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Why She-Ra’s showrunner made Catra and Adora the focus of the Netflix reboot

Noelle Stevenson discusses Catra and Adora, Princess Prom and relationship drama at the end of the world

Dreamworks Animation
Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is the Netflix reboot of the popular 1980s Filmation series of a similar name, She-Ra: Princess of Power. Helmed by Noelle Stevenson (Lumberjanes, Nimona), the reboot trades its He-Man ties and campy designs for a heroine who stands on her own and complicated villains with motivations beyond just taking over the world.

Particularly, the formerly scheming villain Catra is given more depth — especially when it comes to her relationship with the show’s hero, Adora. Unlike the original series, where the two filled very linear good-guy, bad-guy roles, the Catra and Adora of the new series are childhood friends, forced apart due to the roles thrust upon them.

The complicated relationship between the two friends has struck a chord with fans. Add on the show’s focus on its characters’ personal ties, as well as the overall diversity infused into the show and those fans are clamoring for more.

Polygon: The original series has Catra and Adora as a totally pure antagonists, and they don’t really have a connection. But a huge driving force in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is their relationship. What was the motivation behind this added complexity?

Noelle Stevenson: That was one of the first things that I knew I wanted to do with this series from the very start of it. They are these sort of mirrors to each other. Even in the original show Catra is ambitious — she wants more power, she wants to be as strong as She-Ra, she wants to defeat She-Ra — but it seems to me that there would be more to it than that. They never really seem to know each other or have any shared experiences from the time when Adora was growing up in the Horde. So it just seemed to me that there would be more there, there would be more to this relationship. They would have had more of a connection.

I think that the best hero-villain relationships are between people who mean a lot to each other. So that was something that I just knew right away that I wanted to infuse into this relationship, and really build up these friends, to rivals, to full-on enemies, and explore what that meant for them. And make Catra not so much a dual protagonist to Adora, but someone that is relatable in her own way as well. We understand why she makes the choices that she makes. And part of the tragedy is that while she doesn’t make great choices, she also doesn’t have access to the same set of choices that Adora has. In some ways her agency is taken away in her rise to evil, and her ways of dealing with that are not always the best ones. But it’s something that I’ve always been really interested in, the headspace behind villains and how they relate to the protagonist and protagonist relates to them. So setting up this strong relationship between the two of them basically became the core relationship of the show.

In the 11th episode (“Promise”) we get a lot of backstory about Catra and Adora’s childhood and growing up in the Horde. They both have completely different perceptions of how they were raised. How does that play into their ultimate choices?

The 11th episode is really interesting. It’s one of my favorites. It’s pretty personal to me, but it’s really interesting because I think up until that point, there was some ambiguity around Adora and Catra’s relationship, where you’re not sure if they really do see each other as enemies or if they’re just sort of playing into the roles that they’ve been set up to be. And in the 11th episode, you go into it with the hope — just as Adora has at the beginning — that because Catra has shown some moments of light, of goodness, that this is going to be a turning point for her and that she will choose her relationship with Adora over her rise as an evil villain and she’ll make the right choice. But over the course of this episode, especially as they’re kind of seeing things through Catra’s point of view, you start to realize that there are cracks in their relationships and there always have been.

A scene from “Promise,” showing Catra and Adora’s childhood
Dreamworks Animation

As much as these two people really, really care about each other, there are also things that ... some of them are not their own choice. Like the way that Shadow Weaver treats them differently or pits them against each other. Just as much as Catra cares about Adora, Adora makes her feel bad about herself. [Catra] wants to be with her, she wants to do everything with her, but it also makes her feel insecure. So even when we look back at the beginning, it looks like these happy nostalgic memories, and you start to realize there’s this darker layer to all of them. Catra starts picking up on that in a way that Adora doesn’t, because she always saw the darker side of that, and maybe tried to distance herself from those feelings in order to remain friends with Adora. But you realize by the end of that episode there’s been problems way before Adora ever left the Horde. So their relationship is a lot more complex than just them being pushed in different directions when Adora leaves the Horde, they have a lot more to work through than that.

So revisiting those memories is like the final nail in the coffin, if you will?

Yeah, absolutely. It’s obviously going to continue evolving over the seasons, but I think that is Catra’s first steps towards being a real villain, not just acting it out. So that’s sort of what we see happen in that episode.

Fans have picked up on some of the romantic undertones in their relationship. Is that something we can possibly see more of in upcoming seasons?

They remain the kinda core relationship and the core conflict of the show. I think that there is a lot ... that’s not going to change anytime soon. It is threaded through the whole DNA of the show. So I very much hope that fans who enjoyed their dynamic in the first season are going to continue seeing more of that as the show goes on.

“Princess Prom” was been a stand-out episode. Fans had lots of fun seeing all the characters in this fun dance setting setting, but it also has that huge conflict and battle towards the end. What was the reasoning behind setting a big war conflict at a dance?

I think that’s something that, you know, we always kind of strove for the show to be. It is about war and conflict between good and evil. But it’s also ... I think because the characters are younger, young adults, they are focused on two things at once and those things are sort of equal importance. One of them is the world might end — or alternately “I want to take over the world.” But the other thing is relationships, personal relationships. So the characters all have ... both of those things are almost of equal importance to all of them. For Glimmer, the fact that they have to recruit Princess Frosta is almost overshadowed by the fact that she’s feeling insecure because Bow didn’t go to prom with her, and for Adora, she lets herself get distracted from that by Catra’s presence. All of them...those relationships with personal connections to other people, they take on this center stage at times, even when these big decisive world-affecting things are going on.

Dreamworks Animation

It’s really important to me to show in the show, because I think that’s how it feels to be a person in real life. As much as you feel a responsibility to do your best to save the world, it’s the personal relationships that sometimes feel the most real and the most pressing and the most present. I think that [episode] is a perfect mixture of those two things, setting this sort of neutral ground. It’s this big Princess Council assembly that everyone treats like prom, that was the original idea. So it is something that is supposed to have kind of political connotations for the princesses, but it’s also just a really fun party and that’s how everyone treats it. And then having that be that neutral ground be taken advantage of by Catra and the Horde, that’s when it sort of turns again — they’re snapped out of this moment of being really centered on the relationships and realizing that these world-ending stakes are still going on.

So that particular episode has a lot of casual diversity with the couples in the background, and that’s something that happens like throughout the show. Why was this important to include?

I think mostly it just made sense to me for this world. I want a world where this is all normal, this is all commonplace. We have a mostly female cast and a lot of the characters present however they want to. They’re very fluid along the gender spectrum. That is something that, one, it felt like it fit with this world, with the world building of this world, the way the world is structured — and also it’s something that’s important to me as a gay woman to reflect, the stories that are personal to me. So really the idea that we got to see female characters going to prom together, dancing. Some of them as friends, some of them as romantic, and everything all around that — there are so many different types of relationships on display.

Dreamworks Animation

It shows that it’s OK to have close platonic friendships that also feel very intense — and it’s OK to have those feelings of queerness, of wanting to go to a dance and have a romantic relationship with another woman. Those were all things that I wanted to reflect in that episode and in the world in general. It’s our look into the social dynamics of Etheria in that episode, because we see people arriving and presenting themselves in this way. I think that it’s safe to say that this is very normal on Etheria and something that everyone is very much accustomed to.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is now streaming on Netflix.

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