Who’s Afraid of a Gay He-Man?

Alexander Huls
·17 mins read
Photo credit: Eric Rosati - Getty Images
Photo credit: Eric Rosati - Getty Images

From Men's Health

Photo credit: Getty/Eric Rosati
Photo credit: Getty/Eric Rosati

HE-MAN HAS ROCKED a lot of looks over the years, swapping battle armor and medieval weaponry, but the action figure that appeared at San Diego Comic-Con in 2018 was unlike any Masters of the Universe toy ever produced. Encased in holographic glitter packaging and wielding a translucent pink sword to match his signature pink tights and purple boots, this was Laughing Prince Adam (He-Man’s alter ego). And he was already in high demand.

When the toy was announced about a month earlier, initial preorders doubled, and then tripled. On Facebook, one user celebrated the news with a photo of a conga line of shirtless He-Man figures—like Man-at-Arms and King Randor—holding pink purses and a pride flag, seemingly anticipating their newest member. That’s because while nothing about the toy explicitly stated the parallel history that has followed the super-chiseled, extremely heroic character for nearly 30 years, this plastic iteration seemed to nod to it.

Photo credit: Super7
Photo credit: Super7

Simply put: He-Man might be gay. It’s a theory posited by culture critics like Sam Anderson at Slate (“In the ever-growing lineup of ‘outed’ classic superheroes, He-Man might be the easiest target of all”) and geek repositories like the animation-news site Cartoon Brew, which has explored “He-Man’s Five Gayest Adventures.” There are even comparative power rankings (see: Daily Beast’s “Gay Characters on Children’s TV” and Comic Book Resources’ “Queer Heroes: 15 Superheroes Who Are Gay Icons”).

Laughing Prince Adam was a limited edition. He went on to be a coveted best seller. Today the toy goes for close to twice the original $35 sticker price on eBay, making a compelling argument that—with plenty of He-Man reboots now in development—parent company Mattel should be producing more of him. How exactly that character got made, and why it’s not in the new line of He-Man toys (dubbed “Origins”) slated to hit stores this fall, however, is its own saga.

That’s because unlike G.I. Joe, Transformers, and the original He-Man series, Laughing Prince Adam wasn’t molded from a made-for-TV action figure. He was born out of something more modern and widespread: Internet mashup culture. Specifically, the popularity of a nostalgic and irreverent bootstrapped music video titled “Fabulous Secret Powers,” which redubs some of the original cartoon’s more evocative sequences to a techno version of 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?” That homage went viral, with 170 million views on YouTube, and has since been clipped and shared as an endlessly joyful meme that both honors gay pride and serves as a sort of campy exclamation point for whatever adversity you might be experiencing, making it arguably a more indelible part of our culture than the show ever was. (As the top comment on the video’s YouTube page puts it, “If this video is deleted will the internet die?”)

Mattel has since announced new plans to reboot the series, with two shows in the works with Netflix—Masters of the Universe: Revelation (for adult fans) and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (to court the next generation), prompting a question about which version will appear next. After all, many fans seem ready for an openly gay He-Man, in part because for a lot of people, he has always been gay.

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

IT ALL STARTED with a missed opportunity. In 1976, Mattel passed on the chance to become the exclusive maker of Star Wars toys, which turned out to be a hundred-million-dollar miscalculation. By the early ’80s, Luke and Vader figures were red-hot, and the company wanted to break into the growing action-figure market.

Mattel already had Barbie. Seeking another competitive edge, the company began conducting market research to study how five-year-old boys play and discovered that, tired of being told what to do by grown-ups, they longed to be in charge. They wanted to have power. What if Mattel gave them a toy that embodied that as a hypermasculine ideal? In the Netflix series The Toys That Made Us, Derek Gable, a former Mattel director of preliminary design, recalls a member of his team, Roger Sweet, neatly summarizing their ambitions: “Let’s do something that’s so massive every other male action figure looks wimpy.”

The result was He-Man. Launched in 1982, he resembled a hulked-out version of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian (yes, there were lawsuits), and the toy line became an immediate hit, earning $38 million in its first year. But that success was a fraction of what was to come when the accompanying cartoon series premiered in September 1983, becoming the first syndicated show based on an action-figure line (never mind the later blockbuster featuring none other than Dolph Lundgren).

Photo credit: Archive Photos
Photo credit: Archive Photos

Mattel had floated the possibility of a cartoon to Filmation, the animation studio behind Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids and The New Adventures of Superman. Filmation accepted but with one catch: It would finance the show on its own to maintain creative control without influence from Mattel on what toys could be incorporated into the cartoon. While the toys originally came with four mini-comics that skewed toward a darker depiction of the character, the animation studio softened the violence, added a great deal of humor, and imbued each episode with a moral lesson summarized by a character at the end. Most notably, the show also introduced a Clark Kent-like alter ego for He-Man named Prince Adam. Sporting a tight pink shirt, lavender spandex, and purple boots, he’d shout a now-famous catchphrase—“I have the Power!”—to transform into a bare-chested and leather-clad superhero.

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

Over the course of two seasons totaling 130 twenty-minute episodes, Adam’s sexuality gradually became a source of speculation for some viewers. Erika Scheimer, the daughter of Filmation cofounder and He-Man executive producer Lou Scheimer (who passed away in 2013), says the show’s creators initially developed Prince Adam as a “soft prince” and He-Man as having “ten pounds of balls” to highlight the warrior-like transformation. But Scheimer, who voiced characters in both He-Man and the sister-inspired spin-off She-Ra: Princess of Power, also points out that Filmation welcomed many openly gay artists throughout the 1980s who perhaps longed to see themselves onscreen. “It was a joke in the studio,” Scheimer recalls. “Everybody was saying, ‘Prince Adam is gay.’”

In the years after the show ceased production, others would share that opinion. David Chlopecki, owner of the men’s fetish-wear company Slick It Up and a lifelong He-Man fan, recalls feeling an unexplainable spark as a child watching He-Man. It wasn’t until he became an adult that he interpreted what he had been seeing. “He-Man is not arguably gay. It’s super gay,” says Chlopecki, whose company has sponsored an adult-themed Skeletor art auction to benefit LGBTQ youth programs.

There are whole fan sites and Reddit threads devoted to the show’s homoerotic subtext that support that idea, discussing images like He-Man straddling phallic rockets or engaging in foreplay-like grappling matches with foes, as well as the almost will-they-or-won’t-they tension with ally Man-at-Arms or main villain Skeletor. As one commentator on the show’s unauthorized fan site He-Man.org puts it, “Prince Adam turning into He-Man is an allegory for having the power to come out the closet. Prince Adam seems like a shy gay boy with an overbearing father who was afraid to show the world that he was gay … he raised his power sword and showed the world that he was out and proud.”

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

WAS PRINCE ADAM battling against being closeted? If you believe that, then you can take heart in the fact that he transformed every episode—and always won, no matter what threats abounded. That’s a pretty positive message if you’re into the deeper undertones. So, in 2003, two He-Man superfans, a 30-year-old web designer named Jay Allen and his 29-year-old friend Ryan Haines, who worked in TV production, decided to have a little fun with the tension. Neither realized they were about to create a meme, which 15 years later would go viral and change the toy universe forever.

Haines lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Allen in Denton, Texas. Both are straight and they’ve been friends since college. They adored the emerging genre of adult cartoons on Cartoon Network, like Sealab 2021 (spoofing 1970s Hanna-Barbera shows) and Space Ghost Coast to Coast (reimagining its titular character as a talk-show host), and wanted to create something similar, so they purchased VHS tapes of old He-Man episodes off eBay. “The guiding philosophy for it was ‘Let’s just try to make the most fabulous video ever,’” Allen recalls.

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

The project, which they decided should be a music video, was a good excuse to meet up in person. Allen, a huge karaoke fan, liked the idea of He-Man straining to hit the high notes that Linda Perry crushed with 4 Non Blondes. What’s more, the lyrics to “What’s Up?” suited a narrative they were hoping to construct.

First, there were the verses of questioning and hopelessness:

And so I cry sometimes when I'm lying in bed,
Just to get it all out what's in my head,
And I, I am feeling a little peculiar…

Then came the resounding chorus, which could be construed as a sort of sexual awakening and need to take action:

And I say, Hey-ey-ey,
Hey-ey-ey,
I said, Hey a-what’s going on?

On weekends over the course of eight months, Allen would drive 270 miles to meet Haines in the empty offices of the postproduction studio where he worked. They hooked up a VCR to a Mac and used Final Cut Pro to capture footage to repurpose for their video, focusing especially on mouth shapes in order to reanimate them to sync with Allen singing a 30-beat-per-minute techno version of “What’s Up?” that he’d composed and recorded.

Next came the obvious question: Would people think they were making fun of gay men? It was the last thing Allen wanted. A childhood friend had struggled growing up gay in their conservative evangelical corner of Texas and shared enough about the misery of that experience. To hint that they were allies, Allen included a chorus from the Melissa Manchester song “Don’t Cry Out Loud.” “There’s a lot of people in the gay community where that’s what they’re told, or what they have to do to survive,” Allen says. “Part of the video is attempting to reject that, by saying, ‘No, you sing really loudly.’” And, by extension, proudly.

On May 8, 2005, Allen and Haines posted “Fabulous Secret Powers” as a QuickTime file on the popular proto-Reddit comedy site Something Awful. It gained some modest if encouraging popularity, but it really took off five years later, on November 7, 2010, when a version that was sitting on the duo’s Vimeo channel was downloaded, shortened, and uploaded anonymously to YouTube.

Much like the Internet, He-Man has never been the same since. “It’s been around so long it’s part of He-Man’s history at this point,” says Dan Eardley, the author of the forthcoming book The Toys of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, scheduled for release in winter 2020. “If I’m talking to somebody about He-Man, it seems like they either remember He-Man as a cartoon being watched as a kid or they know ‘What’s Up?’”

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

MATTELS OWN TOY line hasn’t aged as gracefully. Once the show was off the air, its MOTU “Classics” weren’t in high demand. Things looked pretty bleak for the blond barbarian until 2015, when Mattel’s then-director of global marketing, Mark Morse, approached a boutique toymaker named Brian Flynn at San Diego Comic-Con.

The two had known each other professionally for a decade. Flynn asked what Morse was working on, and Morse recalls seeing Flynn’s eyes go wide when he answered, “Masters of the Universe,” explaining that he’d been lobbying Mattel to relaunch the toys and “bring MOTU back into the cultural conversation.”

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

As Flynn remembers it, Morse had a more tantalizing question: “Is there anything you’d ever want to do on Masters of the Universe?” Flynn owns Super7, a company that began as a magazine covering toys, then transitioned to making them. Since 2004, it’s been guided by a simple philosophy: What would be cool to make? With that in mind, Flynn answered that he’d go small but mighty, combining the format of Mattel’s vintage two-inch-tall M.U.S.C.L.E. toys—a lineup of multicolored wrestling figures—with a range of MOTU characters. The unconventional idea was in line with what Flynn and the company had produced until that point, including a 24-inch-tall Japanese-style Shogun Warrior Stormtrooper.

Flynn says Mattel initially gave Super7’s M.U.S.C.L.E. idea the go-ahead, but then Flynn came back with a bolder ask. He wanted to create a whole new line of slightly miniaturized and more cartoonish-looking MOTU toys to premiere at a 2016 SDCC pop-up shop, which they’d create in the image of Skeletor’s lair. Mattel agreed to that instead, and when executives visited the shop, they were so impressed with the toys, the hour-long lines to buy them, and the press attention they had generated, they made Super7 an offer. “We’re not doing anything with MOTU. You guys seem to know what you want to do. Why don’t you run with it?” Flynn recalls being told, with Mattel taking a cut of the profits.

Photo credit: Super7
Photo credit: Super7

The possibility of a Laughing Prince Adam figure had been shared internally at Mattel by Morse earlier in the year, he says, before the company decided to outsource to Super7. The idea was to expand the brand’s reach by offering something specific to its next wave of viral-video fans. He says he went so far as to have a prototype sculpted and the glitter packaging designed, but when he presented it to management he received a lukewarm response. “No one at Mattel wanted to embrace it,” he says.

When reached for comment, a spokesperson for Mattel declined to elaborate. However, at the time, Mattel was prioritizing toys for partners like DC Comics and Universal Pictures and hadn’t decided exactly how to reboot the franchise. “You don’t want to go into a meeting at a film studio to pitch a potential new He-Man movie and have the executives’ most recent touchpoint be the 4 Non Blondes meme,” Morse says, trying to grok the logic.

That all changed when Morse left Mattel and, in January 2018, joined Super7 as its new vice president of marketing, product, and franchise development. (He has since gone on to found his own toy company, Plastic Meatball, which will be producing figures for Flash Gordon and Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits). In March of that year, Morse repitched Laughing Prince Adam directly to Flynn during a SDCC planning meeting.

Flynn liked the concept, particularly because he’d already watched toy collectors—especially those who were gay—crowd the company’s Skeletor’s lair pop-up to share how much He-Man meant to them while growing up, sparking an awareness that they might not be the same as everyone else. In fact, gay men seemed to be among the three core groups of enthusiasts who bought He-Man toys; the other two were bodybuilders and law-enforcement officers, although these circles obviously overlap. Erika Scheimer has heard similar stories at conventions from now-grown men who shared what their childhood identification with Prince Adam had meant to them, how it helped them not feel so alone or singular in the world. Or in some cases, the character stirred some deeper urge to find a Prince Adam of their own.

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

As a lifelong collector, Flynn knows an action figure can be both a piece of plastic and something imbued with great personal significance. It’s often our “emotional history” with these toys that drives us to repurchase them, and he thinks “all those histories are important and valid.” As Flynn once stated on the podcast Adventures in Design, “We make the invisible product. We make the thing that hasn’t been seen yet.” He figured Laughing Prince Adam could both honor that ideal and stand for something more progressive. “[The gayness] has been part of [the meme] the whole time,” he recalls thinking. “We don’t want to downplay it.”

The proposal was sweetened by the fact that a prototype already existed and wouldn’t be hard to get. “Mattel had been great about sharing the MOTU tooling with Super7 for the figures they were already working on. So it was really just a phone call to transfer all of those materials to us,” Morse says.

Super7 announced a limited run for the figure on June 25, 2018, on Facebook. The company originally planned to produce 2,500 figures and distribute them only at SDCC. But outcry from people who wanted the toy but couldn’t attend led Super7 to create a weeklong open online preorder. (Jay Allen bought several.) At max, Flynn figured they’d sell 5,000 units total. Instead, they sold 12,000. Based on buyer feedback, Flynn believes that much of that was due to people buying the figure despite never having purchased a Masters of the Universe item before in their lives.

Photo credit: SUPER7
Photo credit: SUPER7

The success of the figure offered an encouraging step forward for queer-friendly toys, if perhaps not quite a fully committed one. The question of whether or not to go one step further and make He-Man explicitly gay never came up at Mattel, Morse says, because the concept never made it far enough along. “I think the only concern we had was that we didn’t want it to be interpreted as offensive to the LGTBQ community.” When Super7 received the commission, it stayed true to that ambiguity, leaving some people upset that the connection wasn’t clearer.

As one commenter on He-Man.org put it, “It’s not enough to imply it or leave it open to interpretation. I know many fans like to imagine that Prince Adam is gay in their own cannon. Why not acknowledge and embrace that?” Morse and Flynn are both straight—and neither really pressed this point. Much like the viral video, the toy still exists within coded and stereotypical margins (the color pink, glitter, rainbows), alluding to Prince Adam’s sexuality without necessarily outing him.

The ultimate decision about what happens next is up to Mattel. After Laughing Prince Adam’s release, the parent company took its toy license back in-house. (Flynn believes that the popularity of Super7’s toys in general helped convince the company that they could still be profitable.) Will Laughing Prince Adam make a reappearance, either in a new toy line or an upcoming show? There’s certainly some precedent: In 2018, Netflix doubled down on the implied queer undertones of the original 1980s cartoon She-Ra. No interpretation is required when two female characters are in a relationship or one character has two fathers.

For now, the company won’t confirm what plans it has for queer representation in the next wave of MOTU projects. “Masters of the Universe has inspired fans for more than three decades and is, at its core, about encouraging each of us to become the best version of ourselves,” said a spokesman in a written statement. “Ultimately, our goal is for the stories and characters to resonate with anyone and everyone who is a fan of the franchise.” That we haven’t yet seen a totally out and proud He-Man begs that classic question. Hey a-what’s going on?

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