This article contains mild spoilers.
Noelle Stevenson understands characterization.
Last year, I discovered Nimona, an Eisner-nomated webcomic-turned-novel written by Stevenson about a whimsical, enigmatic shapeshifter who befriends an evil figure with an ultimately good heart. I found Nimona at a secondhand bookstore—the kind of store filled with spine-damaged books sporting dogeared pages—and I was surprised by the pristine condition of the copy I found. As I flipped through the beginning of the graphic novel, I saw a collection of glossy, well-preserved, wrinkle-free images.
Then I flipped to a page that contained a profoundly tense moment between Nimona (the shapeshifter) and Lord Ballister Blackheart (the semi-benevolent villain). A previous owner had filled the white border of the page with cartoon stars and bold exclamation points. It looked like a scrapbook page made by Finn and Jake.
Later, I reached that page again during my first read-through of the novel, and I found genuine heartache and refreshingly nuanced character interactions. I couldn’t help but add a few stars of my own to the margins.
Noelle Stevenson understands characterization, and that storytelling skill is evident in her latest creation, Netflix’s 2018 She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.
The bones of the original 80s version of She-Ra are present in Stevenson’s reboot. Adora, a young mid-ranking leader of a Cobra-esque group called the Evil Horde, realizes the malevolent nature of the Horde and agrees to join the Resistance, an eclectic network of misfits, adventurers, and princesses in the world of Etheria who oppose the Horde’s oppressive authority. Oh, and Adora eventually bonds with the Sword of Protection, a Mjölnir-ian mystical weapon that allows her to transform into a super-strengthed hero named She-Ra when she says “For the honor of Grayskull!”
But She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, the 2018 reboot, also contains several adaptations and additions that make it notably different than the original.
The relationship between Adora and Catra is one such adaptation.
In the original, Catra is a fiercely independent captain of Hordak’s Evil Horde who can transform into a large panther with the help of her own magical item. She has a relatively rich backstory, but most plot points paint her as a two-dimensional devil figure for She-Ra. She fights, she plots, and she hates. Catra is a foil of She-Ra, but not a particularly compelling one.
2018’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power focuses, redefines, and emphasizes the relationship between Adora and Catra, making both characters more relatable. The newer version (in which most of the characters are teenagers) begins by establishing a friendship between Adora and Catra—a necessary childhood companionship that evolves into a profound teenage connection. Adora and Catra develop a mutually beneficial bond as Horde-trained children largely because of the harsh training/parenting style of Shadow Weaver, Hordak’s second-in-command. For semi-unclear reasons, Shadow Weaver outwardly appreciates Adora but disparages Catra.
This plot point accomplishes several things: 1) Adora’s desire to comfort Catra after Shadow Weaver’s admonishing justifies their childhood friendship and establishes Adora as a merciful character, 2) Catra’s bubbling jealously of Adora reinforces Catra’s tragic backstory and acts as a wedge that enlarges relational schisms caused by other plot points, and 3) Adora’s compassion and Catra’s jealousy (and notable affection) create a foundation for fan-fueled femslash shipping.
The lack of declarations of romantic love or distinctly defined sexual orientations in the show’s first season is less relevant to discussions about CatraDora than the fact that, as stated on CatraDora’s page on Shipping Wiki, the “animated interactions have romantic subtext.” Though one YouTube commenter insisted that TV appreciation based on shipping is “vapid,” these subtexts matter. (A reader’s connection to a story can be a deeply personal thing, and subtexts help build those connections. Jessica Kander of Eastern Michigan University argued that “queer subtexts” exist in stories like Speak and Harry Potter, and Nora Neill of Georgia State University claimed that the subtexts of Willa Cather’s 1913 classic Great Plains novel O Pioneers! challenge heteronormativity. Other writers have identified homoerotic subtexts in NBC’s Hannibal and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.) And given that Noelle Stevenson admires fans enough to design She-Ra with cosplayers in mind—”the idea of kids being able to wear their shorts and sneakers while cosplaying her was also something that was on my mind”—it is entirely possible that the creators of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power intentionally filled the show with these narrative subtleties. Or, at least, the show’s creators were likely not ignorant of possible fan reactions to perceived romantic subtexts.
All of which adds to the sophisticated density of Adora and Catra. The relationship between these two characters is more nuanced than most hero-villain relationships, including classic combos like Batman and the Joker (whom I truly love). She-Ra and Catra are not like Batman and the Joker because the Batman-Joker dynamic, while arguably based on a warped type of respect, is not fueled primarily by shared experience or mutual understanding. Joker and Batman are two opposing forces (one chaos and one a type of moral order) that create constant tension, which is less a relationship and more a natural phenomenon. Several Batman narratives argue that the Joker exists because of Batman, implying that the Joker is the other side of some cosmic coin, created to balance things out. Thanos serves the same purpose in the Infinity War narrative, balancing (“as all things should be”) the heroes as a collective unit. But, with the exception of Gamora, the Marvel heroes have no personal connection to Thanos beyond the fact that he is a villain who is causing them (and has already caused them) deep emotional pain.
Adora and Catra, on the other hand, are connected by deep understanding, admiration, and love, romantic or otherwise. The fact that they genuinely like each other complicates the hero-villain dynamic. Sherlock respects Moriarty’s intellect, but Adora loves Catra.
This makes CatraDora an entertaining, largely unique, and somewhat mysterious cocktail of archetypes—one part hero, one part shadow, and one part star-crossed lovers/friends—and that cocktail colors how we view all of Etheria’s sociopolitical forces. The first season, for example, implies (through Catra’s dialogue and Scorpia’s characterization) that the Horde offers a home to some characters, arguably including Catra, who have been outcasted or marginalized by the Resistance’s princesses. So if we begin to share Adora’s appreciation of Catra, we may even find ourselves mentally shifting the Horde—Catra’s troublesome yet identity-reinforcing home—away from “pure evil” and toward a morally gray middle-ground (which is a type of moral questioning rarely sparked by the original show).
The relationship between Adora and Catra transcends typical hero-villain or BFF or romantic relationships because it is all three simultaneously. And this fact shapes all elements of She-Ra‘s narrative.
To be clear, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is not the first show to accomplish these things, nor are Adora and Catra the first pop culture characters to reach this level of multifaceted hero-villain density. Batman and Catwoman; Vegeta and Bulma; Buffy and Spike; and Dr. Horrible and Penny all have some of the elements of CatraDora’s dynamic. Not to mention classic literature pairs like Hamlet and Horatio (Hamlet), Lennie and George (Of Mice and Men), and Cathy and Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights). Noelle Stevenson herself acknowledges that “there’s a lot of the DNA of a relationship like Clark Kent and Lex Luthor from Smallville” in CatraDora.
All of those pairs offer intrigue, but CatraDora also offers a hint of ambiguity. And that ambiguity (intentional or not) allows a wide variety of audience members to connect with one or both of the characters. Sometimes, like with The Matrix‘s Neo, writers sacrifice character depth to allow a wide variety of moviegoers/readers to connect with the story. In those stories, a character, usually the protagonist, acts as a basic, reactionary, semi-neutral vehicle that the audience can steer through the plot. The idea is that the denser the character’s persona, the smaller the range of audience relatability. The more specific the character’s experience, the less likely the audience can relate. Adora and Catra seem to defy this, to some degree.
Adora and Catra are not like Neo. They are refreshingly dense (for a reboot of an 80s cartoon that was a spin-off of a show based on a toy line created by Mattel), and they are notably relatable to a wide variety of viewers. Their interactions are simultaneously specific, dense, and ambiguous.
Adora and Catra are unique because they are somehow both difficult to pin down and easy to understand. And She-Ra‘s writers walk this paradoxical line with the practiced skill of individuals who understand how fans dissect characterization because they have done it themselves with other shows.
We should reward She-Ra and the Princesses of Power—and CatraDora in particular—for continuing to push pop entertainment toward new degrees of subtlety and relatability. Batman and the Joker are brilliant, but I am increasingly interested in interacting with characters who more accurately reflect the frustrating complexity of feelings. And if those characters live in a world filled with rainbows and talking horses, even better.
Noelle Stevenson understands characterization. And I’m glad she got the opportunity to present this version of Adora and Catra to the world.