I promised more posts, but I didn’t promise that they’d be about history or that they’d be any good. As well as writing a book I’ve been watching some rubbish 80s TV. You can see some complete episodes of He-Man and She-Ra on YouTube. On one level this is harmless fun that you don’t have to think about, but there are also plenty of Fedex arrows that can be spotted without having to try too hard. Obviously with something called He-Man there are going to be gender issues, and there are going to be even more gender issues when they make what is basically (and almost certainly intended to be) ‘He-Man for girls’. The very existence of She-Ra signifies that He-Man itself wasn’t for girls and they weren’t supposed to be interested in it. That’s already a big ideological assumption, because why shouldn’t girls be interested in violent hypermasculine men, and conversely, why should boys be interested in that? There’s a whole other post that could be written on how the writers mistreated Teela, but for now let’s take it for granted that this is all ‘just how it was’ in the early 80s. Taking He-Man as a starting point, what does the realization of a ‘He-Man for girls’ tell us about how gender ideology was (or wasn’t) contested in that period?
The first thing to note is that the creators were really trying to avoid some of the more obvious stereotypes. He-Man was a very stereotypically muscular hypermasculine man, like a cross between Conan and Superman. A similarly hyperfeminine mirror image would be something like Barbie, but She-Ra is usually as strong, active and violent as He-Man (when I say violent I should point out that being 80s cartoon series aimed at fairly young children, the violence is quite gentle, but they’re still a whole lot more violent than My Little Pony or the Care Bears). The devil is in the detail. If we carefully compare the standard opening sequences of an episode of He-Man and an episode of She-Ra, we can see the subtle semiotics of gender differences at work.
First of all, the music is noticeably different. He-Man has a stirring orchestral theme but She-Ra gets some cheesy synth-pop that could have been produced by Stock, Aitken and Waterman.
Almost immediately we can see that She-Ra most definitely isn’t equal to He-Man:
I am Adam, prince of Eternia…
Adam/He-Man is an important person in his own right.
I am Adora, He-Man’s twin sister…
Adora/She-Ra is defined in relation to a man.
Fabulous secret powers were revealed to me…
Adam/He-Man has powers, which is not altogether surprising considering that he’s a superhero. Presumably his sister has the same powers too.
Fabulous secrets were revealed to me…
Oh no, she only has secrets. Despite the full title of the series being She-Ra: Princess of Power, the writers go out of their way to avoid Adora/She-Ra using the word ‘power’ during the opening sequence. The emphasis on secrets also connects with the stereotype that women are mysterious and impossible for men to understand.
the day I held aloft my magic sword and said: BY THE POWER OF GRAYSKULL!
He-Man has power and Castle Grayskull serves him.
the day I held aloft my sword and said: FOR THE HONOR OF GRAYSKULL!
She-Ra doesn’t have power, and she serves Castle Grayskull.
When Adam turns into He-Man he gets struck by lightning and looks active and confident.
When Adora turns into She-Ra she’s surrounded by swirls of sparkly glitter and looks more passive and slightly bemused.
Then they shout:
I HAVE THE POWEEERRRRR!
He-Man’s still got the power.
I AM SHE-RAAAAAAA!
She-Ra still doesn’t got the power.
Then each one points hir sword at hir pet to transform it into a war mount.
He-Man points the tip of the sword at Cringer, and the magical beam shoots out of the tip. How much more phallic can you get? (Quite a bit more in Thundercats actually, where the Sword of Omens grows in size as Lion-O shouts ‘Thunder… thunder… thunder… thundercats HOOOOOOO!)
She-Ra holds her sword upright with the tip out of the top of the shot. The magical beam comes from an oval stone set into the hilt, which kind of resembles a vagina. (But then so does the Eye of Thundera, so I’m not sure what to make of that.)
He-Man rides an armoured tiger, which he describes as ‘the mighty Battlecat’. He then says ‘and I became He-Man, the most powerful man in the universe’ and punches the camera (just like Jack Regan in the titles of the fourth series of The Sweeney) before telling us who else shares his secret and who his enemies are.
She-Ra rides a winged unicorn with pink trappings. She doesn’t say or do anything between the pet transformation and telling us who shares her secret and who her enemies are.
So before the story even starts we’re primed to see She-Ra as more feminine and less powerful. In fact the stories make it fairly clear that She-Ra is just as physically strong as He-Man. And she gets some extra powers too. But wait, these extra powers are healing and empathy, which are stereotypically feminine and would probably be seen as emasculating if He-Man had them. The paradox is that having more powers effectively makes She-Ra appear inferior. (We can also infer that she has the supernatural power to stop anyone from ever seeing up her absurdly tiny and strangely physics-defying skirt, but that’s probably not ‘canon’.)
It could be worse (just google for the feminist reaction to the horrendous misogyny in the recent DC comics reboot) but it could be better. Looking at the relatively recent past should remind us that gender and patriarchy aren’t fixed or natural, but that we’re not making inevitable progress against them either.