HOLDING HIGH the empty paper towel roll as if it were the Olympic torch, the toddler bellowed, "By the power of Grayskull!" As everybody but the childless knows, the tot was screaming the rallying cry of "He-Man," the animated superhero of afternoon TV.
The show is the number-one syndicated children's television show in Washington and nationwide. His call can be heard in day-care centers and playgrounds across the land. He- Man and his crowd of good guys (the "Masters of the Universe") and his enemies appear as dolls with a staggering array of battle gear, and on clothes and kites, lunch boxes and pencils. Parents spent $500 million on this Mattel paraphernalia in 1984 alone.
What fewer may realize, though, is that in the midst of a rising tide of conservatism, "He-Man" is really a plot to turn young cildren into bleeding hearts.
It started out capitalistically enough. Market research conducted my Mattel found that boys ages 3 to 6 spend a lot of time fantasizing about good versus evil. And so, in 1982, He-Man toys appeared in stores. A year later, Filmation Inc. brought him to TV, where he is now seen on 166 stations. So far, so good for traditional family values.
But when my twins started talking about Battle-Cat and Skeletor as if they lived in the neighborhood, I decided to check this out. I didn't expect much. A kiddie show named "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" held promise of macho and violence, much like the Mighty Mouse I grew up with.
But after weeks of viewing, I can only wonder, does Jesse Helms know about this guy? It's time to sound a liberal-bias alert.
The program opens innocuously enough: Prince Adam, a big blond guy with a voice like Mister Rogers, says that, "Fabulous secret powers were revealed to me the day I held aloft my magic sword and said, 'By the power of Grayskull."
At this point, there's much thunder and lightening bolts and screams from young viewers. Then Prince Adam, now He-Man, roars, "I have the Power" in a voice that sounds like Gary Owen in an echo chamber. Grayskull is an ancient castle and source of He-Man's strength.
While it's true that He-Man has all the bulges of Schwarzenegger and all the strength of Superman, he's really nothing more than Alan Alda in muscles. He refuses to cut down trees and has a Bambi-complex about hunting.
In fact -- and this has to be seen to be believed -- that hulk of muscles doesn't hurt anybody. Except, maybe, in the way a spanking hurts. He's forever tossing a bad guy into a convenient puddle, or bringing some bad-tempered monster to the way of Truth and Goodness. In fact, not hurting or killing is a condition of He-Man's power.
That's quite a lesson for slapping, biting, pushing kids to learn. But it doesn't stop there.
He-Man lives on the Tolkienian planet of Eternia, complete with scorcery and pure, undiluted Evil. There are no gray areas. Skeletor, a skull with enough meat on the rest of his bones to be a linebacker, is the arch-villain -- evil incarnate, a vile figure suitable for hissing. With a horde of scoundrels at his command, he continually tries to build his own evil empire. The true-life parallel is obvious.
But no matter how sorely he's provoked -- and Skeletor does a heap of provoking -- He-Man simply puts an end to the afternoon's particular wickedness and allows Skeletor to limp back to Snake Mountain. All this is fine for setting up things for the next installment, but what message are the kiddies getting? That aggressors needn't be punished?
At the end of one program, He- Man looked America's children right in the eyes and said, "It often takes more courage not to fight." If the United States had followed this course in Grenada, there might be a Soviet runway where today a palm tree sways.
And there's the matter of Teela. At first glance, she's nothing extraordinary. He- Man's female companion has the round, full hips and tiny waist so loved by comicbook artists. The serpentine objects encircling her breasts might seem a bit much for preschoolers, but after all, cleavage didn't hurt Wonder Woman.
What Phyllis Schlafly and her Eagle Forum probably haven't heard, is that Teela is Captain of the Guard. She isn't just a soldier, but a leader of soldiers. No kitchen duty for this woman. More times than not, she rescues He-Man -- or at least helps out. She simply refuses to fill the damsel-in-distress role.
Teela goes to battle apparently unaware that the Equal Rights Amendment was defeated, and that one of the arguments for its demise was that women shouldn't serve in combat alongside men, even a platoon of he-men. Again, how is this affecting children? Young Americans might begin to think that men and women are equals -- that sex isn't necessarily destiny.
So where is the conservative backlash to this daily warper of young minds? So far, the only protests have come from Action for Children's Television. But the complaints haven't been about the show's marshmallow morals. Instead, ACT whines about "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" being nothing but a 30-minute unpaid commercial for Mattel. The same charge was leveled at Smurfs, Transformers and other Saturday morning shows, seen in some form at toy stores everywhere.
ACT misses the point. The profit motive has made this country great. It's as American as the commercial break. Walt Disney probably had making a few bucks in mind when he created a certain mouse.
A child is never too young to learn about commercials anyway. Whenever one of mine ask about the "refreshing fruit flavor" or "robots in disguise" mentioned during the breaks between He-Man's bouts with evil, I sweetly reply, "It's junk, dear." So far, they believe me.
Mattel's biggest mistake was, in the complaint of a 15-year-old sitter who admits that he watches, that much of the "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" toys advertised have little in common with the show.
And that, more than anything, is probably why Fairness in Media hasn't targeted "He-Man." The toys are much more violent than the program. Even the He-Man doll comes with battle armor, which includes an ax and dentable breastplate. The animated version hasn't been seen with either.
How could the average concerned parent know that swords and pectorals could belong to a pantywaist?
I became less concerned about the moral morass of He-Man and friends the day my son donned a pair of He- Man underwear. From that moment on, diapers held no appeal.
Now there's a super hero.