Note: This post contains massive spoilers for Steven Universe. If you haven’t watched it yet, don’t read this, because it really will ruin it for you – the twists and turns are SO GOOD.
Watching TV as a bolshy feminist can be a wearisome experience. I often have to keep this post by the Social Justice League firmly in mind when watching things that are great…except for the surprise sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. So when I find a brilliant series that also doesn’t leave me facepalming over some casual bigotry, I tend to fall head-over-heels in love with it.
Steven Universe is my most recent infatuation. Brace yourself, reader, for some excitable-toddler-levels of gushing over why Steven Universe is one of the best shows I have ever seen.
This is how I watch every episode.
Beach City, the setting of Steven Universe, is a fantasy world. It’s a fantasy world heavily based on the United States, but it is fantasy nonetheless – like Welcome To Night Vale, it’s a US several steps across the multiverse from our own. (I was actually going to write this blog on WTNV and SU, as my headcanon dictates that they exist in the same universe, and are possibly twinned, with extensive student exchange programmes – but I had so many SU feels that I just didn’t have room).
The problem with many fantasy worlds is that, during world-building, diversity tends to go down the cosmic plughole. So many authors’ fantasies seem to involve a world where men are 90% of the population, gay and trans people don’t exist, and everyone is white (which, weirdly, is often defended by saying that having a few more brown people “wouldn’t be historically accurate”. It’s fantasy, folks. Historical accuracy doesn’t come into it).
Trust me on that.
Steven Universe doesn’t just make a token effort at diversity – it embraces it like an octopus hugging its eight best friends.* No Smurfette Syndrome, with one female character standing for all women everywhere; there are loads of prominent women – and the same is true for people of colour. Hell, the show has no fewer than six prominent women of colour characters, two of whom are major protagonists.
And one of whom is the most badass grandma since Olenna Tyrell
One of these characters is Garnet, who is so important she deserves an entire sections to herself. So, here we go.
The Power of Garnet
This is Garnet, current leader of the Crystal Gems and all-round badass:
Garnet’s on the right. In the picture, she’s the one at the front, punching the shark. Because she’s goddamn Garnet.
Garnet’s position in the story means that she could so easily have fallen into two very limiting tropes – Strong Female Character (as in, woman who punches and kicks things a lot, and that’s about it), and Strong Black Woman. Trudy of Gradient Lair, Mikki Kendall, and Jamilah Lemieux have written some incredibly important things about the ‘strong black woman’ stereotype and how damaging it can be.
While I’m not remotely an authority here – it’s not my lived experience – it seems to me that Garnet stands tall against this trope. She’s a black woman. She has incredible strength. She saves the world and the people around her on a regular basis. But, there is so much more to her than that.
Garnet’s role isn’t limited to how she can help others – the story also has her putting herself first, and not only shows it, but celebrates it. In ‘Jail Break’ (this is the giant spoiler I was warning you about) we learn that Garnet, to quote Steven, “is a relationship” – she’s two Gems who love each other so much that they stay fused all the time. The section where Ruby and Sapphire find each other and reform is Garnet practicing self-care, and there is no question in the narrative that this is a positive thing. (Plus, as all Gems seem to be women, we have two women in a relationship having their love celebrated in a mainstream kids’ cartoon, which is all kinds of wonderful).
And it gave us this absolutely brilliant scene. By the way, that one line teasing Jasper for being single? That’s the ONLY problematic thing I’ve found in this show.
Characters are difficult. Making a character interesting and real (and not just a list of personality traits) is one of the hardest things you learn as a writer – and it’s even more difficult when you have a very limited amount of time or space to work with. SU‘s ten-minute, action-packed episodes mean that a lot of the character-building has to be done through implication. They pull it off beautifully, nowhere more so than in the relationship between Amethyst and Pearl.
In the early episodes, Amethyst and Pearl are set up as total opposites. Pearl is prim, proper and neat. She seems to be ‘the sensible one’, a straight-laced, calming influence within this larger-than-life band of superpowered beings. Amethyst, by contrast, is pure id; eating, fighting, belching and picking her nose, living in a literal dump that she has lovingly constructed in her corner of the temple. The two women couldn’t be more different, which is why they often don’t get along.
Or so you’d think. As the story unfolds, and the subtext shimmers into view like a Magic Eye picture, it becomes clear that Pearl and Amethyst are surprisingly alike. They’re both very insecure. They’re both lost and frightened now Rose Quartz is gone. They both struggle with a deeply-buried sense of self-loathing, that often gets in the way of their being able to properly defend the Earth, or even their beloved Steven.
Amethyst and Pearl are often at loggerheads because they recognise in each other the traits that they hate about themselves – and they’re each frustrated that the other hasn’t managed to get it together, because it reminds them of their own failings. This is why forming Opal (their fusion) is so difficult for them – because it takes a level of self-acceptance that they both find very difficult. Amethyst and Pearl’s relationship is fraught and spiky and funny and kind of beautiful, and it’s one of my favourite things about the show.
Steve ‘n Sensitivity
I grew up on 90s cartoons, and the young boy protagonists of these cartoons (or the animal characters who stood in for young boy protagonists) were often…how can I put this delicately? Arseholes.
He may be saving the planet (with…uh…arson), but he’s an obnoxious little git
Steven, on the other hand, is sweet, caring and kind. He can fight evil with the best of them (okay, maybe not quite with the best, yet. Give him a break, he’s still learning) – but whenever he meets someone or something different from him, his first reaction is wonder and excitement, and an attempt to get along. I can’t think of many other heroes like that. (Some incarnations of The Doctor, I suppose…but then, The Doctor has also attempted quite a bit of genocide, so Steven still wins).
Steven looks up to and admires the Gems because of the way they protect the earth (and can I also say how amazing it is to have a boy protagonist whose heroes are nearly all women?) He also looks up to and admires his dad, because while Greg Universe is full human and not remotely magic, he’s kind and creative, and up there with Mr Weasley in the Best Fictional Dad rankings. Steven isn’t perfect (and thank goodness, that would be extremely boring) – he makes all the mistakes children, and often adults, do. But he’s a brilliant counter to toxic stereotypes about masculinity. Steven shows that yes, boys do cry (and sing, and cook, and dance), and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Plot, Piece by Piece
Another bizarre accusation often levelled at diversity in stories is that “it should be about the quality, not filling a quota”- as if a story requires the hero to be Gruff White Stubbly Dude#50347 in order to be interesting and well-crafted.
This is not necessarily the case.
Putting aside the fact that I have never read, watched, listened to, or otherwise consumed a story where I’ve thought “Wow, all this diversity has really ruined the plot” – Steven Universe is proof that a story can be diverse, break down stereotypes, and have a clever and fascinating narrative. The story builds up slowly, each short episode giving us a little window into what turns out to be a full-blown saga of wars in space, alien invasions, resistance against a malevolent empire, love (both requited and un – oh, Pearl, you break my heart a little) and ethical questions that challenge the characters’ very existences (Amethyst might be “the by-product of a horrible mistake”, but that doesn’t make her any less worthy in the eyes of her family).
And, with all this in the background, the show still manages to deliver short, punchy and funny episodes that deliver a perfectly-crafted story each time. (In fact, the only one that fell slightly flat for me was the ‘Uncle Grandpa’ episode – and that one’s not even canon).
This blog post is getting on for the length of an undergraduate essay, and I still have so much to say, so I’ll just wrap it up with excitable blurting in the form of bullet points:
– The Giant Woman song has been stuck in my head for a week, and I don’t even care, because it’s wonderful
– The range of body types in this show is fantastic. Rose Quartz is big and fat and beautiful. Jasper is hench as hell. Sadie and Steven are short and plump, Greg has a well-tended beer gut, and no-one is ever told that their bodies are wrong
– Connie has joined Tiffany Aching in the ranks of “fictional girls who are close to my heart”. Bookworm, book critic, shy, slightly obsessed with swords? I love this kid.
– SERIOUSLY, DOGCOPTER
And if those 1600 words haven’t sold you on Steven Universe…well, give it a go anyway. It’s well worth it.
*All octopuses have eight best friends. This is common knowledge.
Alice’s books are available on Amazon and Smashwords. Her webcomics, co-created and illustrated by Emily Brady, can be found at the Footloose website. Ally rambles about writing, feminism, and odd questions that cross her mind on Twitter and Facebook.