Culture / History

The strange, dystopian history of She-Ra

She-Ra princess of power

In 1984, a half-hour cartoon was broadcast each and every weekday on 166 television stations in the United States and 37 other countries. That show was “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.” And it only existed for one purpose.

“The cartoon is based on the plastic dolls created by Mattel Inc.,” reported the New York Times in a 1984 article published just in time for Christmas. “The toy company has sold 70 million of the dolls worldwide. In the United States alone, it has sold 55 million, or about 1.7 dolls for every American 9 years old and younger.”

There was only one problem. Seventy percent of those eager consumers were boys and just 30 percent were girls. In a perfect world (at least, according to the sales and marketing gurus of toyland), that percentage would be evenly split.

Meanwhile, as marketing execs wracked their brains for ways to boost the female He-Man toy-buying demographic up to a solid 50 percent, things were not going well over in the girliest division of all, the Barbie branch. He-Man was threatening to knock Barbie from her top-selling position at Mattel.

“In the company’s history, only the Barbie doll, with current annual sales of $260 million, has had a similar appeal,” the New York Times noted. “[In 1984], Mattel has sold $350 million worth of Masters of the Universe toys, [and] total sales of all He-Man products, including licensed items such as sheets, towels, toothbrushes and alarm clocks made by other companies, topped $1 billion.”

One billion dollars.

Adjusted for inflation, today that number would be closer to $2.4 billion. How could Barbie compete?

The blonde bombshell’s marketing catchphrase at the time was, “We girls can do anything — right, Barbie?” But while “anything” encompassed competitive gymnastics, aerobics, hanging out in the Dreamhouse, working from nine to five in a pink ’80s power suit, and attending cocktail parties with Ken, it didn’t include wielding weapons and overcoming the forces of darkness in a grim fantasy landscape.

What Mattel needed was a new kind of Barbie.

Sword-Slinger Barbie.

“Barbie sales had flattened out at the time, so introducing a competitive fashion doll line that we owned should expand the size of the entire category and allow the Barbie business to grow,” explained Janice Varney-Hamlin, a marketing director at Mattel in the early 1980s responsible for Barbie and the company’s other fashion dolls. “In order to do that, [She-Ra] had to address a play pattern upon which Barbie could not deliver: action adventure and, of course, with fashion and beauty.”

All they needed was a story to sell the doll.

The “He-Man” cartoon and toys centered on a basic premise: an invincible superhero protagonist who disguised his identity in order to battle against agents of evil in a “sword and sorcery” fantasy setting. The formula worked, so Mattel followed it again and gave He-Man a twin sister who lived a parallel life in a parallel world.

Larry DiTillio, a staff writer at Filmation in the 1980s who spent the bulk of his time working on the “He-Man” and “She-Ra” shows, explained in a 1999 interview that they even considered giving her the name “He-Ra.”

However, “a copyright search showed that someone had the rights to the name and they asked me to come up with a new one. I thought about it and decided I wanted something that was goddess-like and wanted the SHE to coincide with the HE in He-Man,” DiTillio recalled. “The name ‘Ra’ was in my head and when I put them together, voila!”

All other similarities aside, there was one key difference between He-Man and She-Ra — and it wasn’t her Barbie-worthy blond hair and cute outfits. According to DiTillio, while He-Man lived it up as a prince in peaceful Eternia, She-Ra was an outcast trying to survive in what would today be called a classic YA dystopia.

“Eternia was obviously ruled by the good guys, while Etheria was firmly in the hands of the bad guys. This is what made the storylines so different. She-Ra was always up against a greater power with lots more resources, He-Man and his crew were pretty much more in control of the planet.”

As bleak as She-Ra’s Etheria was, it couldn’t compare with the crushing dystopia that was a 1980s corporate toy marketing department.

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