Courtesy Netflix

How She-Ra And The Princesses Of Power Brought Its New Nonbinary Character To Life

'It felt like, 'Of course we would do this. This is a character that we see ourselves in''

By Lauren Rearick

Jacob Tobia spent a large portion of their childhood dreaming of working in Hollywood. They grew up in a small North Carolina town and often turned to cartoons as a means of entertainment and escape — but they didn’t always feel represented in the shows they watched. So when the opportunity came to pay it forward for other kids who dream big, and provide the voice of a nonbinary shape-shifter with a penchant for drama named Double Trouble in the fourth season of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, they couldn’t pass it up.

“I had never done voiceover work prior to She-Ra, but it certainly was something that I always dreamed of,” the actor and activist told MTV News. “The idea of getting to be a voice actor in a really cool show with a world that’s so big was really a dream come true for me.”

Double Trouble is first introduced in the second episode of She-Ra’s fourth season, which made its Netflix debut on November 4. The character first hides their true identity by initially taking on other characters’ appearances, and eventually align themselves with Catra, an operative for the show’s shadowy antagonist group, known as the Horde. For a price, Double Trouble spends much of the season impersonating Flutterina, an adorable youngster eager to prove their worth as a potential hero — though they also spend plenty of time embodying other characters to deliberately fool the show's protagonists. Upon their final reveal, the character relishes in the shock of the princesses they fooled. They view shape-shifting as an art, and in the She-Ra universe, all the world is their stage to explore whatever identity they wish.

As the season continues, the show begins to chip away at the seemingly evil layers of the shape-shifter; though the tall, green warrior with a wide, mischievous smile spends much of their time infiltrating the heroes’ inner circle and messing with plans, Double Trouble pulls off their most stunning surprise at the very end: In a quick switch of sides, and driven by a call to stay true to their self, they aid the Rebellion rather than the Horde.

A reboot of the 1985 She-Ra cartoon, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power has made queer characters a tentpole of the series throughout its four-season run. And the Dreamworks series isn’t anything like its predecessor, in the best way possible: Powerful princesses continually save the day through their own agency, and a purposeful redesign caused a stir among some fans. And while Double Trouble isn’t new to the She-Ra universe, updating the character “made total sense” to show-runner and executive producer Noelle Stevenson.

“Our approach to gender in this world is pretty fluid overall,” Stevenson told MTV News, noting that a previous episode featured a prom where the characters defied archaic notions regarding gender expression through clothing choices, and that establishing a character as canonically nonbinary is just as important in breaking the status quo. “We see a diversity of gender presentation among our characters, and a nonbinary character fits so naturally into the fabric of this world,” she added.

Central to the character’s establishment was their voice: It was crucial to the She-Ra team that they cast a nonbinary actor to provide Double Trouble’s voice, especially given that reflective casting is still a rarity in Hollywood. Enter Tobia, who was excited by the prospect of voicing a character with whom they personally connected.

“So much of navigating the acting world for me as a nonbinary actor is double acting,” they told MTV News. “I have to focus on performing the gender that someone wants, in addition to performing the character that somebody wants.”

No such task existed for Double Trouble, a role that gave Tobia the opportunity to focus on the job they were hired to do. “It was nice to not have to contort my gender into any weird shape in order to just be the character. And I think it shows in the performance how much fun that was for me,” they added. “It was cool to be able to think about my acting from a lens of ‘How do I be the best mercenary and the best agent of chaos I can be?’ I could just be a nonbinary person and an agent of chaos. That was really special.”

Double Trouble can use their abilities to become anyone or anything they wish, but in one of the season’s most gripping scenes, they demonstrate their most valuable talent: understanding others. In the final episode, Double Trouble shape-shifts into everyone Catra knows to demonstrate why she was unable to succeed in defeating the Rebellion. The unexpected and dramatic confrontation is Double Trouble at their peak, with their love of acting and drama all coming together to deal the truth directly to Catra.

That scene, and many others that feature Double Trouble, serve as a reminder of how much She-Ra trusts its audience. The characters never question or doubt the shape-shifter’s abilities or identity, nor is Double Trouble ever made to feel guilty for their powers. And they’re not the only character who receives such acceptance; each key player subverts the status quo in key ways. Beneath the rainbows and a unicorn sidekick is a cartoon with serious heart and a unique willingness to appeal to every demographic that tunes in.

While major film and television studios have largely failed to cast LGBTQ+ actors or include LGBTQ+ characters, plenty of people are doing their part to push pop culture forward. She-Ra joins in the legacy of Steven Universe and Adventure Time, which have previously introduced and affirmed nonbinary characters; Degrassi and Billions have also featured transgender and nonbinary characters and storylines that highlight their gender identities. Steven Universe also made history with the first televised same-sex wedding proposal on a kids series; and Rocko’s Modern Life, Arthur, and Star Vs. the Forces of Evil have included LGBTQ+-affirming storylines in recent episodes. On the superhero front, Ruby Rose’s Kate Kane, Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, and Nicole Maines’s Nia Nal have all helped forge a path forward for LGBTQ+ people who dream of hero status themselves.

All of this converges in She-Ra, whose show creatives worked with many of the gender nonconforming and trans members of their crew in order to bring Double Trouble to life in an appropriate and affirming way. And Tobia believes cartoons are a perfect vehicle to explore the core of who a character is, especially given how “Double Trouble is one character in a long tradition” of narratives that have driven animated storytelling for years.

“Cartoons have always helped young people have more complicated conversations about identity,” they said. “Young people can watch a character and understand implicitly that they are queer, exploring gender, or saying something about who were are allowed to be as people.”

“It never really registered with us what a big deal this was going to be,” Stevenson added. “In the time that we were working on this, it felt like, ‘Of course we would do this. This is a character that we see ourselves in.’”

Such inclusion is important, in part because it better represents the world around us. The American Psychological Association reports that research has historically ignored nonbinary as a gender category; a previous study of trans people found that 25 to 35 percent of respondents identify as nonbinary, but experts warn against studies that frame gender as a strict binary at their outset or otherwise approach identity through a cisgender lens.

Stevenson believes She-Ra has a duty to question gender norms of all kinds, particularly given how nearly all of the main characters subvert them — including She-Ra (alias, Adora) herself. Pop culture has long relied on a tried-and-true (and, frankly, tired) formula wherein a white, heterosexual, cis man saves the day — rare is the blockbuster in which anyone outside that narrow definition is the singular hero, rather than a love interest, sidekick, villain, or combination therein. Adora and her friends further underscore the fact that anyone can save the day, even a teenage girl unknowingly pulled into an otherworldly adventure thanks to the discovery of a magic sword — but her quest would only be partially fulfilled if she didn’t keep the door open wider for anyone else who wanted to be a hero, too.

Courtesy Netflix

“We’ve inherited gender roles from the generations that have come before us, but people are starting to realize that’s not necessarily how it needs to be,” Stevenson said. “We can be free, and we can be playful and have fun with gender. That’s something I try to explore in every story that I tell, and to get the viewer to ask questions and maybe learn something about themselves in the process.”

Such representation is key for younger generations, who are overwhelmingly more progressive than their parents, and are rewriting the rules of gender and expression at faster rates than their predecessors. Over one-third of Gen-Z respondents to one survey said they knew a nonbinary person, and only two-thirds identify as being exclusively heterosexual. As GLAAD told CNN, when entertainment depicts LGBTQ+ characters in a positive light or includes them in affirming storytelling, such narratives have the potential to shape or influence viewers’ perception of a given community — and even a better understanding of who they are, too.

“Having a nonbinary character in a kid’s cartoon means that young, gender nonconforming kids who are still figuring it out and asking questions can have someone to look at,” Tobia added. “I knew I was different when I was growing up, but I didn’t necessarily have the language for it, and the role models I had, they weren’t explicitly nonbinary or gender nonconforming characters.” It isn’t lost on them that they now have the opportunity to be that role model for others.

Stevenson notes the show is committed to affirming LGBTQ+ characters should it be ordered for a fifth season, and she hopes inclusion quickly becomes the norm rather than the exception.

“If we want to continue being relevant to that audience [younger viewers], we have to try and reflect the world the way it is,” she said. “We have to try and set an example. Kids these days are smarter, savvier, and more aware than ever. I don't want to talk down to their intelligence. I want to reflect characters that they see themselves in, and show a possible future that hopefully is brighter than the one we’re in.”