Growing up as a kid in the 80’s I pretty much had no choice but to become a He-man fan. Thanks to the culture of cartoons and the billion dollar (Even in 80’s terms, hate to think what the numbers would be in today’s terms, accounting for inflation) toy market, He-man was literally designed as the bait in a trap for young boys like me. Through the cartoons, comics, books, bed sheets, movies and every other avenue possible He-man and the masters of the Universe was broadcast into my awareness and I of course was powerless to resist. Now days, “the product is the marketing” and every detail of a product is designed and tailored to a specific demographic. But before He-man is was kind of the other way around. People created movies or books or what ever, and then they had to find ways to make them into toys and find ways to appeal to the general population. Star Wars was the quintessential example and it was The fact that Mattel passed on making Star Wars toys that led them to invent a line of toys and media they could mass market. And the result was He-man and the Masters if the Universe. This was a product line designed specifically to ensnare me, the little American boy, and ensnare me it did!
Dude, I had He-man, I had Skeletor, I had beast Man. I never had a man at arms or a Teela that I remember. I had a He-man costume for Halloween complete with a He-man sword, and my mom actually sewed what ever He-man wore on his chest with the weird Nazi cross symbol on it. I even had Castle GreySkull with the trap door in the floor that opens when you turn the throne 45 degrees, which unbelievably stayed at my grandmother’s house at least until I was in high school maybe longer. I had a lot of He-man undies that I probably kept wearing for way too long. But by far my favorite He-man merchandise was my life size inflatable Battle cat, which by the end of its run was covered in an addition layer of armor made from the duct tape that was patching all the holes in it. I still remember my uncle Chris buying me that at a toy store in a mall somewhere when I was like 4 years old.
So obviously between the daily TV show and the toys, and the movies, a huge portion of my childhood brain was filled with and influenced by He-man.
There are 2 things that I admired most about He-man, and even though I didn’t really realize them as a kid, it is apparent to me as an adult that are influential themes that I have carried through out my life.
One was that even though he was the soi desant “most powerful man in the Universe” He-man didn’t have any notions of lordship or superiority. His relationships with everyone were friendship. Even amongst the hordes or Skeletor, he never shot to kill. He always offered friendship. He was just waiting for the day that Skeletor would renounce his evil ways and become good. Skeletor on the other hand was selfish, self centered ( blatantly and hilariously so) and expressly did desire dominion and power over others. Now obviously it was a kids show in the 80’s so there wasn’t going to be bloody injuries or any characters actually killing each other, and it was crystal clear who the bad guys were and who the good guys were. But the bad guys weren’t irredeemable, and the good guys weren’t infallible. In He-man’s mind he was just keeping Skeletor from harming others until the bad guy decides to, as my grandma K would say, “straighten out and fly right.” Obviously this was the paradigm for most cartoons in the 80’s, but He-man (and especially the Christmas special,) sure gave you just a little hope that Skeletor would get his act together. I mean did the Thundercats ever expect Mum-Ra was going to become their friend some day? Hell no. But He-man absolutely expected Skeletor to come around. Also there was a kind of yin- yang symbolism with the 2 halves of the power sword needed to unlock the secrets of Castle Greyskull. Only when He-man and Skeletor came together for a common purpose could they unlock the ultimate power on Eternia. This has absolutely impacted how I view the world and my thinking on Geopolitical topics throughout my life.
The second theme is the secret identity of prince Adam. Now at face value this is really no different from Clark Kent being Superman. But where as Clark Kent is really just Superman wearing a mild mannered newspaper reporter disguise, prince Adam actually transforms through some magical power into He-man. And the cowardly Cringer transforms into the Ferocious Battle Cat. So the idea that you could essentially have an alter ego, a different and unique persona with different abilities that you could assume at the opportune moment really resonated with me. There there could be things, or people, or situations that transform or at least bring out unusual characteristics in me. But unlike Bruce Banner, where it was random anger that triggered a Hulk episode, prince Adam had a magic sword he could use to become He-man on command. When strength and heroics were needed, pull out the sword and become H-man. When Eternia is not being threatened, a wimpy but affable prince Adam was more than adequate. The “flip a switch” mentality is something I started to idealize. It took another influence on the countdown to teach me the flaw in this (and I’ll get to that in a few weeks).
But even to this day there is something seductive about being able to transform when required and revert back leaving the audience wanting more.
He-man was on every day. The studio actually produced 50 episodes a year. That is one a week. That seems like a lot. My wife and I lament every day that in 10 years they have only produced about 50 different episode of Bubble Guppies, and that is the only show that our toddler will watch quietly and stay entertained. We are so sick of the same episodes over and over and over. So to get a new episode a week, every week, all year-round would be fantastic. But you have to remember this was the mid 80’s and VCRs were only starting to become a thing. So you might have a new episode every week, but you only saw one episode a day, not everyday all day like the Bubble Guppies with Nick junior on demand. Well when I was 4 we did not have a VCR to record the show so I could watch it over and over. But we did have a tape recorder. So my dad put a tape recorder facing the TV and would record the audio of the episodes, hitting pause during the commercials (as if the whole show it’s self wasn’t just a big commercial). And then I would take the tape recorder and listen to the episode over and over again. Eventually this activity evolved and my parents started buying me he-man books with an accompanying cassette tape that read the book to me. And this became my favorite thing, to listen to stories as I couldn’t read yet to follow along in the book. Sure the book had pictures but I could just as vividly picture the story in my imagination. This had a profound influence on me. To this day, I have a preference for audiobooks and podcasts over movies, or video games. If given the time to take things in and reflect,I believe my comprehension from auditory learning is greater than visual or just reading. And that all goes back to my dad’s “Redneck VCR” recording of He-man.
And then of course there was my first crush: Teela. Captain of the guards. A Firey red-head who wears snake skin armor. Yes it is kind of demented that my paragon of womanhood was a secondary cartoon character. But again in my formative years this left a very distinct influence on me that has lived on into adulthood. I have always been attracted to Tomboys and working girls. Independent women. The trophy wife, the homemaker, or the girly girls, have never been my type. And that all goes back to Teela.
Ultimately the He-man phenomenon became over-saturated and burned out pretty spectacularly (and then Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles rushed in to fill the vacuum). And my own experience mirrored this and kind of for-shadowed the rest of my formative years, if not the rest of my life. The beginning of the end, or the tipping point, or when it jumped the shark, was when the live action movie came out with Dolph Lundgren hot off of Rocky IV as the lead. I was excited and begged to go to this movie before I even knew anything about it. I just knew “He-man Movie” and never even questioned it wasn’t a cartoon, or that things would be different from the toys, and designed for an audience older than 6 year olds. Well the day my dad had promised to take me to see the movie was approaching and literally the day before I was at the grocery store with my mom and saw a magazine with a pictorial about the movie. I was totally weirded out. I had nightmares that night. So when my dad finally comes home to get me to take me to this movie I have been begging about for weeks, I say “Dad, I think that movie might be too scary for me.” This did not go over well. It lead to an argument between my parents. I was in my room crying. I could hear my dad say something to the effect of “I took time off work for this.” And then my mom was defending me as being only a little boy who can be scared. (What I would have given for my own sword of power to make be brave and strong right then). Well ultimately my dad took me out for pizza, right next to the movie theater. It was kind of awkward between us, and I would say it remained that way. That was pretty much the end of my He-man fascination. I was growing up and moving on to new things, and the franchise was waning in popularity soon after. That part was inevitable and predictable. But the part of me and my dad suddenly not getting along was a surprise I didn’t foresee, and I don’t think my dad had either. What had began as something we shared together became something we not only no longer shared but a source of tension between us.
Still when the Cartoon Network reboot came out when I was in College it only cemented my love of cartoons, and increased my between classes Smurf watching, and Dexter’s Lab marathons. I have much of the original series and the new series on DVD. At one time both were also on Netflix. I have tried to get my sons to watch it with me, hoping it would be something we share together, but so far they aren’t interested. I guess history repeats it’s self.
Still, at those times when I feel down on myself, useless, no good, and like I need to become a different person, I am strangely comforted by whispering to myself these 4 words: “I have the Power!”
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