This week, while everyone is still focused on things like Apple’s recent release of the iPhone 7, what new and outlandish thing Donald Trump will say or do, what menial and unimportant thing Hilary Clinton will not be forthcoming about, or any other event which has some bearing on our future, I’ll on the other hand, be focusing on a fixture of our past. Specifically, He-Man, the fantasy cartoon running two seasons from 1983 to 1985. 33 years ago this month, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe aired on television, and changed this young boy’s life for the better. I caught on to He-Man a little later into his television run. I believe that it was somewhere around mid first season when my fascination began. But when it finally did, whoa…was I was HOOKED! There was something absolutely different and special about him that spoke to me on multiple levels, which no other hero (besides Wonder Woman) had done. It wasn’t until later in life that I finally figured it out: He-Man was like me, he was also different.
That idea was solidified when I traveled back home to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania last year. I made the trip specifically to sift through some of my old stuff that was still there. My mother and stepfather were moving out of the house where I spent a nice chunk of my childhood. They were sorting, cleaning, and packing the house. One last box of my childhood belongings remained. I was tasked with going home, and going through it to see what should be salvaged. I found two things in that box which brought me back to my ‘Masters of the Universe’ days. The moment I came upon them was almost divine, as if I had just opened the arc of the covenant. Oddly enough, the action of me opening the box was something which could’ve been taken directly from a movie. I hadn’t realized it, but the box was positioned in our garage in front of a window so that a shaft of light was directly hitting it. So, as the lid opened, the shaft of light created an effect which hit the box and it’s two items inside like a spotlight. I remember giggling at the sight, because not only was it too good to be true, but it took me back in time to a place which was fun, jovial, and magical. What was bathed in the seemingly heavenly light were (drumroll please….) two cardboard cut outs: one was my version of the George Perez drawn Wonder Woman battle-ax, and the other was my version of He-Man’s power sword. Both were still in great shape and although cracked and folded a bit, the cardboard was still somewhat sturdy (Although it was very obvious they both had seen some excitement). I gazed at both of them for what seemed like an Eternita. Er, I mean, an eternity (small joke). These items brought back so many memories of me watching the shows, running around the house pretending to be He-Man (or Wonder Woman), and mimicking words and actions (as I did with all of my favorite heroes). I think that performing these imaginary feats of greatness with my cardboard concocted He-Man sword (and/or Wonder Woman battle-ax) in hand, were the beginnings of my interest in acting. Oh the magical imaginary adventures I had with these. I was smiling from ear to ear. Then all of a sudden my world halted for a moment, and a lightbulb of self-aware brilliance lit up in my consciousness. So much about my life and childhood made even more sense than before.
As I reminisced back on the memories of He-Man (his transformation, Castle Grayskull, Skeletor, the Sorceress, Teela, Man-at-Arms, and all of the other magical, mystical phenomena which surrounded the Masters of the Universe on Eternia), The first thing that popped into my head were the toys I would carry around town. I owned a fold open Castle Grayskull, and both the He-Man and Skeletor action figures. It occurred to me that coming from a devout pentecostal Christian home, all of these toys were blatantly demonic in appearance (Quite frankly, they were scary to behold). Keep in mind, that when I say that my family were ‘devout’ pentecostal Christians, I mean that my family: a) had regular family prayer meetings, b) often attended church multiple times a week, c) practiced casting out demons, d) practiced speaking in tongues, and also e) the anointing of oil….just to name a few. As you can see, my family roots were firmly planted in spirituality. So it occurred to me that throughout most of my developmentally pubescent years, I was fully allowed to tote a blatantly demonic toy. Why? I can only surmise it was for one reason, which had only one word: Masculinity. I was given permission to embrace He-Man because: he was masculine, I clearly was not, and this was seen as a way to assist me in becoming more masculine…shocker. In my youth, I was perceived to be ‘soft’ by others. Previously, when I went out to play with the other kids, I always chose to pretend to be Wonder Woman. She was my go to, and my one and only during childhood. That is until He-Man came and shared that space for an ever so brief period. With so many societal pressures for men to be masculine, I see it as no mistake that I was given a pass to embrace a character who directly contradicted the foundation of our families spiritual principles in an effort to influence my lack of masculinity. He-Man was clearly the lesser of two evils. What’s funny is I connected with He-Man for the exact opposite reasons. Why I connected with He-Man was because he appeared to be a little different…just like me!
Before I reveal to you the reasons why I identified so much with He-Man, let’s get something important out-of-the-way, by first addressing the giant pink elephant in the room. I realize that it’s an uncomfortable topic for most people, but one which I feel needs to be acknowledged at the very least. First off, I looked up the definition of “He-Man” in the dictionary. It’s a term that originated somewhere around 1825-1835 and some of the definitions I found were: a) “a well built, muscular man, especially one who is ostentatiously so”; b) “a strong virile man”; and c) “a man who is very strong and masculine”. Second, I looked up the term “master of the universe”. Collins dictionary cites that the phrase was popularized in 1931 by Tom Wolfe in his novel Bonfire of the Vanities, and means an “extremely wealthy and powerful members of the financial professions”. Third and last, I looked at the timing of the character and cartoon, and what came before it. Larry Scott won the very first Mr. Olympia in 1965. The 1970s and 1980s began seeing a huge influx of bodybuilding culture and awareness. He-Man was created during a time where bodybuilding truly began crossing over into many different mediums. By 1980, Arnold Schwarzenegger won his 11th bodybuilding competition and also began training for Conan The Barbarian which was released in 1982, only one year before the release of the He-Man and The Masters of the Universe cartoon. One can’t help but notice the timing and direct parallels of society’s overly masculine man popularity. I’m not surprised that it came so close to the Civil Rights movement from 1954-1968, and the Women’s Lib movement of the late 1960s-1970s. Even Harvey Milk became the first openly gay elected official in 1977, and in 1978 told his “…gay brothers and sisters, you must come out!” So many minorities at the time were so powerfully advocating for equality in such a manner that had never before been done. It’s no wonder that, sociologically speaking, those who were considered providers or the ‘man of the house’ (I won’t go into the connotations of that phrase), where needing to reaffirm their masculinity. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was a direct reflection of where our society was at the time. A need to reaffirm that the straight, cisgendered, white, Aryan, masculine man was the ‘master of the universe’ and the most ideal mate. What I found to be ironic, is that it seemed to possess the exact opposite messages for me, and I believe that is where the genius of He-Man lies.
Like I said, He-Man was different like me. Some of the reasons I immediately identified with the ‘most powerful man in the universe’ during my childhood, were due to the clear parallels to my own life to his. Very much like Superman’s Clark Kent, and Wonder Woman’s Diana Prince (of the time), He-Man had an alter ego named Prince Adam and point by point, we were similar beyond belief.
- First, I noticed was that he was well dressed, and color coordinated (in some traditionally feminine colors of pink and purple, mind you). Very much like Prince Adam, my mother used to always buy my clothes from some of the best department stores, and gave me the opportunity to pick them out. It was pretty fantastic. I was one probably the best dressed kid my age and loved every second of it. It really made me feel like I didn’t have to compromise my appreciation of great designer clothes. No matter how memorable, unorthodox, or bright they might seem to others.
- Second, Prince Adam also had a bit of a high-pitched and/or nasal voice. I remember the fun that was made of me when I was younger about my nasal, high-pitched voice. It was comforting to know that a man so muscular and well dressed had just as nasal a voice as I did.
- Third, Prince Adam was always very kind to everyone. This was many times throughout the series referenced as one of his strengths. I loved people and loved meeting all new kinds of people from all walks of life, even when my peers and adults weren’t so open to the idea. I remember seeing how his kindness was celebrated as a strength, and how mine could be too.
- Fourth, Prince Adam was wise, and often delivered messages at the end of each episode either as Prince Adam or as He-Man. I enjoyed reading and researching religions, mythology, cultures, and ancient civilization as a child. I was quite philosophical. It was great to see someone place value in that.
- Fifth, I noticed was that Prince Adam was not very athletic. In my youth, I shied away from any and all kinds of sports. The closest to sports I got was researching martial arts. I would check out library books about it, order the books from those monthly book clubs at school, and even ask my father’s co-workers about it who had made a study of the arts. Both my heroes Wonder Woman and He-Man were incredible fighters and used their skills in defense only. In my youth, I had often been teased, been made to be the brunt of jokes, and had even been beaten up and bullied a bit. Seeing someone who was perceived as weak, un-athaletic, and a pushover, yet still possessed the power to squash evil in defense, was quite inspiring.
- Sixth, neither Prince Adam nor He-Man showed a huge interest in girls…I don’t think I even need to address the similarities in that one!
I marveled at the amount of direct parallels I could see in my young self. Prince Adam was definitely different in some of the same ways that I was different. He was well dressed (albeit brightly and borderline flamboyantly), smart, a free spirit, had a passion for freedom and adventure, was soft-spoken, and polite and kind to all. It was no shock that he was constantly (like myself) overlooked and underestimated. Yet within him was the most powerful man in the universe. When he would transform, his clothes and his voice changed, but his physical build did not. I always found it to be so funny that Superman was just Clark Kent without the glasses. Wonder Woman was just Diana with a tiara, and He-Man was just Prince Adam with less clothes and a tan. And that’s the thing about secret identities; they are our true selves, only wrapped in packages that the world will accept, and to whom the world will listen. Many times I observed Teela hear a message come out of Prince Adam’s mouth and dismiss it, but then hear it out of He-Man’s mouth and consider it to be gospel. She only listened to He-Man because he came in the package of the straight, white, Aryan, cisgendered, deep voiced, overly masculine male. Teela was enamored with He-Man because he was an ideal, but he wasn’t real. She listened to him because that is what she THOUGHT she was supposed to; because society told her that she was supposed to.
Does anyone else see the utter and absolute genius in this? He-Man accomplished the exact same task. He was a response to the majority’s need to reaffirm masculinity and place in society; He was the epitome of what every man and woman envisioned that a man should be, yet he proved the opposite because of his packaging. The cartoon was a parody and sociopolitical statement, exclaiming that our notion of masculinity and need for dominance had gone awry. It basically said that we needed to accept ourselves for who we are regardless of how much we might fit into society’s norms and did it in a package that we would listen. Dr. William Moulton Marston III (the psychologist who created Wonder Woman), had the same intentions about her and even said the same thing about her back in the 1940s. It’s no wonder that I was so strongly drawn to the two characters. It was all about balance, and thankfully at a young pubescent age, my subconscious was picking up the subliminal messages loud and clear. Because outside of all those things which made me stand out (my penchant for fancy clothes, my high-pitched voice, my kind demeanor, my desire for wisdom, the fact that I didn’t like sports, or even my uninterest in girls), I was inspired by He-Man and his message that, “I had the power!” regardless of who I was. That there was the power within me to be and do anything I desired regardless of how masculine I was or what cultural norms I did or did not adhere to. So, while my parents and family may have thought that He-Man would have a masculine influence on my life, they were right, but it was for the opposite reason they perceived. He-Man taught me that masculinity is not muscles, a tan, and a deep voice. Masculinity is not conforming to the idea that the ideal man is a tall, white, cisgendered, Aryan, and overly muscular male. Masculinity was not about who the strongest was and who spoke the loudest. He-Man taught me that masculinity is actually being wise, responsible, gentle, and showing good will to your fellow-man. It’s having values, integrity, and scruples. It’s about knowing that ‘you have the power,’ but not needing to use it or flaunt it. Most of all, the true self of He-Man who toted the name of Christianity’s original man (Adam), let me know that whoever I was ok, and that each and every one of us whomever we may be, is as well. So as I venture out every day into a world of technology, violence, demagoguery, homophobia, islamophobia, racism, and a fear, I’d like to pay special homage to He-Man for teaching me that wisdom, an open heart, honesty, love, and strength of character offer me true masculinity, and that I am wonderful exactly how I am. Thank you. You truly are the master of my universe. 😉
This article was written for all of those little boys and girls who also giggled a little bit when He-Man came on the screen. Extra special shout out to Dolph Lindgren, who played He-Man in the 1987 film. In my opinion, there couldn’t have been a better depiction of him in real life. Muscles and strength on the outside; love, wisdom, and intelligence on the inside. Not many know that you: received a scholarship to complete your master’s degree in chemical engineering, are a founding member of a theatre group in NYC, are a third-degree black belt, have won numerous titles, were an Olympic pentathlon team leader, play the drums, own a film production company, and are married with two daughters. You are truly and inspiration and show us all what it means to have the power!