Living in the Fright Zone – She-Ra (2018) and Monstrous Motherhood
[This post contains general spoilers for She-ra (2018) season 1.]
I already wrote about how Steven Universe has been rocking my emotional world recently in regards to its portrayal of abusive parents, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t also explore the new She-ra reboot’s exploration of this theme as well because damn does it have a lot of real world parallels. Though She-ra only has one short season of character and world building so far, it still managed to pack a ton of complex themes into those thirteen episodes. One of my favorites that the show explores is how relationships between parents and their children can vary. We see an example of a very healthy relationship with Queen Angella and her daughter Glimmer, which is awesome because we can always use more positive parental representation, but we also glimpse the darker possibilities of such relationships with Shadow Weaver and her wards Adora and Catra. There’s too much to unpack in the Shadow Weaver/Adora/Catra dynamic (like the fact that Shadow Weaver probably kidnapped Adora as a baby to brainwash her) without writing a whole thesis, so what I want to focus on is how Shadow Weaver uses scapegoating to create a hierarchy within their triad.
It’s clear from the very first interaction we see between Shadow Weaver, Adora, and Catra that Shadow Weaver favors Adora over Catra to an extreme degree. Adora is obviously the golden child on whom Shadow Weaver rests all of her expectations and lavishes all of her praise. Catra, on the other hand, has forever borne the brunt of Shadow Weaver’s cruelty and anger. It’s the quintessential “good child, bad child” scenario so many abusers utilize to turn their children against each other or otherwise make the playing field that much more uneven. Siblings raised in this dynamic may not even realize the role they play in it and subconsciously alternate between rebelling against and reinforcing the status quo.
Adora, the “good child”, can do nothing wrong. Every success is a sign of her superiority over the other cadets and a confirmation of Shadow Weaver’s “excellent” mentorship. Any failure, on the other hand, is blamed solely on Catra’s bad influence. Even when Adora takes equal part in some childish game or bad idea, it’s Catra who is yelled at, even threatened, and Adora who is merely lovingly admonished. Catra is even threatened with punishment for Adora’s defection, despite having nothing to do with it at all. Though Adora seems somewhat aware of this dynamic, she can’t quite break free of it enough to truly defend Catra. After all, Shadow Weaver has shaped Adora since she was a baby to be the perfect Horde soldier and Adora, like most children, has internalized those teachings. She wants to be Force Captain more than anything and it’s very likely she has avoided making waves to protect that dream. She knows Shadow Weaver is hard on Catra, yet this has been the norm all her life; whether she realizes it or not, Adora clearly benefits from the situation and doesn’t want things to change too much. That’s entirely understandable, though, considering how often she’s witnessed Shadow Weaver’s bad side aimed at everyone else. Because that’s what abuse does – it forces you to prioritize your own safety at the expense of those you love.
Catra, the “bad child”, can do nothing right. From the very first scene in episode one we’re shown that Catra, while equally talented as Adora, sabotages herself by disrespecting her superiors, being late to training, and in general acting like a rebellious teenager. She’s acting out like any teen who chafes at unfair rules, but Shadow Weaver is no normal parent who might ground their child or take away their phone. Shadow Weaver’s punishments are severe and never fit the crime; she seeks always to humiliate, frighten, and beat Catra down into an obedience akin to a cowering pet. Catra’s stubborn streak is too strong for Shadow Weaver to break, however, and this forces Catra to become a self-fulfilling prophecy – Shadow Weaver’s cruelty causes her to retaliate, which only confirms Shadow Weaver’s biases and encourages her to continue tormenting Catra. Catra sometimes seems to perversely enjoy provoking Shadow Weaver, but this fits with her status as lowest in their hierarchy. Shadow Weaver hates her no matter what, so why try to change things? If she acts like nothing Shadow Weaver does can truly hurt her, then she wins. Unlike Adora, Catra is painfully aware of the reality of the situation, as evidenced by their conversation when they first meet again after Adora’s disappearance:
Catra: Let’s get back to the Fright Zone. Shadow Weaver is freaking out. [laughing] It’d be funny if she weren’t such a terrible person.
Adora: Catra, no. I can’t go back. Not until the Horde leaves this town alone. Help me.
Catra: What are you saying?
Adora: This is wrong. They’ve been lying to us, manipulating us. Hordak, Shadow Weaver, all of them.
Catra: Duh! You just figured that out? Manipulation is Shadow Weaver’s whole thing. She’s been messing with our heads since we were kids.
What’s so insidious about Shadow Weaver’s particular form of manipulation is that it drives a wedge between Adora and Catra that is more subconscious than conscious. This lifelong competition is the reason Catra seems to turn on Adora so quickly when Adora defects to the rebellion. This takes Adora completely by surprise – aren’t we friends? don’t we always support each other? – but makes perfect sense to Catra. All these years she’s grown in Adora’s shadow, stunted by the lack of light and envying Adora for her place in the sun. Adora has never been able to truly protect Catra from Shadow Weaver’s abuse, but with her gone there’s really nothing standing between Catra and those who want to hurt her. It’s easy to see how this betrayal would wound Catra, even though we as the audience know that Adora still cares deeply for her and desperately hopes to cross this sudden gulf between them.
The good news is that Catra will most certainly receive a redemption arc in the upcoming seasons; the show makes it too clear that her villainous trajectory is the result of a lifetime of abuse to leave her a villain forever. Still, that possibility doesn’t make it any easier to watch her continuously fall prey to her own abandonment issues and lash out at innocent people in retaliation. Catra isn’t a bad person, necessarily; she’s just stuck in a cycle of abuse and now that she finds herself perpetuating it, her pride and hurt feelings won’t let her break away. She has years of brainwashing to sort through before she finds the right path. It’ll be a long and painful journey, of course, but one that I think is incredibly valuable representation for people who have been in similar situations.
Likewise, I hope in future seasons we also get to see Adora explore her own time in the Horde and especially how her experiences shaped her relationship with Catra. Will she come to understand the part she played, albeit unwillingly, in that damaging environment? Will she find a way to work through those emotions beyond throwing herself into her savior role as She-ra? Adora has already broken out of the good child mold by defecting, but it will be important for her character growth that she not replace her need to constantly appease Shadow Weaver with Queen Angella instead. Adora needs time to be a child, to make mistakes, and to figure out who she is beneath the fear-driven compulsion to be whoever others want her to be.
I’m so excited for season two and can’t wait to see how Adora and Catra’s relationship progresses. I imagine we’re in store for a lot more angst before they work things out, but I’m positive we’ll be rewarded in the long run. Either way, I’m grateful to the She-ra creators for skillfully portraying such a dark storyline that will speak to so many of their viewers – both children and adults.