Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Problem With She-Ra as a Feminist Text

'Princess of Power' photo (c) 2008, Nicola Jones - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/


When I was a kid, I loved watching She-ra.  What's not to like right?  In She-ra you get an ass kicking, take no prisoners female lead.  This is especially important because ass kicking, often is reserved for males.  I have grown up since the days when I cheered for She-ra, even as my brothers wanted more He-Man.  Now I look at the image and it invokes a very different feeling.

I recently came across an article at Bad Reputation: Feminist Pop Culture Adventure entitled: Inspirational Fictional Feminist Characters: She-ra. The following is a small passage from the piece:
One of the main joys I had from the show was that it featured an awesome female hero in a world of other awesome women. All too often, as a girl, my female heroes were lonely, sore thumbs sticking out of a world populated only by men. Also known as The Smurf Problem. My other examples of female heroes were all Smurfs: Princess from the deeply confusing Battle of the Planets, Teela from the He-Man series, Cheetara from Thundercats and The Pink Girlie One in Transformers. Female fighters were the exception. They were The Girl. The pat-on-the-head for female viewers: “there, look, she’s joining in too!” Not so on Etheria.

(snip)

Oh and did I mention they’re all freedom fighters? Female freedom fighters battling against the Patriarchy Evil Horde using epic and non-gender stereotypical super powers such as ass-kicking, laser beams, ice and um… being an intergalactic Space Bee. The best bit is that none of them appear to be suffering from Sex Assassin Syndrome (SAS). Except for maybe Bow. Who also sings, bless him.
As adult, I can look at She-ra and still appreciate the positive role that she filled for some young girls.  I say some, because as a WOC, She-ra is not a show that I would particular encourage my children to watch, and even more so if I had a daughter.  You, see when feminists start talking about women's advancement, my first question is which women are we talking about?  If we're honest, no matter how many times the great unified sisterhood is pitched by feminism, there are always going to be some women, who somehow don't fit the mold, because they are poor, of colour, trans, lesbian, older, disabled etc., 

I know that even from the above marginalized groups, you can find women that advocate feminism, but the truth is that mainstream feminism very much reduces or erases marginalized women. As much as She-ra has some pretty pro-woman messages, she also affirms and normalizes White women. Even as White women hunt for postive images of womanhood, it occurs to very few how exclusionary these images of women really are. 

I came to feminism very young and bought hook line and sinker into the all for one, one for all routine, but it is only after I became a mother, and really started to think about Blackness, that I realized that this very important side of my identity was missing in the communities I was involved in.  What does it mean if all the heroes are White, and the people lauding them are also White?  What message does this send Black women/girls, and how does this empower womanhood?  The answer is that it doesn't, because unless woman means all women, it really doesn't advance the cause at all.

When disability was added to my identity, I really began to think about the idea of multiple sites of oppression.  Now I had to think about race, gender, and disability, and with that came a whole new awakening of what it means to be understood as 'woman'.  As I age, I know that this understanding will shift yet again, as I confront ageism.  My experience is not typical, but as we go through life, we pick up various identities.  Some women are perceived as male at birth and transition, some women become mothers, and some women come out as lesbian. No matter who the woman is, from the moment of birth, there is a constant evolution, and this means that anyone we select as a hero, cannot possibly hope to encapsulate all women. 

This does not mean that we should stop having heroes.  No one could make me reduce the regard I have for women like Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Ida B Wells, bell hooks, Angela Davis, Gloria Anzaldua, Vandana Shiva, Zora Neal Hurston, or Maya Angelou.  What I have however learned, is to compartmentalize my sheroes.  They all speak to me for various reasons, and even though each one of them is positively luminescent in their brilliance, they are all just as flawed as me and in fact, every woman that walks the earth today, because they were born into a world in which the body is already formed and disciplined, before the first cry of arrival can issue forth from the lungs. 

If someone or something is important to you, then you have an even greater responsibility to be critical of what they either represent or the messages they impart.  It is far too easy to put on fanpoodle glasses and ignore harmful behaviour when it comes to someone we idolize.  Finding out the faults of your sheroes should not make you love them less, because who amongst us is not extremely flawed?  You see, even in their failures, they are teaching you about what mistakes to avoid, and how to challenge your own privilege.  If you can recognize bias, bigotry and privilege in others, then you can learn to spot it in yourself and root it out.  The only true crime of hero worship, is ignoring the narrow lens it forces us to look through, thus limiting the ability to grow.

I look at She-ra and I see a strong White woman.  I acknowledge that this erases several of my most important identities.  I love her even though she is flawed and continues the erasure I feel as a marginalized woman in many spheres, but I will not dismiss her, because I don't have the right to take away heroes from little White girls, who need their heroes too.  Even though their challenges will be much different than mine, I will not deny that these challenges exist, and by so doing erase the threat that they pose to me.  There are very few positive role models for young girls of colour to look up to but erasing the few White images will not change that.  We must move forward with a commitment to ensure that all young women can see themselves reflected as powerful, beautiful and smart. A handful of Black characters is a far cry from equal representation with White women, let alone White men.

I desperately want little Black girls to grow up seeing strong positive images of Black women that they can identify with.  I don't want them to have the struggles that I did as a child, and therefore; it is my hope that pointing out exactly where She-ra fails, others will see the limitations that she poses.  We need not tear down old heroes to build anew, but we must with each rebirth, seek to include those who have previously been silenced to privilege the single narrative.