From She-Ra to Buffy, I have always been attracted to the warrior women archetype in pop culture. I admired their strength, their confidence in the face of danger and their defiance of the social norms. Female superheros provided me with an early example of women defying the standard and taking charge. These ladies were not docile “good girls”. No, these fictional women kicked ass, spoke up, lead teams, and often had really cool superpowers. Most importantly, they were accepted but their peers and even encouraged to continue their fight.
There have always been always plenty of cartoons and shows depicting a male character acting as a leader. And I think our generation was lucky to have grown up in a time when TV offered us a couple shows with female characters doing the same. Possibly without realizing it, the creators of these shows provided many young girls and women with a vision of what could be if we led the charge instead of following the crowd. And this has been a very good thing.
The Superheroines of my Childhood
As a kid in the 80s and 90s, I was exposed to some phenomenal children’s programming. While the presence of female superheros in these shows was still at the time a little bit sparse, there were a few good options available. I sought out those shows that featured strong female characters and every week I would visit these pastel bubble worlds within which they lived.
She-Ra: Princess of Power
“For the honor of Greyskull…I am She-Ra!”
The absolute queen of the 80s cartoon superheroines was She-Ra: Princess of Power. She was a spin-off character of the already successful He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon franchise. But unlike He-Man, her beefy half-brother, She-Ra immediately hit a chord with me.
She-Ra is the appointed leader of the Great Rebellion, a group of good guys fighting to free their homeworld, Etheria, from the evil of Hordak. I mostly remember her flying around on a colorful unicorn/horse, visiting her friends, and fighting the half man, half machine Hordak. She was my absolute favorite cartoon character during my early elementary school years. I loved She-Ra so much in fact, I dressed up as her for Halloween a number of times.
One of the interesting things about She-Ra: Princess of Power is that the female characters in the show are truly at the forefront. The women on the show, more so than the men, take authority and responsibility. And it is the women who fight and win the battles against the antagonist. It was the first image I had of a warrior woman on tv, and I am certain this had a profound impact on me. She-Ra was the start of my admiration for this type of female depiction in movies and tv. And since that time, I have repeatedly sought out the powerful female leader archetype in the media I consume.
Jem and the Holograms
“Jem is truly outrageous, truly, truly truly outrageous … “
Jem and the Holograms is pure, unadulterated 80s. All the values and styles of the day are in this show, and seemingly on steroids. Neon pink is used to an extreme and graphics are so synth, you’ll feel your eyes dissolve in their sockets.
But I must say, the pure ridiculousness of the premise and design of this cartoon has keep me fascinated by this show to this day.
The plot of Jem is the following: Jem is a good-hearted millionaire’s daughter named Jerrica by day and a superhero rockstar by night. Early on, she befriends a talking computer called Synergy which her father had built for her. Synergy helps guide Jem to use her magical power for good. With her high-tech earring hologram device (?), Jem can change outfits really quickly and project herself in hologram form all over the place to confuse and distract her enemies. This whole process led to odd plot holes and logical fallacies in the storytelling. But this was not shakespeare, people! It was cotton candy for the soul.
In each episode, Jem defeats her enemies, the bad girl rocker band The Misfits managed by Eric Raymond (the main villain of the show), by winning singing competitions (I swear there may have been at least one every episode ) or securing record contracts her enemies desperately wanted. Jem/Jerrica also owns The Starlight Foundation, a foster home for girls, which is always in financial trouble. Most of her triumphs somehow benefit the foundation, thus giving Jem a clear moral motivation to rock out for.
The show ran from 1985 to 1988 and was extremely popular. However, when re-watching the show today, its hard to ignore the excessive value placed on celebrity, wealth, consumerism and material goods. Within the lines of the opening song, Jem sings enthusiastically “Glamour and glitter. Fashion and fame… Jem, she’s truly outrageous!”. All this spilled into their successful merchandizing campaign, which released a whole range of dolls (with different outfits or accessories) connected with the show. That can’t have been good for my impressionable childhood mind.
Jem herself is kind of a bland superhero, but in contrast to the sleazy, immoral and ruthlessly ambitious antagonists the Misfits, Jem comes across as a righteous and triumphant heroine. Plus the show encouraged girls to head up bands, which at the time was actually pretty rare.
Despite the superficiality of the show, it still offered girls a model for leadership that was in its own way cutting edge.
My next post, Superheroine Influence pt2, will be about some of my favorite pop culture superheroines of my teenage years. In the meantime, feel free to let me know a bit about the shows you liked when you were a kid.