“For the honor of Grayskull! I am She-Ra!”
This is the battle cry of Princess Adora, as she raises her Sword of Protection to launch her transformation to She-Ra, Princess of Power. Her mission: to free the planet Etheria from the evil forces of Hordak.
A spin-off of the popular 1980s cartoon “He-Man,” She-Ra provided a strong female counterpart to line of male superheroes in the Master of the Universe toy line.
I became acquainted with He-Man and She-Ra while teaching in a classroom of 4-5 year-olds, who daily dictated stories and dramatized scenes from the television series. While I’d not watched the show very often, I became acquainted with the story themes and general structure of the show through children’s intense interest, evidenced in their stories and fantasy play. What’s more — girls as well as boys participated in this play, a true departure from the common punching-out-the bad guys vs. harmonious cottage-building in the forest themes so common in their play.
The controversy about violence in children’s play had just begun gaining traction, and in early childhood education, many practitioners sought ways to deal with it. Solutions varied from outright bans on the play to awkwardly creating a kind of middle ground in which children were allowed to act out stories without touching each other.
But the He-Man and She-Ra cartoons were a breed apart from most super-heroes stories. They were not inherently violent in their behavior, and were clearly altruistic in battles and conflicts. Each episode was followed by a moral epilogue. Reports that the show employed a child psychologist on its staff seemed to bear this out. Yes, the characters were stereotypic in their blue-eyed blondness, but the show was ground-breaking in its addition of a female character and in the lack of gratuitous violence.
Fast forward to a couple of years ago. In a shopping visit to Beth, Bath, and Beyond (no kidding), I came across a DVD collection of the first volume of the cartoon series. Memories of those teaching days percolated instantly, and since the price was right, I purchased the DVDs for later viewing.
It sat on a shelf for a couple of years, untouched, until I resumed teaching a class on child guidance at my community college. I opened the DVD and watched all 20 episodes of He-Man. It only seemed right, then, to obtain a copy of the She-Ra series and view that as well.
A renewed appreciation for these cartoons was born.
It’s fair to say that young children are exposed to all manner of superficial and unsavory media characters. De-regulation of the broadcast industry in the mid-1980’s swiftly intensified this problem as children’s television shows were primarily driven by toy lines and related products. This remains true today.
Young children have an inherent desire to feel powerful. Play affords this opportunity, and in a safe way, to make sense of the world — explore ideas, re-enact pleasurable experiences, manage over-whelming feelings, or cope with upsetting events. Play puts the child in control. He can step in or out by choice. (As adults, don’t we do the same when we listen to music, read books, watch films, or have long conversations with good friends? We’re trying to figure it out, too. Anna Freud was right when she said children play and adults talk.)
So, when I became more familiar with the He-Man and She-Ra stories, the appeal of these super-heroes, and the cleverly-structured story lines became clear.
The quick back-story on He-Man and She-Ra: He-Man’s true identity is Prince Adam, who lives in Eternia with his parents, King Randor and Queen Marleena. She-Ra’s true identity is Princess Adora, and she is the twin sister of Prince Adam. Kidnapped as an infant by Hordak, leader of the Evil Horde, she is brought to the planet Etheria, where she is mind-controlled and made a captain in his evil forces. Eventually, though, He-Man and She-Ra are re-united, their identities revealed to each other, and they assume respective missions to protect Eternia and Etheria (He-Man battles Skeletor and She-Ra battles Hordak).
The cartoons bear all the qualities of solid good vs. evil tales, with the conflict established at the start of the episode, and the heroes working with their compatriots to vanquish the foe. In both He-Man and She-Ra, though, there are decidedly different features that make these cartoons worthy of a revival.
Both He-Man and She-Ra initially work to outwit their enemies, resorting to battle only as a last resort. This feature alone is a true departure from most super-hero cartoons.
Both have telepathic senses and the ability to communicate with animals. Both demonstrate compassion and empathy toward their compatriots and victims of the evil-doers.
Both He-Man and She-Ra possess super-human strength, their swords the source of this incredible power. The heroes are quick and agile. They hurl large objects at the robotic minions of Skeletor and Hordak. They lift mountains, icebergs, and buildings with grimaced faces. They launch boulders and other gigantic projectiles through force-fields or prisons erected by their enemies.
Neither character is pointedly violent in battles with the evil-doers. Neither He-Man nor She-Ra use their swords directly against an adversary. Nor do they participate in direct physical combat with an enemy. The battles play out from a distance, their swords deflecting enemies’ lightning rays while emitting their own in return. Deft and acrobatic jumps and twirls allow them to evade boulders, electric rays, and lassos.
He-Man and She-Ra are also equipped with a ready supply of clever quips, often as omens prior to battle (He-Man: “I have a strange feeling that we’ve got company”) or retorts during combat (He-Man: “I hate to mention this, but I think you’re trapped”/”Sorry we can’t stay and play, but it’s past your bed time.”) There is some occasional name-calling, also, typically directed at Skeletor (“bone-brain”). But these oral missives pale in comparison to the aggressions uttered by current popular cartoon heroes such as Ben Ten (“Too much negotiating. I’m gonna smash some sense back into ’em!”)
or the Powerpuff Girls (“You hurt the Professor! Now we’re gonna hurt you!”)
The other surprising feature of these cartoons is the heroes’ decision not to exploit the enemies’ vulnerability or obliterate them in their near-demise during battle. In one episode, Skeletor dangles from a cliff by his fingertips at the end of a lengthy engagement. He-Man hoists him up, to Skeletor’s stunned surprise. No revenge. No murder.
Finally, it is notable that each episode is followed by an epilogue in which one of the main characters speaks directly to the viewer to summarize the theme of the story and offer a moral lesson. In one example, She-Ra says, “If someone is mean to you, don’t use revenge. Try to forgive and forget. That usually works.” Following a He-Man episode in which two characters follow Skeletor in an effort achieve power and riches, He-Man says, “You’ve already taken the hardest step, which is admitting you were wrong. That takes courage. We all make mistakes.” The value of this feature is in its encouragement toward critical thinking, and positive impact on children’s social relationships and ethical decision-making. This is also why, in effective classrooms, skilled teachers frame stories for young children by setting the tone for the story beforehand, pausing at points in the story to allow children to react or ask questions, and and engaging them in a post-story discussion about the characters and their experiences and motivations. This storytelling strategy creates a framework through which children can think about feelings, motivation, and relationships.
High distinction is due Donald F. Roberts, whose name appears in the credits for each episode. Professor Emeritus in Communications at Stanford University, he has spent many years conducting research on the effects of media on children, and was an educational consultant to the He-Man and She-Ra cartoons. Hooray for this decision by Filmation, the media company that launched this series.
Young children will always be in need of solid male and female role models, in all areas of their lives. It seems especially imperative today. Cartoon media corporations could use a few more Donald Roberts.
So I challenge teachers, parents, and any other interested individuals to join me in bringing back He-Man and She-Ra. We can do this! Sing the theme song from the She-Ra cartoon with me, won’t you?
For the honor of love — we have the power, so can you!
Rent or check out the DVDs. Or come over to my house and we’ll watch some episodes together.
I’ll make the popcorn.