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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Steven Universe, Fascism, and Forgiveness

A personal post

Steven Universe is a modern cartoon show with lots of themes, a great art style and plenty of controversies as well. Why am I talking about it? Because this show has hit me on a personal level. Today, we’re taking a break from politics and we’re going to talk about how some people are in the world. If you don’t know about the reasonably popular children’s TV show Steven Universe, this probably isn’t going to make a lot of sense. I’ll do a quick recap.

What is Steven Universe?

Steven Universe is a TV show on Cartoon Network produced and ran by a woman named Rebecca Sugar who got her start on Adventure Time, another CN show with plenty of controversies. She got the job on Adventure Time based on her huge following on Tumblr. That’s another story for another time.

The show is about a boy named Steven who was adopted by a race of precious gem based aliens called the Chrystal Gems. The show covers their adventures trying to save earth from various attacks from the HomeWorld Gems. The Gems arrived on Earth and some gems, led by Rose Quartz/Pink Diamond decided that Earth was too precious to just destroy by using its resources to make more gems and via a war cut earth off from the HomeWorld gems. Rose Quartz/Pink Diamond ended up giving birth to Steven at the cost of her own existence becoming apart of Steven. The main characters of the show, Pearl, Garnet, and Amethyst spend their time training Steven to be a gem warrior and protecting him from HomeWorld. Over the 6 seasons and a movie, Steven, a human/gem hybrid has grown up, learned to embrace his humanity and his gem powers and saved earth from destruction and even managed to reform Homeworld to be less threatening to the Universe around it.

Criticism of Steven Universe

The criticism about Steven Universe has been far-reaching. The same person who posted the video I’m talking about today did a 2-hour extravaganza about why Steven Universe is garbage both from a social commentary perspective and from an animation perspective. There are also character problems. Steven is insufferable at times and he has the self-awareness of cardboard for most of the series. The show desperately needs a writer, an actual writer, not just storyboard artists doing the writing alongside the art. The show suffered from production delays and also suffered from plot holes so large it was just embarrassing. Steven Universe is the United Airlines of television shows.

Before moving on, watch this video and then keep reading. It’s short but knowing the content of it is going to be important in the next section.

Rebecca Sugar, Fascism and Being Too Nice

Lily Orchard basis her idea on the fact that Rebecca Sugar must be a terrible human being to treat queerness, gender, and murdering fascists so lightly. In Lily Orchard’s world, some people are just irredeemable. In Steven Universe, one of the major themes is that anyone can be forgiven and redeemed through better actions. Sugar stretches this idea to the extreme. It’s hard to imagine redeeming white nationalists in today’s political environment. However, I want to talk about this from a deep, personal perspective.

I think Rebecca Sugar suffers from the same problem I used to suffer from. We just want everyone to be nice to us. The world doesn’t work that way literally at all. I see a lot of myself in Steven which is why I hated the show. He has all the self-awareness of wallpaper and the ability to comprehend consequences like carpet. He’s just stupid and I really hated him and the show because it reminded me of me. I spent many years just going around doing whatever I wanted to do to whoever I wanted to do it to just because I wanted to and it never occurred to me how they would feel about it or how it might come off. As you can imagine I lost a ton of friends because of this and I’ve only recently started to be able to think through things and decide how I’m going to proceed. Steven suffers from the same thing and I think that’s reflective of Sugar and the rest of the Steven Universe team.

Forgiveness

One of the major themes of the show is that anyone can be forgiven. In the show, the gem world is run by 3 (originally 4) diamonds. Blue, Yellow, and White Diamond run an oppressive regime that is racist, classist, and in all ways bad by modern standards. It seems like a far stretch that the heads of such a system could ever be forgiven or reformed. No matter your past your future can be better. It’s a noble idea and a noble goal. But the point Lily Orchard made is well taken. If you’ve murdered millions (in this case gems), your life is pretty much done and you should be held to account. Steven Universe should have set up his own version of the gem world Nuremberg trials and started proceedings. That’s the reality. When you do bad things, you have to take responsibility for them. In a personal relationship, if people, especially family, behave badly there is often no reason to forgive them or let them back into your life. But that goes both ways. When we behave badly, people will leave our lives. That’s been one of my problems. I’ve never really been willing to deal with the consequences of my actions. It is a very hard thing to do and it takes bravery.

In my first novel, I did not intend to write about forgiveness but one of the major themes in the 4th part near the end is where my main character, Randy Carruth is holding his mother to account for her actions in his life. However, he has been through a few things as well and has made some poor choices himself. He is more willing to forgive her and not hold her to such rigid standards because he could not meet them. That’s true empathy and compassion. However, Randy doesn’t end up with a positive relationship with his mother, he leaves her behind. In that way, he gets closure but is still able to move on with his life.

People are always going to have opinions about what you do and oftentimes they might not agree with what you are doing. I had experience with this from a young age. I expected people to just sort of put up with me. As my long-time friend says of me, “He’s like a glass of good wine, he takes getting used to.” I think that’s her nice way to saying you’ll eventually get used to me. The reality is that forgiveness has to be earned and so does good vibes. You don’t get anything without earning it and you have to work very hard, probably harder than you think, to get what you want. You also have to do the very necessary emotional labor required to get and maintain positive relationships. Nothing is granted or for free in life or in relationships.

Disappointment

As bad as Steven Universe is, I get it at a visceral level. I get where Sugar is coming from. With every criticism, I see how she arrived here. I get all of it. I know it seems strange but it makes sense to me. The fact that she can’t keep a storyline straight is just bad writing and this show needs a decent writer. The art-driven show idea just doesn’t work. One of Steven’s strategies for dealing with conflict usually involves talking things out and trying to call out to people’s highest potential. I get that too. Lily Orchard finds the whole idea reprehensible and maybe it is. I always hope that people will work to their highest and best when the reality is that most people never do. Steven Universe is a fanciful idea that way. The reality is that most people will disappoint you. My guess is the Sugar has been disappointed a lot in her life by people who just could not and would not live up to their highest potential. I know that I miss a lot of the things people get up to because I forget that people are selfish and self-serving and will do whatever is in their own interest and not in my interests. The emotional issues of the artist will always come out in the work. Most people can’t really be trusted without a long track record and you can’t fall in love or fall in like with someone’s potential. Maya Angelou said and I repeat it almost daily: When someone tells you who they are the first time, believe them. I have to remind myself of Sister Angelou’s quote all the time because I look right past the real and straight to the dream of what I think they could be. Like it or not, there are people who are like this in the world. It is an important, if flawed, perspective. Yes, people can and should be held to account. People can and should be responsible for their actions and mealy-mouthed solutions like talking it out are often not sufficient. But I get where Steven is coming from and this show touched and so did this video.

I would encourage you to watch a little bit of Steven Universe. The older seasons are on streaming services. I would also encourage you to watch more of Lily Orchard as well.

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Cameron Cowanhttps://www.cameronjournal.com/
Cameron Cowan is a writer, thinker, and human being navigating the streets of Seattle.

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