If there is one accusation that the allistic world likes to inflict on people like me, it is the idea that we do not care. Our norms flout theirs, our preferences are alien to them, our interests do not align with theirs, our emotions do not work like theirs, and to each of these, they levy their curse: you don’t care. They fling a tiresome welter of robot and reptile and cold and computer and alien at our feet, each a stiletto aimed at the part of us that is willing to believe them. Their only idea for who and what we are denies our humanity.
When I see the same accusation leveled at one of the most impressively competent and compassionate portrayals of our neurology in popular media, Princess Entrapta from She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, my irritation turns to icy resolve.
To an unperceptive or malicious viewer, the story of Entrapta could indeed read as another entry in the multitudinous, offensive canon of “autistic character learns how to CareTM,” but a more discerning eye sees something altogether more profound.
The viewer meets Entrapta in her castle-workshop in the realm of Dryl. She has sequestered herself in her laboratory, avoiding contact with other people, even her household staff, in favor of the multitude of robots she has built to keep her company. Everyone shown to have any awareness of her, from her staff to the main cast trying to navigate her mazelike residence, regards her as profoundly odd and unpredictable, hesitant at best to trust her. It is hard to blame them, when their introduction happens amidst an outbreak of a hostile computer virus among her robots that she seemingly would rather study than combat. She takes copious voice recordings of her observations, to the annoyance of the people around her. Her self-aware admission that she neither understands nor is understood by ordinary people comes tinged with sadness that is nowhere to be found when she is working on her scientific and engineering obsession. Exploring the possibilities of technology brings her solace, dealing with a world determined to misunderstand and even mistreat her brings her confusion and pain, and there is no reason to imagine that this is not the longstanding state of affairs in her life. Even her status as Etherian royalty, almost universally seen to be the rulers of their respective realms, seems to afford her little leeway or power past the service of the people making her food. The natural conclusion is that she has isolated herself here to avoid that ill treatment and claim the freedom to study and create as she desires.
Isolationism is hardly unique to Dryl. The premise of the first season of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is bringing the various Etherian princesses and their respective realms into alliance against the invading Horde, and the other three noteworthy additions to the Princess Alliance during this season—Mermista, Frosta, and Perfuma—had also turned their gazes inward in the wake of earlier defeats. Most of the character arcs of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power involve people’s moral universes expanding one way or another, enabling them to band together to better address the dangers ahead of them instead of thinking primarily of their own realms and associates. What sets Entrapta apart is that the foe that Entrapta seems to be trying to avoid is not the Horde, but her own people. Entrapta is as alone as she is because she has been pushed there, punished for her strangeness and made to feel broken and unwanted for it. Focusing on the needs of others cannot absolve a person like her of that stigma. Her empathy overflows, prodding her to fill her home with artificial intelligences that she dotes on and constantly improves, treating them much as she wishes to treat and be treated by others, but grand moral calculations are not within her possibilities. Her world is too small, enclosed by the walls of others’ refusal to see her as a person. People who are punished for taking interest in and caring about others, as so many of us are, naturally withdraw into the pieces of our lives that provide distraction, pleasure, and a comforting sense of order, and Entrapta’s special interest in robotics is no exception. Such interests become the most, and sometimes the only, reliable source of positive emotions in our lives, when even ostensibly friendly people seem to randomly turn hostile.
I remember what my morals were like when my life felt like that. They were selfish, even childish. Considering the broader impacts of my actions was difficult at best. When any action I took felt like it got similar levels of inscrutable pushback from the wider neurotypical world, those reactions were not data, just noise. The world screamed negative emotions at me from all directions at all times and shielding my sense of empathy from it was a vital protective measure. Like so many of us, Entrapta’s early appearances show a tendency to ignore other people’s thoughts about her behavior until and unless they either directly impact her or start making sense to her. Until then, people being weird and disapproving and unpleasant is just what it means to have other people around—not data, just noise. Just the background radiation of not being alone, unsafe to feel at its full impact, impossible to avoid. Even when she is a key part of the daring rescue mission into the Horde’s base of operations, the other princesses do not fully trust her, not even as her passionate devotion to the people she has begun calling her friends leads her to become trapped in Horde territory.
It is within the Horde that she begins to get the understanding that has long been denied her. Hordak, with his characteristic hands-off management style, is the first to form a relationship with her that is not based on her immediate utility or on nervous mistrust, almost against his will. While she is with the Horde, she has virtually free rein to explore the topics that fascinate her and her findings meet with Hordak’s near-constant approval. Even his anger against her is muted, clearly coming from a place of hurt rather than the more nebulous ill regard she had come to know. The two share enough that they can commiserate, and it is to Entrapta that Hordak reveals his status as a defective clone of some grander being. Entrapta knows what it feels like to be cast aside when no longer useful, and to be regarded as a failure for circumstances one cannot control. In this complicated way, she has started letting people into the circle of her empathy. In dribs and drabs, people stop being confusing, distracting noise that only brings more distress if she tries to let it into her life, and start being friends.
Her greatest joy remains exploring what technology can do. The sheer excitement of it means she still is not good at thinking through the consequences of her experiments or taking appropriate safety precautions, but the seed has germinated. She has never been malicious—only constrained and distracted. The conquering violence of the Horde begins to perturb her more and more. This is when we start seeing her first glimmers of horror at the results of some of her work, and it leads to her refusing to work on the portal project any further. The other Horde members, not respecting her the way Hordak does, respond with violence and ultimately exile.
She let the world in, against what must have seemed like her better judgement, and got a friend out of it. But then she got punished, again. The Horde exiles her to Beast Island, whose radiation saps the will of those who linger there. Where an allistic person might have succumbed after such a crushing betrayal, Entrapta can sustain herself for an improbable amount of time through sheer fascination with the island’s technical marvels. For one last time, traumatic perseveration saves her.
After the princesses rescue her, things begin to improve. With aching slowness, they start treating her less like a dangerous pet and more like a person. Whether driven by the dire necessities of how bad things have gotten by this point, or because they finally see something in her that they can comprehend, or because she reaches a level of frustration that finally has her asserting herself against them, the other princesses at last begin to earn their status as her friends. She gets to deal with them in small groups with very focused goals instead of big parties with lots of noise and confusion, a lifesaving difference. With each moment of relaxation, she can get used to them as people she can understand, whose needs she can attune to, who can in turn understand her. She can take actions and not feel like their reactions are random or reflexively hostile, and that makes it so much easier to keep her empathy where they can touch it. They are not just noise anymore, one by one. This is when we can see what she’s like when she is truly herself: relentlessly forgiving, loyal to her friends to the point of foolhardy courage, and no less fascinated by mechanical marvels than she was when it was the only thing she could afford to let into her heart.
Calling this nuanced exploration of trauma and neurodivergence “amoral” or claiming that her story is another tired iteration of portraying people like me as unfeeling automata who have to be cajoled into having emotions misses the point of her entire character and, frankly, does violence to her memory. In the end, we are all Entrapta.