Clickbait title. No regrets. 😛
But I’m not lying to you guys–this post will in fact be a deep dive into The Strange Case of The Only Villain Katie Likes:
The character Catra, from the Netflix animated show She-Ra: Princesses of Power.
I am notorious for hating villains. I fully admit it. Or perhaps more accurately, I am notorious for under-appreciating villains. Because “hating” villains isn’t all that unusual, is it? Plenty of people love to hate strong, dynamic, energetically evil characters … relishing the spicy flavor the bad guy adds to the story, even while they root for his downfall. I’ve never been able to do this. Nor do I enjoy (generally speaking) analyzing the villain’s motives. Figuring out what makes him tick. I do not root for villains to be redeemed. I do not sympathize with them. I do not engage with them emotionally. I recognize their role in adding drama, excitement, and angst to the heroes’ lives, and that’s it. When readers gush about a “deep, complex” villain whom they “understand” and “relate to” as a character, I’m usually just over here like …
I DO NOT UNDERSTAND THE APPEAL, MADAM.
Or at least, I didn’t until I started watching She-Ra.
That’s right, until I encountered the queen herself, this absolute icon:
Catra is the only villain I’ve ever liked. She’s the only villain where I a) understand her motives, b) sympathize with her choices, and c) root for her to become a better person, WHILE she’s still in her “villain” phase. I’ve never felt that way towards any other villainous character prior to their redemption. There have been a few villains whom I sympathized with/rooted for after their redemption (hello, Ben Solo …) but never before.
So clearly, Catra is special. And obviously, we need a whole entire blog post analyzing why. 😛
Let’s get cracking!
She-Ra: Princesses of Power tells the story of the planet Etheria. The Princess Alliance (teen girls with magical abilities drawn from the planet’s core) faces off against the Horde (imperial army exploiting Etheria’s magic for their own purposes). Adora, our hero, was raised by the Horde from infancy and brainwashed to see them as the “good guys.” In our first episode, Adora discovers, to her enormous shock, that she is a magic princess and she is destined to lead the Princess Alliance on their quest for freedom and justice. Y’know, standard Chosen One stuff. After a brief crisis of conscience, Adora abandons the Horde and casts her lot with the people of Etheria, for better or worse.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Adora, the Gryffindor golden retriever so pathetically eager to serve and protect. She’s my baby! I Love!! But Adora’s choice to leave the Horde wouldn’t be anywhere near as interesting … if she didn’t leave her best friend behind.
That’s right. Our villain, Catra, is Adora’s best friend. They grew up together in the Horde fortress (and their “caregiver” was a psychopathic sorceress, so jot that fun fact down.) Adora begs Catra to join her fight against the Horde–to join her crusade for justice. But Catra, devastated when she realizes Adora will leave the Horde with or without her, refuses. She doesn’t understand this “new Adora,” and she doesn’t like her, either. She doesn’t want to be second place in her best [and only] friend’s life.
So Adora rises in the ranks of the rebellion, while Catra rises in the ranks of the Horde Army. Each determined to take the other down.
this is where we throw things at the screen
and howl YOU’RE IN LOVE, IDIOTS
Here’s the thing! I GET why Adora joins the rebellion, with or without Catra. I admire her moral courage. She has the guts to stand up and say, “No, what we are doing to this planet and its people is wrong, and I won’t be complicit any longer.” But I also get why Catra is hurt by this choice, good and admirable though it is. Catra has been abused by the Horde her whole life, particularly by Shadow Weaver [remember the psychopathic sorceress I mentioned? yeah. her.] While Shadow Weaver showered praise and responsibility on Adora, she never lost an opportunity to heap scorn and blame on Catra. The poor kid was kicked, beaten, and dragged in the dust all day, every day. She lived in constant fear. Only Adora ever tried to protect her. Only Adora was ever kind to her.
So when Adora has her big crisis of conscience in the first season, when it finally dawns on her, “Ohhhhhhhh! Maybe the Horde is evil, after all! They mistreat innocent villagers!” Catra’s like,
“You only just figured that out? You only just figured out Shadow Weaver’s been lying to you? Didn’t you see how she treated me?!?!”
Sure, the logical choice would be for Catra to take up Adora’s offer and free herself from the Horde once and for all. But she isn’t there yet. Years of abuse have not prepared Catra for a healthy acceptance of the fact that maybe, just maybe, her best friend has a right to prioritize idealism over friendship. That Adora, the single, bright, warm star on her dark horizon, is prepared to move on … if need be, without her.
(This is Slytherin morality, btw. Relationships first. As opposed to Adora’s conscience-first thinking.)
So I get it. I get the shock, the anger, which leads Catra to dig in her heels and stay with the Horde Army. I understand her burning sting of betrayal. I understand her thirst for revenge, which in turn fuels her rise as Adora’s nemesis.
THIS is how you do a villain arc, y’all. If even I can relate, Little Miss “Villains Are Optional and Anyway They Suck,” you know the showrunners are doing something right.
There’s a heartwrenching episode called “Promise” where we get a glimpse into Adora and Catra’s childhood. Instead of interspersing flashbacks, though, the writers go one better: they plunge Catra and Adora into a memory simulator where they are forced to watch themselves interacting as children, and even interact with their younger selves. We see Shadow Weaver abuse five-year-old Catra. Threaten to abandon her. Threaten to kill her. We see five-year-old Adora stretch out her arms in front of her best friend, begging, “Please don’t hurt her!”
By the time Wee Catra is snuffling in a blanket on her bed afterwards, and Wee Adora drapes a clumsy arm around her shoulder, telling her earnestly, “It doesn’t matter what they do to us. You look after me, and I look after you. We’ll always have each other, right?” …
… well, yeah. Things Become Clear, let’s put it that way.
In one particularly compelling shot, Wee Catra locks eyes with present-day Catra, just before the simulation fades. No words. They simply look into each other’s faces, and something passes between them. Fear and bewilderment and vulnerability on the one side, hardened anger on the other. It’s the most effective representation of the long shadow of abuse that I have ever seen.
please, I’m begging you, just watch the dang show
After cutting ties with Adora in “Promise,” Catra claws her way up the Horde’s military hierarchy. It’s easy to understand her drive to succeed. Catra is proving something to herself–she “needs” to become top dog in the same fortress where she was kicked around like trash. By seizing power, Catra hopes to erase those memories of powerlessness. It won’t work, of course. You can’t heal from a toxic environment by becoming more toxic than the people who hurt you. But I get why she believes she can.
Upon which point, I feel a need to insert a disclaimer that yes, I know an abusive past doesn’t excuse violent and hurtful behavior towards others. I know Catra in the current stage of her arc is a Bad, Toxic individual whom nobody is obliged be patient with. I’m just saying … she’s still managed to garner a large chunk of my own personal empathy. And I feel like I’m entitled to one “sympathetic villain girl crush,” given my impressive villain-hating record thus far. xD
Catra’s descent into darkness has been a work of art. I have every confidence that her rise to redemption (Season Five, baby!!!) will be equally spectacular. But this still begs the question … why Catra? Why does she appeal to me so strongly, while other villains leave me cold?
It’s a combination of factors, I think. She’s female. She’s young. She’s an abuse survivor. She’s full of unresolved rage and feral, aggressive energy (#relatable). She has a sexy, smoky voice and the greatest “villain laugh” of all time [I SAID WHAT I SAID]. But beyond that …
Catra isn’t just a girl who happens to be a villain. She’s an explicitly redeemable villain who is also a girl.
And when was the last time you saw that?
How often do we get female villains who are supposed to be redeemed–whom the audience wants to see redeemed–in pop culture?
When was the last time we saw the Prodigal Daughter and not the Prodigal Son?
I’ve been racking my brains for days, but all the “great redemption arcs” I can recall have been male villains. Male antagonists. Male antiheroes. From Anakin Skywalker to Guy of Gisborne, from Kylo Ren to Prince Zuko to frickin’ Edward Rochester (*CLENCHED FIST OF ANGER*), our culture loves to save morally compromised men. But I think the evidence shows, we’re nowhere near as eager to save women.
It’s not that we don’t have great, memorable female villains. We do! It’s that they don’t generally get redemption arcs, because traditional female villain archetypes are considered so evil, the audience doesn’t want them redeemed. Ask folks to name a classic female villain, and nine times out of ten, they’ll give you some variation on the Evil Stepmother trope. An older, mature woman who wields a certain matriarchal control over a household–and who uses that control to abuse and manipulate. In essence, a woman who perverts her role as caregiver.
Lady Tremaine in Cinderella (either version)? Boom. Mother Gothel in Tangled? Boom. Olivia de Havilland’s character in Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte? Boom. Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca? BOOM.
No one wants to see the evil stepmother redeemed–and I’m not suggesting we should. Abusive caretakers? Blech!! What I’m suggesting is, there’s more ways to write a female antagonist than making her a blackhearted matriarch whom every right-thinking person would gladly pitch off a cliff.
(and don’t say sexy temptress/femme fatale, either, that’s not new and it’s not empowering)
You see, we’re conditioned to see women through a black & white moral lens. Female characters tend to be either “Good” or “Evil,” and once they’ve crossed the line into “Evil,” it’s rare for the story to bring them home. This reflects patriarchal sexual standards, where women are labelled either virgins or sluts–no middle ground. Women are supposed to fit into easy categories; while nuance, gray areas, and the potential for change are reserved for men.
And that, folks, is why the redeemed villain / redeemed antihero is such a heavily male trope.
Nay, I will go further. Not only are male villains usually the ones who get redemption arcs, but their descent into villainy, and ESPECIALLY their climb back to the Light, is often catalyzed by a female character. Female love interest, typically.
What does this mean? It means women “change” and “redeem” men far, far, far more often than they get a chance to redeem themselves, in our fictional worlds. They’re used to save (or damn) others, not to save themselves. I call this Moral Lifeguard Duty, and I would venture to say female characters are getting a wee bit tired of it.
I’m not saying women should never play a part in a male villain’s redemption arc [I did, ultimately, love Rise of Skywalker]: I’m just saying, BRING BALANCE TO THE FORCE. Even the scales. Switch things up.
If only because breaking stereotypes is a good way to get the blood flowing. Challenge yourself. Challenge your audience.
Catra as a sexy, evil, rebellious, aggressive young guy? THAT WOULD’VE BEEN THE EASY CHOICE. But it would’ve encouraged the writers to coast on this cultural tidal wave of male entitlement and male power fantasies, “haha, of course he’s destructive & violent, of course he’s gonna get redeemed later … that’s what we always do.” I doubt they would be working quite so hard to make Catra genuinely sympathetic and genuinely complex, if she were a teenage boy instead of a teenage girl.
As it is? They Have Surpassed Themselves.
My cup runneth over, as the kids say.
And I can’t wait for the final season.
Do you watch She-Ra?
Do you want to see more female villains with epic redemption arcs?