Pretty, Fizzy Paradise

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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

My Feminist Inspiration...or something like that:

I've mentioned how growing up, I tended to hate the image of the token white girls in children's shows. About the pink, and the prettiness, and the utter lack of substance.

Well, I have to give credit where credit is due, because there was a reason I hated these portrayals. A reason I was, even before the age of ten, frustrated with the lack of powerful portrayals of characters with my race and gender. And that's because even earlier than that, I had been lucky enough to be blessed with exposure to a cartoon show with strikingly positive portrayals of strong, intelligent and powerful women.

That cartoon show? He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.

Heh, I can imagine your skepticism already. The connotations of the term "He-Man", the very male oriented premise of the plot, even the existance of a token female version (who is anything but, but I'll get to her later), makes it seem like this cartoon/comic would be the antithesis of feminist inspiration.

But if you look close at it, it wasn't. There were more male main characters than female, I acknowledge, but there were quite a few females that were very prominent, very significant, and very strong. In fact, I would go so far as to say, these women all represented different feminist *ideals* in their own right.

The first is Teela, the Captain of the Guard, and probably the most prominent female character. She's young, the same age as Adam and a good friend, but despite most fans' assumptions that they will end up married some day, she is not romantically involved with him. (And I'm pretty sure he's gay. Just sayin' He spent a lot of time with Man-At-Arms, and hit it off really well with Bow, in any He-Man/She-Ra crossovers...)

Teela's Adam's bodyguard and trainer as well, and regularly proves to be a better fighter than he is when untransformed, which he never seems to have any trouble with acknowledging. While occasionally in the cartoon her relative youth was called into question, there was never *once* an issue about her gender. Never *once* did *ANY* character, evil or good, express doubts about her abilities in a martial capacity because of her femininity.

And in personality she was strong-willed and imperious, but by no definition an emasculating bitch. She nagged at Adam, yes, but out of concern and frustration, because he'd miss training that was intended to protect him. She was also sensitive, warm and caring. While she was primarily raised by a father figure, she was also portrayed as having strong emotional ties to Adam's mother, as well as female friends, and a subplot in which she searched for her mother.

So in this character, we have a young woman pursuing a career in a male dominated field (we did tend to see more male guards than female, though there were definitely females there too), strong-willed, uncompromising, but also without yielding femininity either.

The second is Marlena, Queen of Eternia, and Adam's mother. Originally, she was an astronaut from Earth, (and according to the series bible, was commander of her mission), who crash landed on the planet. They even emphasize during the episode that addresses it, that it was not pilot error, and that she would have been killed if she were anything less than a stellar pilot. She then marries Adam's father, the King of Eternia, and becomes its Queen.

Now, I've actually gotten into an argument about this character with another feminist. (We were bored). She believed that it was a negative portrayal, a career woman sublimating her own identity into that of a man's. I understand her point, but I very much disagree. Her situation parallels many women's, who choose to give up careers in order to raise a family. The operative word is *choose*. Feminism is about choice after all. And even within the Castle, she is always portrayed as her husband's equal. Warm and nurturing and more approachable, but she definitely has her own mind and will. It is implied that her less...traditional aspects, her intelligence and will and drive, were what made her so attractive to the King to begin with. Which is always a nice message for a girl too. (Rather than how many movies/books/tv shows were the girl has to lose any trace of will or independence to achieve romance).

It must also be noted that many times, Marlena is portrayed as the more reasonable and intelligent of the two rulers. And as well, while the series cast is generally split between those who know Adam is He-Man, and those who don't...Marlena is the only character from the "those who don't" camp who is implied to have figured out in an episode that the hero is indeed her son.

The Sorceress is a mixed message in terms of feminism. She is impossibly powerful, but only within the borders of her domicile. She gives He-Man his power, but she must act through him, rather than of her own will. However, an episode centering around her actually goes more into detail about who she is, how she became the sorceress and what sacrifices she made (including having a family, normal life) to get there. This episode changes her from a dubious anti-feminist image at best, to a strong woman who had made very very difficult choices and sacrifices in order to serve a greater good. It was a fascinating transition that most cartoons probably wouldn't have bothered to make. And there's something subversive about the way she chose duty over motherhood...

The villainess Evil-Lyn is also an example of a positive, well in as much as a villainess can be, female character. She is the most powerful of the villain Skeletor's allies, one that he often has to beseech to work with him, rather than order her around. She is only moderately under his command, and her role is more of a general than any sort of traditional femme fatale role. And according to the series bible, she has a complex unutilized history as well (having been the other woman scientist/astronaut on Marlena Glenn's spaceflight.)

He-Man's female counterpart, She-Ra is also given more substance than most female counterparts. She was introduced in the "movie" Secret of the Sword, as Adam's long lost twin sister, smuggled to another world and raised evil, as a general in Hordak's army.

The plot at first glance seems pretty standard, hero goes to the other world on a mission for the sorceress. With a sword very much like his own but no real knowledge of what's going on. However, instead of going with the whole hero rehabilitates villainess and rescues her, the story takes on a different form.

When he finds her first, she defeats him soundly, even though he is He-Man at the time (admittedly skillful trickery is involved), after some gratuitous bondage (Secret of the Sword was my first exposure to suggestive "twincest" too...she follows the usual He-Man villain path of chaining him spread-eagled because she can), he reasons with her, to get her to realize she's on the wrong side. Pretty standard fare really.

However, upon confronting the villain, she is brainwashed again. Puts her brother into bondage *again*, and ends up breaking through the conditioning of her own free will, without his input at all. (My memory is shaky, but he might have been unconscious or something at the time. I really hope it comes out on DVD. Seriously. It's bad and cheesy but awesome nonetheless). Anyway, she ends up saving the day, after which the two work as equal partners.

The movie was also the spinoff pilot, which probably explains why instead of being relegated to sidekick or damsel in the second part, she remains an equal partner to him. But it was still nice to see a woman and man as complete equals as I remember them being in the movie.

She-Ra as a show was more obviously feminist allegory (she ended up remaining on her adopted world, where he went home to protect their birthplace...which was a nice way to keep them acting like equals and opposites, as they continued to do in crossovers.) While there were evil female characters, they were very subservient to the leader Hordak (in contrast when She-Ra/Adora had been working for the bad guy, she had served with calm dignity and independence), all of the faceless armored foot soldiers were men. The rebellion and most of the allies met in various episodes was predominantly female. Only three or so male characters ever had prominent roles. And one had a mustasche out of 70s gay porn, with a heart motif was an archer who rode a horse named Arrow. So make of that what you will. He was pretty kickass regardless.

In some ways, I think the overt feminist allegory weakened the innate feminist inspiration that 4-5 year old me subconsciously garnered from the series though, as She-Ra's war-torn, dominated world didn't bear much resemblance to every day life. Where He-Man's Eternia, while of a mixed pseudo-fantasy setting, was more "normal", demonstrating the recognizable male privilege bias, but with strong women carving their own roles in it regardless. As it was more subconsciously recognizeable, it was more meaningful.

Regardless, as I got older, I abandoned these cartoon reruns I loved so much (I was born in 1983, so most of the episodes were long in rerun by the time I watched)...I certainly remember the embarrassment of being teased for watching "boys' cartoons" instead of Rainbow Brite or whatever the hell the other 5 year old girls were watching. I moved on to other things...joined my friends in watching the Pink Power Ranger faint, Kelly Kapowski giggle, and an endless parade of cartoons where the girl's sole purpose was to be the love interest or look pretty in a dress...

And I would look at my cousin, 8 years younger than me, and realize that this was what she'd be watching too...

And I'd remember wearing a bathing suit, tying a towel around my neck for a cape, carving the bottoms out of dixie cups to make "bracers", brandishing a stick and running around like a freakin' lunatic and driving my parents crazy... And oddly, think that I'm very lucky to have had that...

And now I have to go rent those He-Man DVDs again, and indulge my passion for awful, cheesy, campy and ridiculous because they're just that damn entertaining.

The gratuitous bondage of a barely dressed, well-oiled man in furry panties never hurts either. Heh.


  • At March 28, 2006 8:17 PM, Blogger Centurion said…

    And to think I stuck to Transformers and Macgyver as a kid...really does impact you more than you initially think.

    I have to admit I never really watched He-Man. Thundercats, yes, but not He-Man. I know a little of the show, but nothing serious about it.

    Sounds like He-Man was ahead of its time gender wise than Thundercats - and light years ahead of Transformers (didn't get a female till the movie?)

    Still, the 80s had very memorable elements to the shows, something that seems lost for the majority of shows I've seen off hand. Then again, times have changed and I doubt a lot of the (possibly) unintentional inuendo wouldn't make it past censors safely...

  • At March 28, 2006 9:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    You seem to really nail this...are there any current toons equal to this,in your opinion?

  • At March 28, 2006 9:13 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    centurion: oh yeah, they got away with some of the damndest shit back then. It's great!

    He-Man was freakily progressive in an odd way, I think. Shame the attitude didn't spread farther. :-)

    Anon: Hmm, I admit, I'm not really good with current toons. Though if you wanna go back a few years, I always thought Gargoyles was excellent with regards to its female characters. They all had a lot of strength and depth, even the crazy ones.

    And Xanatos=best bad guy ever. :-)

  • At March 28, 2006 10:05 PM, Blogger Centurion said…

    Agreed, Gargoyles was an incredible show (until the 3rd season). Strong characters all around, and Demona was awesome (along with Xanatos).

    Next Generation voices made it all the better.

  • At March 29, 2006 12:25 AM, Blogger Richard said…

    You so totally need to check out Kim Possible. You really really do. And I'm not just saying that because my online avatar is her faithful assistant/sidekick Ron Stoppable. Well, okay, yes, that is a major part of why I'm saying that. But the fundamental point remains valid.

    You won't believe how explicit the overt feminist message is in the show -- it might not be what you expect from the Disney Channel -- and children of both genders can get a really healthy and positive message along with considerable villain butt kicking.

  • At March 29, 2006 2:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Ah, He-Man. God bless it. One of the few cartoon shows you could 'play' at recess and actually get to run around with the other boys instead of staying by the tree/castle/headquarters and wait. I even preferred it to the more 'girl-designed' She-Ra since the girl characters were just as cool if not better and when you're really small, Orko is funny as hell.

  • At March 29, 2006 9:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Centurion: Actually, there were a few episodes, pre-movie, about the female Autobots- which, Shockwave says at one point, "I thought they were extinct!" Of course, why Cybertron had concepts of gender based on a planet none of them had ever visited... but that's another story.

    Aleta 1, the female Autobots' leader, was capable on a level with Optimus Prime, and more fun than Arcee.

  • At March 29, 2006 1:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Y'know, it caused me no end of confusion when I recieved a set of Masters of the Universe action figures before the show debuted. The Teela action figure doubled as the sorceress (you'd put a little plastic snake headpice on her and viola sorceress) making me think they were the same character. Since I was the most interested in Teela and Evil-Lyn, I watched for the revelation that Teela secretly the sorceress.

    (How'd that be for turning the secret identity on it's head. Powerful as a civilian... differently powerful as a hero!)

    Did you ever watch Robotech (who's female depictions were more mixed) I've been struggling through a post about how it's sad that we don't see characters like Lisa Hayes, who seemed so groundbreaking at the time and still is rather groundbraking because no one really played catchup.

  • At March 29, 2006 2:08 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    rab: I'll keep that in mind. :-)

    carla: the He-Man characters had vaguely normal sounding names deep down too: Randor, Marlena, Adam, Teela, Duncan. Okay, Randor and Teela are a bit odd but still. She-Ra had Adora, Catra, Glimmer, Bow, Fuckin' *Castaspella*...

    Lyle: Well, she wasn't the Sorceress, but they did explain that whole thing pretty sufficiently. Like Mother like Daughter. :-)

  • At March 29, 2006 2:08 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Addendum: Never saw Robotech. Did see way too much Voltron though...

  • At March 29, 2006 5:52 PM, Blogger Ferrous Buller said…

    OK, that was easily the smartest deconstruction - feminist or otherwise - of He-Man I've ever read. Which may sound like damning with faint praise, but still: cool post. :-)

    [I am also forced to accept the awful truth that you were 10 when Power Rangers first aired, while I was in the middle of college. Insert gratuitious "crap, I'm old!" outburst here. :-T]

    For my part, I never watched too much He-Man: I think by the time it came on, I was already looking for cartoons with more meat to them. [Star Blazers was the first "serious" cartoon I can recall seeing, but Robotech probably had a stronger impact on me in my formative teen years.] But it's nice to know there was a fantasy series way back then where the girls got to hold their own. I had forgotten - or never knew - a lot of the other characters and backstory and whatnot to that show.

    Too bad you don't keep up with current `toons, though, as I'd love to know what you think of, say, Justice League or Teen Titans. :-)

  • At March 29, 2006 8:02 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Ken: Thanks, I'll remember that.

    And I agree. While the occasionally dating a pretty moron idea doesn't bother me (some folks like 'em stupid. :-P) the dumbing down of the female character really gets to me.

    It does remind me about something George Bernard Shaw wrote about the ending of Pygmalion. He didn't have Eliza go back to Higgins out of some anti-feminist reason, but rather that Eliza was a strong woman and would therefore prefer to be with other strong people, versus her subservient admirer Freddie, who was weak.

    And I found after reading it, that I couldn't disagree. Which means, ultimately, I've gotten into Feminist debates about My Fair Lady and sexism. :-)

    Ferrous: Thanks.

    [Don't worry, I won't hold it against you. :-P)

    I can understand the "more meat to them" thing, definitely. Anime tends to be directed toward a wider audience, whereas He-Man was just to sell toys.

    I watched if for the girls and the gratuitous bondage. :-)

    And I do occasionally watch JLU or Teen Titans. Well JLU. It's just a combination of never catching when it's on, generally preferring comic portrayals...and the fact that none of my major favorite comic characters tend to show up, that makes me less interested in catching regularly.

    I'm not a big fan of Teen Titans though, mostly for the way the secret/human identities never were utilized. See, Robin isn't likeable because he was Robin, to me, it's because he's Tim Drake...(I've heard TT Robin's supposed to be Dick, but he acted like Tim in the eps *I* saw. :-P).

    And I didn't really like how they recharacterized Starfire. And I've *never* cared for Raven in any capacity.

    And the theme song gives me a headache.

    I remember the plots were reasonably fun though. But I had more fun with the comics so I stuck with them. :-)

    Mostly my lack of watching current cartoons though is just because I can never remember to have the tv on and in the right place when the time. :-)

  • At March 30, 2006 9:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Gargoyles was@#$% awsome! Ahem the '90's toons had great women
    Batman: Montoya, (non-evil) Dr. thomkins, the main reporter, selina, Babs,& Zatana
    X-MEN Storm, Rogue Myra, Jubilee Lelandra, Jean (Especially as Dark/phoneix)

    Great time for a teen:-)

  • At March 30, 2006 4:35 PM, Blogger Ferrous Buller said…

    I think the main reason He-Man didn't appeal to me was that he came across as "dumb blonde guy with big sword." As I've stated elsewhere, I prefer smart heroes. And in purely physical terms, I've always been more of a Bruce Lee than Arnold Schwarzenegger kinda guy: give me the agile martial artist over the bodybuilder any day; big muscles just ain't my thing. :-)

    So that was at least two strikees against it. Then again, maybe I was just disappointed by the lack of blood and/or bothered by the bondage subtext. ;-P

    As I've said before, I'm not much of a fan of superhero comics, but I have enjoyed the various DC / WB superhero cartoons of the last fifteen years or so: B:TAS, S:TAS, JL, Teen Titans. [I also liked X-Men Evolution and the MTV Spider-man series, but otherwise haven't cared much for the animated Marvel properties.]

    Titans, in particular, I quite enjoyed, perhaps precisely because I know nothing about the comics. So I watched it with fresh eyes, with no preconceptions about these characters - apart from Robin, and this was pretty clearly set outside B:TAS continuity, so I knew he was a reboot - and had a lot of fun. It's like they took the Power Rangers and smooshed them together with the Breakfast Club: you could see the classic archetypes in each character (the leader, the jock, the class clown, the exchange student, the goth).

    Its playful attitude was a welcome change of pace from the deathly seriousness of most superheroics (including Justice League), but they could do serious, too. And I liked the way they tweaked the nose of so many superhero conventions - including, of course, the utter lack of secret identities. Basically, I probably liked it for all the elements you disliked. :-)

  • At March 30, 2006 6:15 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Ferrous: Actually what I always though was interesting about He-Man was that in as much as those shows allowed for thinking, Adam was a relatively thoughtful, contemplative and introspective character. And usually measured up nicely to situations where he did actually have to think his way out.

    Also honestly, truly empathetic nice male heroes in that sort of sword/sorcery thing is rare.

    But yeah, I understand about the coming across thing. I've seen the awful Dolph Lundgren movie. :-P

    I don't actively dislike Titans, but I am largely apathetic to it because it doesn't provide a lot of what I truly liked about the comics. :-) Different tastes I guess.

  • At April 19, 2006 2:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    i never got to watch he-man or she-ra as a child, but when i finally did see an ancient tape of she-ra, i was delighted to find he-man figuring in basically as she-ra's feminine, gay shopping buddy.

  • At April 19, 2006 2:41 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Heh, yep basically. :-) Probably the true brilliant stroke was making them twins, thus eliminating any hope for a romantic relationship. The twin thing has the advantage of neither one being able to claim seniority based on their age either.

    I always did like the way their relationship played out when I was little. I might think differently seeing it now (it's not on any DVD yet, and my tapes long since got eaten), but I remember being really happy with the mutual liking and respect they had for one another, despite their very different life experiences.

    I remember even at age 5 or 6 realizing that usually when the man protagonist finds his long lost sister, it usually plays out much differently. Here, once the initial conflict was resolved they embraced one another as equals.

    It was nice. :-)

  • At December 26, 2006 1:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    So here's horrible me, commenting months after you've posted.

    An episode of He-man I've never been able to find since the single time I watched it at the age of six or eight is one where some villian slug-thing comes by Greyskull and brainwashes the Sorceress into turning evil. And in being evil, He-man actually has to ally with Skeletor to take the Sorceress down, because she is far too powerful to take down with only the good guys.

    As a small girl-child, I thought this was fabulous. Not only did the Sorceress have phenomenal cosmic power, if she actually used it, nothing on Eternia could take her down! I'm not entirely certain why this was so amazing to me, but it was, and forever after, I wanted to play the Sorceress. (Which was fine, because then my sister could be Teela. The problems with pretend casting only started with She-Ra.)

  • At July 16, 2011 5:03 AM, Anonymous acid reflux symptoms said…

    I used to be questioning what's up with that weird gravatar??? I know 5am is early and I’m not wanting my finest at that hour, however I hope I don’t appear like this! I'd however make that face if I’m asked to do a hundred pushups. lol


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