When Netflix & Dreamworks debuted their rebooted version of the classic animated series, we had to wonder: Could She-Ra and the Princesses of Power get any queerer?
As it turned out, that answer is a qualified yes. Now four seasons in, She-Ra—which we hailed as one of the best shows on TV last year–continues to expand in complexity, take storytelling risks and include queer characters. What began with a subtle lesbian couple has expanded to include families headed by same-sex couples, butch & femme characters and a cast of sexually-fluid heroes. Much of the credit for that visibility should go to executive producer & head writer Noelle Stevenson, the out lesbian wunderkind who set her sights on She-Ra after conquering the comic book world with her titles Lumberjanes and Nimora.
Now She-Ra takes the next step by introducing a genderqueer role, played by the noted nonbinary author and activist Jacob Tobia. Tobia, who has penned commentary for outlets like BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post published their memoir Sissy: A Coming of Gender Story earlier this year, which has become one of the go-to texts for explaining the fine points of non-binary gender.
Queerty caught up with Tobia & Stevenson just ahead of the Season 4 premiere of She-Ra. The show comes to Netflix November 5.
So, you’re on season 4 right now. That’s impressive.
Noelle Stevenson: Thank you.
How are you feeling? Four seasons in two years is pretty wild, and the show’s been so well-received.
NS: You know, animation takes so long to make. To see people receiving it the way they hoped they would, picking up on the stuff they hoped they would, getting into the characters as much as we were, it’s such a good feeling. To know that all of that planning and all of that hard work from so many talented people –it’s so great to see people responding to it like this. So honestly, it’s been amazing. I feel so honored.
The quality of the show continues to impress me. I should tell you both, I’m not all the way through Season 4 yet. I was traveling on another junket this week, and United Airlines blocks Netflix on all their flights.
I thought Netflix might want to know. Moving on. You’re not afraid to take risks on this series, one of the biggest being ever-changing stakes, alliances, and developing characters. Characters really grow and change. How do you as a writer decide where to take a story, or how to take a risk?
NS: I think from my point of view, it’s always worth it to try something to see how far you can push the format and the characters. That makes the characters feel more real. Honestly, for all these characters, it’s been a long time coming. It’s sort of ingrained in some of these characters that even if some of the situations we put them in might be surprising, my hope is that they look back at previous seasons and see the seeds have been there all along. There are flaws embedded in these characters, and they can’t move forward without addressing the major flaws within themselves. So to put them in difficult situations—it’s our way of growing the characters and growing with the characters. I think we’re comfortable with the world, with the setting, with the character dynamics enough at this point that we can start challenging that, and questioning it. My hope is viewers recontextualize things that have happened in past episodes.
That comes across. It will be interesting, when the show does conclude, to go back and see what hints you laid down for different plot twists. One of them, and one of the big risks this season, is with the character of Double Trouble. At what point did you decide you wanted to introduce the character way down the line like this?
NS: One of the privileges of getting to make a show like this for Netflix is that we get to plan out the entire arc of the show, whereas otherwise, we’d be wondering when we were going to get a season pickup. We were able to work within a certain boundary to tell the story we wanted to tell. We treated it like next step of a story that had been planned out ahead of time. So a character like Double Trouble coming into play, we get to introduce when the time is right. I always knew that we wanted to use Double Trouble. Double Trouble is an incredible character, and introducing the shapeshifter dynamic, they are the perfect spark to light the powder keg that is the characters this season. So it really is Double Trouble’s season, especially since I think all the characters are lying to each other in some way or other.
NS: Glimmer is trying to put on the costume of the queen, who always makes the right decision and keeps everyone safe. Adora thinks she can finally live up to the mantle of She-Ra. Bow thinks he can hold this group together through the power of his own perseverance. Catra thinks she’s successfully cut off from her emotions. All of them have set up elaborate lies for themselves, and Double Trouble sees through all that. Double Trouble is above it all. They’re not emotionally invested in the conflict like everyone else. They can really cut to the heart of our characters. They fit the conflict so organically.
So why Jacob?
NS: Jacob brought this incredible, mischievous glint, this eternal smirk to the character.
Jacob, you’re not really known as an actor. So how did this job come to you?
Jacob Tobia: It’s funny, because in this industry, and not being known as an actor, and not being an actor are two different things. I guess I didn’t realize I needed to tell people: since I moved to LA I’ve been signed with an agency. I audition for roles every month. I’m putting myself on tape all the dang time. I’ve been going into casting sessions. I grew up as an actor in the theatre. I did a little professional stuff at a regional theatre in North Carolina when I was in college. I just didn’t know how to break in. I’ve been auditioning for a long time. I think this was one of the first auditions I did, and the first major thing I booked.
JT: I booked it back in January of 2018. So I’ve been keeping this secret for a very long time. I think that’s part of the reason people are like why are you so excited about this? All you’re doing is going on Twitter. And I’m like because I had to keep this a secret for a year and a half. All I wanted to do was tell everybody. And we just got there. It’s a really cool voice-over role of a lifetime. I recorded my audition in the closet, because that’s the best place for acoustics. So I just auditioned from the closet like any queer actor.
That’s frighteningly on the nose.
JT: So for any casting directors reading this, I’m available.
Fantastic. Now, were you a fan of the original series?
JT: I’m too young to have grown up on She-Ra. But I was vaguely familiar with the 80s version. As soon as I booked this role, I very quickly binge-watched every episode on Netflix. I fell in love with it; it’s like the campiest, cutest, low-key queerest thing ever. I’m obsessed with all the lesbian energy in the original that is now made more apparent in the reboot. So I became an instant fan.
So what insight did Noelle give you into Double Trouble to get a handle on the character?
JT: Noelle was such an active part of the voice-over sessions. We also had Mary [McGlynn], our voice-over director too, who is incredible. The two of them together…I could not have asked for better vocal or character direction.
NS: They’re so fun to watch, both the character and also Jacob when they do the voice, they bring so much fun and excitement to the character. They’re so above it all, having so much fun playing with everybody else.
JT: The other thing that was really gorgeous is that it was one of those characters where I came in getting it. I knew who Double Trouble was the moment I read the script. I think it was one of those things, when we first worked together, we were like we both know who this is. We both arrived at the same place. So I don’t feel like we had to do a great deal of character work in terms of figuring it out. It just clicked so quickly. To me that’s the power of authentic storytelling, and also feeling really safe on a set or in the booth. There was never a moment where I thought I need to make this more queenly, or I need to butch it up a touch. I knew I was on a super-safe set with an incredible group of queer creators. I will say about She-Ra for a very long time: it’s the most fun job I’ve ever had.
JT: And I’ve had a lot of jobs.
One thing I love about the show, and specifically about this character, is that it’s not afraid to do what other movies and TV—I’m thinking of X-Men—are afraid to do, which is look at gender and sexual fluidity. Like Mystique, Double Trouble is a shapeshifter. But you guys on She-Ra follow that notion to a logical conclusion. Do you see Double Trouble as gender or sexually fluid?
JT: I mean, I think that in terms of their gender, they’re non-binary or gender fluid. They have a gender that is expansive. It comes to them both as who they are, but from their practice as an actor. As a performer, Double Trouble has rejected the notion that there are any roles they can’t play. They can play every single person, and in order to do that, they have to understand every single person. Understanding the butchest man or femmest lady isn’t outside the realm of possibility. So I think the shape-shifting—and this is something they even say in the show—at one point they say “Yeah, I can physically be anybody, but it’s being someone emotionally that’s the real trouble.” That’s where Double Trouble has a leg up on all other shapeshifters. They know this as a method actor.
NS: I think for us, and I was so happy, when we introduced the concept of a nonbinary shapeshifter, we had a good number of trans and nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people on our crew. So for us, we were just having fun. This was a character that we liked and saw ourselves in.
Now was Netflix at all hesitant to allow the inclusion of a nonbinary character?
NS: I was so happy that the executives were also so excited by this character. They encouraged us to include Double Trouble’s pronouns in the dialogue. We weren’t sure how it would go over, but we wanted this to be an organic part of the tapestry of Etheria. We want this world to feel alive, and it is a world where gender is generally fluid. Honestly, one of the biggest outpourings of support was from our executives and producers. When we asked for non-binary actors to audition for the part, our amazing casting department found all these incredible non-binary actors. It was supported every step of the way.
JT: Nonbinary and gender-nonconforming characters have always existed in sci-fi since the inception of the genre. It’s just cool that, for a long time, the industry imposed this softening of the allegory—being allegorical, queer, or trans or non-binary—but they couldn’t make it explicit. The thing that’s so cool about She-Ra is that [Double Trouble] isn’t the first character to be non-binary. But it is one of the first characters in this type of show to have that made explicit and canonical. Which is the coolest. We are canon!
So let’s talk about that though. In prep for this interview, I was wracking my brain to come up with some image of a genderqueer person that I’d seen or recognized as a kid, even subtextually. As a queer people yourselves, who are the characters that stand out in your mind?
JT: I was a nerd as a kid. I grew up on fantasy and sci-fi. I found my gender recognition in wizards since I was a kid.
I think you’re in good company. But wizards? How so?
JT: Yeah, and that goes across genre. In Yu-Gi-Oh. In Lord of the Rings. In Harry Potter. In all these things I found the gender transcendentalism that I needed. When you think about it, wizards are often quoted as kind of gay, but they’re also quoted as gender nonconforming, especially in the context of a fantasy series. There’s always the brute force people, the Aragorns of the world who ride into battle on a horse and use their strong bodies and their masculinity to fight. Then there’s the Gandalf, who uses his determination and their wit and their dedication and their discipline to do more powerful things than anyone can imagine…with shiny crystals and flowing robes, and long gorgeous locks and femme extravagance. It always felt like a place of recognition that way.
What about you, Noelle? What characters did you have in mind in history? Who did you look at as genderqueer?
NS: I tell this story all the time. I was a huge Star Wars fan growing up. The prequels were coming out when I was young, and I always loved the bounty hunters the most. But the bounty hunters were always male. Then in [Attack of the Clones] they introduce a female bounty hunter. Star Wars in both the originals and prequels have a pretty narrow definition of gender. If you’re female, you’re either a dancer or a princess. And I never saw myself in those characters.
NS: But this character, Zam Wessell, has kind of been forgotten. She didn’t make a big cultural impact.
Hey, I know Zam Wessell. Dies on Coruscant. Hired by Jango.
NS: Yes! Thank you! And she uses female pronouns, but at one point they think she’s male. Her costume is fairly androgynous. She was written as a male character before George Lucas saw the performer and decided to give her the role. She also has short hair hidden under her helmet. As a kid—I think I was 8 or 9 when it came out—I saw her and my whole life was changed. This one-bit character in a not very good movie—she’s secretly a reptilian alien. I latched onto her so hard. Every story I’ve told since then has kind of been about her. She has like three lines. She is alive for like 5 minutes then dies terribly. It’s not a great role, but for me, it was everything I was looking for. A lightbulb went off. I ended up taking her picture to a hairdresser when I was 15 and saying “I want this haircut.”
NS: So shapeshifters are more androgynous or a little less clear-cut when it comes to gender expression, and hold this slightly alien version of themselves. It’s something I’m incredibly interested in. So honestly Double Trouble is the next iteration of my fascination with that character.
JT: It’s wonderful to have one who is openly named that way. That’s what’s important here: what Noelle has done with Double Trouble as a character is a historic leap forward for the genre. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. We have a legacy of queer creators behind the camera who have worked so hard for decades to get us to this point.
Awesome. You should do a Zam Wessell movie, Noelle, now that Disney is pumping out Star Wars. [Lucasfilm president] Kathy Kennedy, if you’re reading this…
NS: I would love that, but honestly, if I did, everyone would realize how much I’ve just been doing Zam Wessell ever since. I did a whole graphic novel about a shapeshifter, and it was just Zam Wessell.
Jacob, do you feel like the perception, or the public embrace of trans and genderqueer people has changed since?
JT: Totally. We’re at a point of visibility that is so exciting. There’s an entire generation of people that have liberated themselves from this idea that gender is only one of two things. There’s an entire generation of young folks that get that gender is nonbinary and that idea itself is really oppressive and shitty. We’ve only gotten it through public education work and the work of artists. The cultural shift that’s happening is overwhelming and permanent in my view. The work is far from done. I don’t want people to think that because we have a character like Double Trouble on a show like She-Ra that we’re done. Visibility comes in stages, and we have many many more to go.
So what can we expect in the future from Double Trouble and She-Ra?
NS: Double Trouble, this is really their season to shine. But remember, they don’t really follow the rest of the rules of the show. It’s really fun just to experiment with them in different contexts.
JT: The thing about Double Trouble is that they can be anywhere, hiding in plain sight. I’m just gonna leave the audience with that tantalizing a little bit.
Is Season 5 happening?
JT: I’m not sure what—
Booming Netflix Voice From On High: NO NEWS ON SEASON FIVE YET.
Hookay…can I at least ask about more He-Man? Will he be appearing?
NS: There is more coming. He-Man is a little less…we’re not going to have much in the way of He-Man, but we do have some pretty cool, subtle touches of lore coming up that tie it into Masters of the Universe lore in a cool way.
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power returns to Netflix November 5.