At the heart of the Dreamworks reboot of the cartoon She-Ra, is a story about two friends — Adora (Aimee Carrero) and Catra (AJ Michalka) — coping with trauma. The two warriors were raised by the imperialist empire known as The Horde, an organization whose sole purpose has been to assist emperor Hordak in conquering the planet of Etheria. Adora has attempted to move past the trauma of her abusive homeland by aiding the resistance (i.e., the Princess Alliance) in taking on the mantle of the sword-wielding She-Ra. Catra, the series’ main antagonist, has doubled down with helping The Horde. She has done so in a futile attempt to redirect the pain that has been dealt to her right back at the world.
In this latest season, Adora — who has thus far desperately wanted to reform Catra — confronts her former best friend about her destructive behavior. She stops taking responsibility for Catra’s warped way of thinking, and in the process, demonstrates to young children the way to deal with abusers who gaslight you: cut the cord.
The relationship between Catra and Adora has always been unhealthy. The two were raised in an abusive environment known as the Fright Zone, which churns out child soldiers for The Horde’s war effort. Life for Catra and Adora was spartan, daily repetitions of war exercises and propaganda. It was hard, and the two consequently became codependent. As Adora says in a flashback as a child in episode 11 of Season 1:
YOUNG ADORA: It doesn’t matter what they do to us. You look out for me, I look out for you. Nothing bad can happen if we have each other.
In the few scenes we see of the two in the Fright Zone, Catra is possessive, quick to react with anger, and generally demanding of Adora’s time. She abandons Adora at training exercises, and Catra unfairly blames Adora for outpassing her in rank. She frames every action in relation to how it affects her.
When Adora “leaves” The Horde to join the resistance as a freedom fighter, Catra percieves this philosophically-driven decision as a personal attack on her. She labels Adora as the “bad guy” because the alternative would be to unpack her trauma. Adora is either with Catra or against her.
This pattern becomes especially poignant in the latest season. The Horde is attempting to open a portal to connect Etheria, which currently exists in a pocket dimension, to the rest of the known universe. The portal would theoretically bring more Horde soldiers to Etheria to squash the Princess Alliance once and for all. The first She-Ra, Mara, however, made it so such an action will destroy the entire planet. When technologically-inclined princess Entrapta tells Catra that her decision will have catastrophic consequences for all of Etheria, The Horde included, Catra once again interprets this as a personal attack.
ENTRAPTA: It’s going to collapse and take us all with it. Adora was right.
CATRA: Adora is right? Adora gets everything she wants. But not this time. This time, I am going to win. I don’t care what it takes. We are opening that portal now.
It bears emphasizing that Adora is not the one maliciously trying to blow up Etheria as a form of oneupmanship. This framing is all in Catra’s mind. Black and white thinking is very common among abusers. Abusers typically have a communication style that reduces all interactions to personal ones. As Darlene Lancer mentioned in an article in Psychology Today:
“The one thing [abusers] all have in common is that their motive is to have power over their victim. This is because they don’t feel that they have personal power, regardless of worldly success. To them, communication is a win-lose game.”
A victim of Catra’s abuse, Adora has sadly been an enabler of her rhetoric. For most of these last three seasons, Adora has made herself, and by extension the Princess Alliance, vulnerable by repeatedly asking Catra to abandon her work with The Horde, and join her on the side of good. Every time this has happened, Catra has rejected these olive branches to advance The Horde’s objectives. Her betrayal is predictable, and Adora’s failure to acknowledge that fits a well-known pattern of victims trying to appease their abusers.
This impulse is common in popular culture, especially in childrens stories. For example, the widely-popular children’s book The Giving Tree is about a tree that gives more and more of herself to a little boy until she is nothing more than a stump. These actions are portrayed as making the tree happy, and the text has rightly been criticized as normalizing abusive behavior.
Similarly, many Disney texts have been criticized for the regressive portrayals of their female protagonists (i.e., Disney Princesses). Ariel in The Little Mermaid gives up her voice to appease a man. Cinderella settles for the first man who lifts her out of her abusive living situation. Snow White waits around for 80 years for her man to come. The film Beauty And The Beast is arguably the glorification of an abusive relationship. Some research has concluded that exposure to Princess Culture itself could lead to damaging gender stereotypes for young girls. As writer Jenna Dorsi writes in Teen Vogue:
Since audiences likely start watching Disney movies from a young age, any negative portrayals could end up normalizing the victimization of women and, even unwittingly, reinforcing that they are “less than.”
A lot of popular culture has taught young children, especially young girls, to be passive figures in their own stories. Many of these stories tell children to be kind, supportive, and accepting in the face of abuse. This message is one that ultimately gaslights future victims.
This regrettable trend is what makes She-Ra such a refreshing text. Adora is the opposite of passive. She has the tools to fight her abuser both physically with a giant, magical sword as well as emotionally. She has a robust support network that allows her the perspective to break her cycle of abuse with Catra.
This breaking point comes in the last episode of Season 3. Adora is fighting Catra to stop the deterioration of Etheria itself. Catra goes on a monologue about how everything thus far is Adora’s fault — a common abuser tactic of blaming the victim. This time, however, Adora finally dares to rebuff Catra’s warped thinking.
CATRA: You broke the world, and it is all your fault.
ADORA: No, it’s not. I didn’t make you pull the switch. I didn’t make you do anything. I didn’t break the world, but I am gonna fix it. And you? You made your choice. Now live with it.
This remark is not only a rebuttal to Catra, but all the other stories before it. She-Ra is telling young girls that they don’t need to accept the abuse in their lives. They are not responsible for the abusers who physically and emotionally hurt them.
In the closing moments of this arc, the show provides an essential lesson on abuse. It tells young viewers that you can’t help abusers by letting them manipulate you. You have to reject their attempts to control you so hopefully, they may finally reckon with their distorted worldview. That’s a heavy but beautiful message, and one certainly worth letting your children watch.
The true power of She-Ra is her bravery in confronting the ones she loves, and you don’t need a sword for that.