How Noelle Stevenson Revived She-Ra for a New Era

In rebooting a classic cartoon, she brought friendship, vulnerability and inclusion to the fore

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power added depth and diversity to the original cartoon's lineup. - Credit by DreamWorks Animation
Headshot of Erik Oster

When DreamWorks reached out to Noelle Stevenson to pitch a new She-Ra adaptation “It felt like one of those moments where you’re in the right place at the right time,” she tells Adweek.

For someone who describes her previous work—including developing her graphic novel Nimona—as exploring “subversion of classic fantasy and sci-fi tropes, especially as they relate to female characters,” it was a natural fit. And it was one she handled so deftly, Adweek’s editors selected her as an honoree in this year’s Creative 100.

Developing an adaptation of a character beloved by many children of the 1980s was a daunting challenge that Stevenson took seriously. But at the same time, she “didn’t want myself and my crew to feel constrained by that.”

“A lot of the challenge was doing that while also being aware of the kind of shock that people would feel seeing the character reimagined, which was going to happen no matter what,” Stevenson says. “[We decided on] letting the show become its own thing and protecting the crew and its writers from being beholden to the original so we could take this show in front of a new audience that didn’t necessarily have to have grown up with the original and bring them this new, fresh-feeling show so they could have their own She-Ra experience.”

While Stevenson didn’t grow up with She-Ra herself, she “developed an interest in this world and these characters” while working in animation over the past several years, including on Disney’s Big Hero 6 and Tangled; DuckTales; and Wander Over Yonder, which crafted two homages to He-Man during her stint as a staff writer.

“After a certain point, I really wanted the show to stand on its own,” she says, wanting it to remain faithful to the original while evolving in a new direction.

That evolution is apparent in the show’s transformation of the original’s title (She-Ra: Princess of Power) to She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, reflecting an increased focus on She’Ra’s relationships to the show’s other characters.

One of the aspect of the original she loved has certainly survived: the villains seeming “almost like dual-protagonists,” an aspect she expanded considerably while still keeping the plots of foes like Catra and Scorpia tied it to the show’s central theme of friendship.

"This show is about friendship, but I also wanted to show that sometimes friendship can be hard, sometimes relationships can be messy and difficult—and you can rise above that."
Noelle Stevenson

“I tended to relate to villains more often because they were the ones that had a license to be messy and express emotions that the heroes weren’t necessarily allowed to express,” she says. “This show is about friendship, but I also wanted to show that sometimes friendship can be hard, sometimes relationships can be messy and difficult—and you can rise above that.”

“There are these core relationships like between Adora and Catra that are broken at this fundamental level, and so much of the show is about examining that,” she explained.

In the original series the relationship, between Adora and Catra was “defined by jealousy,” something which tends to be applied as a stereotypical and shallow female emotion, Stevenson says. “We did want to change that a little [and] take a deeper look at that feeling of jealousy,” including how it “came from this place of love.”

Similarly, the new show embraces the gray areas in a conflict that cartoons typically paint as starkly good versus evil.

“The show is about the struggle between the dark and light,” she says. “Even heroes have darkness in them, villains are not pure evil.”

Another key aspect of the show is vulnerability. She-Ra, like her brother, He-Man, was originally an invincible and unflappable demigod who conveyed constant confidence. That swagger was part of She-Ra’s charm, but it also kept her from seeming truly relatable.

In the new show, each character—including She-Ra and Catra—experiences moments of greatness and moments of defeat. They doubt themselves some days and suffer from hubris on others. It’s an aspect that creates tension in the show’s story arcs, given that the forces of good won’t always triumph, but more importantly it shows young viewers that perfection isn’t a reality.

“The characters are struggling a lot and failing a lot and showing that’s OK,” she says. “Strength can come from vulnerability.”

Still from She-Ra and the Princesses of Power
DreamWorks Animation

@ErikDOster Erik Oster is an agencies reporter for Adweek.
Publish date: June 11, 2019 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT