Nuggets of Wisdom

Monday, August 22, 2016

5 Reasons We Love Steven Universe

Having recently reached its 100th episode, Steven Universe has quickly become one of the most popular animated series on Cartoon Network, second only to Adventure Time. Not only has the show garnered a broad and active fanbase, but has received critically acclamation, including being nominated for Emmy and Annie Awards. But is this show about a young boy and his three space rock moms really something that the people of this world can believe in, or is this show doomed to fizzle and burn like Greg Universe's rock career? Here are five reasons why we love Steven Universe:

#1: Rebecca Sugar

Before we talk about the show, let’s talk about its creator, Rebecca Sugar, one of the very first American female creators of an animated series for Cartoon Network.

Her experience creating the best Cartoon Network animated series began with her working for the last best series on the network, Adventure Time. As a storyboard artist, she helped plan out many fan-favorite episodes such as "It Came from the Nightosphere" and "Simon & Marcy." Even after leaving the show to work on her own, she would occasionally return to help the staff out with episodes, including those for the mini-series, "Stakes."

It would be easy to credit all of her success on her work with Adventure Time, but her own experiences extend far back prior to her career, all the way back to her childhood. As a kid, Rebecca was a true geek girl and fan of anime such as Sailor Moon and Revolutionary Girl Utena, two animated series that influenced her own series with the semi-magic girl format and action scenes respectively.

She was also a fan of American shows such as Ed, Edd, n Eddy, which is apparent with her past (albeit squicky) fan art, and Invader Zim, which is also apparent with her fan art and fan fiction. (Hmm. Rebecca Sugar being a big fan of a green eccentric space alien with a massive ego overshadowed by his social awkwardness? I wonder if that had an influence on any of her characters?)

By far her biggest influences were those from her own life. For example, the show’s setting of Beach City is based upon a beach town that she and her family occasionally visited during her childhood. Perhaps her life’s influence has proven most influential on her titular character, Steven Universe.

Steven is by far the best written little kid character to date, and key to his character has been the fact that he was based upon Rebecca’s own little brother and his mannerisms. As Cartoon Hero said in his review, “she’s not writing how she thinks a little kid would act, she’s writing based on her experience of how a little boy would act.”

Rebecca is clearly a very talented individual, and her talent has allowed her to create an equally talented show, which leads me to my remaining points:

#2: Overarching Narrative

(Grabs cane, sits in rocking chair, speaks in old man voice) Back in my day, sonny, we didn’t have no overarching narratives in our cartoons. We didn't have no need for "world-building" or "foreshadowing." That's because most of our cartoons were strictly episodic, with each episode being its own self-contained story that has no effect on the rest of the series. Even when shows did have series-long storylines, they played fast and loose with continuity, which, back then, was a concept as novel as sliced bread. The episodic format made it easier for new viewers to jump right into a show at any time during the series runtime without feeling alienated.

But that was back when shows aired on broadcast television, back when we only had three channels to choose from, and television sets still had them rabbit ears and turn dials. You kids these days have your newfangled streaming services like the Netflixs and Hulus. Now you can watch television whenever you want to, even on your cellular phones, and you even watch entire seasons at a time with this hip new trend called "binge watching". You young whipper-nappers just don’t know how gosh-darned spoiled y’all are! (Spits in spittoon before ending grandpa routine.)

Ahem! Now that animated series are no longer restricted to broadcast television, and now that streaming services have made following episodes and even entire seasons of a show much easier, many cartoons now have overarching narratives that stretch across several episodes and even entire seasons. Such notable examples include Gravity Falls, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and, of course, Steven Universe.

What makes this show unique is that, while other animated series like Gravity Falls have half-hour run times per episode, Steven Universe’s episodes are only half that length. Having only 11 minutes of screen time would allegedly make it more difficult for the show to tell a series-long story, and yet Steven Universe does an excellent job in spite of its condensed run time. It's quite impressive how much world-building and character development the show can pack into 11 minutes!

Sure, the show’s early episodes followed a more slice-of-life format with Steven getting into crazy sitcom antics such as preparing “together breakfast” and becoming a secret tag team wrestler, but as the series progresses, the episodes become less silly and much more serious, even darker. What started as a silly show about Steven eating cat-shaped ice cream sandwiches has since evolved into a full-blown space drama whose recent story arc involved Steven and the Crystal Gems trying to stop the end of the world via a massive gem monster.

While many animated series such as Gravity Falls tell grand narratives within 30 minutes, Steven Universe manages to weave even more epic tales in half that time. One Gizmodo writer describes the series and its appeal perfectly: "It’s a slow and steady build-up from your standard 'monster of the week' cartoon to something that’s actually telling an interesting, deep meta-story; one that’s not just rewarding to watch, but equally rewarding to go back and re-watch to see all the little moments of foreshadowing interwoven into the earliest parts of the show."

#3: Non-Violent Conflict Resolution

Steven and the Crystal Gems aren't the type who shy away from a fight or who are afraid to pull any punches--or whip cracks, or sword thrusts, or shield throws! However, many of their greatest victories, interestingly enough, are won, not through violence, but rather, the lack thereof.

In the second episode of the first two-part story arc, Steven and the Gems face off against the blue water gem, Lapis Lazuli, after she steals the earth's oceans. They attempt the direct approach and try fighting her head on, but find themselves unable to beat her---mostly because it's impossible to defeat water clones of yourself. Instead, their victory comes through the most unlikely method imaginable: actually talking to the antagonist. It's only when Steven sits down and talks to Lapis that he learns of her cracked gem and heals it for her, allowing her to fly away home, which is what she wanted to do in the first place. (Of course, she only does that after returning the water to the oceans!)

Such non-violent conflict works well with the show's overall theme that nobody is inherently evil and everyone has the ability to change. Later in the series, we learn that the monsters Steven and the Gems have been fighting were once humanoid gems (like the Crystal Gems), who were corrupted following a major war and left to suffer from what amounts to post-traumatic stress disorder, making them act out like mindless monsters. Steven later befriends one of these gems, Centipeetle, and learns that they have the capacity to be tamed, with a small sliver of hope of them being restored to their normal selves.

Perhaps the fan-favorite redemption of the series has to be that of everybody's favorite green space Dorito, Peridot. When she's first introduced in season one, she's revealed to be a cold, manipulating villain who's prone to smash first and ask questions never. However, by season three, after being captured by Steven and the Gems and forced to work together with them to stop a greater threat, she winds up getting to know them, and eventually sides with them against her former allegiance to Home World. Now she's the great and lovable Peridot!

When most other action shows emphasize might-over-right through epic battles, Steven Universe shows that sometimes the greatest battles are won through words and feelings. In a world seemingly on the brink of World War III, such a message of non-violent conflict resolution is something to be admirable and emulated, especially by a non-aggression principle-adhering libertarian such as myself.

#4: Diverse Representation

Steven Universe is a show for everyone, not only because it’s a well written and animated series, but because the show has a little bit of something for anyone, regardless of who they are. The rainbow colors aren’t simply from the multi-colored space rocks. It’s from a diverse cast of characters, both main and supporting, of different races, genders, body types, and even sexual orientations.

Obviously, that’s not the case for the titular character, who’s nothing more than a cishetero white male oppressor who needs to “check his privilege” (or that’s what I would call him if I were a mindless Tumblr SJW). However, his three guardians, the Crystal Gems, are not only strong female protagonists, but three characters of different shapes and sizes, who don’t conform to the hourglass-shaped cookie-cutter model of women in animation, if not the media, proving that women can be capable (and even considered “hot chicks”) regardless of what they look like.

The show also consists of many background and side characters in the form of the Beach City denizens, each of whom have at least one episode or more focusing on their individual lives, and each of whom are from diverse ethnicities and even backgrounds. Some are affluent (Connie), others not so much (Sour Cream and Onion), and most live in single-parent families (with very interesting fan theories speculating why this is).

But perhaps the shining, most progressive achievement of the show has been its queer representation. There's Pearl, whose unrequited feelings towards Steven’s mother, Rose Quartz, were more than simply the platonic loyalty of a liege. But perhaps the most explicit example has been with the beloved couple, Ruby and Sapphire, the two halves whom together form the whole that is Garnet. These two aren’t just “friends.” Their explicit and open signs and words of affection toward each other prove that they are, indeed, lesbian space rocks.

Some fans may deny the homosexuality of these characters, but each and every episode featuring them has only amped up their queerness, from Pearl convincing Rose to fuse with her to make Steven’s Dad jealous (a scene that was censored on British television for being "too risqué"), to Ruby and Sapphire exchanging romantic quips during a baseball game. They only way you can deny such queerness is if you’re gaydar’s on the fritz!

Such diversity on television, especially children’s television, is much needed in this day and age, and hopefully, will help produce more tolerance within the next generation of children watching it. Of course, it would be great if the more "adult" fans of the show learned such tolerance. Such a pity then that some of the "adult" fans are so intolerant. Extremely intolerant. To the point of forcing a fan artist to nearly commit suicide because of her art. (Seriously, WTF?!?!)

#5: "The Feels"

Hey! Don’t act tough. Don’t pretend that Steven Universe never made you feel anything. You may claim that you’re not the emotional type, but you know deep down inside that you nearly cried when Pearl confessed her unrequited feelings about Rose Quartz in “Rose’s Scabbard.” You know you felt Amethyst’s pain when she was forced to lash out and express her inner turmoil about her past in “On The Run.” You know you held back tears when Steven was forced to bubble Centipeetle in “Monster Buddies.” And as for “Monster Reunion”? If that episode didn’t make you sympathize with a green lion-beetle-humanoid hybrid, then you’ll want to stay away from metal because you are an emotionless robot.

On the surface, Steven Universe appears to be a silly show about space rocks—and, for the most part, it is. But it’s one of those few animated kid shows that really elicits pathos for the characters. They’re so well-written as full-fledged characters that you’re not just watching them passively on-screen. You’re actively caring about their well-being. When they laugh, you laugh. And when they cry, they take a steamroller to your soul and make you exhibit human emotions that society has force you to keep bottled up.

That’s the beauty of the show. Like Inside Out, it carries a positive message about human emotions, how it’s natural to have them, and how it’s perfectly natural to express them. The characters are not ashamed to express their feelings and wear them on their shoulder. That’s true for the female characters as well as the male characters, including Steven. In a society that demands that people, especially men, bottle up their emotions, Steven Universe shows that it’s alright to express them.

As much as I’d hate to give credit to Jonathan McIntosh (the puppet master for Anita Sarkessien), he has a valid point when he discusses how the show portrays emotional expression, especially among men, as perfectly healthy: “Our society teaches boys at a very early age that it is not okay for them to display their vulnerable sides…because it’s been culturally associated with weakness. But on Steven Universe, vulnerability is not equated with weakness; instead, it’s simply equated with being a human being.”

Amethyst may wonder why anyone would want to watch a cartoon where everybody cries, but for everyone else, we already know the answer: because it’s perfectly okay for a cartoon show to give you "the feels" other than uncontrolled laughter, because sometimes uncontrolled sobbing is just as cathartic, even healthy! Good art paints the human experience with all the colors of the emotional spectrum, not simply happiness. That’s something that more cartoon shows need to do, and it’s something Steven Universe does exceptionally well.