For a child, nothing is more satisfying than a good transformation sequence. Kids are constantly going through their own transformations as they grow and change, and it’s awkward and mysterious and sometimes scary — there’s nothing powerful or glamorous about it. But to have a magic wand, a fabulous destiny, the strength to save the world, and the ability to look supernaturally amazing while doing it? It’s a dream come true.
This explains why the iconic Sailor Moon transformation sequence has stuck with so many people and why homages to it appear again and again in contemporary animation. With an incantation of “MOON PRISM POWER, MAKE UP!,” all the magical forces of the universe come together to make Usagi battle-ready and perfectly accessorized as her alter ego, Sailor Moon, complete with glitter, rainbows, and plenty of twirling. Here, femininity and strength aren’t at odds; they are one and the same.
Transformation sequences aren’t rare in cartoons of the ’80s and ’90s, especially as anime surged in popularity in the U.S. and its influence began to appear more and more in Western animation. Series like The Transformers and Voltron, as well as He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and its spinoff, She-Ra: Princess of Power, featured their own takes on the transformation, or power-up, sequence. They were often a way to save animators time by using repeating stock footage, but kids didn’t seem to mind; for those like me, there was an undeniable allure of watching our favorite characters magically becoming bigger, stronger, more beautiful, in a way that never got old and now seems to be forever imprinted in our minds.
Protagonists with powerful alternate identities have remained popular over the years, but it was the Sailor Moon transformation that really changed the game; it’s become a staple of the “magical girl” genre, and countless cartoons over the past few decades have found a moment to reference the iconic makeover sequence, whether as a parody or in earnest. There’s just something about the sequence’s tactile three-dimensional quality that makes it exciting every single time as each accessory materializes, turning an ordinary schoolgirl, along with her friends, into universe-saving superheroes in sailor outfits. Its rainbow colors and impressive animation make it instantly recognizable, set in an evocative cosmic void that brings an abstract quality as time stands still to allow the change to take place ahead of any fight. More than that, the intimate framing puts the viewer in her place; we feel as though the transformation is happening to us. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t note how gay the whole thing feels, with its ethereal sparkly glamour; there’s a reason Sailor Moon has been so influential for queer viewers in particular, as a show with groundbreaking queer-coded characters and themes (much of which was erased in the English dub that ran on Cartoon Network in the late ’90s and early aughts, an obfuscation that only adds to the series’ queer legacy.)
When we set out to reimagine the iconic ’80s heroine She-Ra’s transformation for the reboot She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Sailor Moon was an obvious reference point. She-Ra is, after all, a magical girl in her own way. The original She-Ra was conceived as a “girl version” of the popular character He-Man; while his powers focused more on enhanced physical strength, She-Ra had additional, more classically “feminine” powers, such as healing, animal communication, and the ability to transform her sword, most notably into a shield. She had her own transformation sequence (sometimes used multiple times an episode), a twist on her twin brother’s classic “I HAVE THE POWER!” battle cry. With her catchphrase of “FOR THE HONOR OF GRAYSKULL,” Adora is enveloped in sparkly lightning to become She-Ra, Princess of Power. She goes from wearing a delightfully ’80s red leotard (her uniform from her days of working for the Evil Horde that she never bothers to change when she switches to the side of good) to a winged tiara, red cape, and white miniskirt in a shower of sparks.
We wanted our new version of She-Ra’s transformation to be more detailed and leave our protagonist more altered: Her no-nonsense ponytail transforms into waves of flowing hair, she grows taller and more muscular, and golden accessories materialize with a punch of her fists. Physical strength (inspired by Adora’s upbringing as a soldier) is balanced with the more feminine aspects of the magical-girl transformation as rainbows and sparkles explode around her, leaving her with an outfit more girly than she might be entirely comfortable with. We wanted to feel the weight of each beat of this transformation, what it really meant to change an anxious former Evil Horde force captain full of self-doubt into the fabled hero She-Ra.
Of course, we end up questioning that identity as well over the course of the show; is it always the best decision to distance yourself from your insecurities and shortcomings by hiding behind the legendary mantle of a mystical warrior goddess? At the end of the fourth season, Adora ends up breaking the Sword of Protection, her key to transforming into She-Ra, when she realizes that her true purpose is as a planet-destroying weapon. But, of course, it turns out that the real power is inside of her all along, unlocked by a love for her friends and her romantic interest, Catra — and she gets a new sword that materializes from thin air, along with a revamped (and way gayer) transformation sequence that calls back to Sailor Moon more than ever as Adora channels a purer, more personal She-Ra form, complete with a ponytail. In learning to love herself and accept love, Adora no longer hides behind She-Ra’s glitz and glamour but truly becomes her, stronger than ever.
Like Sailor Moon, She-Ra’s power isn’t just about physical strength and conquering the enemy through brute force; it’s about protection, healing, and community. Sailor Moon showed us that girlishness is not a cause for shame, nor does it signal weakness. In fact, its proud embrace of beauty, love, and friendship has gone on to define an entire genre that specifically celebrates feminine strength. Sailor Moon helped inspire us to reimagine a character originally conceived as a spinoff of a male character, her story inextricably tied to his, as her own independent character with a life of her own.
Noelle Stevenson is the creator of Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power and a maker of comics, including Nimona and Lumberjanes.