One of the most common disputes among filmmakers and writers is how to end a show properly. The conclusion of a show can make or break the entire story. It serves as a goodbye to the characters, the story, and either sums up or emphasizes the lessons learned in the show.
A lot of shows try to end with a twist that the viewer would likely not predict. Twists can show that there is more to a character’s story than a romantic relationship, or that despite their best efforts, not everyone wins their battles.
However, the under-representation of various marginalized groups in television/films usually exacerbates the problem of how to end a story. Arcs for marginalized characters are usually concluded negatively or left without a decisive conclusion entirely.
The difference between cliché endings for well-represented groups and marginalized ones is that it is cliché and predictable for marginalized groups to serve merely as a plot device. A better twist for these characters would be to show them winning their respective battles. That is precisely the twist that Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power and Hollywood offer audiences.
In the early hours of the morning of May 15th, 2020, many began the journey of binge-watching She-Ra and the Princesses of Power‘s fifth season. It was a journey that took its audience from the incredible world of Etheria to the crushing void of Space and back to Etheria again to watch their favourite characters battle Horde Prime for the fate of their planet.
Netflix’s reboot of She-Ra has been revolutionary in the queering of its universe by including canon queer couples and characters. In season four, a shapeshifting non-binary character who exclusively uses they/them pronouns, Double Trouble, was introduced, voiced by non-binary voice actor Jacob Tobia.
Despite the show being explicitly queer, many were still pleasantly surprised by the show’s ending, in which the main character Adora (Aimee Carrero) — who turns into She-Ra — ends up in a queer relationship with another main character Catra (AJ Michalka).
She-Ra’s ending is similar to the finish of another show, Hollywood, which is set in Hollywood’s Golden Age of post-World War II and tells the stories of various characters dealing with different obstacles. The audience views the obstacles of the more marginalized voices at the time through half-Filipino director Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), Black actress Camille Washington (Laura Harrier), gay Black writer Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope), disillusioned Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec), Black actress Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah), and gay actor Rock Hudson (Jake Picking).
These characters came to Hollywood to break boundaries and change the face of the film industry. They do this by taking a big risk on the movie Meg, which is written by Archie, directed by Raymond, and stars Camille as the lead and Anna May Wong in a supporting role. Meg was initially written as “Peg”, with the lead role intended for a white woman, but that changes when the characters realize that casting Camille as the lead in a movie, making her the first Black actress to do so, is the more significant dent in the glass ceiling.
They encounter many obstacles — working on getting the movie greenlit, outraged protestors hurling vitriol at and threatening violence to Camille, even having their completed film reel burned by a lawyer at Ace Studios (the studio backing the movie). Despite all of these obstacles, their film gets made — the way they want it to — and Meg becomes a real hit, seeing record theatre turnouts and multiple Oscar nominations, including the coveted Big Five.
However, the biggest surprise to viewers was that at the end of the show, Richard, Archie, Anna May, and Camille all win their respective Oscars, with Meg itself winning the coveted Best Picture award. It was unexpected to see a movie and characters that had so much stacked against them win and win this big.
Some may be disappointed by these endings. They may call them “cliché” or “predictable”, but I disagree. In She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Adora and Catra have chemistry throughout the entire show, so much so that it could be argued that the show is about them growing apart to come back together. In Hollywood, the fictional movie Meg was incredibly successful despite all the racist protests against it, so it makes sense for a record-breaking film and its cast and crew to win multiple awards.
So why were so many people surprised at these endings? Aren’t happy endings supposed to be “cliché” and “predictable”?
The answer is because even the best of mass media and entertainment almost always let down marginalized groups and people. People of colour are often used purely as plot devices, to the point where “the Black guy dies first” is now a joke across not just horror, but multiple genres. Characters played by people belonging to marginalized groups have been reduced to one-dimensional or, in tasteless cases, negative stereotypes.
Everyone deserves to have complex and well-thought-out stories where they are dimensionalized and nuanced, shown to be more than just a plot device. It is becoming evident that the only way more of these stories will be told is by the people belonging to under-represented groups telling them. She-Ra’s Noelle Stevenson and Hollywood‘s Ryan Murphy and Janet Mock (who also work together on FX’s much-beloved ballroom show Pose) were able to tell complex stories with multi-dimensional characters because those stories were also theirs.
From the beginning of She-Ra, Stevenson’s intent was for the characters to get to be anything they wanted to be. She wanted her characters to be able to be free and let the story develop in a world where a queer existence is not a controversial one, making it easier for Adora and Catra to be in love and show that love.
The world created by Stevenson in She-Ra is so obviously one where queer is completely accepted and normalized that the mere act of loving each other is not something that Adora and Catra have to overcome. It makes it so that subtle glances can adequately grow into a bold kiss.
Identifying as queer herself, Stevenson fought hard for that ending because she knows what it means both for herself and other queer people watching the show. Aside from a supportive cast and crew and executives that eventually gave the okay, the unquestionably queer ending of She-Ra only exists because Stevenson actively pushed for it and refused to end her show without it.
Similarly, Murphy and Mock have been vital for the stories of Hollywood getting told. Stories of becoming an actor during Old Hollywood are not rare, but stories about the people who were dismissed, both then and even now, somehow remain scarce. Hollywood is not the story of a world where someone’s existence is not controversial, but instead, how, despite that controversy, marginalized people can still prevail and succeed.
Murphy and Mock’s purpose was to give a voice to those who were denied one, as they themselves often are (or were, before establishing themselves as successful creatives). They wanted to shine a spotlight on the marginalized talent of Old Hollywood and give them a story where that talent is recognized. By doing this, they show not only what Hollywood was like through the real stories of Hattie McDaniel, Anna May Wong, and Rock Hudson — they also show what Hollywood could have been, and what it still can be.
Something that Murphy, Mock, and Stevenson all understand is that when the character(s) change, the ending must also change.
In Hollywood, Richard, Archie, and studio executive Richard Samuels discuss the movie Meg and how to make it better. It is pointed out that having Meg, a Black woman, commit suicide at the end of the film sends a different message than having “Peg”, a white woman, do the same. (Note that the original draft of Peg is based on a real-life white actress, who killed herself by jumping off the Hollywoodland sign.)
It is not enough to simply cast minorities in things — to do real justice to such characters. The story must centre them, or carve their arcs out with care. The endings to She-Ra and the Princesses of Power and Hollywood empower their audiences by inspiring people to go and win their own battles, people who may have not ever realized winning was even a possibility for them. She-Ra confessing her love for another girl and them sharing a kiss onscreen, Camille Washington telling little Black girls never to give up, Archie Coleman thanking his boyfriend in his Oscar acceptance speech, Anna May Wong receiving a long-overdue Oscar for a role that did not ridicule her heritage but uplifted it — all these things were not just happy endings, they were all needed.
For so long, marginalized communities have had to accept only scraps of representation from television and film. We have been forced to pick and choose parts of our identities to create even a slight grasp of feeling represented. We cling to stories with ambiguous endings, queerbaiting, and quirky side characters because that is all that was allowed and afforded to us.
The most significant effect that both She-Ra and Hollywood have is not in what they have done, but in what they showed could be done. These shows have raised the bar, making it so that ending two characters’ stories with a shared glance will not be enough to show queer love. She-Ra and Hollywood remind marginalized audiences that they are not the background, token, or side characters in their own lives. Instead, they are the heroes, worthy of acknowledgement, fulfilment, and happy endings.
The outpouring of love both shows have received is proof to studios and networks that projects like these can be successful and are worth the risk. The endings of She-Ra and Hollywood pave the way for more complex, nuanced endings for marginalized characters. Hopefully, they take us one step closer to a future in which everyone can watch a show or film where they win.