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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

2x2 Girls: Queer Mirroring in She-Ra

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power ended on a high and very gay note, but the show's queerness goes much deeper than the flashy finale. To understand how the show is constructed around its central lesbian relationship, though, we have to be open to learning the techniques it uses to tell their story.


It's probably old news at this point that another kids' cartoon has canonized a main character's queer relationship. More than canonized in fact: Adora, lead character of Netflix series She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, is only able to overcome the series' villain through a declaration of love and emotional kiss from her childhood friend and former nemesis Catra. It rules honestly! Back when I gave a shit about My Little Pony this is exactly what I hoped we'd eventually get. We're undeniably experiencing a really positive trend in children's media towards the open depiction of queer relationships, and I'm so happy for everyone growing up in this environment.

Of course, no queer representation would be complete without a ton of discourse around whether it's "good" queer representation. In this case, one bone of contention is how damn long it took for Catra and Adora to get together. Which, hey, I get it! Having characters only kiss or hold hands or whatever in the last minutes of a series is a little frustrating! We all want to see queer characters appear before the finale, right?

Except... we do get a number of queer relationships in the show. Bow has two dads, of course, and Spinnerella and Netossa are literally wives. The latter relationship is critical to season 5 and indeed serves as an important foil to Catra and Adora. More on that in a bit. Point is, there's certainly established queer relationships, if that's what you're looking for.

Is it even fair to dismiss Catra and Adora's relationship as a late stage development, though? Catra and Adora only confess their love and kiss in that last episode, yes. But their relationship is so deeply woven into the fabric of the series that I find it impossible to describe as "only canon in the final episode". In fact, I would argue that episode six, halfway through the final season, is where their relationship really starts properly. Everything after that is just them working through their complicated issues and finally achieving some level of healthy understanding. 

I love this because their relationship plays out in this messy complicated way that feels true to my own experiences. Well... ok admittedly I don't have much experience with obsessive gay cycles of hot revenge. It's more resonant in the way their different traumas create barriers to communication and intimacy, and the realization that their desire for each other is something they can permit themselves to experience and embrace.

This is important because...

Because it...

Alright look, here's the thing about writing complicated analysis of cartoons for children, right? It's not really that important compared to the shit going on politically right now. That feels pretty obvious to me but that realization can't seem to penetrate contemporary fandom, where predatory social media engagement mechanisms and charismatic creeps who know how to manipulate an often young and inexperienced audience has made Having Opinions About Cartoons a literally career ending matter.

Taking a step back from this culture, and really considering the amount of time and thought I spent on cartoons, leaves me feeling a bit, well, silly. Like, fundamentally there should be some difference in complexity between kids' and adults' media--in terms of not just content but also formal technique, innovations in story structure, stuff like this. Critics for adult media really could delve into some thornier subjects and more nuanced ways of exploring those subjects. Authors aiming at an adult audience really could push the envelope, go beyond the relative simplicity of art catering to a general audience.

I mean, they really could, if they weren't such wusses.

I get it though, this tendency to wuss out even when ostensibly creating art or even criticism for adults. After all, an environment reflexively hostile toward even the modest narrative challenges of kids' media is bound to be even more hostile toward adult storytelling. This seems to hit queer creators particularly hard, for reasons that I'm sure are a mystery to all of us. As a consequence, these days I'm feeling ambivalent about the critical community around children's media and the way it seems to elevate the stakes of interpretation and, particularly, "representation," in a subject that by its nature has its limits.

One area where this kind of criticism shines, though, is revealing formal strategies that in something more complex might be a little buried. If you're willing to follow along with a show like this, you can start to notice some recurring patterns and structures that really open the story up for you. In this case, exploring how Catra and Adora's relationship plays out over the course of episode 6 and the rest of the season is a pretty rewarding experience, one that allows a lot more dynamic interaction between show and reader than hitting certain checkmarks for good representation.

The technique episode 6 leans most heavily on is juxtaposition and the use of foil characters. Being an ongoing serialized show, She-Ra can have A plots and B plots, and throughout the series those plots often reflect each other in some way, with characters acting as counterparts. Looking for characters that act as mirrors is a pretty fun task, I find, cause usually it doesn't take much work, just a compare and contrast operation. 

The minor characters that serve as the main subjects of the B plot in this episode, Netossa and Spinnerella, are pretty easy to compare and contrast to Adora and Catra for example. They're both in lesbian relationships, but... they're in a pretty different place in the sixth episode. Catra has over the course of the last few episodes sacrificed herself heroically to rescue Princess Glimmer from the big bad. Adora has come to rescue her only to find her possessed and mind controlled by said big bad, Horde Prime. She frees Catra (mostly) and now Catra recuperate on their spaceship, while basically being a huge bitch to everyone, pissing Adora off in turn. In contrast, Netossa and Spinnerella are, like, fine. More than that, they're married and together, in contrast to Adora and Catra who still have a lot of issues to work out and haven't admitted directly that they're wildly in love. 

Don't doubt it for a second though: they are. We know there's something there because Catra explicitly stated while brainwashed that Adora "broke her heart". The brainwashing, she says, is a relief from that specific pain, and after four whole seasons of her melting down over Adora leaving her behind with the Horde, we should be ready to believe her. These girls are a mess, and that mess is deeply romantic in nature. This is a far cry from Netossa and Spinnerella who clearly have their differences but who resolve them effectively through communication.

This juxtaposition, in fact, really helps the show dig into this subject of healthy communication. If you think the point of kids' media is solely to model moral behavior then... well then I urge you never to watch one of those degenerate, so-called "lunatic toonatics"! But if you're gonna insist on that level of moralizing, good news! You have your Healthy Lesbian Couple right there if you want them. But their presence not only models healthy communication, but also highlights by contrast the fundamental problems in the central relationship. Namely: Catra and Adora are both too messed up to communicate with each other.

What they lack in communication they sure make up for in passion though, and this is where they line up with their lesbian foils. There's a sincerity to everything they do, all their big big feelings about each other, that mirrors the other couple's sincere but healthy relationship. And that's the key that lets us reflect the couple out onto the rest of the narrative as well. Their sincerity is juxtaposed with King Micah's cringingly try-hard attempts to be a Cool Adult to the young princess Frosta, for one thing. So we've got all these examples kinda batting around, right, of healthy and fraught, sincere and performative relationships. That's the stage of the episode, the starting juxtaposition array it uses to explore it's ideas.

From there it flips them all around.

The resistance fighters encounter a whole town that's been brainwashed by Horde Prime, which, as established in the last episode, wipes away all the sincere but painful complexities of your ex leaving you with the child soldier army you grew up in, or things of this nature, with a seemingly healthy and stable but utterly hollow and choiceless tranquility. In the process, Spinnerella is captured and secretly brainwashed, which will result in Netossa spending the whole rest of the season struggling in a false conflict with her wife to get her back. In parallel, Catra agrees to get her malfunctioning but still semi-active brain control chip removed, and to do some last second scouting of the Horde Prime Hive Mind before they take it out. She opens up enough to Adora to state her need to both carry out the risky task, and to have Adora with her while she does it--she learns to communicate her need for the other girl's presence sincerely. There's a flip. Also Micah learns to be more genuine, it's, you know, also there, also adds to my argument, isn't about lesbians though, so, whatever, moving on. Catra also noticeably begins attempting to make amends to other people she's hurt, and Adora tries to communicate better with Catra (though Adora's got a long ass way to go with her own issues).

This is all pretty neat cause I think it conveys some solid ideas about learning to be healthier when your relationship is a mess, which strikes me as more useful than just Modeling Good Relationships exclusively. But it also serves as a teaching tool for this strategy of juxtaposition and seeking out characters that contrast each other meaningfully. It even shows how once you've got foils you don't have to simply do a really staid "Goofus and Gallant" thing where one is good and one is bad, but can flip and reverse and rotate the characters around within their narrative space. Plenty of stuff rated PG-13 and above doesn't manage those kinds of acrobatics! Moreover, if you're willing to follow it, you've got a whole season of such parallels to explore.

This reading strategy challenges a model of reading for "representation". Fandom representation reading in my experience is based less in textual engagement and more grading art like a Yelp review. Did the dinner conform to my expectations of "authentic Italian cuisine"? Did the representation mirror my own expectations and experiences back to me? A more complex reading model instead looks at the text and queerness within the text as part of a set of arguments and techniques and relationships. Rather than asking whether the text tells a story for the consumer it asks how the reader can enter and explore the text.

As teaching tools for this expanded reading style go, She-Ra is a solid study in foils and parallels. Let's sketch out another one quick! Shadow Weaver and Entrapta make for an interesting opposite pair don't they? They both rotate their positions between the good guys and the bad guys, acting as disruptive forces on each side. In fact, Entrapta's defection to the Horde precipitates Hordak's own defection, and Shadow Weaver's fall from grace sees her become a mentor to Glimmer, fracturing the rebellion. And we could go on--once you start picking out a strategy like this kind of parallelism you often see it crop up in a bunch of places! It's why so many of my early articles take the kinda goofy form of "wow I just learned this new crit thing and I'm so excited to talk about how it's actually EVERYWHERE!!"

Hey, speaking of which, let's now talk about a piece of media whose influence is actually EVERYWHERE!!



I'm of course talking about the almost shot for shot homage to the ending of Revolutionary Girl Utena during She-Ra's climax. One work referencing another like this is called an allusion, and it's another handy technique to know... though I don't expect many young viewers are gonna recognize this particular reference 'till they're older. I hope they don't recognize it at least... I mean, Utena is brilliant, but probably is a bit much for anyone in She-Ra's intended viewing base. It can be a bit much for me! It's definitely what I'd call queer media intended for a more adult audience.

But, She-Ra's creators opted to make the allusion regardless, and so it's worth talking about its implications. Like She-Ra, RGU is sometimes described as a story where the lesbians fail to get together till the end of the series, or arguably fail to officially get together at all. Like She-Ra this description is silly, technically true while being profoundly misleading, a great example of the major limitations of ploddingly literal "representation" metrics. 

The story of the wannabe-prince Utena and her appointed bride Anthy is one of fighting against a patriarchal and homophobic system of the world in order to get together. It is a profoundly lesbian story about two girls coming to terms precisely with their queer desire and gendered trauma and how in particular Anthy is demonized as a witch for her failure to conform to patriarchal demands. It's precisely Utena's failure to escape patriarchal heroism that separates them--the show ending on a complex albeit ultimately liberatory note is a commentary on the way they are entangled in this cultural violence.

Conversely It's Catra persuading Adora that she doesn't need to sacrifice herself heroically, she doesn't need to play the prince in shining armor, that brings them together and saves them. If episode 6 starts them on the journey of communicating their needs, the finale is simply the culmination where they realize what we as the readers have known for a while: catadora is canon. The entire story thus far has been, as with Utena, the story of two characters struggling to find a way to be with each other despite abuse leading them to unhealthy behavior patterns. WHEN they kiss is just a statistic, it doesn't determine the queerness of the story because the story is queer the whole way through. The story is about being queer.

To fully appreciate this we need to recognize our own place in this process, that the queer relationship enfolds not just Catra and Adora as well, but us, as a queer, engaged audience. I've seen a claim that the show fails because Adora doesn't see the breakdown of Catra's character as she isolates herself to gain control of the Horde, the only way she thinks she can avoid being hurt, nor does Catra see the deconstruction of Adora's self destructive princely heroism, the only way she thinks she can prove her worth. I genuinely don't think it matters. WE do, the audience. We know what happens, and we, unlike Catra and Adora, are real people and take precedent. Those two also don't know they're in an allusion to one of the most core pieces of lesbian media. It's ok, WE can observe the RGU allusion for them and consider the weird parallelisms that emerge. (Like, isn't She-Ra sort of like if Utena was in the coffin, and the person reaching in for her was... Nanami? Much to consider!)

While the intertextual relationship isn't something I expect every viewer to get, it does underscore my worry about the show's reception. RGU and She-Ra are both series that are in some way about a developing lesbian relationship. I worry that if people can't see this in She-Ra they'll be ill equipped to see it in RGU. In fact, I worry that many stories by and for queer adults with similar character dynamics--the relationship between Vriska and Terezi in Homestuck for example--will be misunderstood and treated with hostility for not conforming to a narrow ideal story type. That the complex webs of parallels and reversals in RGU, so essential to understanding things like "why does Anthy betray Utena", won't be understood, because fandom culture is resistant to learning these techniques in their simpler forms.

Art by and for queer people is never going to be your 4.5/5 Authentic Italian Dining Experience though. Catra and Adora do not have the same relationship as Spinnerella and Netossa. That's fine, and we don't have to grade them on a scale of more to less legitimate. What draws people to catadora is precisely the way Catra is paranoid, jealous, hurt, a scared animal. It's the way Adora responds to her trauma by controlling situations and throwing herself continuously into deadly situations in order to prove she's really worthy. Its how they affirm their need and love for each other despite these barriers. Their relationship encompasses the whole of the show, and is its central messy driving conflict, and unfolds through all of the formal strategies that the story uses.

If we can learn how the show tells us that story, maybe we can understand more complex queer art as well, and our complex queer selves.

She-Ra, princess of power
Feel my omnipotence if just for an hour
She-Ra, princess of power
You're my precious, precious princess of power
She-Ra, princess of power
I turn to you when my relationships sour

--Two Nice Girls, "Princess of Power"

This Has Been:
2x2 Girls

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