Love Can’t Make You a Villain: How She-Ra’s Catra Helped Make Sense of My Heart

As human beings, we all have our types. This holds true in fiction as well as life, the traits that resonate with us and help us form friendships and deeper attachments. The attributes that we recognize in ourselves that help us to better understand our own feelings and foibles. Types are useful for helping us organize the bits and pieces of being alive that don’t always make sense to us.

When I started watching She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, I instantly recognized Catra as one of my types.

[Spoilers for the series finale of She-Ra below.]

Of course, I wasn’t alone in that feeling—Catra was an instant favorite on the show among its fans. But there was something about it that nagged at me, something more specifically related to her type, and what that type said about me, and what it meant that I kept returning to it.

Catra falls into a category that I mark as “Foils With Inferiority Complexes”: They are characters who are very close to a particular protagonist, who they are a bit unhealthily obsessed with. (They are often queer, or queer-coded, which is hardly a surprise.) They are in many ways that protagonist’s equal, though they don’t always believe it. They are often abused by authority figures, which causes them to lash out in increasingly violent and harmful ways. They are villains, but villains with deeply emotional motives. And one of their most desperate needs—though they’d never admit it—is getting their equal opposite, the protagonist they are so enamored of, to clarify their importance.

On Doctor Who, it’s the Master. In the MCU, it’s Loki. On She-Ra, it’s Catra. And there are countless more.

These relationships don’t have to include a romance, but there is something deeply romantic in the nature of them. At their core, these characters are defined by the existence of another person, and while that remains a point of great pain and irritation to them, it is also often a source of comfort and identity—being rejected by their equal opposite is a rejection of their whole selves. This push-pull dynamic forms a sort of dance, two characters forever circling each other in an effort to be better rendered by their opposing force.

But at the core of that dynamic is a far more basic desire, a far more vulnerable plea: Choose me.

*

Allow me to illustrate.

Throughout the MCU films, Loki insists that he’s trying to be rid of his brother, the shadow that he has lived his whole life beneath—he stabs him frequently enough that you could almost believe it. He keeps trying to usurp a throne that we later see he doesn’t really want, all because that throne was meant to be Thor’s. He gladly leads Thanos’s forces against the Earth to obtain the Tesseract because Thor cares about that world. His whole life has been built in juxtaposition, his magic to his brother’s brute strength, his silver tongue to his brother’s boisterousness, his trickery to his brother’s guileless honesty.

But the loss of both of their parents, his brother’s continued absence, and the appearance of a sister they never knew changes things for Loki. By the time we reach Ragnarok, he has every intention of parting from Thor and never looking back—until the god of thunder confesses that he believed they were meant to stand side by side forever:

“Loki, I thought the world of you,” he says.

Thor: Ragnarok, Loki listening to Thor

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

And in that moment, everything changes, putting the god of mischief on a path that sees him sacrifice his life for a mere chance at saving his brother from Thanos. All because Thor finally admitted that he mattered.

*

Here’s another.

The fact that the Doctor travels with companions, with friends, is a source of constant bemusement, anger, and frustration on the Master’s part. You see, those companions were supposed to be the Master, not sad little humans with their sad little lives. The Doctor tells Bill Potts this directly: When they were young, they made a pact to see every single planet in the universe together, but then they went in different directions. The Doctor decided to travel with other exceptional people instead, because he thought he had lost his best friend, never quite realizing that a conflict of morality hadn’t prevented the Master from believing that they mattered to one another.

The Master does horrific things, but here’s the catch: More often than not, they’re doing them to get the Doctor’s attention. They spend an inordinate amount of time just hanging out on Earth or other random spots about the universe, hatching evil schemes that never work out, drawing the Doctor’s attention to them over and over.

Screenshot: BBC

When the current iteration of the Master learns of the Doctor’s true history, learns that they weren’t actually contemporaries, he destroys Gallifrey over that knowledge. Sure, he dissembles, tries to deflect around his motives, but the truth of the matter is plain and painful to see. The Master always thought that the Doctor was his ultimate foil, that they helped to create each other from childhood onward. The instant that he learns otherwise, it utterly breaks his sense of self.

*

And then there’s this one.

When I was very young, several moves across the country during childhood assured that I didn’t have many friends. Most of the time I played alone, amusing myself with toys and games of my own design, putting on strange costumes and jumping around my room. I created complex worlds for my stuffed animals to occupy, tracked their movements, adventures, betrayals. Other children were often baffled by my ideas of what “make believe” entailed.

Groups of friends would come and go during this period, but all I wanted was one. A friend, my friend, someone who would think of me and only me. Someone who might deign to put me first. It was needy of me, and unfair, and it was absolutely selfish, but it was the only thing I wanted with every fiber of my beating heart. One person, who knew me, and who loved me all the same.

As I got older, I gained more friends, but I still retained that inclination toward bonding overmuch with one other person. People call those sorts of friends “best friends”, but there was something missing from that definition by my measure. All of the best friends I ever had, they had other people in their lives who mattered far more than I did. Other friends, family members, even themselves. I was not the person they defined themselves by.

Of course, they weren’t wrong to feel that way. But that’s a hard thing to understand when you’re still growing and your emotions don’t make sense to you. I was sure that I was being unreasonable in my expectations, but I didn’t know why, or how to communicate that to anyone else. I only knew that I couldn’t find anyone who wanted as much from me as I did from them. And I felt deeply ashamed of that fact.

It was difficult to articulate this sort of shame to another person, so I didn’t. Instead, I decided that there was something irrevocably wrong with me, something unnatural and painfully out of step. After all, the only people who put such pressure on their relationships… why, they were all villains, weren’t they?

*

Catra becomes a villain, for a while.

Catra spends her childhood knowing that she is less favored than Adora, but still clinging to their friendship. Once Adora defects to become the leading member of the Rebellion, once her identity as She-Ra comes to the fore, Catra decides that this relationship was the one thing keeping her back, and tries to divest herself of concern for Adora. She tries to fight her, to ruin her, to take her friends from her. Until eventually, she realizes that none of it is making her happy, that it will never be enough. Finally, she switches sides and saves Glimmer, and Adora comes to rescue her.

Before that, trapped aboard Horde Prime’s ship, Catra recalled a memory from childhood—but this one was different from others we’d seen. A young Adora locates her to find out why she hit Lonnie, but Catra won’t answer the question. Later, Adora comes back to bring her to dinner, prompting Catra to suggest that she leave and eat with her new best friend, Lonnie. Adora asks if that’s why Catra got violent, and the response she receives is telling: “I know you like her better than me. You’re supposed to be my friend.” When Adora points out that she could apologize to Lonnie and then they could all be friends, Catra knocks Adora to the ground and vows never to apologize to anyone.

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Catra and Adora as kids

Screenshot: Dreamworks

Before this moment, all of Catra’s backstory was couched in memories of Shadow Weaver’s clear preference for Adora, her promotion at Catra’s expense. But this memory makes Catra’s real pain stark as a blank sheet of paper—she wished for Adora to put her first.

Maybe that was needy and unfair and selfish of her. But it’s all she ever wanted.

*

My partner was assigned to be my roommate in my freshman year of college.

We bonded far too quickly and easily, and we never wanted to be out of each other’s company. People teased us about it, asking when we would admit we were dating, and we scratched our heads in perplexity. My roommate seemed to feel the same way that I did about friendship, but I knew that wouldn’t sustain; eventually he would realize that I was far too much, a sort of villain, and he would take a step back from me, the same way everyone else did.

I kept waiting for it to happen, in the months and years that followed. There was a boy that I thought he liked at one point, and I was certain that would be the end of us. Imagine my surprise when my roommate laughed at the mere thought of dating that boy. Imagine my surprise when he agreed to follow me after graduation, anywhere our lives took us. Imagine my surprise when he told me that he thought I knew. Somehow I’d missed it. Subsumed by the white noise of school and future planning and the constant undercurrent of believing that I asked far too much of others—

He chose me.

*

In every iteration I’d ever known, characters who asked so much of one other person were framed in villainous terms. It makes it hard to view their desires in a sympathetic light, which would seem to be the point—need is the messiest of human emotions. We aren’t meant to think of need as something valiant, or revolutionary, or beautiful. So when I saw Catra’s flashback and thought how closely it mirrored my own childhood, I was curious about where it was all going. I wondered if this would be another moment where need was framed as a weakness, as something small and ugly and best kept tucked away. I wondered it again when Catra admitted to herself that she loved Adora, but was certain that she didn’t feel the same way.

And then Catra followed her into the Heart of Etheria, where Adora intended to sacrifice her life. She refused to leave her. And when Adora considered giving up, Catra begged her to hold on—not for Etheria, or her friends. But for her:

“I’ve got you. I’m not letting go. Don’t you get it? I love you. I always have. So please, just this once… stay.

Catra stood in front of the girl she loved and said, Please. Choose me.

Maybe that was needy or unfair or selfish. But… how could it be when that confession gave Adora the strength she needed to save the universe? And how can I ever feel bad about my obsessive, awkward heart again when I know now that this is the kind of power it possesses?

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Catra and Adora's hands clasped

Screenshot: Dreamworks

Throughout the finale, I sobbed so long and hard that I gave myself a headache. After it was over, I crawled into my partner’s arms and cried some more. And when I finally thought I could speak again without bursting into tears, I whispered, “Thank you. For choosing me.”

And he knew exactly what I meant.

Emmet Asher-Perrin would like to thank everyone involved in She-Ra for such an incredible journey. You can bug them on Twitter, and read more of their work here and elsewhere.

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