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She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (Credit: Dreamworks Animation/Netflix)

How She-Ra and other nostalgic faves reclaimed queer pop culture history

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Jul 8, 2020, 6:00 PM EDT

Warning: This article contains spoilers for She-Ra and the Princesses of Power Season 5 and Harley Quinn Season 2.

When the fifth and final season of Netflix's She-Ra reboot premiered last month, fans were quick to voice their excitement for the finale. In less than a day, the internet was wallpapered in fanart of the series' main characters, friends-to-enemies-to-lovers Catra and Adora. In one sense, viewers had been speculating about the characters' sexualities since the first season dropped in 2018. But in another, She-Ra, He-Man, and the whole Masters of the Universe line had held enormous importance for LGBTQ+ fans from its very beginning in the early '80s. That's not to say the franchise hasn't had plenty of success outside of that context — obviously there are plenty of straight, cisgender fans. But something about the way those characters were coded, the camp and the colors and the costumes, spoke to a more specific audience that did not see themselves reflected in the same way on many other Saturday morning cartoons.

Just this side of Pride, it's a good time to take notice of a trend currently happening throughout many forms of media, where classically queer-coded characters and franchises are finally receiving outright confirmation in their modern incarnations. Of course it's true that we can't always rely on brands and corporations for table scraps of representation, and I don't wish to diminish the valuable work being done in brand-new stories all the time, but it's important to highlight and to celebrate the creators who are actively reclaiming the unspoken history of queer media.

Artist: Jen Bartel

Jem and the Holograms originally ran for three seasons in the late '80s, an animated Hasbro property intended to promote a line of dolls. The series followed a group of sisters who inherit a supercomputer and, naturally, become famous rockstars. The mash-up of soap operas and superhero comics for the MTV generation may not have resulted in dethroning Barbie as queen of the toy aisle, but it did create a world of glam, glitter, and double identities, as captivating as it is thoroughly gay. When the series was rebooted in 2015 as a comic by IDW, considerable effort was put into modernizing the franchise and making it more inclusive.

Some of the updates, such as making the character Jetta black, were reflections of series creator Christy Marx's original vision — while others, like a major subplot dealing with the lesbian romance between rival band members Kimber and Stormer, were things that could only be just vaguely hinted at in the original. Others still injected a diversity into the cast that was simply not possible in a cartoon of that era. Characters with different religious backgrounds, characters with a wide range of body types, and notably Blaze, a trans main character totally original to the comic. The care, but also the matter-of-factness with which these characters are placed throughout this world, along with artist Sophie Campbell's new character designs, turn what could have been a nostalgia-fueled cash grab into one of the most radically queer-normative and body-positive comic series ever published.

Another example of a classic TV series being given new, explicitly gay life in the form of a comic is Xena: Warrior Princess. Attempts at a television reboot have thus far fallen through, but several comic adaptations have existed over the years. Most recently, an ongoing series published by Dynamite and written by Vita Ayala which finally acknowledged the romantic relationship between series leads Xena and Gabrielle, heavily implied to be lovers throughout the original show's six seasons.

Comics have been ahead of the curve on this kind of representation in many ways (with varying degrees of sincerity). Characters native to the medium who have long been coded as queer have been quietly (and sometimes rather loudly) coming out one after another. Issue 4 of the 2015 Jughead series marked the first time the character had been specifically referred to as asexual within the text itself, but the Archie Comics character's predilection for food over romance had been referenced, often to humorous effect, for as long as he has existed.

Credit: Archie Comics

2015 was also the year Bobby Drake, aka Iceman, was outed by Jean Grey in the controversial All-New X-Men #40. This is a complicated inclusion for this article. Certainly there are many legitimate criticisms, both of how Bobby's coming out was handled, and also of his journey back into the closet, via a time travel memory wipe in 2018's Extermination series. Nevertheless, Iceman is extremely important to the history of queer rep in comics, and to the subject of this article in particular. Bobby has been read by certain fans as gay for years. While it's impossible to know exactly how far back this interpretation originates, 1994's Uncanny X-Men #319 has been held up by some as Bobby's original coming out. The issue, released over a decade before the character's queer status was confirmed, deals with Bobby asking Rogue to pretend to be his girlfriend for an awkward dinner with his parents, culminating in shouting match with his bigoted father, who Bobby blames for causing him to repress himself.

Another X-Men character deserving of mention is Mystique, who was consciously written as being in a lesbian relationship with the character Destiny as early as 1981. Writer Chris Claremont has even stated that his original intention was for the two to be Nightcrawler's parents, with Mystique as his biological father. However, this relationship was relegated to subtext by anti-LGBTQ mandates of the time, put in place as a response to 1954's infamous Seduction of the Innocent, which blamed the queer subtext found in Batman and Wonder Woman comics for juvenile delinquency. And so, although the characters were popularly accepted as queer by creators and readers alike for decades, it took a full 38 years for the couple to finally share an on-page kiss, in a panel from 2019's The History of the Marvel Universe #2.

Harley Quinn is an interesting example of this emerging pattern. Creators Bruce Timm and Paul Dini have both publicly acknowledged the romantic element of Harley's relationship with fellow villainess Poison Ivy, and their status as girlfriends is technically canon. For one tragically brief window of time, they were even wives. But they've been so on-again, off-again they've rarely been able to have any kind of relationship on the page. According to writer Sam Humphries, Ivy hasn't even been allowed to appear in his run on Harley's ongoing comic series — whereas in the Harley Quinn animated series which began late last year on the DC Universe app, executive producers and showrunners Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker have been able to dedicate nearly the entire second season of the show to exploring the pair's complicated connection with heart and nuance and genuine tenderness as the two come to terms with their feelings for one another.

Credit: DC

Even classic magical girl anime titles Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura can be considered a part of this canonization trend, at least in America. While the two shows were already considered quite progressive for their time due to their very positive portrayal of same-sex relationships, the English dubs for both series were extremely heavily censored, deliberately scrubbing away any chance that gay or lesbian viewers had to see themselves represented in the show. It's incredibly painful and frustrating to consider the way that children were robbed of the chance to feel normal, or even welcomed by these shows. But with the advent of streaming services like Hulu, Netflix, and Crunchyroll, new and old fans can both access and appreciate the original, uncensored Japanese versions of these wonderful, heartwarming stories.

This is not the end-all, be-all of representation. The work of LGBTQ+ representation is not complete just because we can buy rainbow-colored Funko Pops of our favorite characters. But there is value in recognizing the accomplishments of all the creators mentioned above, because our history as queer people is so often denied to us. There is an attitude among certain cis, straight audiences who believe — and indeed often argue rather vehemently — that they are the default framework and all fiction is for and about them until stated otherwise. Even when it is stated outright, those same audiences will say that it's forced, or pushing an agenda. These arguments are directly analogous to the myth that queerness and gender-variance are new, or that we are forcing who we are onto others.

The truth is that we have had heteronormativity forced upon us, in every fabric of our lives. And so, while it would be easy to write these characters off as corporations granting us the bare minimum, they are so much more than that. They are evidence that we have always been here, and proof that no matter how much they lay claim to our narratives and straightwash our history, we will take back what is ours — one cartoon princess at a time.

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