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Credit: Mattel

How She-Ra took on the gendered toy battles of the 1980s

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Sep 9, 2020, 1:00 PM EDT

If you're a kid of the 1980s and '90s, then the chances are that you watched a lot of TV and owned a lot of toys. This wasn't a phenomenon unique to our age group, of course. Name a kid who didn't watch tons of television or have a prized collection of dolls, action figures, and related accessories. What differentiates these generational gaps is how inextricably entwined our viewing entertainment was with the playthings we so greatly coveted.

During the '80s, the administration of President Ronald Reagan pushed for immense deregulation of all markets but particularly in the world of broadcasting. In 1987, the FCC's fairness doctrine was abolished and thus it became much easier for companies to use programming as a means of advertising. For a whole era of kids, the shows they obsessed over after school and on Saturday mornings while munching on their cereal were nothing but thinly veiled marketing gimmicks. FCC Chairman Mark S. Fowler proudly declared that children's television should be dictated by the marketplace. The end result was a glut of shows that existed almost exclusively to sell toys, games, clothes, food, and so on.

Beloved kids' series like G.I. Joe, Transformers, The Care Bears, and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe offered mindless entertainment (often produced on the cheap) that could be commodified to the nth degree. If it could be turned into merchandise, then it could become a TV show. This mindset was so dominant in the '80s and '90s that Michael Eisner, then the CEO of Disney, commissioned a cartoon based on the gummy bear candies because his son enjoyed eating them so much, and of course, there were toys to be made!

This field was lucrative. The endless cycle of content and commodity was practically a money-printing machine. It was also, however, a field deeply defined by sexist expectations. Shows like Transformers, The Real Ghostbusters, G.I. Joe, Thundercats, and, of course, He-Man were male-dominated stories that often had one token female character if one existed at all. Essayist Katha Pollitt defined this phenomenon in a 1991 article as "The Smurfette Principle," wherein a kids' cartoon has an assortment of varied male characters but only one female whose role is essentially to be "the woman" and nothing else.

Said female characters were also often what is known as distaff counterparts. This is what happens when a show or pop culture property decides to create a character of the opposite sex to the protagonist (who is usually male) and simply creates their double but with a pink flair. Think of how Ms. Pac-Man is basically Pac-Man but with make-up and a pretty bow, or how Minnie Mouse is Mickey's double but with another pretty bow. Muppet Babies had Skeeter as the new Scooter, while Alvin and the Chipmunks had Brittany and the Chipettes.

And then there was She-Ra. The original Princess of Power of the 1980s was a spin-off of Filmation's He-Man and the Masters of the Universe series, which started life as a toy line at Mattel. That show was a major financial success for the company, with its 130-episode syndicated cartoon being broadcast in over 30 countries. As noted by The New York Times in 1984, at the height of the series' popularity, Mattel sold $350 million worth of Masters of the Universe merchandise, which included toys, toothbrushes, bedsheets, alarm clocks, and much more. By comparison, Mattel's iconic doll Barbie accounted for only $260 million of annual sales. The show was, at the time, the highest-rated children's television program in America, with an audience of nearly 9 million. The vast majority of those viewers and customers were young boys, so it only made sense for them to tap into the other half of the population.

The intent of She-Ra was evident from the get-go: Create a female counterpart to He-Man that would allow Mattel to cash in on the ever-lucrative market of young girls. Looking at a show from this deeply skeptical perspective certainly has its pitfalls. Then again, it's not as if mainstream pop culture at large has historically been defined by creative altruism. The cynicism behind She-Ra is impossible to ignore, although, given its specific context, it's also fascinating how the company put way more effort behind the concept that most people would have expected. She-Ra herself is a blatant gender-swapped take on He-Man, right down to the name, but her aesthetic is nowhere near as sexualized as Prince Adam was (something that got the show into a lot of trouble with supposedly concerned parents). She's surrounded by a cast of female companions who are distinct in terms of skills and personality rather than blatant rip-offs of the He-Man ensemble. These are women who are capable and allowed to be more than damsels, sidekicks, or personality-free gender-swaps with pretty pink bows. All that and the show easily passes the Bechdel-Wallace Test with flying colors.

And, inevitably, there was a lot of super-cool toys. You can browse eBay right now and find some vintage treasures that will have your pockets itching with delight. The She-Ra dolls were a solid cross between He-Man and Barbie, with action armor available alongside mini-combs for fans to brush Adora's luscious locks. The merchandise range was as vast and varied as that of He-Man. This was a distaff counterpart, yes, but it was one that avoided many of the hyper-restrictive gendered markers of other so-called “girls' toys.” No pink, no pretty bows, and no lipstick accessories. She-Ra and her comrades weren't motherly or sold as toys in that manner. Really, there was nothing to stop them from being just as popular with boys as with girls.

She-Ra did reasonably solid business Mattel, but it never reached the heights of He-Man. Despite its many qualities and its status in a crowded field of kids' animation as a uniquely female-centered series, gender stereotyping from networks and focus groups got in the way. A 1991 report from The New York Times detailed how boys and entertainment designed with them in mind dominated children's TV. This was primarily based on the oft-repeated and deeply false assumption that stories about boys will always be viewed as universally appealing but those with female protagonists are only for girls.

In the 1980s, toys were extremely gendered and most stores like Toys "R" Us segregated them based on whether they were "meant" for boys or girls. Barbie was pink and pretty and obviously for girls, while Transformers were tough and full of firepower so only boys wanted them, right? This lack of logic extended to every corner of the market, including Lego, because only boys want to build things, according to this nonsense. This insidious concept holds a lot of sway to this day, not just with toys but in entertainment overall. How many times have you heard the bonkers claim that guys aren't interested in watching female superheroes?

This problem hit She-Ra hard. As noted by Maria Teresa Hart for The Atlantic, She-Ra had long blonde hair like a Barbie doll and boys were often unwilling to play with such toys because they were seen as being for girls. The toys themselves were often hard to find because stores didn't know if she should go in the blue aisle or the pink one. She was a doll for everyone, but her status as a woman meant she could only be seen as a toy for girls, but even then she didn't fit the smothering confines of those gendered assumptions. The '80s were a tough time to be a kid who didn't want to be defined by one of two colors, so it's not hard to imagine a lot of children avoiding She-Ra because they were worried they'd be mocked for playing with a toy that wasn't for them.

She-Ra ended after two seasons, and by the time the '90s rolled on, there were other toys in town pulling in the big bucks. Shock horror, most of them were "for boys" too. It's taken us a long time to tackle this problem head-on. Animation has gotten more varied and audiences are less concerned with the pink/blue conundrum. Steven Universe, Adventure Time, The Powerpuff Girls, Gravity Falls, DuckTales, and of course the Netflix reboot of She-Ra defined themselves by their empathy, creativity, and universality. They are shows beloved by people of all genders. There's still a long way to go, of course. Pop culture continues to be polluted by alt-right dog-whistles and has been heavily hijacked by such figures as a terrifyingly effective means to spread hate. A favored means of doing so remains the ceaseless attacking of women-led stories or gender-swapped reboots of properties "for boys." A whole generation of corporate rule defined what was intended for which gender and far too many close-minded creeps still live and die by that ethos.

She-Ra's legacy lives on, particularly in the stellar Netflix reboot that redefined the show as a queer-friendly, emotionally-driven tale of friendship, betrayal, and trauma. Audiences are hungrier than ever for shows that laugh in the face of the gender binary, and there are so many amazing titles to choose from. She-Ra would approve.

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