EXCLUSIVE: 'She-Ra' creator Noelle Stevenson talks to GLAAD about the final season, queer representation in animation, and watching 'Killing Eve'

This interview contains MAJOR SPOILERS for the series finale of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.

On Friday, May 15, the fifth and final season of DreamWorks and Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power was released. The show follows Adora, who can transform into the magical She-Ra, and she and friends quest to save the world of Etheria. Throughout the show, fans have speculated about a romantic relationship between Adora and her former best friend Catra, who becomes her enemy. The fifth season sees a redemption arc for Catra, and then, finally in the series finale, she declares her love for Adora, making the central relationship of the whole show and explicitly queer and romantic one.

GLAAD’s Raina Deerwater had the opportunity to talk to Noelle Stevenson, the creator and showrunner of She-Ra, about the process of building that relationship, her thoughts on the finale, and the progress of queer representation in animation.

GLAAD: To jump right to the height of the matter. The series finale happens - the big will they or won't they is answered with  Adora and Catra. MAJOR SPOILER: they do! Was their arc planned from the beginning or was it a process? What was the breakdown of that whole story?

Noelle Stevenson: I think that the show in general started with the concept of them. Them breaking their initial relationship and then ending up on different sides and then the long process of growing apart and falling back together. So that was always the plan for the show. It definitely was not always a given that the nature of that relationship was going to be textually romantic. We were trying to make sure it works either way because it wasn't always clear we were going to get that sign-off. For a while it didn't seem like something that was going to happen. But, especially once we reached that final season, there [was] no other way that this can happen. This has always been what we're building to and it's not going to be satisfying unless it pays off in this way. It's been woven throughout their relationship from the very beginning.

And so that was when I took this to our executives, to everyone who had to the right of refusal and was just like, “look, this needs to happen and it needs to happen like this. We've been laying the groundwork for this, for both characters individually and also for their arc together, this is what makes sense. This is what wraps up their arcs in that satisfying way.” At that point, the show was out, we were getting this positive attention for the gay content, so the conversation was different than it had ever been. And I got the okay. It was this amazing moment of okay, we're doing this.

It’s a really big feeling, something that I had been hoping for and building towards since the beginning and just knowing that it would get to be, not just a canonical, but a central part of this story. 'Cause it's always been a central part of the story. It was an incredible feeling and it blew my mind a little bit. Like we've come so far in just a few years. I hope that this is just another step in that road.

GLAAD: It’s such a testament to how times change. What was that like on an emotional level as like a queer person -- getting the go ahead to make something so bright and positive and gay? 

NS: There’s something very vulnerable about pursuing a central gay romance like this. It’s odd, there's always this self-doubt in your mind that's like, am I just being self-indulgent here? Am I pushing for something that's the right thing or is it just what I want? It is vulnerable. It's strange to be asking for this romantic, central, prominent relationship -- of course it's personal to me. Of course, it's something that is a huge deal to me. I think because of that, I really kept it close to my chest, like this is going to happen when it happens and it will be in the right time and in the right way and I need to present my case and it needs to be bulletproof.

It’s weird because I think everybody loves shipping, everybody loves having fun with the characters and the relationships between the characters. But this is not just a side plot. This is the plot of the entire show. And it scared me. I was afraid but not afraid enough to not pursue that. As soon I did come out, so to speak, with what I had been wanting to do, it was this interesting shift, where I had to break the news to all the members of the crew and at various times in various ways that this is what was going on. Everyone was just immediately like, “oh yeah, okay.” And it was so strange because I've been keeping this secret for so long and then suddenly, we were just talking about it. I was just talking about it in meetings with executives who I’d been so scared that if they got wind of what I was doing, they'd be like, “no, absolutely not. Are you crazy?” I was so afraid of that, big no, that I was like, we gotta be low key about this. And suddenly we were sitting in meetings and being like, “Oh, is this romantic enough?”  And I'm like, what is happening - this is my secret. But it wasn't a secret. It was the story that we were doing. It still kind of blows my mind a little bit that I'm even talking about this openly in an interview because I think that it's something that creators haven't been able to do openly, ever in animated shows and that's changing and it's changing really, really rapidly in a really, really positive way.

And it's really exciting to be a part of that. But the steps are not quite what you think. You can't really go in guns blazing -- well, I did go in guns blazing and then [got] a little slap on the wrist and then, tried again and then again and all these different ways. To have it pay off in the end and to see the pride that everyone had around the show and for these blatant queer themes of the show. That we had been successful at incorporating those in this positive way. It's a really big feeling. It's a big feeling and it's an important one.

GLAAD: It’s representative of the current wave we're seeing in much more media being made for kids and family that don't have to shy away from LGBTQ storlines, which is really exciting because it hasn’t always been that way. Can you take us through that process of how you made sure Adora and Catra found their love story? 

NS: We were already writing the final season, before season one even aired. There was a lot of queer subtext that have been woven into the show already, but we hadn't been able to make it like strictly canonical. There’s a reason why after Scorpia asks out Catra, she has to be like, “oh, we're best friends.” We had to stop just short of being really blatant, but in all the ways that we could, we were as overt as possible. All of us were like, “are people going to pick up on this? Is it going to be something that people even catch since we can't be as open as we want to be?” And then when the first season came out, people immediately picked up on it. They hadn't even seen the season yet. They just saw a screen grab of Catra and Adora just sitting kind of close to each other and were like, “oh yeah, we get it.”

Suddenly, that blew up my spot before I ever was like, “look, this is what we're doing.” Suddenly that was a huge part of the conversation and I was getting asked about it in interviews. They knew what I was doing, but it was the expectation that you can't go all the way with this. And then when we started getting the reactions from the fans. I mean, “Princess Prom” is in season one -- they defeat villains with a rainbow wave. It's not subtle.

But that was when the conversation started to shift because it was clearly something that people were not only picking up on in the show, but also celebrating. I had been working closely with a few members of the crew specifically on the Catra and Adora story, the writers were in on it. Some of the board artists were in on it. It was a secret that was kept close to the heart of the crew. Then once we started the writing for that final season, I was like, this is time. It's time now. There was a day where I just entered the writer's room, like [I] was a cartoon character, I kicked the door open, I was like, “I'm going to further the gay agenda. All right everybody, here's the plan, here's what we're doing.” And with the crew, we started laying the groundwork for that.

And then we reached a certain point where the execs were starting to notice these things that were popping up in scripts like, “well, what's that? That seems pretty clear about it being romantic.” Finally, they asked the question. I was supposed to tell them earlier, but I just chickened out. Again, I was so scared that they would say no. And I was like, “alright, we need to talk.” And we went and sat in my office and I was like, “this is what I want to do and this is why.” I walked them through Catra and Adora's arc over the whole show and [told them] why the season needed to play out like this and this is how their arcs are going to be concluded to be wrapped up. It has to happen with them like coming together in this way.

GLAAD: It’s interesting because, in a sense, you had to “come out” to the executives that the two women leads were queer and there was a familiar anxiety about what that reaction would be. What were the reactions?

NS: After that conversation, our execs were amazing. They were like, “yeah, okay we're in.” But that's not the end of it because they have to go to their bosses and then they have to go to the rights' holders and there's so many people you have to get on board. For a while after that, it was a lot of “we're going to throw you on the phone with these people and sell it to them.” And it was a lot of trying really hard to show how much this was necessary to the story. And, and it worked. One by one, we got those okays. And I remember the time I got the call from the last little piece that we needed to sign off on it and they were like, “okay, you're good to go. Do it.”

I burst into tears, I just burst into tears sitting at the table. I had not let myself imagine getting the okay. I had been trying to manage my own expectations but getting that okay - we actually get to be outright about this - was huge. It was amazing. It just blew my mind. I kept being scared that at any point they would pull the plug or change their minds or be like, okay, no, you have to cut it out. That’s why I tried to make it so it's literally the climactic scene of the season of the entire show. You cannot cut this out. This is so crucial. But no one ever tried.

GLAAD: It definitely wasn’t cut out of the screeners I watched! So, once the whole season comes out, are you looking forward to the reaction of the fans?   

NS: I am. I really hope that they find the arc that we wrap this story up with satisfying. I hope that it fulfills all of those wants and needs that people have been asking for from the media they love.

I also am anticipating, not backlash exactly, but certainly discourse, which I think happens around every piece of media that has a gay relationship or character. And I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing even though it sometimes seems like there is like a negative tenor to it. What I find really inspiring [about] young fandom these days is the amount that they believe in and can visualize a future where this representation is solid, it's good, it's a natural part of everything. It's not cheap, it's not queerbaity. They expect nothing less than a variety of solid queer representation and central queer characters. That’s inspiring to me because again, five years ago there was not anything like this on TV. Well, it was starting to happen, but it couldn't be overt. And then, Korra starts happening and Steven Universe starts happening and that wall starts getting chipped away at.

It doesn't mean that it's easy. It's still a challenge, although we're capable of more than we ever imagined. But I think that conversations that are, “we still want more, we still need to go farther.”  Those are good conversations to have that we need to continue having. We can always go farther. Just because we're stuck in this mindset that like, “oh, we weren't supposed to be able to do this,” it doesn't mean you can't keep shooting for the stars and, and trying to create that world of representation that we all believe in.

GLAAD: Yeah, that's so true. And I think there's something to be said about a hope for a generation that doesn't have to make up their own representation from imagination because it's right there in front of them.

NS: I was just thinking, five years ago, I couldn't get married to my wife. And that's a really, really short period of time, which is terrifying. But also, there's a group of young people who don't even really remember that time. And that's not a bad thing. I think that that's exciting and maybe we really are making progress here. And maybe these people who are dreaming of this really bright future, maybe we can gain inspiration from them and have that positive outlook as well, when there were times when it was really hard to have that positive outlook.

GLAAD: It’s really inspiring, and I think very much reflected in our media. Overall, are there things from this whole process that you're going to take to the next project? What from She-Ra is always going to stick with you?

NS: The experiences that I've had on She-Ra are some of my dearest memories and are such a part of me at this point. I have changed so much through this process and getting to work with these specific people in this specific way and share this world with them, and for the fans to also be able to share in this and to see themselves in these characters and see the vision that we see. I've had so many experiences with fans at conventions with the actors and the crew. It's one of the most treasured experiences of my life. And it's something I am going to keep very close to my heart for a very long time. I've learned a lot. I'm hoping that it's useful to me in my next projects, things that I've learned from this show, and also hopefully work with some of these people again and get to create new worlds based on what I've learned from this show. It’s been the honor of a lifetime, honestly, to have to have been the showrunner of this show.

GLAAD: It's very parallel to the journey the characters go through now they're all best friends and explore new worlds together. Speaking of whatever is next, is there a dream project you would want to work on somewhere in the distant future when you can leave your house?

NS: I am hoping that I will have some news pretty soon for everybody about my next projects. I've got some stuff lined up that I'm really excited about, so as soon as I can talk about them I will not shut up about them.

GLAAD: Wonderful, great. And then just lastly, is there anythingyou've been watching, queer or otherwise that like has just been it right now?

NS: Well, we've been watching a ton of like comfort TV. Just The Office on loop because you just need the potato chips of "this is familiar." Also the one show that consistently brings brightness and sunshine to our week is Killing Eve, which is doing some incredible stuff this season and we are on the edge of our seats. Honestly, I have no idea what will happen. I'm so excited.

GLAAD: As are we all! Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me and getting to talk in depth about the gay stuff is always the best, so thank you.

NS: Thank you so much.

All five seasons of She-Ra and the Princess of Power are streaming on Netflix.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.