Updated: Oct 28, 2020
On August 26th, Noelle Stevenson, the founder and showrunner of Netflix’s She-Ra reboot, made some comments on a Twitch streamed Zoom panel that could have seriously damaged her reputation as an artist and the reputation of the show itself. Whether or not her remarks were racist isn’t really my place to say. The fact that they were perceived as “could maybe be racist,” however, held quite a bit of potential to severely damage her standing as one of the leading artists in a push to make children's television more inclusive and diverse.
She seems to have avoided any bridge-burning negativity from her fans, but it was definitely a close call. It likely came as a shock to those who were personally hurt by her comments, especially considering She-Ra has one of the most diverse casts in animated children's television today.
I have no stake or interest in determining whether or not what she said was offensive. People were definitely hurt by her statements, whether or not they were intended to be hurtful. To me, that’s the important thing. What I’m interested in is the undertones of the entire conflict—and how social media, the pandemic, and other factors out of anyone's control impacted what was meant, what was said, and what was heard.
To summarize what was said: Stevenson made a reference to one of a Black character’s unnamed brothers being a farmer, “working in the fields… [his name is] Sow.” The main character is an archer named Bow, so she mentioned it was an inside joke that all of his brothers had equally rhyming and thematic names. There were other issues too—a male interviewer mentioned his friend’s podcast, which had the D-slur in it; the question of overdoing disabled representation came up; but the main complaint people had with the panel was whether or not Stevenson’s joke was racist.
Twitter didn’t take it well. The day of the incident, she posted an apology that came across as a bit rushed, even if she meant well. She then posted a doodle of the brothers, including Sow, drawn by the writer who made the joke in the first place. Her fans had mixed, slightly chaotic reactions—white people trying to forgive her on behalf of people of color, her Black fans threatening to stop supporting her or any of her work, mediators trying to see both points of view and answer people’s questions but ending up caught in the fray.
But the most interesting thing about all of this was the number of people who, despite having very vocal opinions, hadn’t actually seen the stream and heard first hand what Stevenson had said.
Social media has always operated like a game of telephone. Something happens, and people are quick to send out a post with something along the lines of, “this happened, and this is how I feel about it.” This by itself shouldn’t cause any problems—people are always going to have feelings about current events, and want to share their opinions. But where this becomes problematic is when “here’s what happened and here’s how I feel,” turns into simply “This is how I feel and it’s not great, here’s why I’m mad.”
Being angry about what happened rarely causes any severe miscommunications. But when sources become strangers on Twitter instead of the event itself, and the facts of the matter get muddier and more confusing to navigate, we get extreme reactions to events that could be a racist comment or a careless, poorly thought out joke, depending on how you look at it.
And the pandemic makes things so much worse. Even disregarding the fact that most of the She-Ra fandom consists of fourteen-year-old girls (admittedly, myself included), everyone needs social contact past the point of occasional Zooms and texting. We need drama and excitement—and throughout quarantine, we’ve lost that. So on a very basic human level, I believe that a lot of the controversy surrounding Stevenson comes from a place of complete boredom, of needing to find ourselves in the ‘in crowd.’ Unfortunately for Noelle, this time the ‘in crowd’ was the other team.
In as much of a conclusion as we can get while we’re still right smack in the middle of a pandemic, Stevenson seems to be doing okay. She posted a lengthy apology stating that she recognizes her white privilege and will learn what she needs to learn and take the necessary steps to reeducate herself to be a better ally. If her first apology wasn’t from the heart, this one definitely was, and Stevenson seems to have moved on from the heat of that drama with her career and fandom intact (she tied up any loose ends with a well-placed tweet about maraschino cherries).
If we’ve learned anything from the stream, it’s the following: this pandemic sucks—we’re all bored and lonely and stressed out—but more than that, we’re trying our best. Everyone wrapped up in this had their own guilt and feedback to endure, and something about the work made them want to keep going and present a solid apology and solid understanding of what went wrong, why and how people were hurt, and what they can do to be better. If that’s not commitment to a fanbase, an art project, a movement, a group of people—then I don’t know what is.