“How can you say Steven Universe doesn’t have good plot and character development?! These characters have true-to-life thoughts and feelings and their backstories are so lush!”
Yes, compared to its contemporaries, Steven Universe is a highly thought out cartoon. It’s a cartoon that strives to show that there’s more to a hero(ine)’s life than just the constant battles against evil. It’s a cartoon that shows greater depth of internal history than most shows, even some live-action shows.
It’s also a show that I believe fails to deliver; not because the characters are highly in touch with their emotions, not because the characters fail their missions but can try better next time, not even because the show is ostensibly about a young boy who has to live up to his mother’s powers and legacy and protect the Earth from danger…
It’s because in all these aspects, it doesn’t give off what it intends to give off.
Watching earlier Steven Universe episodes compared to later episodes, I find it hard to believe these are of the same cartoon. Much of the early episodes of Steven Universe involve world-building, not enough to paint a complete picture of Steven Universe’s universe, but enough to raise interest in what Steven has to put up with on a daily, at least weekly, basis. This is how I became hooked on Steven Universe, but even then I had my questions and complaints, mostly involving fusions.
Garnet having three eyes was just the beginning. The creators stated that such an odd feature was due to something “artificial” or similar words; I could easily imagine her implanting an eye artifact to grant her with such fighting prowess. As for her dual gem state, I could see her inheriting another gem, or that her soul was housed in two gemstones, but I couldn’t imagine her as a fusion. Opal was portrayed as such a divine fusion, though by her components opposite minds she could not last very long. If that was what fusion was, then Garnet could not be a fusion because she was so stable.
Sugilite and Alexandrite shook that theory even further, portraying the former fusion as one so stable that she was her own psychotic person, and the latter as so unstable it couldn’t last a couple of minutes. Garnet still could not be a fusion because she was built so strong and stable that seemingly nothing could faze her… until she was literally phased apart, made so unstable that she is split into her components: the fiery, passionate Ruby, and the cold, calculating Sapphire. The only thing that can keep those two together is their relationship for each other.
Uh oh, space lesbians.
Now, lesbian heroines are one thing, and I would love to see more LGBT heroes in the media, but the issue that I’ve found with such heroes, from Marvel and DC heroes coming out to heroes made by LGBT for LGBT, is that there is the grating element of being reminded of their LGBT state every minute. It is not that I do not think they should love each other, even passionately, but when was the last time you saw a heterosexual hero couple interrupt a decisive battle or plot for a make-out session or a heavy flirt?
Paint me homophobic, but I always believed that the key about integrating the LGBT into society was not portraying them as publicly lustful and insatiable, but showing that they are otherwise ordinary persons with reasonable interests who just happen to be interested in the same sex, all sexes, or who have made themselves into another sex. This was the problem I had with Rose/Pearl, with the latter portrayed as a woman starving for intimate companionship to the detriment of all else.
OK, so paint me as a heteronormative prude, instead.
To me, Space Lesbians are no better than Space Jews; that is, I don’t see how progressive the show can be when nearly every act of lesbian love carries undertones of obsession, insecurity, and/or lack of self-understanding. It seems to paint the entirety of the LGBT population as mad as the minority of them that use Tumblr as a feeble “safe zone” due to their anxiety issues, rather than as a diverse population of variable andro- and gynophilia, individual senses of self, and confidence in a world that strives to never forgive their abnormality.
I always joked that this show was Tumblr incarnate; even Ruby seems like some fusion social justice warrior!
It is not the lesbianism being disguised as agender gemstone magic that bugs me, or that the characters are neurotic heroes, but that their magical hero characteristics and actions are underplayed in favor of heartstring-tugging glurge. I have understood that sexuality was a major part of a warrior’s life, or so I have heard from the Greeks, but where is the war? With Lapis, Peridot, and Jasper arriving as major threats to the Earth, the show took a darker turn, showing a force more powerful than just random gem monsters of the week – monsters made from (fragments of) former Crystal Gems, I might add. Now the gems have to not only worry about outside threats, but their own worries about the past, present, and future.
Yeah, I’m disappointed in the show’s slow plot development over its multiple hiatuses and bombs. Eleven minutes is really not enough time to devote to a chunk of plot, especially not at the rapid-fire pace the show moves at, despite its seeming environment of slow and easy beach aesthetics. I don’t know whether to be disappointed at the shows writers for their lethargic plotting, or that they seem to classify this show as an action-adventure series.
Sure, the show draws from the best of anime and other media to create a diverse tapestry of visual aesthetics, detailed animation, and unique character design, but the style remains as simplistic and naïve as its contemporaries, perhaps even more so. The show’s embracing of off-model drawings and unusual shapes may provide interesting pictures that attract young children, but to me the overall appearance combined with the seriousness of plot looked to me like Rocky and Bullwinkle trying to be Neon Genesis Evangelion.
What bugged me more than Garnet turning out to be a fusion was that, before the reveal, her eyes had small pupils and irises to emphasize the oddity of their appearances in Arcade Mania and Mirror Gem; as soon as we found out she was made of love, however, her eyes took on a large, supposedly-friendly-but-mostly-childlike quality, representing her opening up towards Steven about her fused state. I never understood the change – even though it was foretold with her sorrowful stare in Future Vision. I found the smaller irises of their initial reveal much more aesthetically pleasing.
Actually, I found many moments where the Gems’ oddity was relished for drama aesthetically pleasing, far preferred to their portrayals of supposed beauty and perfection, such as the anime goddess Rose Quartz and her “Getting Physical” fusion with Pearl, Rainbow Quartz. For a show embracing the diversity of women, not a lot of the women are actually that far off from fashion model territory, even if many of them are very much plus-size, muscular, or both. I don’t know whether this is just due to the simplistic style, or a greater societal need overriding a desire for true, “ugly” diversity.
Maybe I, a non-standard woman called “ugly” by many a bully in my past, can see beyond the surface morals and beauty of the cartoon to see a greater vapidity. Maybe I’m just starved for a truly non-superficial cartoon with true diversity. Maybe I want something that indulges the imagination and rewards the viewer for wanting to peer further than the television screen. Maybe I’m a spoiled brat, but at least I’m spoiled by great old shows with plenty of heart and humor. Maybe that’s not a good thing given the thickness of my nostalgia glasses.
Then again, I get this angry at some old Disney movies too (I’m looking at you, That Darn Cat!), so it’s not a blind hatred of all things novel we’re talking about.
With much of the fandom in tears over a Stevenbomb, I sat there like Charlie Sheen wondering what these things meant. Certainly I had my emotional pulls, but only because I thought something meant something at last. Lapis’ cycle of imprisonment and imprisoning was what drew me to her character; Peridot’s attempt to act computer-like but ultimately ending up something of a Zim-like character provided an interesting insight; and Jasper was just a nice piece of butch fem beef to turn even a het-girl’s head. I mention the latter not just out of personal interests, but on what these emotions mean to me; no matter how shallow and basal, they drew me to these characters so deeply.
Because of the stories of the Homeworld Gems, I was drawn to fan theories of redemption and reconciliation. For Jasper, it was the idea that she was so militaristic that she had to have another aspect of her personality that was quashed by Yellow Diamond’s training, or something along those lines. Ultimately, though, all I know of the Homeworld, collectively, is hate, anger, sorrow, joy, and yearning… Then again, all I know of the Crystal Gems collectively is hate, anger, sorrow, joy, and yearning…
As (over-)emphasized as the power of love is throughout the show, it’s almost taken for granted. The gems constantly have to be reminded that things will be okay and that their neuroses are not the end of them. As supposedly thousand-year-old demigodlike beings, have they had to deal with their own worst selves for such a time? Do they have no wisdom of their own issues? Who kept them from going absolutely crazy? It was Rose who I thought was such a wise woman by they way the Gems yearned for her so, but it was Rose who, in an act so absolutely unprecedented as to belong in a Mary Sue fiction, ultimately sacrificed herself to give birth to a half-human, half-gem child. If that’s not crazy, I don’t know what is.
Maybe it tugs on me so badly since I am someone who lost a parent, albeit to irreconcilable differences rather than to passing away, but also there is the chauvinist idea within my brain of “You had everything going for you; why did you join this idiotic man and make the ultimate sacrifice?” Was it Greg that convinced her that a man and a (gem) woman should have a baby, or was it her idea to transfer her essence into a hybrid child? Until such time that the Crewniverse spells it out for us, I will feel greatly uneased by the multiplicity of its controversy.
All that is left of Rose is Steven, a kid so mentally and physically unassuming that there is a simultaneous disgust and appeal to him, like all three of the Ed boys fused together, but with the added interest of him having the potential to become a great hero. This is the plot of many a shounen anime and those inspired by such shows, with the marked difference of having a decidedly feminist and inclusionary bent. Not to mention the possible egoism of the show’s producer naming such a supposedly influential character after her own brother, but that is neither here or there…
Actually, as I watched the show through, I’ve seen little indication of Steven growing up to be a hero other than he’s bungled through a few missions and got in touch with his emotional side. Is emotion the true fuel of his powers? Is this why the Gems could not teach him how to operate his abilities because they were so based in the inherent emotional powers of Gemstones that they need to be felt, not taught? That makes a great metaphor for becoming an “adult”, but not so much a heroic character development. He didn’t so much grow to become a warrior living up to his mother’s namesake to me as much as he was pulling crazy powers out of his fat butt.
Such is modern fantasy that I yearn for it to be more like science fiction, following a reasonable set of logic, not just “it’s magic, shut your pie hole!”. The state of fusions over the seasons has driven me mad, not just in it becoming a metaphor for strong relationships, but in the ways the gems seem to defy mineral logic. Pearl’s pearlescence seems to be a fusion trait wild card, making Opal and Rainbow Quartz shining with all colors, but making Alexandrite shine with only pink and green, and Sardonyx shine with orange and black! It’s too bad the only logic with fusions it seems is “whatever looks cool”.
What looks cool is not necessarily what is cool, even though the writers of the show insist many “not cool” story points are an integral part of the show and not a reason to hate characters doing uncool things. Case in point, poor Pearl – a jealous, clingy wench whose desires for Rose Quartz and/or any fusion partner lead her to do some very uncool things and get her in trouble with the other gems. Is this what happens when a Gem leader gets tangled up with a squishy human? Is Steven consequently responsible for the Gems not killing each other because of the actions of his mother and his uniqueness as a Gem-human hybrid? Why does that sound so contrived and unnecessarily melodramatic?
Seems to me like an indication of internal familial conflict somewhere within the Crewniverse, and while I do not believe this in particular to be a problem – venting through writing is good, after all – it makes the show feel like it is less about alien beings and worlds and more about convoluted metaphors for the aspects of growing up in a progressive world. I wouldn’t call much anything the show portrays as truly progressive, however; the Gems’ non-gender-binary, all-loving nature seems only to make the non-binaries and pansexuals of Earth seem all the more alien.
With children’s shows portraying gender-oddity as extraterrestrial and adult shows portraying it as a mindless joke, there is no real sense of going forward, especially as many Tumblrite artists are drawn to emphasize and celebrate the neuroses of the Gems rather than consider their place in the show’s internal history. I remember after Jail Break’s airing the eagerness of some artists on Tumblr to paint Garnet as the actions of her oversexed components, rather than as a simultaneous individual and dual-entity action potential.
In Alone Together, Garnet states that fusions are not two people or one person, but an experience; Metaphors for love and sex do not apply for fusion, though said episode did paint it as an action similar to such controversial activities. In fact, fusions seem to lead to metaphors for relationships in general, Opal the relationship of two opposites binding over a common ground, Sugilite and Sardonyx the relationship of a partner so devoted they would rather destroy others through words or actions than separate, and Garnet the relationship of two lovers so perfectly matched that very little would make them let go.
And people argue over which fusion is “perfect”? Why not accept that every relationship is different, like people? Even Rebecca admitted the ¾-human ¼-gem Stevonnie’s experiences were a metaphor for growing up different in a world not used to such differences. Still, even if you believe one should normalize and celebrate childhood love going beyond simple friendship, Stevonnie’s existence leaves a bad taste in my mouth, especially considering the mature overtones going into a relationship between two young people I would not expect to understand or care about such dark things.
If only, though, that the relationship between Gems and humans was more loving. The Crystal Gems’ arrogance over humanity’s “pithy” achievements compared to their masterful manipulation of the elements makes little sense, given that they can’t even explain themselves or even explain why they can’t clarify their actions without going into a tantrum. It would seem that the Gems are far more humanlike than they give themselves credit for.
This is what makes Rose’s relationship with Greg even stranger. She thought of Greg as an interesting novelty due to his devotion overriding his sense of mortality, but as he convinced her that he loved him with all his heart, she began to see him as more than just a little human pet. What makes humans so special? Was Greg only interested in Rose because she was a very human-looking giant pink space babe? If she were blue or green instead of peachy pink, would Greg still have loved her? What if she was not soft and round, but made of jagged rock, even if the jagged edges simulated a rounded appearance like a cross between an anthropomorphic rock formation and a Hellenistic statue?
Honestly, with all the vague sci-fi elements in a saccharine fairy tale package, this show feels like some bastard spawn between Star Trek, Super Ted, Dragonball Z, and Rainbow Brite.
I don’t see the show as anything special as far as modern cartoons go. At least cartoons of old were less concerned about any covert plots and agendas as much as just a sense of fun, sometimes drama, but mostly humor and wit. Johnny Bravo could get away with being a womanizer because the humor was in his failure as a chauvinist to pick up chicks. Ed, Edd, and Eddy could get away with being stupid and annoying because such traits exposed a deeper insecurity stemming from the cul-de-sac’s collective difficult childhood.
Unfortunately, the Powerpuff Girls are no longer a girl’s heroes because their skin is so pale and their bodies so perfectly petite in contrast to the “bold” diversity of the Gems. From what I saw, though, at least they strove to become contributing members to society, reveling in philosophy, history, and wisdom to make them heroes in more than just action and deed, but in heart, mind, and soul. Meanwhile, the Gems spend their days playing board games with Steven, uninterested in the developments of humankind, even the groundbreaking societal ones.
Although, with the hypocrisy of every American state now allowing for gay marriage, but not every establishment allowing for openly gay or trans employees, I can see why…
To be honest, this is mostly a worry about how society is writing society, or even rewriting itself. As I learned of minorities, I felt that including them was not a matter of making them “special”, but making them common and acceptable. This is not about painting everyone the same color and ignoring their diversity, but it’s also not about separating everyone further because of the separatist actions of a god-awfully ignorant European force.
Literally, babies experience discrimination when they understand that their mother is not their father is not his sister is not her father is not his nephew. It’s what race you grew up with that makes you drawn towards the same race, not some integral family racism. I draw majorly Caucasian/European characters because I am Caucasian-European; my characters come from America, Britain, Scandinavia, Russia, and many other countries. So their diversity is majorly in family history, not skin tone; so what?
Honestly, I like old cartoons with goofily bad stereotypical characters in them, but I don’t see them as contributing to putting down other races. There are marked differences amongst people, and to paint someone racist because they note or even poke fun at these differences is illogical and wrong. In fact, to say that whites alone are responsible for great racial hatred is the very definition of racism, as it makes out said race as morally and emotionally inferior to others, just like racist portraits of antiquity.
I think the problem is that many people have to deal with their own narrow-mindedness every now and then; even the Crewniverse is not exempt from a little bigotry, with one of the writers stating that they would never add masculine gemstone characters because people are already overexposed to male power fantasies, and girls need more powerful female roles models. Well, if SU provides unwise gems as my role models, I’d rather stick with supermen, thank you! Isn’t it amazing how I can take life lessons from people not of my own gender!
Not to mention that their examples of such power fantasies, such as the Avengers, do deal with issues of collective neuroses and self-esteem issues, but I believe in a more positive way since the Avengers are primarily heroes. They can sit in their bunkers and wallow in self-pity on their down-time, but when the call comes, they had better collect themselves – not because of some patriarchal necessity to “man up”, not because of some societal expectation of men to be emotionless and stoic, but because such pities and worries literally do not matter compared to the needs of a city threatened by dangers too powerful for regular defense forces. The strength of the hero lies in their ability to become selfless, even if they need self-help afterwards.
Sure, not all superhero movies can give off such messages, and most are indeed downright sexist towards men, women, and non-binaries. Still, that was the vibe I got with the first Avengers movie. Science Bros? More like men of science whose opposite personalities clash but ultimately even out, like best friends or brothers. You can make them into gay lovers, but what ultimately does that say about you, rather than them? Do you care about their deeper relationships, or do you just get horny seeing your favorite characters doing it?
I have to wonder that about people who embrace the Gems’ alternative loves and lifestyles; do they really appreciate the mainstream portrayal of this love, or are they just excited and pleased to see such love on their TV? I am not accusing fans of gay and lesbian erotica to be vapid and shallow; it’s a fetish like any other fetish that anyone can possess, from cultured collegian to hormonal highschooler. What I am calling out is the idea that spreading this art is equal to actually being an activist for LGBT rights.
I don’t join LGBT parades, and I don’t knowingly donate to LGBT charities, but I know that simply posting examples of love, lust, and companionship is not enough to change the world, no matter what anyone says. I like posting and reposting statements of pro-LGBT or anti-bigotry merely as a statement about my own beliefs, like a personal diary made out of the entries of others, collage-style. I don’t pretend that I am making a difference in the community; in fact I underestimate what I can do and believe myself insignificant.
This insignificant feeling isn’t helped by the message spread by Tumblrites and other internet LGBT “activists” that the cissexual and heterosexual have no place in LGBT activism and support; such was the insecurity and trauma of these Tumblr people that they turn the tables against those that have bullied them by abusing the self-proclaimed majority, insisting that they apologize for the bigotry of their ancestors and distant peers and live under the thumb of the new world order of progressive “love for all”.
I’d hate to think that some radical internet kids intend to make themselves into warriors for a force of complete world change just for the ill actions of the past and present, but with Steven Universe seeming to agree with such a radical ideal, I tend to get worried that the kids may actually try to overthrow society in whatever ways possible. In many ways, Steven Universe genuinely is Tumblr incarnate, the culmination of its beliefs, progressive and regressive, and its emotionally charged and often illogical arguments. It’s often as vapid as a wall of shipping, as twisted in plot lines as teenage fan fiction, and as morally confusing as a SJW’s modus operandi.
If I knew the show would become a heavy-handed and dark metaphor for minorities in danger, would I have fallen in love with the show? Maybe if this was stated upfront, if these issues were not hidden under a blanket of spoiler-prevention and self-aggrandizing. Maybe if I didn’t feel the writers were preying on its young fanbase’s insecurity and excitement. Maybe if the show would have stayed with its mild themes of world exploration and exotic fun, rather than gone on this dark track.
This is why I have made Gemterra, the Steven Universe fan spinoff without the Steven. It’s a bit of egoism, combined with emotional venting through writing, but it is mostly an attempt to draw what I thought Steven Universe was all about when I am not so sure anymore. Maybe I’m just an insecure major-minority with a persecution and inferiority complex, but with my only known and sure power being art and writing, I can only say and draw what I want in a show about living gemstones with great powers.
P.S. I do want to learn how to get along better with people, and I want to learn how not to offend them, but with the harshly critical attitude towards even the slightly politically incorrect, and with even the kindest critique of my words or actions sometimes mutating into a message of self-worthlessness in my mind, it’s hard for me to get out there and say “teach me how to be better”. I have tried my hardest to acknowledge that I lack certain understandings, but I also have to assert that I do not need my opinions “fixed” when I feel they are not broken. They may change as I get older and I learn how better to handle poor plots, but I feel that my passions in striving for logic and reason within fiction will never go away any time soon, unless I lose my ability to care about anything anymore.