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Steve Universe Season 1 cover

You may well have heard about Steven Universe (and if you're aware of the show, you might also be interested in some criticism about it—fingers crossed!). In certain circles (people active on Tumblr and other major media fandom platforms, USians with young children, etc.), this American Cartoon Network show, technically on the cusp of its third season[1], has been talked up ad nauseum. But outside of the aforementioned circles, the program is far less Universally known (that's a truly awful pun, and I'm not particularly sorry). Whether or not you're saturated with Steven, it still merits discussion by virtue of being simultaneously one of the best children's programs and one of the best science fiction programs of its generation.

Steven Universe is comprised of eleven-minute, largely stand-alone episodes. These slowly coalesce to reveal an epic space opera plot/non-traditional family saga. The initial episodes are particularly weighted towards "everyday" content, and in general the narrative foregrounds the mundane elements of monster-of-the week stories (including ones that might be told very differently, especially when we consider them in retrospect). It actually took me quite some time to become more than casually interested in the program, because Steven Universe (I think quite deliberately) opts for a slow build. You don't know its characters immediately, and because Steven Universe is so character-driven, it takes time for casual entertainment to yield to a deeper engagement. (This isn't to say Steven Universe isn't good at simply being entertaining: every time I remember the first episode's fake-jingle-song, I nearly cry laughing at "Cookie Cat! / He left his FAMILY behind!"—a line as bizarrely grim as its delivery is straight-faced.)

The method by which we learn about both people's lives and the galactic empire that Steven's mother and her friends are from feels very driven by the process of Steven growing up. The viewer learns information as it's revealed to the show's eponymous child protagonist. We come to understand things differently and more completely, just as children learn how to navigate their own complicated family dynamics and a complex world. More than a lot of SFF featuring children, Steven Universe feels thematically and mechanically interested in what it is to be a child: in learning how to make ethical decisions, and in how these decisions fit into the changing micro- and macro-economies of the family, the community, and one's own life. (It reminds me a little of Over the Garden Wall in this respect.) What's more, Steven Universe believes that Steven's family, his community, the sociopolitical situation he's born into, and his unfolding life (as well as the lives of those around him: life as a process) are all rich, ambivalent, difficult, and ultimately worthy of work and preservation: that all these things, in the long run, reward labor and love.

If we step back and think about the narrative of Steven Universe at any distance, unsettling that quotidian framing for a moment, the show's space-opera project looks startlingly bold for a Western program. (There's anime this sweeping, but even there, few titles that marry Slice of Life, Magical Girl and Space Opera/High Fantasy elements this successfully.) The viewer eventually discovers that millennia ago, an empire made up of rock-based life-forms (gems) sent an advance team to Earth with the intention of harvesting the planet (just one of many such targets) for its resources. The gems are long-lived, technologically advanced aliens who possess what either look like or actually are magical powers. The gems weren't interested in preserving the planet's preexisting life-forms, which they considered primitive at the time and still aren't terribly impressed by in the present. If this sounds like a story about colonialism to you, that's because it sort of is.

Rose Quartz (Steven's mother) had a crisis of conscience and led a massive uprising against the Homeworld gems. Rose and her allies beat back the colonizing forces. But of Rose Quartz's army, only she and her closest associates (the current "Crystal" gems: Amethyst, Pearl, and Garnet) survived, protected from a devastating final attack by Rose Quartz's psychic weapon—a shield/bubble, which she extended around those nearest her.

We get fragmentary glimpses of what looks to have been a terrifying technological war on a mass scale, with heavy casualties. The details are particularly poignant. It's never flagged up, but at one point we visit an old battlefield that's thickly overgrown with a riot of strawberries, plants that fare well in sandy soil—the kind of soil you might get if a lot of rock-based lifeforms were destroyed on this spot a long time ago. Strawberries are the gem equivalent of poppies, which thrive in soil that's been disturbed: this the gems' Flanders Field.

I don't particularly go in for military SF as such, but space-opera combat surely ought to be this thoughtful, as well as being fantastic and ambitious. If you're going to use combat in your SFF, as part of the mechanic of its attraction (and there are decent philosophical reasons to ask whether you should, but), then at least be inventive and challenging and use your SFFnalness for something. When Doctor Who did the Time War under Davies (or in Who's Extended Universe, which did the Time War earlier and with more conceptual ambition), we heard about weapons with names like the Cruciform and the Nightmare Child; there were allusions to a kind of unimaginable warfare that used time, minds and physics as battlegrounds. Imagine my disappointment when Moffat's "The Day of the Doctor" just gave us—Halo combat. Are you kidding me right now? I know it's hard to visually represent this stuff, but look, bloody Thor II managed guns that ripped holes in existence at least! This is the bare minimum of what I expect! Otherwise you're just saying "I think so little of your intelligence and imagination that I don't trust you to understand the basic-AF idea of war if it doesn't look like Saving Private Ryan plus shiny lasers". [2]

Steven Universe, a program intended to be accessible to literal children, trusts and respects its audience far more than this. This cartoon engages its viewers more than many a program with aspirations to the "prestige" television category (in current Who's case, one that coasts on your investment and nostalgia, thus abusing both). From the different magical weapons gems are able to pull from their bodies to the show's ships and artillery, everything encompassed by Steven Universe's vision of battle is purposive, says something about the narrative and the culture in play, and does some fresh visual and conceptual work.

Long after the war, Rose Quartz met, loved, and decided to have a child with a human: Greg Universe. Out of survivor's guilt, for love, or as part of a plan that's still unfolding in the narrative, Rose gave up her life in order to give birth to Steven, passing the gemstone that formed the core of her power and self on to him. Gems were never meant to physically reproduce in this fashion, and so the old "mother died in childbirth" origin story here takes on a strange, poignant SFFnal form (as opposed to a crap, pointless SFFnal form: hi, Star Wars: Episode III (or is the appropriate greeting "oo-bah'?))[3]. "Dying" was Rose's choice, and that choice is part of the complicated landscape of love and resentment between Rose's partner and Steven's father Greg, Steven himself, and Rose's friends—especially Pearl, Rose's lieutenant, who was in some sense in love with Rose. This is a landscape Steven must navigate, uncertain of the terrain and stakes, trying hard not to hurt or disappoint the adults he loves (who often have competing prerogatives) and, simultaneously, to assert his own developing identity.

While Pearl acts as Steven's living mother (more than anyone else—though admittedly this is up for debate, and all the Crystal gems have deeply important and different relationships with Steven), she may also have more reason even than Greg to resent Steven's existence. She seems at times to have transferred her feelings of duty and loyalty, and her love for Rose (in an unromantic sense), entirely to Steven, and then at times to want to pull Rose's memories and their relationship out of the child. She can on occasion wonder desperately to what extent, if any, Rose still lives in Steven: because Steven, by virtue of inheriting Rose Quartz's gem, is not just her son—to some extent, he is Rose (reborn partly human, with serious elements of Greg in him). It's a simultaneously lovely and awful twist on the expectations that fall on any child who survives a parent's demise. This element of the story is consistently emotionally engaging, often in unexpected ways. I cried when Steven found a recorded message in which a pregnant Rose explained her choice to give birth to him, and assured the child she would never be able to meet of her love for him.

It's easy to say this show "represents" queer sexuality, "represents" gender-fluidity; it must be, bloody everyone says it. That's true enough—it does both of these things. But to just say that feels so phatic, when media that does so much less than Steven Universe can earn a similar degree of approbation. Steven Universe investigates how people (queer and not, human and other) love and dislike and need one another. It has more (and more meaningful things) to say about queerness than, for example, Doctor Who's lesbian lizard and her Victorian human wife ever did. That, to me, felt like bungled fan-service: confusing, poorly-thought-through and deeply patronizing.

This is particularly important because, in a back-handed ironic bitchslap, in some ways increasing queer visibility has resulted in brutally impoverished potentialities for queer readings in media texts like this. There was something like a systemic advent of The Not Gays in media circa, oh, let's semi-arbitrarily say 1985, when the possibility of actual gays became Too Real and things like male friendship had to be radically disavowed on screen. Thus the contemporary nu!Kirk and Spock are evacuated no-homo-bros with exactly the same antagonistic not-quite-friendship arc as nu!Steve and Tony, nu!Napoleon and Ilya, nu!bloody anything. It is a boring relationship, the one relationship that all these now-too-similar Initially Antagonistic Brotagonists share. It bears little resemblance to the actual relationships that enlivened the various canons these texts reboot, even as these characters can bear scant resemblance to their originals. (One wonders why people wanted to reboot or adapt these texts famous for given characters and dynamics if not for the characters and dynamics, but then one always already knows that it is for the sweet, sweet name recognition dollar: a short-sighted cash-grab intended to create something that will do well in the box office this year, not something that will be beloved in fifteen.) This does violence not just to the texts in question and the possibility of queer readings (not to mention what an insult it is to the female fandom that carried the Star Trek franchise—in part on the strength of K/S—to such an extent that there even was such a thing rather than just A Show Running from 1966-1969), but also to male subjectivity: no one is allowed to have an actual complicated feeling or a friend, male or female, under the reign of the Not Gays. Rarely has so much been signed away for such a sad, retrograde, feeble point—and it's not as if it's eradicated the tireless efforts of slash fandom to repair, enrich, or just make something for themselves, with oceans of thought and work, of the raw material of these nu!canons (a project that can feel at once like a radical act of love—a reclamation of mass media products—and like unpaid PR labor).

What Steven Universe does feels, in contrast, fresh, complex, uncertain, emotionally full, and exciting. It feels like a real entry into a dynamic conversation about ways of portraying relationships and families. I can take gem gender and sexuality seriously because they don't seem like perfect analogs mapping onto our own contemporary Western notions of same (being asked to believe post-biological aliens identify and perform gender and sexuality exactly like straight twenty-first-century white men from Milton Keynes, etc., is always an insult to the meanest intelligence, especially given that even plain old human masculinity is fairly dynamic if examined over the course of even a couple of decades). Gems are and aren't women, but—to the extent they meaningfully are—oh my God, this show overflows with compelling women (not forgetting the many great human female characters). And these women are allowed to fuck up in interesting ways. The argument at the core of the episode "Keystone Motel" is one of the best depictions of a loving couple at odds I can think of. Meanwhile, Pearl is both devoted to Rose and insecure, and capable of making very poor decisions due to these things. She is and isn't mature. She grows and needs to work to be forgiven for her mistakes. All these things make her as complicated and memorable as any of the male characters whose angst has launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of fans' free-time. I also find the show's depiction of masculinity, in Greg and Steven particularly, sympathetic and human. Steven Universe asks how to be a good man and tries to answer that question substantively.

The show's format is quirky and fresh. The short episodes (which to me seem possibly influenced by the length of web serial installments) are elegant, contained stories that stack impressively. The series' tone floats between something like naturalism and a more expressive mode that allows for crossovers, meta-storytelling and songs: from Steven's Winnie the Pooh-esque hums about wanting to meet a "Giant Woman" to "Stronger than You," Garnet's epic and triumphant battle cry/assertion of identity. There is no better encapsulation of the show's ethos than the fact that this display of what ought to be pure braggadocio includes the lines "Everything they care about is what I am. / I am their fury, I am their patience, / I am a conversation." In Steven Universe, patience, righteous anger and conversation are all strengths: assets to be proud to define yourself by. The show also is unafraid of going to dark places: an episode about being trapped in your own dream world without realizing it will haunt young viewers' nightmares (in a good way, probably), and the adult viewer who doesn't find the execution creepy is jaded indeed. Via "fusion," a gem ability and a plot device which is and isn't sex, the show also touches on many forms of violation of the body. The show's treatment isn't graphic, and it's far from insensitive, but this is a story where shit gets real.

Steve Universe still

Steven Universe feels markedly influenced by anime (I've heard Sailor Moon and Utena bandied about in discussions of forebears, and not just because of Rose's pink hair). In a roundabout way, it also draws from Romance in the sense of Arthuriana ("You do it for her, that is to say / You'll do it for him."), game design, cartoons on which some staff members have previously worked (Adventure Time), early animation (Lotte Reiniger's been mentioned in the production materials), Western live-action SFF and Western SFF novels (there's a fun episode about a His Dark Materials analog). I'm not enough of an animation nerd to discuss this properly, but I'm often struck by how visually pleasing the program can be, (especially in its set design). There's also a fair amount of visual humor.

I have a kind of visceral unwillingness to touch the show's active fandom. Steven Universe has certainly moved me deeply, but in a different way than the things I'm transformatively-fannish about. I suspect this is at least in part because it's such a work in progress. There's a type of media-fandom fan that gets something from episode-reactions and what-will-happen-nexting, who dreads their show ending and wants their ship to be canon. Then (and there is certainly some overlap in these demographics and practices) there's the type of fan who wants to approach the text as a closed object, to analyze and work with it from there. I'm so the latter. I see it as a position of greater equality, in a way—with less power stratification between a canon and its readers. Yet despite my personal reluctance to encounter the show in this way, Steven Universe also seems in part born of and for the fannish gaze. It certainly rewards that type of engagement. Relatedly, I commend the production team for making so much of their fascinating Making Of and concept content available online.

It's a mark of the show's success as a creative endeavor that it succeeds as a fannish object, for regular viewers not engaging with it in media fandom modes, for casual viewers, for children, and for adults. The program has a core sense of resolute decency. It's not important that the show always gets everything right (though largely, I feel it does); it's important that the show thinks it's important to try and do that, and then makes the attempt. Steven Universe is a brave work: it takes chances, and delivers a coherent vision rather than offering up a watery amalgam of "safe," formulaic material. It's also a thoughtful work, thoughtfully made, and, child or adult, it rewards your thought and love as a viewer. The show's far from over, but I'm confident that I'm looking at a classic—at something that will also appeal to viewers in decades to come, not just as a nostalgia object, but to children not yet with us, who will be introduced to the program by parents who still treasure it and the several fun, difficult, and ultimately kind things it has to say.

Endnotes

  1. That is, "in the middle of its second season, but Cartoon Network has made an arbitrary decision to brand the second half of season two as "season three", apparently without consulting the writers, because there is a rule (the Zim-Avatar Accord) that no US network can possess a well-regarded cartoon without attempting to screw that up for themselves'. [return]
  2. It's like how the Star Trek TNG films start using phaser-rifle-things rather than the very deliberately not-gun-like standard phasers, either because the audience cannot be trusted to understand that some form of combat is happening without this visual hand-holding or because THIS IS AN ACTION FILM NOW!! If your visual and conceptual reach only extends to masturbatory reduxes of WWII and the Gulf wars (and appropriating this imagery has its own awkward and often unpacked ideological baggage), drop SFF, go off and write the millionth boring thriller fetishizing these engagements, jeez. I mean, it may not be possible to write poetry after the Holocaust, but apparently you sure can write Poignant Magneto Scenes for the X-Men Cinematic Universe (when your Dark Past is the literal fucking Shoah) and endless Wolfenstein games. [return]
  3. Honorable mention goes to the inexplicably contemporary, painful childbirth in Star Trek (2009). [return]

Erin Horáková is a southern American writer who lives in London. She's working towards her literature PhD, which focuses on how charm evolves over time.



Erin Horáková is a southern American writer who lives in London. She's working towards her literature PhD, which focuses on how charm evolves over time.
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