Where is He-Man?

Netflix pointedly tells girls, but not boys, that they can have the power.

“I have the power!”

It was the end of the 1970's and toy manufacturing giant Mattel had a big problem: in 1976, CEO Ray Wagner had unwittingly passed up the opportunity of a lifetime, declining to buy the rights to a space flick called Star Wars. Thanks to Wagner’s lack of vision, the biggest name in toys was watching the tiny, unknown Kenner Toys make money hand-over-fist selling little plastic spacemen with laser swords to 5–8 year old boys.

Finally, in the early 80’s the Mattel design team came up with a character concept that they thought could challenge the Star Wars toy empire (no pun intended) where so many others had failed: a bulky, larger-than-life barbarian warrior, light on clothes and heavy on muscle. He carried a sword in his hand and a huge battle ax on his back. His chin looked like it could smash through walls. He was 5 1/2" of sheer brawn. They called him, “He-Man.”

But thanks to Star Wars, making toys was no longer the most important part of making toys: telling a story was. And so, Mattel made a bold and innovative move, partnering with the animating company Filmation to produce a TV show whose sole purpose in life was to sell He-Man figures. It worked.

The 1982 He-Man action figure

He-Man and the Masters of the Universe became a hit show that ran from 1983–1985, and the toys sold like gangbusters during those years. He-Man, his arch-enemy Skelator, and the cast of zany supporting characters captured the imagination of little boys with a success that, for the moment, even rivaled that of the Star Wars franchise. [Editor’s note: actually, like Star Wars, it captured children’s imaginations. Girls watched and played with the action figures as their brothers did, although our pretend stories were different. But Mattel and Kenner sought and got the boy market, so Rachel is accurate.]

Power has been at the center of the He-Man concept since its inception. The designers were originally inspired by observing the imaginative play of 5-year-old boys, the line’s target consumers. They noticed that the boys’ play featured consistent themes of power — having it, using it, and losing it. Out of this was born the general idea that the toys would appeal to young boys by allowing them to play out their fantasies about being in charge through this big, powerful character who oozed strength from every sinewy pore. This idea is nowhere better encapsulated than in He-Man’s iconic line, “I have the power!”, which he would say as he held his power-sword aloft and transformed from mild-mannered Prince Adam to the buff super-hero He-Man.

But the show also had strong themes of morality and responsibility, with a segment at the end discussing the choices, good or bad, that the characters had made. In other words, although it played into the childhood fantasy of being the one in charge — the one with the power — it also taught that power should be wielded within a framework of morality. It taught that power came with an obligation to do good, not to harm others or to take whatever you wanted.

The show and the toys were wildly successful in appealing to boys, but market research soon revealed that a significant portion of the toys’ consumers — about 20% — were girls. Mattel, which had built its empire on the enduring popularity of the Barbie doll, began to ask themselves: if little girls were playing with toy named “He-man” already, could they not widen that audience by giving girls a character that had everything He-man had, but looked like them? And so She-Ra was born— a female fashion doll/action figure hybrid with the beauty of Barbie, and the power of He-man.

The She-Ra TV show

She-Ra got her own line of mostly-female action figures pals, as well as a spin-off TV series, She-Ra, Princess of Power, which ran for two seasons between 1985 and 1986.

It is this TV series — not the original He-Man and the Masters of the Universe — that Netflix announced plans to re-boot in 2018. This is great news for the women who grew up watching She-Ra and the little girls who will re-discover her. But it leaves me wondering, “Where’s He-Man?”

She-Ra is — and was intended to be — a character who played out the He-Man power theme but could be a representative role model for the young girls that Mattel hoped to turn into consumers. In re-launching the She-Ra story, Netflix is affirming the power theme in the abstract, but in passing over the original He-Man character who started it all, they are sending a message that girls can and should “have the power”, while boys should not. It is a willful sin of omission. [Editor’s note: And also quite difficult to do story wise as She-Ra is He-Man’s twin sister. (It was the mid-80’s. Magical twins were a popular trope.)]

From a business point of view, Netflix is probably making the right choice: in this cultural moment, the combination of men and power has uneasy associations. “Powerful men” is a phrase you will hear frequently if you are at all tuned into the cultural conversation, and it is almost always in the context of some sort of abuse of that power. The entertainment industry’s simple solution to the problem of powerful men behaving badly has been to provide more media to the next generation that empowers girls, while quietly dis-empowering boys.

Many of the same people who will cheer on the new She-Ra series would purse up their lips at the image of the brawny, sinew-popping He-Man crying, “I have the power!” In 2018, He-Man is an embarrassing faux pas, a churlish relic of the unenlightened past. We don’t want any He-Men here, thank you very much.

But I wonder what message little boys get when they see us reject the super-masculine He-man, while enthusiastically embracing his girl-power equivalent? I wonder how old they will be when they start to question why depictions of specifically female strength are slobbered over by adults but depictions of specifically masculine strength are somehow always “problematic” at best, and “toxic” at worst? Will they understand the finer points of the gender politics behind it? And if they do understand them, will they feel that it justifies casting their heroes aside? Or will they feel that on some level, the rejection of He-Man and his kind is a rejection of what they will become whether we like it or not: men.

I have two daughters, and while I want them to grow up into strong, capable women, I also want them to live in a world that is populated by men who have grown up being taught the moral obligation that comes with power. I do not want them to live in a world full of men who have become villains because they were once boys who weren’t allowed to have heroes.

If little boys grow up feeling that the world no longer needs or wants their unique masculine strength, what will they do with power when it comes to them? They will be the sinewy ones, after all. Banishing He-Man will not affect young boys’ craving for power, or their eventual access to it. All it will do is take away a hero who could teach them how to use it for good.