Content note: this post includes mild spoilers for season 2 of ‘She-Ra and the Princesses of Power’ and one use of a homophobic slur.
Lately there are two shows I’ve been watching which are reboots of older shows I loved when I was younger.
I’ve already written briefly in my anime round-ups that I’m coming to the new ‘Fruits Basket’ anime as a long-time fan of the original show and the manga. Also new in April is season 2 of ‘She-Ra and the Princesses of Power’, which hit Netflix with little fanfare last week. As a kid, ‘She-Ra’ was one of many action-adventure shows that were a major part of my cultural world, alongside ‘He-Man’ (of course!), ‘Transformers’, ‘Ulysses 31’, ‘MASK’ and more than I can reasonably list here. Cartoons were my life then, and they still are now.
I’ve enjoyed both for a range of reasons, but rather than just write a review to add to the piles that have already been written, what I’m especially interested in is the ways people react to re-makes of older shows like these.
Going into a re-make, the obvious starting point is to ask ‘why?’ Why did this particular story need to be re-told? What need is there to update or reinvent it?
Sometimes visual storytelling can be re-done as improved technology makes possible what once was tricky or even out of the question. With books or comics that have been adapted multiple times, a re-make can put a new spin on the story, asking new questions or exploring different interpretations of the author’s writing. Sometimes a creator wants to try out an old story on new characters or a new location, and sometimes it really is just a case of milking a reliable cash-cow.
When the thing being re-made is already well-loved, it’s easy to wonder why it needs to be re-done at all. To a fan, it can feel as though the original is being devalued somehow, pushed aside to make way for something else instead of being treasured and preserved. Watching the first episode of the new ‘Fruits Basket’ felt exactly that way for me – it was genuinely daunting, and I was as afraid of it being better as I was of it being worse. ‘Fruits Basket’ was one of the first series I became fully invested in as an adult fan of anime, and I mean financially as well as emotionally invested. I paid for an imported DVD box-set since buying anime in the UK in the early 2000s was almost impossible, and even before I’d finished watching it I started collecting the manga too (and I still refuse to add up how much that’s cost me over the years). As well as enjoying the story itself, the anime holds treasured memories of the ex who recommended it to me in the first place after saying Tohru reminded him of me, and memories of the times I’ve shared it with friends and cried along with them as they’ve discovered the story.
I did ask at first why there was a need to re-make it. The original seemed so good and had so many fans already that, other than trying to make more money from a well-established franchise, I didn’t feel a need for it to be made over.
Telling the whole story of the manga rather than stopping after the reveal of Kyo’s true form is an obvious and satisfying reason why in this instance, and knowing that makes the new hints and foreshadowing satisfying for viewers who know, for instance, the significance of that hat. It also means that certain revelations which came in the manga after after the original anime aired can be taken into account (should I still avoid spoilers for a series this old?).
For what it’s worth, I like the softer look to the character designs and and the detailed artwork, and I feel they’ll be effective when we hit the more serious notes in the plot.
If there’s one thing I do miss, it’s the old opening and ending themes. For me, the new music just doesn’t quite have the same hint of melancholy sweetness as the original.
Watching a re-make that is still so close to the original (scene-for-scene, for the most part) is a confusing experience. The plot and characters are so recognisable to me that I’m starting to run out of ‘new’ things to hold my attention. Apart from the odd small moment of foreshadowing, it’s all familiar ground, and I worry that it will feel like a long wait until I get to the new stuff. If the new series moves at the same pace as its predecessor, we’re going to have an entire first season with very little that’s new.
I understand the need to remain faithful to the source material in a project like this – changing something so well-loved would have some fans outraged and threatening to jump ship. I just hope there’s enough teasing of the new material still to come to keep the attention of those same fans through the next 20 or so episodes.
Re-making something with the explicit intention of changing it is a much trickier task. To do so is, perhaps, to imply that the original was faulty or sub-par. For those of us who grew up with ‘She-Ra’, ‘He-Man’ and all those other action-adventure cartoons of the ’80s, our fond nostalgia can far outweigh any reasonable critique of the old show’s shortcomings. If you asked me to name something that could be improved from the original, the obvious answer would be the animation or perhaps the cheesy dialogue. Maybe, with the insight of adulthood, I’d have something to say about the skimpy costumes, or the insistence that all the women had to wear high-heeled boots. Inclusion would not have been on my list for a long time, because, as a kid in a tiny village where everyone looked the same and sounded the same, I just wasn’t aware that anyone was being left out of the stories I watched. Growing up, leaving that crappy little village, learning about myself and about other people, were all things I had to experience in order to realise just how insular English-language story-telling was at the time.
So I am thrilled to bits that ‘She-Ra and the Princesses of Power’ takes what was good about the old show (female-led stories, women as leaders, female friendships) and lets even more people join in. Just think about that for a second. The new show isn’t dumping on the old one, and it isn’t kicking anyone out of the playground. Instead, it’s opening the gates wider so as many people as possible can play.
I’ve read some reviews that say the representation, particularly the queer rep, is too subtle. And I understand why: in the first season, no one was standing up and shouting “we’re gay”. The second season makes one same-sex relationship undeniably clear (and it’s so sweet you’ll be left with a toothache!), but prior to that, everything has just been, well, there. Not paraded around, but not hidden. And not just queer rep, but diverse body-types, characters of different ethnicities, and men who are strong and brave without resorting to excessive macho performances (men who cheerlead for their female friends and partake in typically un-masculine activities).
So of course some people think this is wrong.
For the most part, I avoid online drama and steer clear of hate as much as possible, but after expressing excitement over this inclusion in real life and getting shot down, I had a harsh reminder of how rare it is for a show, especially a kid’s show, to make this much effort to be inclusive. Long story short, I told my mother that a show I loved as a child had been re-made and it had actual gay people in it, and got subjected to a rant about how there shouldn’t be gay people in shows unless it adds to the plot.*
Well, it does add something. Inclusion. And that’s a powerful thing. Where 8-year-old me was getting called a “dirty lezzy” for holding a girl’s hand in the playground, 38-year-old me finally gets to see other people like me being included in the adventures. And in a show like this, it doesn’t necessarily need to be shouted out – it can just be there, like every other aspect of the show.
If I had to choose how kids learn about same-sex relationships, I wouldn’t choose for them to see TV characters going through the challenge of coming out or being bullied and excluded for their queerness. Instead, I’d choose for them to see happy same-gender relationships being treated exactly like straight relationships, with no question about it being out of the ordinary. I dislike intensely the reliance on stories about gay people being about their gayness first; about how being LGBTQIA is an ‘issue’ to be addressed, or about something that sets us apart from everyone else. I gave up on ‘The Chilling Tales of Sabrina’ precisely when their depiction of a teenager’s transition lurched straight into the ‘trans kid gets horribly bullied and has to struggle through’ narrative. We don’t need to see this again, and I don’t like this story being used as entertainment. We need LGBTQIA kids and adults being allowed to exist in the same spaces as cis-het people, without question, without confrontation and without challenge.
‘She-Ra and the Princesses of Power’ is doing just that. Incrementally, but surely, LGBTQIA characters are being shown in the same spaces, just being. Just like the show has characters who aren’t fair-skinned, and characters who aren’t tall and slim, and characters who don’t conform to typical gender-roles.
For me, ‘She-Ra’ is a re-make done for the right reasons, and done pretty damn well. More like it, please!
*I do know better than to take these rants seriously, especially when they also include why The Jeremy Kyle show always has the wrong type of lesbians.