She-Ra, Noelle Stevenson, and Representation in Animation

On Aug. 26, 2020, graphic novelist and showrunner of the popular Netflix original series “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power,” Noelle Stevenson, faced backlash from fans for a joke made during a livestream panel discussing the show. The panel consisted of Stevenson and several crew members, all of whom were white. During the panel, Stevenson mentioned an inside joke that the crew had about the character Bow. In an idea that was scrapped for budget and time reasons, but was kept as an inside joke among the crew, the protagonists were supposed to meet Bow’s brothers, each of whose names rhyme with Bow.

“There’s like Oboe and he plays the oboe, and Gogh — like Van Gogh — and he’s missing an ear, [Sam] would come up and just be like, ‘Which one of Bow’s brothers likes to till the fields?’ I’m like, ‘Which one, Sam?’ and he’s like, ‘Sow.’”

The anecdote was immediately met with backlash from the fanbase, who pointed out how it seemed like a joke about slavery. The name “noelle” became a trending topic on Twitter, and several Black artists voiced their disappointment and frustration with the industry.
Stevenson later posted an image of a fanart of the brothers that they had drawn and mentioned in the stream. In it, the character is portrayed as dirty, with a circular straw hat and a piece of wheat in his mouth. This was met with further backlash that resulted in both “noelle” and “She-Ra” to trend worldwide on Twitter that night.

There is no arguing about it — the joke was in poor taste, and the wording and image that accompanied it only accentuated the fact that, no matter the intentions of the crew, the image draws on historically racist imagery in a portrayal of a Black man. Yet, at the same time, I think the initial offense is a symptom rather than the illness. According to ScreenRant, the writers’ room for the show is all white people. This is why the joke had a life long enough to draw fanart about, long enough to mention in a stream after the show had finished airing. Had Stevenson filled their writers’ room with people of color, this joke would not have had air to breathe.

Animation is a funny beast because, unlike live-action, there can be an entire character whose story is told by white people, from writers’ room to voice actor. Diane Nguyen, Apu and nearly the entire cast of both “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and “The Legend of Korra” all feature characters of color whose stories are being told and given a literal voice by white people. There can be an appearance of progressivism or representation while the people who control these voices are white. The representation is a mirage. In this most recent case, Stevenson and the writers of “She-Ra” revealed themselves to believe that they had the ability to tell these stories respectfully, while unknowingly showing their implicit bias.

It doesn’t matter if Stevenson’s intentions were good, in this case. It showed that they did not have enough of an understanding of how the portrayal of a Black character as a man who “tills the fields” could be construed as racist. While I don’t believe Stevenson’s joke was ill-intentioned, the fact that it could survive in a work environment with such longevity shows how Stevenson is still operating within the bounds of a system that is predicated on invisibility. The only way to combat that is to invite Black people into the writers’ room. Yet, in this case, Black people who have pointed out the racism baked into the joke now face backlash for their words.
Stevenson quickly issued an apology for their words in a Twitter statement:

“I take the responsibility of creating a safe and positive space for fans very seriously, and I’ve failed in that today. Thank you for making your voices heard. I will be rededicating myself to examining my language and behavior so that this failure will never be repeated.”

Stevenson’s pinned tweet is linked to a Black Lives Matter stream they and their wife hosted to raise money for Black Lives Matter and Black LGBTQ+ charities. Did they think that their writers’ room was exempt from this? If even the most progressive of those in power refuse to make room for the marginalized communities, then we have been sorely let down by our heroes. I doubt this will be a reckoning that affects Stevenson’s career, but perhaps it will encourage a reflection that results in change for the inevitable next time they are the head of a project that claims to have good representation.


Post Author: Emma Palmer