'She-Ra' Netflix Showrunner Says the Show Is a "Big Responsibility"
In 2018, an indie comics maven powered up into a TV showrunner. Here's how Noelle Stevenson became the hero She-Ra needed.
Before she became the showrunner for Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Noelle Stevenson had to conquer the realm of independent comics. Now, in an interview, Stevenson tells Inverse that making the leap from the comic book page to TV (and smartphone) screens was a transformative, sometimes scary experience.
How scary? “Like getting thrown off a cliff and having to figure it out on the way down” scary, Stevenson says.
Like her protagonist’s transformation from soldier to hero, Stevenson had to take up the responsibility of leading a team, unlearn comic book habits, and figure out how to write for TV so she could teach a young audience the values of decency and diversity.
“The show deals with young, new female leadership through several characters, so that maybe got a little too real,” Stevenson says. “When I started, I was excited about the story, the characters. Through the process, I’ve become excited about collaboration, compromise, and mediation.”
In 2017, Netflix and DreamWorks announced a reboot of the 1985 series She-Ra: Princesses of Power, a sister program (quite literally) to He-Man and the Masters of the Universe — both part of a shared universe of Mattel action figures. Stevenson, who won Eisner awards for her independent comics Nimona and Lumberjanes for BOOM! Studios, was hired to produce the series aimed to appeal to a new generation.
“I treated it like getting a box of really fun toys,” recalls Stevenson.
After a year of production and a negative reaction (mostly by dudes) towards the main character’s design, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power premiered on Netflix to rave reviews on November 13. Set on the planet Etheria, the series follows Adora (voiced by Aime Carrero), an overachieving captain of the Horde who is gifted the power of Grayskull to transform into the mystical warrior, She-Ra. Along with her new friends, Glimmer (Karen Fukuhara) and Bow (Marcus Scribner), Adora/She-Ra renounces her Horde allegiance and vows to stop them, and her old rival Catra (AJ Michalka), from destroying Etheria.
By virtue of being born in the ‘90s, the showrunner missed the pop culture explosion of the Masters of the Universe franchise in the late ‘80s. She consequently didn’t grow up obsessing over She-Ra and He-Man’s sandbox universes. This, it turns out, freed her to try something bold.
“I didn’t want [not knowing] to affect me, because that would put a hamper on what the show could achieve and what it could be for audiences of today,” she says.
So, like rummaging through old toys at a garage sale, Stevenson gleaned the original and emphasized elements she felt the ‘80s series glossed over.
“Like Adora and Catra,” she says, which she felt the original show underdeveloped. “They’re almost playing those roles. It made a lot of sense [for me] to get into the relationship between Adora and Catra. What happened to push them down different paths? What were their choices and what wasn’t their choice?”
A lot of her She-Ra is also about Adora “unlearning” the Horde’s fascist brainwashing. While Adora can lead her unit and survive certain death, things like birthdays, music, and horses are all foreign to her.
“When we meet her Adora, the world was very simple to her,” says Stevenson. “The Princesses are two-dimensional boogeymen to her, and her mission is to defeat them. That is all she’s ever known. So much of her journey is realizing the world is a lot more complicated than she realized.”
Things get even more complicated when she’s burdened with the job of saving Etheria as a magical amazon with a sweet sword.
“She has to unlearn in small ways what it means to be a person in the world,” explains Stevenson. “That is a huge obstacle to overcome. She tries to solve her problems by being regimented, by hitting it really hard, but she’s put into a role where that’s not enough. She-Ra is not about strength, she’s about leadership and inspiration and pulling people together. Adora has never had to be this kind of leader before. Struggling with the role she’s inherited is her core struggle through the whole series.”
While Stevenson never served as an officer for a Princess-hunting military, her own journey mirrors that of Adora’s. Stevenson had her own “unlearning” throughout the making of She-Ra. Emerging from the more solitary world of comics and into the fast-paced, mega-collaborative environment of TV, producing an animated series was a world unto its own.
“Comics tend to be a solitary pursuit,” Stevenson says. “My first comic book I wrote, drew, lettered, and colored every single part in my bedroom. Even when you’re working with a group of people, you communicate over email or Skype. So to be called upon to not just provide the vision, but to lead and manage, to create understanding between people working on the show, that I had no experience with.”
The gravity of that was not lost on Stevenson.
“So many people rely on you, your leadership and your decision making to do their jobs well,” she says. “That I take very seriously. I feel like I have grown so much over the course of the show.”
“I want these characters to be fully realized,” she adds, “that anyone watching can say, ‘Oh my god, that looks like me.’ She-Ra and He-Man have always been progressive. We don’t have a second at the end where the characters turn to the screen and deliver the moral, but I want the moral to be there by showing instead of having to tell it. It’s an escapist fantasy, but the world is daunting. It’s something I feel a big responsibility to do.”
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is streaming now on Netflix.