The toy-cartoon mega-franchise epoch dawned right when school started in 1983 with the premiere of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. In its wake came the myriad toy-cartoon franchises that nerddom associates with the era—The Transformers, Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, Thundercats, Voltron, and all the rest—but He-Man was the first.
I was in third grade that year and the fad ensnared the consciousness of the boys in my class. Castle Greyskull made the top of most Christmas lists, though its price-tag made it an unrealistic hope. The first line of figures included in those letters to Santa otherwise included He-Man himself, followed by Skeletor and Battle Cat, then Beast Man, Man-at-Arms, and maybe Stratos (“not Teela”).
Much hay has been made about the latent homoerotic motif of the franchise, which is fine I suppose. Yes: all the characters seem to be shirtless, muscle-bound men. Yes: Prince Adam (He-Man’s alter ego) wore a pageboy haircut and white tights. However, this element is secondary to (or at least, tangential to) the brand’s fundamental appeal.
It’s escapism for weaklings.
The story is about a prince who can become invincible when he holds aloft a magic sword and says some magic words: “By the power of Greyskull…I HAVE THE POWER!” Once this was done, He-Man could face down any foe—Buzz-Off, Merman, or Trapjaw would all fall to his might.
Weirdly, he doesn’t transform from a weakling into barbarian with exaggerated musculature when this happens.
He has the exaggerated musculature all the time.
No, the transformation is more subtle. Adam is an irresponsible bumbler. He’s a mistake-maker, a shirker of duties. When he becomes the hero, he becomes capable, confident, and wise. And yes, shirtless—but let’s keep focused.
For geeks, the struggle was real, but was not really about our lack of athleticism. The range of child prowess is pretty narrow really: an eight-year-old athlete is only nominally more fit than an eight-year-old dweeb.
The traits that drive last-pickedness are much more about not keeping one’s eye on the ball, running towards the wrong goal, and nose-pickery than one’s physical capacity for sport. Likewise, class nerds are misfits because their flies are always down, their teeth are unbrushed, and there’s pen on their faces, not because they are “the smart ones” (though, this is the myth we embrace in most of our internal monologues).
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe tried to teach us how to escape our pariah-states. Every episode ended with a statement of its moral. After the story, a character would come on-screen and say, “In today’s story…” and then explain what sort of responsible behavior a kid should learn from the given episode. The morals were generally about courage, confidence, and responsibility—the paths out of nerddom.
Unfortunately, the show failed most of us. Frankly, most of the writing was pretty terrible and the morals seemed stapled on. It really taught us male body-shaming, the objectification of women (see Teela and Evil-Lyn), and homophobia while encouraging violence as a general solution to most problems.
This is not the case for the recent reboot of She-Ra, which is a franchise that is spun off from He-Man.
In its first incarnation, She-Ra was a failure. Mattel hoped to double their profits by making a He-Man for girls, but what they came up with was a story that appealed to nobody. This last year, Netflix rebooted it and launched She-Ra and the Princesses of Power and man, is it good!
The morals investigated in it are both clearly rendered and relevant to girls’ lives. The characters struggle with the sorts of problems that girls face in school, with families, and in the patriarchy with a story-telling honesty that’s both fresh and compelling. It’s great.
Now: as I outlined above, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe largely failed in its quest to advise young boys, but it can be redeemed. Netflix should boot up a new series with the quality of messaging we’re seeing in the She-Ra series. Teach boys about their toxic masculinity, privilege, and how to be effective allies. And make it badass at the same time.
Do it, Netflix. You have the power.