Well, DreamWorks has revealed some images from its upcoming reboot of She-Ra. Personally, I think She-Ra’s new look is rather sweet. Not everyone agrees, of course, and I’ve seen some pretty heated social media discourse. A lot of it is the same “they’ve ruined my childhood” theatrics that we see whenever a fondly-remembered franchise gets a new lick of paint, but I’ve noticed that a good chunk of it has a curious moralistic slant: the idea that the new She-Ra will somehow corrupt the minds of innocent kids.
Excerpts from a single Twitter thread about She-Ra.
This is not the first time that She-Ra has come under fire on ideological grounds – far from it. The original 1980s version of the cartoon was one of the franchises attacked in Phil Phillips’ notorious 1986 book Turmoil in the Toybox. Here’s what he had to say about She-Ra’s exploits:
This series is also filled with occult practices and characters […] In one story, Shadow Weaver transforms herself into a little girl who comes to Etheria to participate in a witches’ spell-casting contest. During the contest, She-Ra comes in to try herself. While She-Ra is there, the little girl (who is really Shadow Weaver) comes in and asks to try. Through her spells, the little girl makes all of she-Ra’s friends go to sleep and sends She-Ra to the sixth dimension, which is down in a pit. These spells that the little girl casts are very specific and in depth. In fact, they are similar to spells that would be found in a book on witchcraft. […] Some parents may think it is cute when their children play in this manner. How cute will they think these very same actions are when the child is a teen and involved in actual occult practices? Through these cartoons and toys, an unconscious fascination with the occult begins to form.
Elsewhere in his book Phillips makes some comments about the culture behind the production of these cartoons. His conclusions are not a million miles from some of the rants about “SJWs” that can be found on Twitter:
Many of these writers and creators came out of the 60’s generation and the drug era, during which they were involved in Eastern religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Some are still involved in these practices. Many live in Hollywood […] the very nature of Hollywood leads to a hedonistic way of living, which often involves “meditation,” drugs and Eastern religious influences. In line with their lifestyles, most of these cartoon writers and toy designers are not church-going people.
I am also reminded of an earlier, more famous volume of scaremongering: Fredric Wertham’s 1954 anti-comics rant Seduction of the Innocent. Although in some respects a progressive (he fought against racial segregation) Wertham was, when it came to gender roles and sexual orientation, quite conservative. Aside from his famous description of Batman and Robin’s relationship as being “like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together”, consider these comments on the female characters of superhero comics:
In these stories there are practically no decent, attractive, successful women. A typical female character is the Catwoman, who is vicious and uses a whip. The atmosphere is homosexual and anti-feminine.
Superwoman (Wonder Woman) is always a horror type. She is physically very powerful, tortures men, has her own female following, is the cruel, “phallic” woman. While she is a frightening figure for boys, she is an undesirable ideal for girls, being the exact opposite of what girls are supposed to want to be.
His comments about Wonder Woman are particularly striking. Head over to Twitter and, lo and behold, the spectre of the phallic woman has returned:
Are we seeing here a rebranding of the old Wertham/Phillips-style scaremongering, updated for a more media-savvy generation?
Consider the role of nostalgia in the She-Ra row. Turmoil in the Toybox makes an appeal to the-way-things-used-to-be, but this rests on a vaguely-defined era of innocent toys: one of the book’s illustrations shows a number of generic traditional playthings – a rocking horse, skipping rope, cuddly bunny, tea set and train – with the caption “Remember when toys were toys?”. By contrast, these guys on Twitter are harking back to an altogether cooler form of nostalgia – nostalgia for those awesome cartoons they used to watch back in the 1980s, a decade that maintains a reputation as something of a pop culture golden age.
I can remember when the first Teen Titans cartoon series made its debut in 2003, and people who’d grown up on the 1980s comics were angry that the TV show had gone with a cuted-up anime aesthetic. Now, more recently, I’ve come across people who grew up on the first cartoon and were angry at the goofy humour of Teen Titans Go when it debuted in 2013. These things go in cycles; some revivals succeed, others fail, but all of them will alienate at least some of the audience of the previous version – particularly in a franchise aimed at children, which must always appeal to the next generation to survive.
From South Park Republicanism to the meme-lovin’ alt-right, the contemporary right understands the benefits of embracing elements of pop culture rather than railing against all of it as Phil Phillips did. Hence we see alt-right figurehead Vox Day condemning Disney’s Frozen as the work of Satanists on the one hand, while hiring Chuck Dixon (of Batman and Punisher fame) to write superhero comics for him. The ideological weaponisation of commonplace fannish angst – as we are seeing with the She-Ra backlash, along with multiple similar kerfuffles beforehand – is another manifestation of this.