The creator and showrunner of Netflix and DreamWorks Animation’s hit animated series riffs on empowering complex female characters to try hard and not fear their failures.
Season 2 of the critically acclaimed Netflix original series, DreamWorks Animation’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, premieres today with seven new episodes chronicling the further adventures of Adora / She-Ra as she leads a band of magical princesses in a rebellion to defeat the evil army of the Horde.
Series creator, showrunner and executive producer Noelle Stevenson, known for her Eisner Award-winning “Lumberjanes” and “Nimona” comics, has made significant changes in her reboot of the iconic 1985 Filmation series, She-Ra: Princess of Power, striving to both modernize and humanize the female characters through stories that both resonate with a new generation of fans as well embrace contemporary sensibilities regarding female and LGBT empowerment.
I recently spoke to Stevenson, who shared her insights and perspective on core She-Ra messages, the decision-making behind fundamental changes to the characters and storylines, and the challenges she faces as a career solitary “creative” now in the role of production management collaborator.
Dan Sarto: She-Ra and the Princesses of Power has been enormously popular – what made this the right time for rebooting the series?
Noelle Stevenson: I can only speak for myself and my crew. We tried to create something that resonated with us, that we believe will resonate with audiences, because it’s something that we were hungry for, that we were looking for ourselves. For me, I definitely wanted a series that focused not just on a cast of female characters, but on the complexities of being a female hero -- not just “girls are strong and awesome,” but girls are strong and awesome, and also have complex inner lives, problems, and relationships. The complicated relationships, good and bad, that they struggle with, the dark and the light in themselves and in others… we really wanted to showcase female characters in full color and full complexity.
That’s something I really wanted to see ever since my childhood, and it was the same for my crew as well. So, creating this world that’s fun and colorful and pop-y, and has cool fight scenes in it, but also has that core of drama, love and complex relationships between the characters, that’s what we are really passionate about. And it seems to be that's what audiences have responded to as well.
DS: What’s it like working as a showrunner? What’s the most exciting part of your job, and, conversely, is there anything about the role that has been unexpectedly challenging or difficult?
NS: It’s a very challenging role to be in for sure, especially for someone with a creative background, and not really a managerial background. It has been a huge learning curve, and I'm very lucky to have worked with a lot of really passionate, skilled, and patient people. And all of us, together, have learned how to work together to create the show that we're envisioning. I love this job. I love being able to communicate my vision in this way to my crew, and then see how it evolves and changes once it's in their hands. We have this rapport -- even something that I have a really specific idea about becomes so much more through our collaboration.
Collaboration is definitely my favorite part. Coming from a comic background, so much of what I did was solitary. And so, being able to really bounce ideas off of other people and have them bounce ideas off of me, I felt like it brought so much to the show. That part has been so cool. But I've also had a lot to learn and a lot of growing to do as a leader, for sure. I'm really proud of everything that we've done. I'm really thankful to my crew for sticking with me while we do this. And despite the serious obstacles that we’ve faced along the way, time and time again, this crew has proven that they can rise above it and create something that we're really proud of. I'm very happy with how things turned out.
DS: With Season 1 already under your belt, so to speak, were there things you were able to accomplish for Season 2 that you weren’t able to do in the first season?
NS: Starting from this new chunk of episodes forward, we really figured out a process, and a rhythm, that worked for us. I really love a lot of the episodes in Season 1, but there are definitely some rough edges, which is true of every first season of a show. Every show is different, every crew is different. But once we started getting into some of these later episodes, we really figured out how to make the show that we were excited about making.
There are some really ambitious episodes that we never could've pulled off in the first season, some really ambitious world building that we didn't have the capacity, or the manpower for, in the first season. We developed great rapport between the writers, the board artists, and the designers, so the world of the shows feeling more fleshed out and the characters feeling more alive. I really think that it just keeps getting better and better.
DS: You worked as a writer on Craig McCracken’s Wander Over Yonder, among other shows. What did you learn in that role that helped prepare you for She-Ra?
NS: I honestly learned so much from being on Wander. It was my first industry job. I was a staff writer, and generally, staff writers are not usually as involved in the production as other members of the crew are. But on Wander, the writers were allowed to get involved in the production of the show. I was very curious, hungry for information and really into the show. I wanted to know everything. And everyone was really awesome. They let me go to meetings that writers wouldn't normally attend, go to recording sessions… I felt so fortunate for that.
I also got to see how Craig worked on the show and functioned as a showrunner. I draw a lot of inspiration from that as well. I learned a lot in that job. Once my writing contract ran out, I really wanted to stay, so I transitioned to painting backgrounds. I did a few different jobs while I was there, and learned so much from all those different roles.
DS: What is the core message you’re trying to convey with the series? What do you hope audiences take away from the experience of watching She-Ra?
NS: For me, I was really passionate about creating a show, as I mentioned earlier, that not only featured the stories and struggles of women, but also showed them making mistakes, trying and failing at things, having complicated relationship with each other, and at times, having those relationships end. I want characters that get back up, try again, keep fighting, that show it's also possible to forgive yourself, and each other, when you don't perform quite as well as you imagined you would, that you don't have to be this perfect princess who's strong and beautiful all the time. Sometimes, you’re at your strongest when you're surrounded by people who are helping you.
It was really important for me to tell that story – focus on characters who are finding themselves, figuring out who they are and who they want to be, apart from the authority figures who raised them. They have to figure out for themselves what is right and wrong and what to do about it, which is always relevant, especially today when the world is so complicated, and it's not always clear what to do to fix things.
You need to try, and not give up. Support the people around you, forgive the people around you, even in the face of failure. But, most of all, you must realize being strong and brave doesn't mean being invulnerable. It means getting back up and fighting again.
DS: Talk about LGBT representation in the show. Did you have to convince people that this could work with a wider audience?
NS: It was really important to me for this to be a core aspect of the show. We had the opportunity to create a world, flesh it out and make it feel real, that didn't necessarily have to be bound by the conventions of our world, where we could show characters expressing themselves however they wanted, loving whomever they wanted, without that being something that struck other characters as odd, or needed to be a talking point. We wanted this to be a natural and accepted part of the world we built.
When you're aiming to tell a story like that, you have to get everyone who's working on the show, whether on the crew, or at the executive level, to believe in that world as well. It’s all part of trying to create the type of world in real life that you're creating in the show. While I hope it comes across in a natural way in the show, it’s something you have to constantly fight for. You can’t take it for granted. I never take it for granted. It's a really important thing to fight for, and a lot of it is just, “Trust me, this is gonna work. Believe in me. I can pull this off.” I am really fortunate to work with executives who do believe in me and who have allowed me to do a lot with this show. I’m very fortunate for that.
DS: In the series, Adora doesn’t have a secret identity – everyone knows she’s She-Ra. Was that a deliberate choice for you from the beginning, and if so, what initially prompted it?
NS: My very first pitch for the show actually included keeping Adora’s secret identity. But, in development, it just seemed like it wasn't really adding a lot to her story, Plus, it caused a lot of logistical problems. For example, Adora needs to have a sword with her in order to transform into She-Ra, but it's a pretty big sword, so it's difficult to hide. How does she hide her identity as She-Ra when she's always carrying around She-Ra's sword? That was something the original show didn't really address.
At first, I had a more jokey approach for explaining that away, like the sword has some kind of power that would make people not realize that Adora and She-Ra were the same person even when it was obvious. But at the end of the day, it felt like it was more about Adora struggling for balance between Adora and She-Ra, and how to inhabit She-Ra’s body, and it really didn't feel like the secret identity aspect was adding much to that.
The fact that she'd have to lie to her best friends and the people she's working with in order to maintain that secret, it just didn't feel right for her character, or for the story. So, we ended up abandoning that whole idea at a certain point.
DS: There’s been a certain amount of criticism about She-Ra’s new look. Did you expect that at all? What do you say to critics?
NS: Obviously, this is an iconic, legacy show where a lot of people, even if they didn't necessarily watch She-Ra growing up, still have some kind of connection with her. They recognize her. They know who she is, whether or not they were a huge fan back in the day. So, people automatically are going to have a lot of opinions about the new look. We've seen this pretty much every time a beloved property gets re-imagined -- people are very resistant to any change at all. I definitely expected some criticism, especially since we took a lot of liberties with She-Ra's design.
But, it was really important to me, that, first of all, we wanted She-Ra to be younger, because her story seemed to support that. She was someone just coming into her own as a young adult, who started questioning the world as she knew it when she was growing up. So, it made sense for her to be a younger person. And second, the design needed to appeal to kids. I wanted more going on than nostalgia for the show to get audiences interested.
I really wanted the show to earn its own audience of kids who didn’t need knowledge of the original show in order to form their own attachment. I wanted to create a She-Ra experience for kids of today that would be like the She-Ra experience of 1987, but would also be unique to them as well. So, I definitely was prepared for people to be resistant to those changes. But overall, I feel like the conversation has moved past it, which I'm really happy about, and we get to discuss more aspects of the show. People are getting used to it.
DS: Can you give us an update on the status of the Nimona feature in production at Blue Sky Studios?
NS: Nimona is still in production. I think it should be out fairly soon. I don't have an exact release date at this point, but I'm super excited. Everything I've seen looks gorgeous, so I can't wait to see it. I can't wait for everyone else to see it. I stay in fairly regular contact with Patrick [Osborne, the film’s director]. I made a visit up to Blue Sky a couple months ago, but I haven't been out there for a while. With the Disney merger happening right now, there's a little bit going on at the studio surrounding that. But, I think that things are progressing ahead at a pretty good clip. Everyone seems really excited, really passionate, and I think everyone's gonna like what they see.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.