TW: depression, war, alcohol, drugs, abuse
Minor spoilers for She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Bojack Horseman, Avatar: The Last Airbender and Avatar: The Legend of Korra
- Lists of She-Ra characters portrayed by Asian actors:Glimmer, Princess of Bright Moon: Karen Fukuhara
- Castaspella: Sandra Oh
- King Micah: Daniel Dae Kim
- She-Ra (Mara): Zehra Fazal
- Queen Angela: Reshma Shetty
- She-Ra characters that are inspired by some aspects of Asian cultures or may be Asian coded:
- Mermista, Princess of Salineas: Vella Lovell
- Frosta, Princess of the Kingdom of Snows: Merit Leighton
- Scorpia: Lauren Ash
“She-Ra and the Princesses of Power” (2018) has been one of the most acclaimed animated series regarding diversity, queer-friendly content and a great storytelling. It also features a significant cast with POC (People of Color), which is something that many animated series haven’t succeeded in, despite their characters being unequivocally non-white. For example, Diane in “Bojack Horseman” is presented as Vietnamese-American, whereas she is portrayed by Alison Brie (who is white and later confessed she regretted taking the role). In “Avatar: The Last Airbender and Avatar: The Legend of Korra,” one of the biggest issues was the lack of Asian representation in the cast, where all the characters set in the universe were supposed to be Asian. Even if characters like Zuko (Dante Basco) or Iroh (first dubbed by Mako Iwamatsu) were Asian, a large portion of the cast were not. There are many cases of whitewashing in animated series, but in this article, I will focus more on how She-Ra and the Princesses of Power included Asian representation, an unusual move in Western animated series.
It’s not a coincidence that I mentioned “BoJack Horseman” and both Avatar series. These series are still seen as some of the best animated series of all times. Bojack explores hard topics like depression, identity issues, workaholism, drugs, addiction and accountability. Diane Nguyen, one of the main characters, also struggles as an Asian-American character and we get to see an entire episode where she goes to Vietnam to try to reconnect to her roots and fails in the process. This chapter perfectly conveys how we, as Asian diaspora, feel about growing up in the Global North (or West). In Avatar, we face topics like imperialism, genocide, war, forced migration of refugees, difficult moral questions and family issues. All of that is set in a universe inspired by Asian cultures and heritage. Even if as Asian fans we can still enjoy and expand the limits of those series, there is still the disappointment of knowing that most of the people behind the scenes were not Asian. In that sense, “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power” exceeds our expectations, but not without its faults (writers and producers are mostly white and have encountered recent accusations of racism).
In “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power,” there is a clear hero’s journey and a remarkable character development. Instead of showing one-dimensional Asian characters, She-Ra explores how they grow and face different challenges and issues. When I watched the series, I identified so much with how they portrayed friendships. The way social relationships are explored and built is detailed and nuanced, something that’s not even present in many live action shows. Antagonists like Catra (AJ Michalka), Hordak (Keston John) and Shadow Weaver (Lorraine Toussaint) are not shown as Saturday Morning Cartoon Villains. They also have a concise background and deal with past traumas and experiences. Catra, who grows up with Adora (the main character She-Ra), struggles with abandonment and abuse, and changes during the series in a unique manner.
Glimmer, one of the main characters, is portrayed by Karen Fukuhara (Japanese-American). She is one of my favorite characters and has a quite realistic path for her personality. As for Glimmer’s family, we also get to know her aunt Castaspella (the iconic Sandra Oh), head sorcerer of the region of Mystacor; her dad King Micah (Daniel Dae Kim); and her mother Queen Angella (Reshma Shetty). Being one of the three most important characters in the show, Glimmer also reflects a struggle that many Asian people in the diaspora face: a complex relationship with their parents (in this case, she struggles to find common ground with her mother, Queen Angella). Her duties as the Princess of Bright Moon and her wishes to revive the Rebellion to fight the Horde are often stifled by Queen Angella, who feels responsible for the loss of King Micah years ago. Even so, we don’t see Angella’s personality as a simple and superficial one. Instead, “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power” give her a time to develop her own arc and go beyond being Glimmer’s strict mother.
Glimmer’s father, King Micah, who is also Castaspella’s brother, is one of the most powerful characters in the show: he’s a great sorcerer and has a natural predisposition to understand magic, which surrounds Etheria, the world of She-Ra. Both Castaspella and Micah are a reminder that Asian characters can be talented without being a mere stereotype of the model minority or other overused tropes in the media. King Micah is not merely a powerful mage; he is also inspiring and determined to fight the Horde and bring peace to his home. Castaspella is not only Glimmer’s aunt and a sorcerer, but is also capable of challenging the limits to take care of her people.
Besides her family, what makes Glimmer truly shine is the relationship she has with Adora and Bow (Marcus Scribner). Her long-life friendship with Bow is one of my favorite aspects of the series, and while I watched their interactions, I usually remembered real friendships I have and the amount of communication and time together it takes to nurture a genuine connection.
Glimmer’s stubbornness and restless energy is often balanced by Bow’s caring and low-key personality, whereas both of them are also offered a chance to truly change the world when they form a connection to Adora, the new She-Ra. They also prevent Adora from taking all the responsibility for herself, knowing that she feels that her role of She-Ra is both a burden and a duty for Etheria and the universe itself. Adora may be the chosen one of this story, but without her friends (especially Glimmer and Bow), she can’t move forward and face the hard task of saving Etheria from the Horde.
Other honorable mentions include princesses like Mermista, who is supposed to be the Etherian equivalent to Southeast Asian and is the Princess of Salineas; Frosta, who is the Princess of the Kingdom of Snows; and Scorpia, who grows up in the Horde. The former She-Ra, Mara, is also relevant to Adora’s arc: her actions as the previous She-Ra directly impacts Adora’s path and choices, so she is always present in the story. Mara’s first may seem like a failure that caused the events during Adora’s time, but we later discover that there is more than that, similar to how the role of Avatar Roku is revealed in “Avatar: The Last Airbender” to Avatar Aang. She is portrayed by Zehra Fazal, who is of Pakistani descent and Muslim-American. Having seen “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” I also enjoyed this adaptation of “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power” quite much. Many of the themes and topics were similar, and the character development doesn’t disappoint either. Aside from Asian representation and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), I celebrated the inclusion of queer characters and relationships. Talking about Avatar, I also wanted to mention how “Avatar: The Legend of Korra” paved the way to queer representation in Western animated series to shows like “She-Ra ATPOP,” “The Dragon Prince,” “Voltron” or “The Owl House.” The last scene confirmed that Korrasami was canon, despite Nickelodeon’s effort for censoring the clues, and it provided those shows a new frontier to talk seriously about queer representation instead of simple queer-baiting scenes.
Written by Chenzhen Hu
Edited by Carla Matsue