The current She-Ra redesign fiasco has opened several problematic discussions within the animation community. Even if you don’t give two hoots about comics and cartoons, understanding trends in consumer interaction is useful for fields of psychology, business, and entertainment. Successful cartoons are reflections of a generation’s culture. So take animation seriously, dammit!!
For those not in the know, She-Ra is being rebooted by Dreamworks and Netflix. From concept art and animation stills the shows animation style and character design has drastically changed. And many fans no-likey! This is a very very extreme example of what I am talking about: https://twitter.com/DiversityAndCmx/status/1018367555248033792. The main complaints voiced are that she is too broad shouldered, she lacks breasts, and if you took her hair and skirt away she basically resembles Ben 10. Whilst I would be a total hypocrite in saying She-Ra looks awful because she’s boyish, as my previous article touched on societies detest of the in between – including in between gender, I absolutely agree that the new design and its discourse is problematic in so many ways.
There are thousands of articles that claim that criticisms of She-Ra’s new design are by manbaby perverts… which is partly true… but it is quite offensive to box all criticism into one box and base it on gender stereotypes surrounding nerd culture. There are many women who dislike the redesign. Some female fans say She-Ra was an icon of classical femininity. So by masculinising an icon you’re sending the message that women must be masculine to be powerful and successful. If the She-Ra boyish redesign was a one off thing I would embrace it. I enjoy a diverse spectrum of female protagonists. However, many iconic female heroes have been redesigned to be more ‘masculine’… aka boring!
For example, there is one particular panel from a poorly drawn Captain Marvel Comic reeking of internalised misogyny. I cannot find the specific image but allow me to describe it to you: basically the long haired ‘pretty’ female character is a dumb, materialistic, plastic actress wannabe, who is not to be taken seriously. Whereas the short haired, more masculine REAL Captain Marvel is having none of it!! (If the short haired Marvel was actually male you’d shout he’s a misogynist!!).
Why are designers so afraid of breasts these days!? Miss Bellum from the Power Puff Girls was an icon. She basically ran the City of Townsville. She was a metaphor for the female struggle in the workplace. Yes, she is curvaceous but that’s the point – you only see her body, never her face (it wan an elaborate gag) and that’s how many women felt, and still feel in the work place. Her name is Sarah Bellum aka CEREBELLUM. But she was written out of the reboot because, according the producer Nick Jennings: “She wasn’t quite indicative of the kind of messaging we wanted to be giving out at this time.” Then the kindergarten teacher Miss Keane was redesigned exactly the same but without her breasts, her little un-obnoxious breasts. This notion of redesign is most certainly part of a pattern. De-sexualising is fair enough. But to totally de-feminise and stigmatise the feminine is counterproductive for artists who claim their redesigns are progressive.
I’m attempting to be a cartoonist/comic artist – I’m not very good at it… but I have learnt a lot about appeal in design. Generally an appealing character design tells the viewer as much about the character in the smallest amount of time possible. So clear, concise designs that visually pop, and have flowing smooth shapes are the most appealing because it gives the eye a sense of direction. For example Mickey Mouse is made up of circles (meaning he’s a friendly mouse), his face is pink/peach whilst the rest of his body is black (our eyes are immediately directed toward his face) and he has red shorts and white gloves (these two colours brightly contrast to Mickey’s black body so that our eyes are drawn to him). Most importantly Mickey’s silhouette is shaped uniquely and is iconic. Anything with three black circles can be a Mickey Mouse Easter egg in any Disney flick. It has its appeal.
Whereas She-Ra’s redesign lacks appeal. Firstly the face is boring. She looks like an ambiguous aryan. If the designers really wanted her to look progressive they could of given her a unique nose, unique eyes and bigger lips.. and a different skin tone. But this girl is so safe looking. The colouring drowns her features out. In fact the new design is even lighter then her old design and her eyes are bluer! The old She-Ra’s pinker skin contrasted with her gold head piece and giant red jewel thingy, drawing the viewers eye to her face. The new She-Ra lacks such contrast and her red jewel thingy is tiny. Generally rule of thumb for main character design is to have a little bit of red/orange to contrast with other primary colours – you see it in Spongebob, Sonic, Bart & Lisa Simpson and the majority of Superheros. So a little bit of lipstick or red war paint could have gone a long way… Then there’s that ugly silhouette – or should I say a lack of silhouette. When you look at the new design, the shapes used to construct her lack flow and clarity and are made out of soft rectangles – the most boring shape a character designer could use. Look at Sailor Moon – her silhouette is so unique and appealing. The main shapes that she is constructed out of are hearts which are appealing, feminine yet dynamic.
Character design comes from the character – it is used as a storying telling tool to show the viewer a character’s personality. Dynamic personalities tend to have dynamic designs. A pattern I’ve noticed in female centric western shows is that character style is too safe and the characters/story is boring too! Compare the pilot art style of Steven Universe to the official – and despite its progression in LGBT representation, the show is safe in drama and action taking seasons for the story to actually get anywhere. The titular character in Star Vs the Forces of Evil is well designed and very appealing but the side humanoid characters are a bit meh and Star’s face is a bit generic. The majority of the show takes place as a wacky middle classy slice of life magical comedy – it is safe. Summer Camp Island recently just aired and it’s the ‘girl version’ of Adventure Time drawn cutesy but sorta boring…and again it is very safe. Sure it’s wacky but everyone is so nice. There is no real conflict. Then there’s the LumberJanes. It won two Eisner’s awards. I read a couple of issues. The characters are drawn using soft rectangles, despite having different body types their silhouettes and faces are very similar. It was such a SNORE! (sorry Ida I know you recommended it to me) If that can win two Eiseners then I can win 3!!
The reason why I’m giving so many examples (sorry if I’m boring the reader to death) is because there is an obvious pattern. Progressive female characters are being drawn and written to be boring and safe. That’s not up to my standard. In fact it creates and reaffirms existing stereotypes that women are too safe, that women don’t revolutionise, stereotypes that keep women out of leading positions in society. Ru Pauls Drag Race (I always go back to Ru) is an example of fierce femininity and guess what – female and LGBT audiences eat it up and make up a 50/50 split in the show’s demographics. When a queen comes out looking safe on the runway – that is all she will be – SAFE. I want to see female designs worthy of congratulations. The judges on Drag Race always pride UNIQUE silhouettes that TELL A STORY ABOUT CHARACTER whilst giving FEMININE REALNESS. I keep on using Raja’s drag as inspiration for character designs – Raja was quite androgynous but she looks good! It’s hard to take your eyes off her and that’s not what I’m doing with She-Ra. She just looks like any other forgettable female character… safe.