We grew up in weird times, most of us. If you came up in the 90’s as a small kid there was a bevvy of figures and toys that had already been road-tested by us kids in the 80’s. For girls, we had Barbie. Not all of us wanted Barbie all of the time though. I didn’t, at least.
The creation of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe rested solely on the shoulders of a team at Mattel who were tasked with figuring out what young boys would engage with the same way girls engaged with Barbie. While the Barbie division was always strong, that market for toys geared towards boys was losing out at Mattel thanks to Star Wars. With action figures dominating slowly but surely in a rather formulaic sense, with themes that were becoming tapped out and taken-up by other companies, Mattel set to the research. The theme that was common was ‘Power’ and while that seemed to resonate with little boys, nobody even thought to see how it resonated with girls. Didn’t matter. Well, at least not in the very early 80’s, that is.
He-Man and the other Masters of the Strangely Vague Universe (why didn’t they just say Eternia? Hm.) had taken off as toys first and I remember being fixated on the marketing campaign. The commercials were thrilling and even as an incredibly small child, I was in awe. The colors were phenomenal and far more bright and beautiful than Star Wars toys were at the time. While every character would fit perfectly within their little slot in my Star Wars toy case, He-Man looked like he may need his own lunchbox to cart him around in. Larger than life and existing on a fantasy world as vibrantly hued as he was, I found myself setting Barbie down to escape into Eternia.
I had Castle Grayskull and every figure, every housing unit and vehicle/ride-able animal; Barbie and her adjacent cute darlings within the girl-toy sphere were lost to me. Mattel, at this point, were well aware of the power they had (Yes, that joke was intentional. It’s for my He-Manheads) and worked with Filmation on a series that would essentially work out to the same as a feature length two-episode mini-series. It was then that a softly glowing star burst inside of my tiny child brain and I was swinging fake silver swords around my living room, standing on furniture and daring my infant brother to try me one more dang time. I was He-Man. I was He-Man in a time where She-Ra didn’t exist and I was okay with that. For those moments, all I cared about was He-Man and the roguish bravery of Teela, the kindness of Man-At-Arms and the dry wit of Skeletor.
He-Man was delicately crafted to appeal to boys in a time of Barbie but it expanded in ways that took up a decent percentage of girls as well. We were lacking a lot of things in the area of escapism. While Barbie was beautiful, she felt superficial. Even my child brain had picked up on the fact Barbie’s adventures were severely limited when it came to anything other than civilian activities. She was always stuck to the Earth, never to venture beyond a job as an astronaut and that, well, it got old. She got to have her dream house and a glossy bubblegum pink Corvette but what about the rest of the universe? We were, as girls, bound to only roleplay out Barbie and Ken’s life through a day-to-day life of navigation as our future as an adult woman?
Well, I wasn’t. Apparently 20 percent of girls felt how I did, which brought the women at Mattel to push for a female relative to He-Man that could appeal to more girls. Out comes She-Ra, He-Man’s sister with her own equal-in-power sword that would make He-Man not truly the most unique force in the universe. She was fantastic though, let me tell you. I could brush her hair AND she would ride on a winged horse whose hair I could also brush. The 80’s were doing pretty well for your girl in that department. Thundercats came along and I was just a bundle of Oshkosh wearing toy mania, whirling about her house in her Mother’s oversized chunky bangles and swinging axes, swords and shields into coat racks and armchairs. The world was mine. Nay, the universe was mine.
I wasn’t alone within my friend group of other chipper girls either. While the boys brought their toys over and got to sit and play He-Man with my rather impressive playsets, the girls brought She-Ra and the Etherian Illuminati of villains and co-horts that Mattel made of her crew. We played together. The girls were as obsessed with He-Man and Co. the same as I was and we’d rush to watch the show, then play until our respective parents decided dinner, baths and bed were more important than who got to be Master of the Universe that night. I climbed into my themed bed-set and I read hardcover branded comic books about Teela’s backstory and dreamed about tomorrow where I could daydream about Eternia some more.
The smartest thing Mattel did is that they didn’t separate us from the story. Sure, She-Ra got her own planet, her own sword and her own gaggle of colorful miscreants but she was always allowed to chill with Prince Adam on Eternia. They had adventures together and He-Man listened to her advice as she also listened to his. Save for the opening episodes (also considered a full-feature three part series called ‘Secret of the Sword‘) there was no actual competition or dissent between them and once the air was cleared, they vowed to protect one another and their shared universe. How cool is that? He-Man didn’t act snitty about ‘some girl‘ coming along with the same kind of powers as he had. He didn’t begrudge her, talk down to her or make her feel less than because she could do everything he could, he merely shared the load. Mattel was promoting working together, kindness and understanding all within their beautifully made 22 minute long toy commercial.
Sure, He-Man left me in its original incarnation by the later part of the 80’s. Shows ended, toys clearance’d out and the companies that started this wave of animated series and marketing goldmines were in full-scale explosion. There was no shortage of cartoons that were also toys, and toys that would become cartoons and we ate them all up. Yet none grabbed my childish imagination like a dude with an alter-ego as a privileged and confused Prince who had to grow-up to protect everything he loved and held dear. That guy is someone I could look up to and someone that all kids could hope to be. Better than the sum of our parts.
So, I appreciated my time as a girl who got to play with He-Man toys. I thank my Mother for never pushing me to stick to Barbie and letting me play with all of the trucks, turtles and Universal heroes I could get my hands on. I thank the women at Mattel who expanded a boy-intended toy line in order to include girls who weren’t as lucky as I was to get started in on He-Man from the ground-floor. Mattel was responsible for the imagination I was told I was allowed to have as a little girl whose only options were lithe blonde dolls that were only allowed to change from cocktail dress to bathing suit and for that, I thank them. On behalf of the girls and boys of this planet, we appreciate you allowing us to day-trip on Eternia and Etheria and think so big, so silly and so bold as to craft a world of toys nobody would ever see the likes of again. The team at Mattel that developed He-Man was wild where it counted and when it counted the most.
And, well, isn’t that the dream?