I’ve been gearing up to write about Steven Universe for a long time. In fact, I was thinking my next blog post would be my first essay on it, talking about redemption and empathy, but there’s no shortage of people writing about the show’s merits. After watching the current episode I’m going to highlight what I feel is its biggest flaw.
When I was in film-school (yes, I’m a snob) I was told to show, not tell. What that meant was to be less direct. Find ways to express an emotion rather than having characters merely declare how they are feeling. To do the latter is to be “on the nose”. I also use this term to signify when a show is telegraphing its overall moral or agenda too overtly, to be operating as text rather than subtext. The best storytellers lose you in the story rather than showing too many fingerprints of the storyteller. That’s not to say stories shouldn’t be personally motivated or have a moral at its core, but you need to hide your tracks and be organically brought along, not be beaten by a stick.
I feel that, perhaps because of its success, that Steven Universe has been steadily letting go of its poetry and falling back to prose. In other words, it’s saying what it used to show, being direct where it otherwise had to be indirect and symbolic. By doing this, it is losing a lot of its artistry.
Steven Universe used the hook of the mystery box to build its audience. We were thrust in medias res into a situation and then had to play catch-up over the course of many episodes, plus theorize what happens next. The initial response of a viewer is WTF is this??? And it’s that sense of shock, that disorientation, of not knowing what the show was, that provided the hook. At times it has operated as a comedy, a drama, a musical, and a sprawling fantasy/sci-fi epic. But regardless of genre, the underlying message or perspective has to start to emerge.
The show’s creator is Rebecca Sugar, and while questions about lesbian subtext were raised early, only sometime over the summer at a convention did Rebecca Sugar make a public statement about her sexuality and how much it factors into the show, where before much of it was couched behind plausible deniability.
The gender-politics of Steven Universe have focused around two “Slash” subplots, the perma-fusion of Sapphire and Ruby into Garnet, and the aftermath of the unrequired love-triangle of Pearl/Rose. The story of Ruby and Sapphire rests more within the plausible deniability of the all-female gem society. The Pearl/Rose subplot is where things begin to fall apart, for two reasons. For one, Rose develops a heterosexual romance with a human (Greg). The other came in the form of tonight’s episode, (Last One out of Beach City) where Pearl becomes infatuated with a human woman who looks a lot like Rose.
The fact this lookalike is human raises all sorts of problems. First and foremost, it presents an unambiguous case of Pearl becoming attracted to a species that DOES have two genders, but choosing the female. Secondly, this incarnation of Rose is much more “butch” than the actual Rose Quartz, complete with extra ear piercings, a lip ring, a tall stocky frame, and riding a motorcycle. But here’s the real Rose Quartz below (RIP).
Over the course of the series, the gems have often been drawn with very masculine body-shapes, with Jasper and Bismuth looking about as female as your average Mr. Universe contestant.
This was fine in the context of a species that has no gender. Implied gender would need to then come from the variety of body shapes and personalities. But the fact is that this is exactly how lesbians are sorted, being into the lipstick and butch buckets.
This Rose lookalike is presented as a stereotypical butch lesbian. That being said, Pearl must be smart enough to know that the vast majority of humans are heterosexual. To become attracted and flirt with a human female is to put the cart before the horse unless she asks herself whether this woman is gay or not. That is, unless she isn’t subconsciously keying on these stereotypical visual cues.
The larger issue is what kind of story they want to tell at this point in the series’ run. Pearl has already sung a torch-song in drag about her unrequited love for Rose which is filled with a twinge of bitterness that Rose turned out to be “straight” rather than gay. I have to imagine, given the statistics, that this is a common pitfall within the gay community.
However, as I said, by making the leap out of the alien (metaphorical) gem subculture and to have her put on a butch leather jacket and go chase down and hit on human women, Pearl no longer feels so alien. She just comes across as an unambiguous lesbian.
When Rebecca Sugar came out over the summer, she said the Disney stories of princes and princesses didn’t resonate for her. She wanted to find a way to tell a fairy-tale story that did, but not lose the straight audience in the process. It had to build a bridge. But the more the show goes for everyday life like this, the more it turns its back on the purpose of epic fantasy to shroud things behind symbol and metaphor, the more mundane it feels. At one time Pearl’s hangups seemed to originate from the fact that Pearls weren’t considered real-gems, they were basically a servant-caste. That’s how fantasy works, by referencing back-story and lore.
With fantasy lore, it’s up to you to think “oh, yeah, pearls are symbolic of ____” And then other fans would say “no, no no, they’re symbols of ___” The more abstract, the more people can find their own personal meaning, even if it’s not what the creator intended. Witness the endless debate about whether Lord of the Rings is about the bomb, for instance. The tension of never truly knowing the artists’ intent is part of the joy of fandom. It makes it more universal. But now Pearl is just a shy lesbian chick who needs coaching on how to come on to another (probably) lesbian chick. While they say you should write what you know, taking the show so close to what is probably the everyday life-experience of people like Rebecca Sugar and other openly gay crew like Lauren Zuke seems lazy in comparison to the show’s earlier heights. This also comes at at time when Zuke quit twitter due to overzealous fans. It seems the show is at a pivotal crossroads in deciding where it wants to go.
Ironically, success often becomes the enemy of creativity, and Steven Universe has already been renewed for two more years. That’s an awful lot of stories to tell. If it keeps plowing this sort of ground, however, it risks becoming a lesbian version of The Big Bang Theory, the travails of young (in spirit anyway) nerdy single women in search of same-sex action. All this while Steven himself is having his aging process held back while the voice-actor himself is already 18. Therefore Steven and Connie’s relationship remains forever chaste (other than their fusions in which the end result is female, not hermaphroditic). Meanwhile, the fusion of Steven and Amethyst is problematic, as most fans precluded Steven fusing with other gems because they equated it with sex and it would be considered a form of pedophilia as the gems are his caretaking adults and he’s a minor.
Is fusion “sex” or is it not? The show can’t seem to decide, leading to confusion.
My daughter, who introduced me to the show, swore that Steven couldn’t
fuse with a gem because “Steven’s just a kid” and it would be wrong.
You can therefore see how the show has fallen down the rabbit hole as the need for more episodes, more novelty, has driven them to try things that, perhaps, shouldn’t have been done in order to maintain the purity of the show’s metaphorical structure. And the problem of restraint hasn’t just been about gender, it’s also about the other themes that speak more directly to me. This is where I get into the material I was going to save for later.
Steven’s role is a peacemaker and a healer. In this respect he operates on the same level as Hiccup from How to Train your Dragon, always looking for a peaceful resolution to conflict.
The first real curveball the show took was by taking what started off as the most obnoxious villain (who starts off as just a cardboard obstacle) and deciding to ask the question: after “winning”, rather than bubbling (essentially life in prison without parole) what if they got to know her instead?
And so we get this great moment which, really, hasn’t been bested since:
It’s great because it’s subtle. It says everything it needs to say with body-language and music. It doesn’t need dialogue. Any more dialogue and it would cheapen it.
Peridot was the least likely villain to turn sides, as there was a morally ambiguous gem by the name of Lapis who had been introduced earlier.
Lapis was trapped within a mirror and Steven freed her. The gems thought she was evil, but she didn’t express hostility towards Steven. It was like an old grudge she had with the gems that no longer seemed to have any meaning. But at one particularly epic moment, Lapis is forced to make a choice, and this is what she decides to do:
The show left things hanging and you know they’d eventually need to revisit the Lapis situation. In the meantime, they had to deal with the epic A-plot (the cluster at the center of the earth) which meant that Peridot was given a lot of screentime to “come along”. I say “come along” because at one moment Steven himself says to one of the gems “Peridot is really coming along!” It may seem like a nitpick, but I’ve never forgotten that line, because it was the first moment where I felt like the fourth-wall was being broken and we’re being told that Peridot is on a deliberate character rehab plan. This is “on the nose”. (Not only that, but the A-plot seemed to be stalling intentionally in order to give Peridot more screen-time, such that the resolution to the plot came off as ultra-rushed, but pacing is another topic.)
Let’s get back to Lapis. Sure enough, the story circles back again fairly predictably and the Alexandrite fusion was split and Lapis is stuck in the barn with Peridot. So what started out as a surprising plot twist to redeem Peridot is now starting to feel like a repetitive cycle, with the barn being used as a holding tank or half-way house. That’s not to say Lapis is a bad character, but there’s only so many times you can play a story riff before it starts to lose its impact.
This below is the clip that everyone compares to Studio Gibli (Miyazaki).
Again, in some of the dialogue with the Lapis-centric episodes, the dialogue becomes too “on-the-nose”. Characters either say exactly how they feel, or they make an observation about how someone else may or may not feel. They’re saying and not showing.
This comes to a head in the Alone at Sea episode, where Steven just outright tells Lapis he wants to drag her onto the boat to cheer her up. At times the dialogue teeters into dimestore psychology, with Steven saying things no kid his (fictional) age would say about past trauma and what not. Then when Jasper returns and wants to restart her dysfunctional fusion with Lapis, Lapis’ return is totally on-the-nose. She says “it’s not healthy for me”. At that moment the symbols being used fall away and there’s no longer any doubt what the scene is meant to convey. It could have been a Lifetime Channel movie about domestic abuse at that point. If you were to go back to the Peridot scene, it would be equivalent to her saying something like “My gosh, this is amazing! I’ve never felt this before!” with the rain hitting her. You can see Peridot’s reaction. You don’t need her to tell everyone what she’s feeling.
Over the course of the summer, Steven’s attempt to heal has hit road-blocks. Yet along the way, the gems keep dropping “on-the-nose” exposition, usually moral teachings not far off from an epilogue of He-Man. Stuff like “Oh, Steven, you’ve got to learn that you can’t change everybody”. And on a lesser note, Amethyst ends an episode that contained a host of ways that the Rubies were shown to be dumb by saying “Boy, Rubies are dumb.” I don’t know whether Rebecca Sugar is writing the dialogue herself or she’s delegated a lot of this to her team in order to keep the episodes churning out, but I sense a consistent pattern in this redundant dialogue driving a point home that was already shown.
Perhaps this is because the more the show feels it can spread itself over a longer run, even within its 11 minute running time, the harder it may be to practice restraint. Indeed, the Bismuth episode was stretched into a two-parter, and overall, arc-based episodes function more like extended scenes than they do self-contained stories.
When you get to this point in a series, and your audience is totally up to speed, it’s that much harder to shock or surprise them. So it could be that there’s just too much total running time now available and not enough they have to say. That’s why the SU world at times functions as The Simpsons, with a large list of minor players of Beach City who can command their own episodes. It’s these filler or “nothing” episodes that contribute the least to the show’s quality reputation.
When SU writers run out of ideas, I think they just say “Let’s write an Onion episode”
Whatever the reason, in summary, I feel that Steven Universe is the kind of show that is produced by immature talent. I don’t mean to say immature meaning bad. I mean someone whose best work is still ahead of her. While it’s true that this show airs on Cartoon Network and therefore it’s not striving to be Citizen Kane, after getting this much critical acclaim a lot of older people (although maybe not my age) are watching it and taking it very seriously. Do I recommend you get into it? Yes, I do. I think there’s something for everybody, but because it’s so broad, it will probably lose you now and again, as it does with me.
I would also guess, due to how rabid the fanbase is, that should they stumble onto this article that I’d get a lot of negative comments for not being lavishing universal praise on it, especially since some of what I don’t like involves how the LGBT issues have been executed. That’s the nature of the internet. People love to argue about what other people are allowed to like or dislike and why. It’s only because the show is as good as it is that I’m willing to put this much time into highlighting the areas where I’m disappointed.
Looking beyond this, I actually have some ideas about what goes into people liking or disliking a story. In other words, I’m deconstructing how “taste” really works. This also relates to what fuels fandom. I’m not sure when I’ll write about it, but I think if you stick around and read it, you’ll never think about likes and dislikes the same way again.
In the meantime, there’s a lot more than can be written about Steven Universe, but I’ll probably wait until the show has revealed more of its hand before I come back to it. Hopefully my faith in its direction will be renewed.