#2195

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.

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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.

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#2193

Familiar, Why Is This So Familiar? – Steven Universe and Monstrous Motherhood

[This post contains Steven Universe spoilers from the current Diamond Days arc.]

Y’all, I fucking love Steven Universe (SU). It speaks to so many facets of my being, especially as a mentally ill queer person, and I often find myself identifying with different characters and plot arcs. I see myself in Peridot when she doesn’t understand social cues or causes offense by accident; in Amethyst when she feels inferior to those around her, even the people she loves; in Garnet when she fears to make a single tiny mistake, lest its consequences be on her shoulders. I’ve been too intense, like Bismuth, and too anxious or controlling, like Pearl. Like Pink Diamond, sometimes I just want to run away from the person I am – and like Steven, sometimes I just want to understand the person I’m meant to become.

SU always cuts to my core. That’s what good fiction should do, especially fiction which purposefully prioritizes themes of healing, acceptance, and love. Yet to have those themes, and to lend them the weight needed to have true impact on your audience, you first need your characters to face trauma, ostracism, and cruelty. Thus enter the Great Diamond Authority.

 

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Unbelievably powerful, these gem matriarchs rule the universe with elegance and hauteur, a trinity of terror who allow no deviance from the norm. For several seasons the diamonds play the role of invisible villains as the show builds an elaborate framework for the inevitable confrontation, and it’s only now, in the Diamond Days arc of season five, that we’re learning just how complex the diamonds really are. And the more we learn, the more we understand the crimes of which they’re capable.

We know now that White Diamond, Yellow Diamond, and Blue Diamond acted as mothers to the younger and far more impetuous Pink Diamond. They intended to raise her in their image, another perfect diamond to rule over gem society – yet how often does that work? Children aren’t carbon copies (excuse the pun) of their parents, and when expectations and reality clash it is often the child who bears the brunt of the pain. The diamonds expect Pink to think, feel, and behave in a very limited framework based on their concepts of what a diamond should be, and when she cannot or will not they retaliate. In trying to do what they believe is right for Pink, they become abusive. Each diamond on her own displays certain characteristics of abusive parents, and I think it’s no coincidence that combined they represent the full complexity of an abuser.

Yellow Diamond is the mother who is always disappointed. She believes she just wants what’s best for you, but in doing so she will never be happy with what you achieve. Your GPA will never be high enough for her, your body skinny enough, your career prestigious enough. Yellow will always find flaws, even in the perfect form of a literal diamond. She prefers negative, combative emotions over positive or traditionally weak ones. Yellow is the mother who never says “I love you” or reciprocates displays of affection; she expects her tolerance of your presence to be a sufficient testament to her true feelings. Her mentality is unhealthy on its own, but directed at a child it causes lifelong feelings of inadequacy, emotional repression, and an anxiety that drives you to work yourself to death. Additionally, Yellow is also shown to spy on Pink Diamond to ensure she’s behaving correctly, a very common tactic of abusive parents – and one she seems to share with White Diamond as well.

White Diamond is the mother who demands perfection. This isn’t to say she acts like the perfect mother, though. Instead, she simply wills the world to be the way she desires and everything must fall in line with her vision. She wears a mask so convincing you question its existence; maybe she really is always smiling, always in control, always omniscient and omnipresent. This is supported by the fact that, at least at the time of me writing this, we don’t actually know that much about White. We know she is the true gem matriarch and has almost entirely withdrawn herself from society. Instead of seeming reclusive or cold, though, or perhaps even mentally unstable, she in fact seems completely calm and in control (albeit in a creepy way). Yet she speaks to her subjects through the broken Pink Pearl, who seems to be a constant reminder of what happens if you draw White’s ire. She is obviously not afraid of using force to keep her court in line.

Blue Diamond is the mother who can be friend or foe. Her mood changes without warning – one moment she’s weeping with joy or reminiscing about fond family memories, the next she’s sneering over something you’ve said or done, or perhaps threatening your deviance with punishment. Personally, I find Blue Diamond’s brand of abuse the most disturbing. The inability to predict how someone will respond emotionally causes constant anxiety, especially when those potential negative reactions might involve physical abuse. Blue is the ultimate manipulator, preying on your love and guilt to keep you returning to her no matter what she does. Of all of the diamonds, Blue is the one who seems the most redeemable… and therein lies her power. Every time she’s in a good mood you’re tricked into thinking she’s changed and you let your guard down, making yourself that much more vulnerable to her next attack.

Even the way the diamonds are slowly revealed to us follows this cyclical pattern of abuse. First we think they’re unfeeling dictators; then we realize they’re in mourning, which humanizes them. They attack Earth and we hate them again; then they seem to change as they realize Pink never died and she has “returned” to them as Steven. They even take him back to Homeworld where we think they’ll help him convince White to heal the corrupted gems… but instead their true natures are revealed once more the moment he steps out of line. Each time we think and hope the diamonds have changed, and each time we are disappointed; yet at the first sign of change we start the cycle over again. Hope can be a very dangerous thing in the hands of an abuser.

 

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Since I’m writing this before the diamonds’ arc is complete, I don’t know their ultimate fate. I used to hope Blue and Yellow would be redeemed but now I’m not sure what I want. Everyone deserves a redemption arc, don’t they? One of SU’s biggest themes is redemption, after all, and other villains have become loyal friends of the Crystal Gems. If the diamonds can just recognize the error of their ways and seek to undo their crimes, shouldn’t they be given a second (or third or fourth or fifth) chance? Yet we’re not talking about ignorant children here, or gems acting on their superior’s orders; everything harmful or evil in SU can be traced back to the diamonds, even if some of what they’ve done was well intended. They are the reason gem society is so stratified and destructive. Do people who cause such pain for those under their care deserve redemption arcs too? I don’t know. I really don’t know. I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see.