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A butch goat-person towers over Catra, trying to intimidate the formidable feline. "There are only two rules in the Crimson Waste. One, the strong make the rules."
Before the goat-person, who Catra later names Kyle, can list the second rule, Catra begins cackling. She finds Kyle hysterical, saying, "So, here's the thing: I've done this. The whole threatening people bit, the intimidation. I've been there. And I just don't care anymore."
She slams her clawed hand down on the bar and drags her nails across the top. The eerie sound of cat claws destroying something beautiful (if you have a cat, you get it) resounds through the room as she makes her baddie speech.
"Some people have a bad day. I've had a bad life. If I want something, it's taken from me." She casually disarms a lizard-person and takes their knife, nimbly hopping onto the bar. "If I win a fight, I lose the war. Threats only work on someone who has something to lose. But me?" She pauses and points the large knife at Kyle, who quivers with fear. "I've already lost it all. And you can't be any good at this because you just let yourself get distracted."
Scorpia, Catra's maybe-baby/girlfriend/BFF, sneaks up and strikes Kyle's presumably lizard-wife with her scorpion tail, leaving Kyle defenseless. Scorpia giggles a little and smiles at Catra, her world, her hero, the person she would follow to the ends of the universe. Kyle laughs nervously and offers to go anywhere Catra wants, shyly calling her "boss."
This is who She-Ra and the Princesses of Power's Catra is. She doesn't shrink in the face of bullies — because she knows she's a stronger, better fighter and leader than any of them. And, in reality, Catra is the only villain to even come close to taking She-Ra down.
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power reboots the 1985 series She-Ra: Princess of Power and takes the story of Adora and She-Ra in a new direction. In the DreamWorks reboot — which has released three seasons in less than a year, with the fourth season slated to appear on Netflix in early November — Adora is not a mind-controlled victim being manipulated as in the 1985 series, but rather a willing Force Captain for the Horde, an evil military force occupying Etheria. That is, until she discovers the truth about the Horde and their plans for destruction.
This new twist places Adora firmly in the position of culpable collaborator, a fact that forms her and her actions throughout the series. As she tries to make amends for all the Horde has done, Adora— with her new ability to turn into the tall, muscular, superpowered princess She-Ra — joins the princesses of power in defending Etheria.
This powerful journey of self-discovery, creating community, and repairing harm is just one part of what makes She-Ra such a compelling series. Developed by Noelle Stevenson (Lumberjanes), the series is super, super queer, explicitly and in subtext. There are queer people in relationships, such as Bow's dads and Princesses Netossa and Spinnerella, that are excellent, thoughtful, and admirable people. There's also the implied relationships between Catra and Scorpia and Catra and Adora. But, even when characters aren't explicitly LGBTQ+, look no further than the opening credits to see all the queer pastel goodness the series holds. (I mean, a rainbow-maned pegacorn named Swift Wind who believes in the rights of horses doesn't feel like a super "straight" character to me.)
In the end, though, what is perhaps most compelling about She-Ra is how it excels at creating a villain we really understand and even empathize with: Catra. To be fair, she's not the only villain we love and understand. From Entrapta and her compulsion to develop advanced technology without regard for its use or consequences to Shadow Weaver and her hunger for a power she's told she shouldn't have, She-Ra stacks its plots with relatable, compelling, and ultimately thought-provoking villains — even Hordak as the underappreciated clone of a despot is a fascinating take on villainy.
Oh, but Catra. Our evil kitty-person whose tough ways protect a soft and damaged heart. Catra, Catra, Catra, how we love thee. Let us count the ways.
Catra wasn't duped by the Horde.
When Adora first realizes the Horde is evil, she's astonished. She can't believe the organization she's dedicated her life to and the people that raised her are actually Team Evil. Eager to share her revelation, she tries to save Catra, who wonders how on Etheria Adora never figured it out. She knows she was manipulated as a child-soldier, raised by the Horde to never question authority and fall in line. And she doesn't really care. What she cares about is Adora, her friend, her (probable) lover, her everything. When Adora turns her back on Catra, though, Catra returns to the less-than-loving arms of the Horde for her revenge, never deluding herself into thinking she's a hero.
Catra DGAF how cool and tough you're supposed to be. She's not impressed.
While in the Crimson Waste, Catra encounters a giant lizard-dude called Tung Lashor, a classic He-Man villain. When she learns his name, she laughs so hard she can barely stay standing. Then, in one-on-one combat, she easily outsmarts him, leaving him sinking in quicksand. It doesn't matter that he's twice her size or that he's armed and she's not. Catra knows that the world is unkind, unfair, and that she'll always have to be twice the fighter, twice as fast, twice as clever to make it half as far. She doesn't waste time being afraid or not knowing what to do — she trusts her instincts and defies those who would manipulate, intimidate, or try to control her.
She cares for Scorpia.
Catra is not made of sugar, spice, nor anything nice. She's a survivor who has lived through being abandoned, maligned, manipulated, sent into the Crimson Waste to die, and almost killed when the world begins to crumble. And yet, even in the midst of things falling apart, she finds ways to show tenderness to Scorpia — Catra's kind of tenderness, meaning admitting she needs Scorpia while punching her in the arm, but tenderness nonetheless. The moment is fleeting, and Catra's inability to see beyond her rage ultimately keeps her from fully connecting to Scorpia.
Let's be real here for a moment. Does Scorpia deserve better than following around a person who is hell-bent on destroying their ex? Yes, of course. Do we deserve to see Scorptra, the ship name for the couple, finally enjoy a moment of bliss? Also, yes. However, even if we never see the two care for one another in a way that we might recognize as healthy, we have to admit that Scorpia is special to Catra and that their relationship might be the only thing that can help Catra heal.
Her motivations are clear.
Catra was taken as a child and raised by a magical, evil military force to be a ruthless hunter and killer. Her childhood was a series of punishments for not being as perfect as Adora — who it turns out is perfect because she's from another planet. The person she loved more than anyone, the person she shared her life, her dreams, and her bed with, left her because she found a magical sword. No matter how strong of a fighter and leader she became, she was blamed for the failures of her superiors and her team. Time and again Catra is treated as lesser than, expendable, somehow wanting. Consciously and unconsciously, she takes all the hatred and discrimination that has been lobbed at her and makes it her own, turning it into a hard, unbreakable diamond at her core that keeps her safe.
Sure, part of Catra wants to be appreciated and even admired by the Horde. And, when you think about the fact that she's essentially an abused child seeking approval from her abusers, her actions aren't just reasonable but irrefutable. Remember, she's a survivor, and survivors know how to live through the absurd, the unconscionable, and the inhumane. That's not to say she doesn't have baggage. (Wow, Catra, get a therapist.) Despite it all, however, she always finds her own way through.
Listen, we could go on and on about what makes Catra so effing awesome. She's got great style. Her acrobatic skill is remarkable—watch out, JVN. She's effortlessly cool and infinitely bored with everyone's games. Perhaps what is most compelling about her, though, is that she, like all the best villains, reveals something about humanity.
Like Catra, we are selfish. We are afraid of vulnerability and put on a tough face. We seek love from those who will not have us and turn from the embrace of our own Scorpias. We survive, and in surviving forget how to really live. We deserve Catra because she reflects our flaws back to us, so we can choose to be different.