On this week’s episode of Working, Isaac Butler spoke with acclaimed cartoonist and animation producer Noelle Stevenson. They discussed turning her award-winning web comic Nimona into a graphic novel, how she learned the ropes of being a TV showrunner, and the creative process for updating the She-Ra canon for a new generation. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Isaac Butler: One of the things I love about the show is the representational diversity of it. The body shapes, the sexualities, the gender identities, the races of the characters. That there is such a variety on display in a children’s cartoon I can show my kid is enormous. But it also struck me that part of why it works so well is how matter-of-fact the show is about it. The example I give to friends all the time is: Bow has two fathers, and it is never an important deal. It’s never like, “We have to talk about Bow having two fathers.” They exist in a world where there are people who have two dads. It’s just not a big deal.
I’m very curious about how you arrived at that as a creative process, because diversity in our work is a thing to be creative about. I’m curious about how you and the writers room worked through that stuff. What are some of the challenges and joys of doing that work?
Noelle Stevenson: Part of what I found initially exciting about inheriting a property like She-Ra was that it had an enormous cast of mostly women. For the time they had at least diverse character types. They didn’t have diverse bodies. They didn’t have diverse races. It was a toy-driven company, so everything was done with the understanding that these would be toys. They had a very practical reason for all the characters being the exact same shape, which was that making more than one model is expensive. That really drove so many of the creative decisions behind the original Masters of the Universe cartoons. All the men are in the same hunky mold and all the women are in the same hourglass mold …
I had those toys as a kid. I remember.
I have a couple on my shelf right now. I love them. For the reboot, not being strictly tied to toys was a huge liberating factor. We didn’t have to worry about having 80 different model types. We could really give each one of these a different silhouette. Then within that, we wanted to show racial diversity. We wanted to show body diversity. We wanted to have LGBT inclusion. Part of that was having such a big cast and wanting to flesh out this world, showing what this world was like. All of these things are just part of the tapestry of normal life in this world, and part of the story.
I also felt, watching the original, that She-Ra has always been a really gay show. I think that was intentional. There were a lot of gay people working on the original. There are rainbows galore. Bow has his tummy out. Netossa and Spinnerella were pretty much canonically married in the original show. I didn’t make that up. I didn’t push that into the show. I felt that if I didn’t include that in the show, I would not be doing justice to the original. So that’s what we tried to do. I wanted to make it so that everyone on the crew could put stories that were important to them and that they personally related to, and explore that through the show and make it something that it felt really personal. It felt really real.
It’s interesting—I really did not know that Double Trouble was going to be a landmark of nonbinary representation in animation. We were honestly just doing a character that we felt was fun.
If I’m going to watch my favorite shows from when I was a kid, if I’m going to watch Kim Possible, and I love Shego, what if there were a nonbinary Shego who’s also a shape-shifter, because I love shape-shifters? On our end, that was as much thought as we put into them being nonbinary. It seemed so obvious we didn’t think twice. And we hired a nonbinary actor. When that season aired, we ended up getting a lot of conversation about that, which was really interesting because for us, we had just wanted to do a character that we liked and that we related to.
Is there a way in which it being a sci-fi/fantasy show—it’s not set on the planet Earth, it’s set in an alternate dimension, among other things—you can create a world where this kind of diversity is matter-of-fact and accepted and celebrated, and it’s not a source of stress or trauma for the characters?
This is a world without homophobia. We’re not going to have the typical coming-out. We’re not going to have the typical dealing with homophobia, of not being accepted. Yet there is still kind of a thread there, because it’s based on real experience. There’s no homophobia. Glimmer’s not saying to Bow: “Oh my God, you have two dads. I’m so shocked by that.” But there is, like: “My dads don’t understand me. They don’t get what’s important to me. I have to hide a part of myself from my dads.” It’s two gay fathers and their son, but it is still trying to have a core there that feels like something that is real and that is relatable and that people in real life have experienced.