As a child, my first fictional hero was She-Ra. She was both strong and kind, never compromised her values, protected her friends and the people of Etheria, and had spiffy accessories (including a flying/talking unicorn and a kickass sword). What more could a 4 year old want?
The show was developed as a spin off to the popular He-Man series by producers who thought that perhaps little girls would like to be able see themselves as the hero. I know that they probably weren’t out to motivate social change but simply by acknowledging that there was an audience for this sort of character, an audience that was being pretty thoroughly neglected, they did something good.
She-Ra/Princess Adora was retconned into the story as He-Man/Prince Adam’s long lost twin sister: as an infant she had been kidnapped by the evil Hordak and taken to Etheria, where Hordak ruled. She was raised to be the perfect Horde soldier; when we first meet her she’s already become the Captain of the force and that’s before she gets her super powers- even as an ordinary human she was a force to be reckoned with. Later in the series, while Adam maintained a rather lazy and irresponsible persona to hide his secret identity as He-Man, Adora was never anything other than herself- Adora was every bit as strong willed and capable as She-Ra always was.
Adora’s initial journey from evil Horde leader to leader of the Rebellion is fairly unique for a female character. She had been kept in line by Hordak’s sorceress who had cast a spell on Adora to make her believe Hordak when he told her that what he was doing was for the good of the Etherians. When Adam is sent to Etheria in search of the person that a magical sword (almost identical to his own as He-Man) is meant for, he’s quite surprised when the sword leads him to an officer in the Horde. He realizes that the sword can’t be wrong, and tries to convince her that Hordak is not the benevolent leader she believes him to be. Adora is loyal to what she believes in though, so in the end Adam simply asks her to go out and see the people, to really see them and what their lives are like. She does; and realizes that they are poor and starving, taken into slavery, seeing for the first time the cruelty of the Horde Troopers that she was raised to serve alongside. This is a concept more in line with the journey of a hero, not a heroine- if a woman is going to change after serving evil she’s usually brought to the side of good by falling love or by being rescued. Women are supposed to be protected in fairy tales, not specifically shown the horrors of war and allowed to make their own decision about which side they wish to take.
After Adam has been freed and Adora has learned about her powers as She-Ra, Adam takes her home to Eternia to meet their parents for the first time in her life. It’s a very touching reunion, she clearly loves them and they her but she cannot stay: she tells them that she has to go back to Etheria and join the Rebellion, to save the people she once helped control. No one tries to stop her, no one tries to tell her that it’s not her place, even though her parents do not know about her abilities or her alternate identity. For all they know she is just an ordinary teenage girl, their only daughter whom they hadn’t seen in 19 years and feared dead, but they understand why she needs to go back and help free Etheria from Hordak’s rule.
The series was notable in several other ways as well- female villains who were just as menacing as the men, female heroines of a wide range of personality types, male characters being rescued without it being a blow to anyone’s ego- but even if She-Ra had been the only part they got right, it would have been more than enough for me because they got her so very right.