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Thoughts on Steven Universe

One of the things I love about the internet and social media is finding new things to geek out about. In the cartoon realm, last time it was Avatar: The Last Airbender. This time, in no small part because of Amal El-Mohtar and Sunil Patel, it was Steven Universe. I’m going to try to keep this post relatively spoiler-free, but no promises about the comments.

Steven Universe Characters

How to summarize this show… It’s fantasy that morphs into science fiction. It’s a team of superpowered women (the Crystal Gems) and the titular character Steven, who’s half-Gem, half-human. It’s got action and humor and music and surprisingly complex worldbuilding and relationships and character development. It’s a show that embraces diversity in multiple dimensions. It’s at times over-the-top goofy, and then turns around and delivers stories as emotionally powerful as just about anything else on television.

There’s plenty of action, an evil space empire, monsters of the week, and lots of pulpy SF/F-style goodness, including a full-on dystopic society, clone-type servants, spaceships, robots, swords, teleportation platforms, an altered Earth, etc.

It’s also subversive and refreshing, challenging assumptions about family and romance and friendship and trust and gender and sexuality and beauty and love and so much more.

So after ConFusion, I came home and binge-watched the available episodes, catching up to the mid-point of the second season. Here are some of the things about this show that make me happy…

Body Acceptance/Positivity:

Rose QuartzLet’s start with Rose Quartz, Steven’s mother. Rose was the leader of the Crystal Gems, who eventually fell in love with a human and gave up her physical form so Steven could be born/created. Not only is this woman portrayed as a warrior and the leader of the rebel Gems, she’s consistently treated as beautiful and beloved. Greg (Steven’s father) falls hard for her. The other Crystal Gems love her dearly. She’s beautiful, powerful, strong, and competent, and none of this is ever questions.

Then there are the rest of the Gems. Pearl is very slender. Amethyst is shorter and heavier. Steven himself is unapologetically plump. The whole show gives us a more realistic range of people’s shapes and sizes than anything else out there, and that’s never used as a source of cheap laughs. Every character is treated with respect for who they are, and every character is shown to be both strong and important to the team.

Crystal Gems

Race and Gender:

Sometimes people who argue that they’re “colorblind” about race will say something like, “I don’t care if you’re black, white, or purple.” It’s an obnoxious refrain, but it makes me wonder if the creators of the show deliberately decided to make the three Gems black, white, and purple. Steven and his father are white. Steven’s love interest Connie is Indian. (And also a pretty badass swordfighter and a great character in her own right.) Here are some of the secondary and background characters from the show:

Steven Universe Characters

As for gender, the show deliberately flips the usual script. Instead of a bunch of male Avengers and Black Widow, or a bunch of male Ninja Turtles and April, or a bunch of male Smurfs and Smurfette, we have a team of women and Steven. But the show goes deeper, challenging gender norms and roles on an ongoing basis. Steven is unashamedly emotional, celebrating and crying and running around with his feelings on his sleeve belly button gem. When Steven and Connie fuse (it’s a Gem thing), they form Stevonnie, who goes by gender-neutral they/them pronouns. Stevonnie is accepted for who they are. Garnet at one point describes them as “perfect.”

Love:

Garnet: I love youI love that these characters have so much love and respect and affection for one another. They still argue and butt heads and get angry at one another at times, but underneath it all is so much love and caring. Whether it’s everyone’s love and protectiveness for Steven, Steven’s love for…well, pretty much everyone and everything, Steven and Connie’s developing relationship, the wonderful dynamic between Steven and his father, the pain of Pearl’s love and memories about Rose, the perfection that is Ruby and Sapphire… I don’t know about the rest of y’all, but it just makes me happy to watch.

Also, did I mention the canonical same-sex relationship?

Ruby Sapphire

Other Thoughts:

  • Lots of good, fun music. My favorite is Garnet’s song, “Stronger Than You,” from the Season One finale. (Possible spoilers at that link.) But I like that music is just a part of their lives, particularly Steven with his ukulele, and Greg (Steven’s father), the former sort-of-pro musician.
  • The only episode I ended up stopping was the crossover with Uncle Grandpa. Though I loved the “our ship!” joke. Love a show that’s aware of fandom.
  • The writers do a great job thinking about the implications of different kinds of Gem technology and their society. The exploration of fusion for good and evil is particularly wonderful. And powerful. Garnet’s reaction to discovering homeworld had experimented with forcing Gem fragments to fuse without their consent…whoa.
  • Redemption arc! :-)
  • Watching Amethyst’s development and growth through flashbacks, particularly seeing her more feral aspects through Greg’s memories.
  • All of Pearl’s backstory and struggles and stumbles and growth and development. The more you learn about her character’s history and place in Gem society, the more amazing a character she becomes.
  • Plenty of silliness. I approve!

In Conclusion:

It’s an impressive feat of storytelling. Highly recommended.

For those who’ve seen it, what do you think? What do you love (or not love) about the show? What all have I missed here?

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.

Comments

( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
etherial
Feb. 8th, 2016 03:19 pm (UTC)
I'm head over heels in love with this show and there's a lot to gush about, but I love that one of the ways they push the gender envelope is that there are a lot of fathers on this show and not one of them is beer-swilling, incompetent, workaholic, or a couch potato. They have real human flaws, not fake tv flaws.
jimhines
Feb. 8th, 2016 05:18 pm (UTC)
I'm particularly fascinated by Greg's character. His trust and willingness to let Steven live and grow among the Gems, the things he's sacrificed, his open love and affection, his recognition of his own strengths and weaknesses...there's so much going on there.
silly_swordsman
Feb. 8th, 2016 03:39 pm (UTC)
I love the background worldbuilding they do. They don't do as-you-know-Bob infodumps, and leave things unexplained in a "This is a thing. Deal." manner without feeling they need to explain or justify everything.

That's not to say the world building is in any way sloppy or shallow, because it isn't, but it's not front-loaded in a way many stories are. I expect this is because they can claim they're telling stories to kids, who are more likely to just accept things as presented.

One example is Garnet's bubbling of things. We see this in the first episode (IIRC), where a monster is defeated, and Garnet makes a bubble, which goes *pop* and disappears. It takes half a season (at least) before we understand why, what's in the bubble, and where the bubbles go.

They do this over and over again, present things as part of the world without drawing attention to it, and only offering context later, when Steven learns things, or when someone makes an off-hand comment that shines new light on something we've taken for granted. (The phrase "a pearl" recontextualised the character of Pearl and all we know about her, for instance.)
jimhines
Feb. 8th, 2016 05:15 pm (UTC)
Yes - there's a lot of trusting the audience, and just jumping into the story and the world without stopping to spell everything out right away.

And Pearl... Oh, yes. I could do a whole essay just on her character and the gut-punching revelations behind who and what she was, and what she's become.
socchan
Feb. 8th, 2016 06:59 pm (UTC)
IIRC, Word of God states that all the Gems (aside from Steven) are actually non-binary. Their bodies are shaped in such a way that humans typically categorize them as female, and they use pronouns that most humans identify as female/feminine, but they're not actually female.

Which is another neat thing about how this show treats gender, because so often it's masculinity that's seen (in our society) to be non-gendered, and femininity to be gendered. Meanwhile, we have literal space rocks who take humanoid form and their default gender presentation/body shape is one that people on earth typically perceive as female. It's nice that it flips the script there, IMO.
jimhines
Feb. 8th, 2016 07:41 pm (UTC)
It reminds me a little of Ann Leckie's work and the assumption of female (pronoun/presentation) as default.
cartesiandaemon
Feb. 10th, 2016 11:37 am (UTC)
Yeah, I always thought of it that way, although it's v good to know that was official. After all, lots of shows have had aliens without obvious gender, but they've often defaulted to being perceived as "male". Being perceived as female is equally valid and a very good change.
mrs_norris_mous
Feb. 8th, 2016 07:22 pm (UTC)
All I can say is that Steven Universe is wonderful.

We are now all desperately waiting for more episodes.
jimhines
Feb. 8th, 2016 07:40 pm (UTC)
Yep. I've checked websites several times now looking to see when the next batch of new eps might be out.
starcat_jewel
Feb. 8th, 2016 07:59 pm (UTC)
I know a lot of people who love this show, so I decided to check it out on YouTube. Alas, I have completely lost the ability to listen to kiddie cartoon voices -- all the dialogue sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard, and I didn't even make it thru one minute before having to back out. But I'm still glad that it exists.
shanrina
Feb. 8th, 2016 08:04 pm (UTC)
I've heard a lot of good things about the show (mostly about gender and the depth of the worldbuilding) but haven't watched it yet. I'm picky about art styles and don't like the one for this show, although I'm sure I'll wind up watching it eventually.

But I think how good it appears to be regarding gender in other ways makes (or will make, anyway) one element of the show worse for me: the trope of a mother giving up her life to have a child. It's so depressingly common and reinforces the idea that a woman's highest purpose (higher than leading an entire rebellion against a presumably evil government or organization, apparently) should be to have children. As a woman who has no interest in having children (or in children at all, really), I'm sure I'm more sensitive than most to this trope, though.
siege
Feb. 8th, 2016 09:03 pm (UTC)
I haven't watched much, but I noticed the show deliberately enshrines not the giving up of life, but the loss of the mother. Everyone who knew her misses her, and Steven has to deal with the issue of guilt and worry about being the prize she left behind. But this is not the only example of motherhood in the show, and what I've seen so far has been very self-knowing about these displays. It's a conscious choice, and like most of the show, the writers appear to have thought through the consequences of that particular path.

May they always consider the consequences, because that's the heart of Steven Universe to me! The whole story revolves around the consequences of choice.
treebee
Feb. 8th, 2016 11:50 pm (UTC)
As the show progresses, it's hinted that there may be much bigger reasons for Rose giving up her life to create a gem/human hybrid past just wanting to have a child.
jimhines
Feb. 9th, 2016 12:41 am (UTC)
I've wondered about this a bit too. Particularly after the season one finale, where we see Steven able to do something none of the other Gems can...
alicebentley
Feb. 9th, 2016 11:42 pm (UTC)
I've loved this show since it started, and it's been wonderful to have many more people discovering it and discussing it. But I still can't manage to get those in my immediate neighborhood interested.
One challenge is access: if you don't have cable the first 50 or so episodes are available on hulu for $9 a month, but otherwise it's terrible pirate copies on YouTube, or paying $2 for 2 11 minute episodes through iTunes, or the grey reaches of the internet.
topum
Feb. 11th, 2016 06:58 pm (UTC)
I love it too.
kolinzuver13
Aug. 15th, 2016 09:51 pm (UTC)
I love it and I love steven universe could you view my journals
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )

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