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Fan artists discuss why the wave of She-Ra fan art is subversive and uplifting

Fan artists discuss why the wave of She-Ra fan art is subversive and uplifting


Noelle Stevenson’s new Netflix take on the character has sparked online controversy — but online artists have a better approach than arguing

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Illustration: Juho Choi

On July 16th, graphic novelist, screenwriter, producer, and animator Noelle Stevenson revealed four images online, and set off a tiny internet war. Those images were the first stills from She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Stevenson’s upcoming Netflix reboot of the 1980s Filmation / Mattel collaboration She-Ra: Princess of Power, a companion show to He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. They’re simple pictures — a few characters and a background — but they made some people extremely angry.

Stevenson’s She-Ra has sparked the inevitable internet outrage that accompanies any modern reboot, most of which breaks down to “These new characters don’t look like the ones I remember from my childhood” and “This doesn’t look like it was designed with my tastes in mind.” On Twitter, a handful of vocal social media users complained that the new design isn’t as voluptuous and glamorous as she used to be. Reddit users posted an even more radical set of complaints, ascribing the updated design to some sort of conspiratorial agenda against traditional femininity.

But at the same time, an enthusiastic wave of artists picked up the new designs, sharing their own fan versions of Stevenson’s She-Ra on Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram. And it’s immediately been evident that while some of the huge wave of artists producing She-Ra fan art are men, they’re predominately women — and according to their bios, portfolios, and online listings, mostly women in their 20s. In their own versions of the character, they’ve emphasized different aspects of She-Ra, sometimes making her dreamier, more aggressive, or significantly younger or older than Stevenson’s version. But it’s noteworthy how closely they’re sticking to Stevenson’s costume and body design, even as they vary widely in style and intent. The Verge reached out to some fan artists for comment on their work.

“Personally, I really love the new design,” says Juho Choi, a 20-year-old art student at the Rochester Institute of Technology. “It’s simple and pleasing to the eye. There’s currently a lot of controversy over this new design, calling it masculine, but I think it’s still a very feminine design that is not hyper-sexualized. It’s really nice to see a female hero character redesigned and freed from the traditional comic book idea of functional attire for women.”

Choi says she’d never heard of the 1980s TV show or the character before the wave of reactions to the first reboot images, but that she was immediately interested in the character because of the instant community of other creators drawing She-Ra. Choi’s initial version of the character is a highly stylized, melancholy version that she says was directly inspired by the initial backlash against the character.

“I tried to depict She-Ra as peaceful and grand, unperturbed by the negativity around her!” she says. “The controversy and the negativity motivated me to draw She-Ra as much as the inspirational fanart did! So now I’m even more excited to watch the new She-Ra, after being exposed all this hype, be it negative or positive.”

Savanna Ganucheau, a 25-year-old artist and graphic novelist currently living in Australia, also says she never watched the original show. “But I’ve always been aware of She-Ra,” she says. “She’s a media icon in her own right. But She-Ra’s original look and feel wasn’t something that appealed to me when I was little. When I looked at the new design, I thought, ‘Oh, I would have watched this as a kid for sure.’”

Ganucheau says Stevenson’s design reminded her of CLAMP, the famous all-women manga collective that formed in Japan in the mid-1980s — and specifically of the costumes in CLAMP’s series Magic Knight Rayearth. “I saw all of the gold and gems on her costume and thought it would really do great given a CLAMP-esque treatment — a strong pose with billowing fabric, flowing hair, and some sparkles,” she says. “The drawing is still very much my style, but it was a fun exercise and made me even more excited for the show!”

A few artists even addressed Stevenson’s detractors directly in their fan art. One of the more passed-around fan art images comes from 23-year-old Brazilian illustrator and comic-book artist Renata Nolasco. Like Ganucheau and Choi, she doesn’t feel a strong connection to the original She-Ra. “All I remember of her was what I saw in He-Man, and to be honest, she didn’t strike me as an interesting character,” Nolasco says. “[Cartoons] used to have a lot of these female versions of male characters, and they were never as interesting as the original content. Which is understandable, since they were mostly made as a marketing strategy.” She says she enjoyed the He-Man universe, but mostly encountered She-Ra through sexually suggestive or explicit fan art.

“I like how she looks like her own character now, other than top model girl-He-Man,” Nolasco says. She finds the new character’s “practical uniform,” athletic build, and clear confidence particularly appealing. “She seems like she has a point, other than being pretty to sell.”

Nolasco particularly feels that previous generations of girls lacked the wide variety of female representation in children’s entertainment that boys got. “We had female characters, of course, and we had some good ones, but most of them weren’t meant to be role models. They were plot or marketing devices. The idea of little girls growing up seeing powerful women that look more like themselves really makes me smile.”

“I like how she looks like her own character now”

Nolasco’s feelings on She-Ra’s new design reflect some of the reasons the wave of She-Ra fan art feels like such a positive development. As with other attempts to answer online hatred with creativity, the fan artists are helping define the narrative around the new show as one of ownership and participation. Instead of arguing with Stevenson’s detractors, they’re raising the new character’s profile and burnishing her reputation. They’re focusing on what they love about the design, instead of what other people hate about it. And they’re using it as inspiration for their own work.

They’re also forming their own online community, built around supportive enthusiasm — which is modeled directly from Stevenson’s response to their art.

At this point, it’s become clear that fan art scenes particularly thrive if the original creator openly encourages fans and acknowledges their work. Long before the release of the movie Baby Driver, director Edgar Wright encouraged a lively fan art community by enthusiastically promoting fan artists online — a rare chance for his supporters to earn his personal attention and approval. Similarly, the popular Dungeons & Dragons podcast Critical Role has encouraged a particularly dedicated, ambitious fan art community by collecting their work in online galleries, and promoting them. Stevenson has followed suit, largely turning over her Twitter account to retweeted fan art and praise for the artists.

And in the process, they’ve earned media attention and helped shift focus away from the complaints about the character. In a media landscape so focused on people endlessly shouting back and forth at each other, that focus on fan art feels subversive — a way of arguing for the new She-Ra design without arguing at all. Fan artists don’t need to acknowledge the complaints in order to answer them with their own focus on positivity.

“We have seen an uprising in women drawing comics and making cartoons,” Nolasco says. “And not only making them, but assuming leadership roles. It’s inevitable that change will come with women making decisions. I get that it can be a shock to men, coming from a generation used to the male gaze, but there is no coming back from here… We got to learn from the mistakes from the past and correct them, but also absorb what was good about them. And that’s awesome.”