Talking to Noelle Stevenson feels like talking to the cool girl in high school. Not the cheerleader, not the spoiled rich girl, the cool girl–well adjusted, smart, funny and comfortably herself. Stevenson’s teems with energy and enthusiasm, tipping off to her intelligence at every turn.
Stevenson is, of course, the much-acclaimed writer of the popular comic series Nimoa and Lumberjanes, as well as well regarded runs on comics like Thor and The Runaways. After cutting her TV teeth on the Disney series Wander Over Yonder, this November 13 Stevenson dives into her highest-profile project to date: rebooting the popular 80s animated series She-Ra: Princess of Power for Netflix.
Stevenson also happens to be a proud, out-gay woman–a sensibility that will no doubt pay off given the die-hard gay fanbase that still follows She-Ra after 30 years. Actually, we’ve seen the first 13 episodes and can already confirm as much. Not only does the show integrate groundbreaking LGBTQ diversity, but it also provides a rip-roaring good time.
We caught up with Stevenson just head of the Nov. 13 launch for the new show (retitled She-Ra and the Princesses of Power) to talk about the pressure of rebooting a popular show, the story’s queer elements and why we love girls getting in on the action.
We should preface this interview by noting that we have two original animation cells from She-Ra, including one autographed one, hanging on the wall as we speak…
Oh my God, yes. Yes.
So the logical place to begin: how did this project come about?
Dreamworks came to me. They have a partnership with Netflix and they had the property of She-Ra, and they were looking for someone to do a new take on that. So I came up with a pitch for that, I pitched it to them, I wrote a pilot, and then I wrote a show bible. I ended up developing the show and becoming the showrunner from there. So it was kind of right place-right time, right combination of people and a really cool property.
Awesome. You’re too young (age 27) to remember the original show which ran in 1985.
I didn’t watch it growing up, unfortunately.
It was out of print for the longest time. What was your exposure to She-Ra prior to joining the project, then?
I think she’s such an iconic character that I, of course, was aware of her just because she is so entrenched in the cultural zeitgeist. I had some awareness of the Masters of the Universe world [the property featuring He-Man, from which She-Ra spun off], you know. People I was working with, friends of mine, in the animation industry who have that really strong attachment to it. It was sort of working with them that that infused me with this love of the property. That was something that had been brewing for a few years. And when She-Ra ended up coming onto my plate that was really exciting for me because it was this interest I’d been developing for a while.
We’ve seen the whole first season, and it’s damn good television. What struck us is that the show bursts with feminine energy that is never alienating. Was it a hard sell to Netflix?
No. I think nothing that we’ve really done with this show hasn’t been anything that the original show didn’t do. So these princesses, a lot of them rule their own kingdoms in the original show. Most of the characters are female because they treated it like a straight gender-swap of He-Man where they replaced He-Man with She-Ra and the characters that were traditionally female in He-Man were male characters, with the exception of Hordak. But that creates a very interesting dynamic because almost all of the characters who are ruling are women. So that was really interesting for me from a world-building standpoint. I really wanted to get more into that and just picture what a world like that would be like. I have a deep love of sci-fi and fantasy, and it was really interesting to me to see: what is it like on this world where “princesses” have this different connotation. It’s associated with power, and again, that’s not something we made up, that’s an integral part of the original. It was really just continuing that.
Diversity is a big part of this too. The show doesn’t make a point about it, other than to just present a really diverse cast of characters—more so than the original series. That’s true in the racial sense, but also in terms of age, in terms of body shape…was that always the intent?
Absolutely. I think there are a couple different angles into that. One was just a response to people who are going to be watching the show. We wanted the show to be escapist and we wanted it to be fantasy, but also creating a world that isn’t alienating to the viewers who will be coming to this. Creating a world where anyone can see themselves, and explore and be a major character in rather than feeling marginalized. So that was a big focus and also making sure that these characters feel distinct from each other, that they have distinctive personalities and appearances that we can easily tell them apart at a glance from the way they present themselves. I think on another front—and this has always been important to me, again, as a huge fan of sci-fi and fantasy—it’s just finding a different lens into the world.
That makes sense.
We’re so used to a certain kind of lens of the masculine hero and the feminine damsel. And we don’t always get to see the characters who are, so often, put into the background or put into very minor roles. We don’t often see the world through their eyes. So I think that enriches the story and deepens it by showing the world through the eyes of people who might not always get a starring role. So all of those things were taken into account. All of those things were really important to me. And I not only felt like I had a responsibility as a storyteller, but it also makes the story better, deeper and more meaningful.
Let it be said too, the show has plenty of nostalgic value right from the Netflix logo popping up like the old Filmation logo…
In your other work as well, you make a lot of allusions to popular sci-fi and fantasy properties. The Dark Crystal is an obvious influence here, along with the Marvel films, Man of Steel, Rainbow Brite. But it all melds together. What was the hardest part of reimagining the concept?
Like I say, a lot of consideration went into it. She-Ra is so iconic, that even people who didn’t grow up watching the show, or didn’t have a strong attachment, they still recognize her on sight. They know sort of, what her deal is just based on her appearance. So already you’re starting out with not just a group of hardcore fans, but people who feel ownership of the character whether or not they actually watched the show themselves. So already…people are going to be a little shocked by it. It’s going to take some time to accept a new version at all. But it felt important to take everything that was exciting about the original and to try to capture that in a way that was accessible to new fans. Kids, especially, don’t have a nostalgic attachment, but also new audiences in general. Just to [say]: here is the story of She-Ra, here are these characters who are so fun and exciting. How do you present that to people in a way that is fresh and that they’ll get their own experience that is unique but also captures the experience that the original fans would have felt watching it. Capturing that feeling of excitement.
You also pick up on something a lot of us witnessed as kids—as a kid the girls wanted to play He-Man too. Always. They didn’t want to play Barbie or do stereotypical girlie things all the time. They wanted to play He-Man and She-Ra because they were cool. You understand: girls want to be action heroes too.
I think it’s about expanding the horizons of what a “girls property” means. I grew up stealing my brother’s Star Wars action figures. I played with anything…I was obsessed with this world and these characters and I wanted to see myself more in that world. I don’t think that’s an uncommon story. A lot of girls feel that way. Girls love princesses: the glitter, the dressing up, the brushing the hair, all of that. None of that is a bad thing. It’s something we embrace. But there’s so much more to it than that. There’s such a wider range of experiences. Girls like brushing hair and playing with swords. Girls love horses and robots. Girls love laser canons and sparkly tassels. There are so many different things to love, or any combination of those things. That’s something that the property—that’s why it was so exciting to me. I was like I get everything that I want from this. Glamour and universe saving stakes.
And speaking of diversity: I know Marcus Scribner said Bo has two dads, and that they would play a role in an episode. What is up?
That came out a little bit sooner than we planned. That is a part of later episode. I ask for patience. I’m also very excited about the characters. We have a lot of characters planned and plotlines planned, and I’m excited about all of them. The first 13 episodes is just our first step into the story. Stick with us…it is something you’ll be getting very soon.
Are Spinerella and Netossa lovers?
Absolutely. I don’t think that’s a spoiler. They were introduced in the original show as a bonded pair who were very close. It seemed really natural, especially in a world that has such a large percentage of females to explore stories like that. It’s also something very close to my own heart as a gay woman. Masters of the Universe and especially She-Ra have always been important to queer people, and kind of a queer property in general. It wouldn’t be She-Ra without that. So absolutely, it was something very important to me about approaching this show.
Superhero films like Marvel Universe have sort of cheapened the notion of what makes a hero—they just look cool, utter witty retorts and save everybody. She-Ra is more complex—she does save the day. There are witty retorts, but rather than making the other characters inept or stupid, her greatest act of heroism is to inspire others to also be heroes. How conscious were you of that sentiment when you were all working?
It’s something I think about a lot, especially in a narrative aimed toward girls. One thing that’s always frustrated me about stories centering on a female protagonist is that there’s this pressure to be perfect and always make the right choice. So you never really get a model to deal with making mistakes in your life. You just feel like I’m not perfect, I must not be a hero. Something I’m doing must be wrong. What I wanted to show was just how much strength and bravery and determination it takes to be a hero. It’s something you have to work at, it’s not something you’re born into. Adora is someone who was raised a bad guy. Every step of the way is her fighting to forge a new path for herself rather than the one she was born into. She makes lots of mistakes and has to find a way forward.
One thing I hear, which is sometimes brought up as a negative, and I find that really interesting: people say She-Ra wasn’t allowed to be as strong as He-Man because her powers were more about healing and transforming her sword and talking to animals and somehow that means she’s not as strong. I don’t agree with that.
Neither do we.
That’s part of what makes her a hero. I think there is so much more to leadership. When we meet Adora, she’s someone who’s like a problem? I’ll punch it because that’s what I know how to do. Her journey is learning to be a leader, learning to not just conquer but to heal. Learning not just to fight but to bring people together. That’s something really important for girls today to see, because it’s something they’re going to have to do. You’ve got to step up and take responsibility and do what’s right and go for it. And you can’t do that alone. It’s something I’ve always ached to see.
That’s something good for everyone to see. So when do we get He-Man!?
I mean…we’ll see. I don’t have an answer for you there. I approached the story as a way to build She-Ra’s story on her own. We’ll see how it goes. I do hope that we can bring a new light and interest to the Masters of the Universe world. It remains to be seen.
When do we get season two?
Soon, I promise. I can’t give you more specifics than that, but we’ve made them. They’re beautiful. I love them. All the stuff we get into later I’m so excited about. It gets better, honestly, with each episode. I’m excited for everyone to see the first 13 episodes, and beyond. It’s going to be a lot of fun.
She-Ra premieres on Netflix Nov. 13.