princesses of Power through the lens of representational justice, then, perhaps we can also think more carefully about the possibilities of reading for Queer OS, or what Keeling describes as “a way of thinking and acting with, about, through, among, and at times even in spite of new media technologies and other phenomena of mediation.” Rather than focusing solely on which identities—or how many—are presented in fictional storyworlds, reading for Queer OS provides a way of thinking that is less restricted by the technologies that inform our social relationships and identities. As I have demonstrated, doing so with She-Ra and the Princesses of Power allows us to reimagine that universe “with, about, through, among, and even in spite of” a narrative of First Ones’ tech that must be dismantled and repurposed. The creators have presented us not only with increased LGBTQ+ representation in children’s animation; they have built a storyworld whose non-binary politics open up new possibilities for queer meaning-making in all its facets.

Adora steps onto the battlefield in her new She-Ra form, the fail-safe now glowing in her chest. “Heart: Part 2,” She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (Netflix: May 15, 2020).

Nicholas Miller (@uncannydazzler on Twitter) is a regular writer for The Middle Spaces and Assistant Professor of English at Valdosta State University, where he teaches multicultural American literature, gender and a/sexuality studies, and comics studies. His essay, “Asexuality and Its Discontents: Making the ‘Invisible Orientation’ Visible in Comics,” has been published in Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society (2017) and his award-winning essay, “‘Now That It’s Just Us Girls’: Transmedial Feminisms from Archie to Riverdale,” has been published in Feminist Media Histories (2018). You can visit his website here.

One thought on ““On the Edge of Greatness”: First Ones’ Tech and the Non-Binary Politics of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power

  1. Pingback: Wrap-up: November 2020 – reads rainbow

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