Why Catra Doesn't Need a Redemption Arc: She-Ra and the Princesses of Power
Updated: Jan 29
As soon as the new season of She-Ra came out, I was dying to talk about it. So I’m going to.
To start off, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is a phenomenal show; pretty much everyone who’s watched it can attest to it. It has an amazing cast of both main and secondary characters, a compelling multi-arc plotline, and beautiful animation, ambiance, and character design. If you haven’t watched it, you should. In fact, you should go watch it right now, because this post will cover events from all five seasons, so have a big fat
If you don’t want to get spoiled for some of the amazing developments, I recommend you stop reading, go watch the show and then come back. I’ll wait.
If you, for some reason, decided to ignore my SPOILER WARNING and keep reading anyway, or just need a refresher on the plot, here’s a summary of the major events of She-Ra:
Adora is a soldier in the Horde, an army led by Hordak bent on ruling the planet of Etheria, but to do that they must defeat the rebellion led by superpowered Princesses. However, when Adora finds a sword that allows her to transform into She-Ra, 8 foot tall warrior of legend, she abandons the Horde to join the Rebellion. Catra, Adora’s best friend, refuses to go with her, causing them to fight each other with increasing fervor every time they meet.
As the war rages on, though, a new truth comes to light: Hordak is not the true leader of the Horde, but a lost member of a much vaster Horde made entirely of clones of the Horde Prime. Hordak made an imitation Horde on Etheria to find his way back across dimensions to the Horde he left in the hopes that Horde Prime will take him back. When Horde Prime is called to Etheria and finds his abandoned clone, he decides that Hordak has too much individuality for a clone and wipes his mind before including him back in the Horde, and then proceeds to start taking over Etheria himself. During the darkest hour, a messy love confession between our two main characters, Adora and Catra, unlocked a power hidden deep within the planet that allowed everyone working together to finally defeat Horde Prime for good.
So you can see why I was excited about this show. Not only is the story itself fantastically written, but it also has an amazingly diverse cast of characters that showcases a lot of minority representation. There are at least 3 major interracial couples, one of which is Glimmer and Bow, one of which is Sea Hawk and Mermista, and the one is Spinerella and Netossa, who are canonically married lesbians. The other cannon lesbian pairing features Catra and Adora, who is the titular She-Ra. Bow has two dads who appear in several episodes.
She-Ra also features Entrapta as a character who is on the neurodivergent spectrum, and two characters who, while not canonically specified as non-cisgender, can be inferred to be as such: Double Trouble, a shapeshifter that can take on both male and female forms and uses they/them pronouns while in their neutral form, and Jewelstar, a male character who was female in the original run of She-Ra from the 80s and is voiced by a trans man in the remake.
Not only that, but the character designs themselves are extremely diverse, showcasing nonstandard female body types like Scorpia’s muscular blocky design and haircut and Spinerella's developed curves. This seems like it’s all about the women from what I’ve said so fair, but the male characters are very well designed as well, and are allowed to break out of traditional male fantasy roles like warrior or tank, and instead explore more supporting roles that are usually rounded out by women, such as Bow is his role as inventor and archer, and Glimmer’s dad Micah as a powerful mage.
So, naturally, as soon as I finished watching this series, I went to the internet to find other people to get excited with. In my perusal, I found a lot of people who were comparing She-Ra to Avatar: The Last Airbender, which made sense to me. Even though they have very different stories, they are both TV shows aimed at children that people of all ages have enjoyed because of their brilliant writing, nuanced antagonists, and compelling characters. One thing I was surprised by, however, was the amount of people doing this comparison who were angry because they thought Catra wasn’t redeemed enough to join the side of good. They wanted a Zuko-level redemption arc for Catra, and were upset enough by the fact that the good guys accepted her without one that they decided to hate the entire show.
This absolutely floored me, because to me, that wasn’t an issue. Catra doesn’t need a redemption arc because Catra isn’t a villain. In fact, almost none of the antagonists in She-Ra are villains. An antagonist is simply someone who stands in the way of the protagonists for any reason, but in order to be classified as a villain, the person has to be truly evil. Catra opposes the Rebellion because that’s what she was brought up to do, and she lashes out at Adora because she feels like Adora abandoned her. She doesn’t find any joy in it, and it’s only spite that keeps her in her position as an antagonist. For this reason, I would classify Catra, and in fact most of the antagonists of the series, not as villains, but actually as victims.
So let’s take a step back and look at all the antagonists in the series. There are 7 characters which serve as antagonists during at least part of the show, and these characters are Entrapta, Double Trouble, Scorpia, Catra, Shadow Weaver, Hordak, and Horde Prime. Starting at the bottom, Entrapta flipped back and forth between the Rebellion and the Horde several times because she’s neurodivergent and doesn’t quite understand the concept of war having sides. She was abandoned by her friends in the Rebellion because they thought she was dead, so Catra took advantage of that and offered her the only thing she cared about, research materials and tech, if Entrapta used that research to help the Horde. However, when Entrapta starts getting close to Hordak, Catra feels threatened by her position and banishes her to Beast Island, assuming that she’ll be killed. In this case, Entrapta has no internal motivation for being an antagonist, and doesn't even understand that she’s on the opposite side from her friends. She’s manipulated into the actions that cause her to be an antagonist. Ergo, victim, not villain. Easy.
Double Trouble is the only one on the list who is neither a victim nor a villain, because they’re a mercenary. Catra pays them to infiltrate the Rebellion until they’re captured, when they turn on Catra because Glimmer paid them more money. Not a villain; also easy.
Then we get to Scorpia, who is a little more complicated. Scorpia is actually a Princess, but because her homeland was the one where Hordak first landed and started the Horde, she was given to him to protect the rest of her people. She was isolated from a young age and indoctrinated into the Horde, and she vehemently opposes the Rebellion. But she’s also very different from a traditional antagonist: she’s goofy, she loves giving hugs, and she wants meaningful friendships more than anything else in the world. Everyone in the Horde treats her poorly, which is heartbreaking because the audience knows that the Princesses in the Rebellion would love to have her as a friend and ally.
And then we get to Catra, and things start to get a lot more complicated. Previously, the characters we looked at weren’t supporting the Horde of their own volition, and even if they were, they weren’t doing it through ideological reasons. Catra is the same; she was raised by the Horde, brainwashed into thinking what they were doing was right, and fought her way up the ranks into a position of power. But Catra also willingly does a lot of things with the Horde that are hard to excuse. The only reason her attacks against the Rebellion didn’t leave behind a trail of civilian corpses is because She-Ra is a kid’s show. So how can I say that Catra isn’t a villain in light of that? To that, I say we need to look at the structure of the Horde more closely.
The roles change a little over the course of the show, but the basic structure of the Horde is as follows: Entrapta is under the command of Scorpia and Catra, Scorpia is under the command of Catra, Catra is under the command of Shadow Weaver and later Hordak when Shadow Weaver loses her position, Shadow Weaver is under the command of Hordak, and Hordak believes that he’s under the command of Horde Prime until Horde Prime reprograms him. All the clones in the Horde answer to Horde Prime, but they’re also a hive mind where individuality isn’t tolerated. They see Horde Prime as their god and they believe his word as gospel. When he says that by taking over the universe, he is eliminating all war and suffering, his followers rabily believe it. When he says he is the light, all his followers beg to be cleansed in his image and have their shadows cast out. The clones are also all weirdly into having Horde Prime take over their bodies.
Now, I’m not saying that it’s a sex cult. But it does look an awful lot like a cult we could find in our modern world.
Season 5, Episode 5: Save the Cat
In real life, people who are a part of a cult do terrible things, but how much blame can we actually place on them for their actions, especially when they were raised in the cult? As much as we want to believe otherwise, the human consciousness is a very fragile thing, and all it takes is the right brainwashing technique to convince someone that what they’re doing is right. This applies to Scorpia, to Catra, and yes, even to Hordak.
These antagonists don’t need redemption arcs because the audience is rooting for them to leave the bad guy’s side as soon as they’re introduced. All we want when we meet Scorpia is for her to find people who value her. All we want for Catra is for her to realize that Adora abandoning the Horde wasn’t Adora abandoning her, and realize that she can be just as happy with Adora in the Rebellion as they were in the Horde. When we finally get to know Hordak, all we want is for him to realize that he’s allowed to be an individual and have friends, and that he doesn’t have to obey Horde Prime’s directive even when there’s no hope of ever finding his way back to Prime. But the psychological conditioning of the Horde’s cult-like brainwashing is too strong, so we the audience are forced to suffer as they suffer, not knowing how to do anything but continue on the path they’re already on. It’s not a coincidence that Horde Prime’s main claim is saying that he makes people perfect by casting out their shadows, but in the end, he is the shadow that is cast out to save Etheria.
Taking this into account, even though he doesn’t physically appear until the very end of the fourth season, Horde Prime is the sole villain of the entire series. He is responsible for all the events that happen leading up to his appearance, because it is his directive that causes Hordak to try to take over Etheria, and it is Hordak’s actions that form the rest of the antagonists.
Now, you might have noticed that I conveniently left out Shadow Weaver when I was talking about the structure of the antagonists, and that is because Shadow Weaver is the only major part of the Horde that isn’t taken in by the cult brainwashing. This is because Shadow Weaver doesn’t care about the Horde; she only wants power. At first, she wanted power to repel the invading Horde, but when her peers banished her for trying to obtain a forbidden power, she turned to the Horde to grant her power instead. When the Horde cast her out for outliving her usefulness, she went back to the Rebellion and offered them advice and information while trying to weedle herself back into a position of political power. Even her death, when she sacrifices herself so Catra and Adora can keep going to defeat Horde Prime, is a power move because she wants to savor the little bit of emotional power she has left over the duo. She clearly thinks that she’s going to redeem herself through her sacrifice, but the very fact that she is selfishly expecting that redemption through death proves that she doesn’t deserve it.
No one said thank you, Shadow Weaver. Literally, no one in this scene thanked you. For this reason, I classify her as the only other true villain in this series besides Horde Prime, because even when she’s acting in the interests of the protagonists, she’s still only really on the side of herself.
Season 5, Episode 13: Heart Part 2
The structure of the conflict in She-Ra is a lot more complicated than just good guys versus bad guys. Because of that, it does it a disservice to simplify it into terms of heroes versus villains. Not every antagonist is a villain, and not everyone who supports the protagonists is actually good. Similarly, not every antagonist needs to suffer for their switch from opposition to “good guy”. Basically what I’m getting at is leave Catra alone, guys. She’s already been through enough.