But She-Ra’s sales floundered from the start. Roger Sweet, a Mattel toy creator and the author of Mastering the Universe, estimated her total sales at $60 million, an anemic number compared with He-Man ($2 billion) or Barbie ($350 million). In the highly gendered world of 1980s children’s play, She-Ra’s crossover led to confusion. Boys are often unwilling to play with action figures with hair (an issue that resurfaced with today’s Batman figures), and girls are used to playing with statuesque dolls that change outfits. As The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance recently wrote in a story on Legos: “Kids routinely favor the toy they believe is meant for them, based on their gender.”
Of course, it’s possible that sales slumped because kids couldn’t even locate these toys. When faced with She-Ra, some store buyers and managers were at a loss. Where did this little blonde warrior princess live? Most shops assigned her a spot randomly, at times with girls’ dolls, at other times with boys’ action figures.
In the end She-Ra ran for only two seasons on TV (from 1985 to 1986), and her toy line folded. Some Masters of the Universe toy developers even blamed her failing brand for bringing down He-Man’s successful run. By the end of the decade, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had become the top-rated show on children’s television. She-Ra’s attack on the status quo had been abandoned, and the Smurfette Principle prevailed.
As the next decade of children’s television unfolded, it seemed male-centric shows would dominate. Even the Smurfette tokenism of the past was often absent. Many of the most popular shows, such as Ren and Stimpy, Pinky and the Brain, or Timon and Pumba were male buddy comedies. The other trend emerging was programs showcasing the lone male superhero: Superman, Spider-Man, and Batman. But the She-Ra Solution wasn’t forgotten.
Exactly a decade after the show ended, Cartoon Network launched The Powerpuff Girls, which had the trio of Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup protecting the city of Townsville. This time the cartoon caught the brass ring of a mixed-gender audience, and it went on to become the highest-rated show on the network. Entertainment Weekly speculated that other pop-culture heroines like X-Files’ Scully or Xena had paved the way for the show’s success, while ignoring another warrior princess who’d already laid the groundwork. Given The Powerpuff Girls’ tremendous achievement, it’s odd that other networks didn’t seek to copy this winning formula. Instead, the show, which was rebooted in April, remains one of the few examples of female-driven children’s entertainment.
Thirty years after She-Ra, as Hollywood mines the 1980s for movie ideas, studios have embraced the tried-and-true Smurfette structure in the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle film. Megan Fox, who plays April O’Neil, recently said in an interview, “I don’t get a whole lot of say in terms of character development on movies like these” and summarized the roles she’s offered as “interesting stripper.” Meanwhile, the She-Ra Solution continues to be met with confusion and heated resistance when it’s used—as the new Ghostbusters movie proves. The outcry over its inverted gender roles feels far too familiar. The film and video-game critic James Rolfe even refused to review the film saying, “Ghostbusters is something that a lot of us grew up with.” This echoes what many detractors have been saying about the film: This isn’t about misogyny, they say. Ghostbusters was my childhood. Indeed it was—but one based on a model that snuffed out alternatives in which women, just like men, could lead, fight, and prevail.