Friday, September 4, 2015

The New Radicals: Children's Cartoons?

Progamming notice: I'm writing a blog for school that isn't allowed to public. I've been wanting to write something about Steven Universe for a while so I've cross posted it here.

*Spoiler Alert* for season 1&2.

I’m currently obsessed with the Cartoon Network show Steven Universe.  The idea behind Steven Universe started as what if a boy was a member of a magical girl squad, but has become so much more than that. The show follows the eponymous hero, Steven, through his adventures and the trials of growing up. Steven lives with the Crystal Gems who are super-heroines and a cross between a mother and sister to him. There are three Gems, Garnet, Pearl and Amethyst, they have super powers, and make up the magical girl team.
I would argue that Steven Universe is one of the most radical shows on TV today. It shows non-traditional families, it upends gender norms, and depicts a loving same-sex relationship.
  1. Steven’s Family
The first inkling that Steven Universe is a radical show is how it presents Steven’s family. Steven’s mother was a Crystal Gem, Rose Quartz, and she had to give up her physical form in order to give birth to Steven. Steven is half human and half gem. He lives in the gem temple with the Crystal Gems, but he does have a human father. He is very close to his dad, Greg, but does not live with him. Steven is primarily raised by the three Crystal Gems. What is really cool about this is that Steven seems to be raised without gender hang-ups. He has so many smart and powerful women in his life, he never looks down on “girl” things like some boys his age would. He is even teased about being a Crystal Gem in the pilot, because they are all women and he is not. Steven shoots the criticism down and stands by the Gems. There is a great song in their series about how excited Steven is to meet Opal, a giant gem who is incredibly powerful. There is no shame in the show from men about female power or the female characters.

There was an episode dedicated to his non-traditional family. Steven’s best friend Connie had lied about Steven having a traditional family to her parents. When Connie's parents decide they need to meet Steven's parents he spends the episode struggling to choose which parent to bring, because each one is important to him. There is a long charade where Steven tries to convince Connie’s parents that he only has two parents, but, of course, he’s found out. The moral of the episode being that families come in all different shapes and sizes, and your family is what it needs to be.

2. Fusion and Stevonnie
The other place where Steven Universe is totally radical is in the concept of Gem Fusion. Two Gems can fuse into an entirely new being. Steven is half human though, so he actually manages to fuse with a human, his best friend Connie. When Connie and Steven fuse they become a teenage girl called “Stevonnie.” What really blew me away about this episode is the gender fluidity present. Steven takes being a girl completely in stride. What could have been a cheap joke about boobs, or bras, or bathrooms is really just a sweet story about two friends having a unique experience. In an era where we can’t even put a female character on a boys’ shirt because “boys don’t like girl things,” the idea that your main male character would be comfortable in another gender is completely radical. I also think it brings up a few trans issues. While there aren’t any characters on the show who either are or identify a trans, I think it’s really great for visibility to have any form of gender fluidity, especially geared to the younger generation.

3. Garnet
Another amazing and barrier breaking concept happened during the season 1 finale. *SPOILER ALERT* Garnet is actually a fusion, she is a fusion all of the time! Garnet is a fusion of Ruby and Sapphire, two smaller gems. What is really spectacular about this is that Ruby and Sapphire are definitely a lesbian couple. During the final battle Garnet is broken apart, and must be reunited to defeat the bad guys. Ruby and Sapphire's relationship is explored through a song (by the incomparable Estelle, who voices Garnet!) that clearly states they are in a romantic relationship. With lines like “the two of us aren’t going to follow your rules” and “my relationship is stable” and “you’re just mad ‘cause you’re single.” It’s clear that this is a romantic relationship between two female expressing beings that is presented as being healthy, normal and powerful. Garnet is the physical embodiment of their relationship, she is “their fury, their patience, their conversation.” It’s a pretty radical presentation of love for a kids show. (I just watched Frozen last night and was annoyed at the heavy handed heteronormative romance plot.)

I find Steven Universe to have just the right mix of radical and fun, adorable and action. Showrunner Rebecca Sugar has really made something super special here and I can’t wait for the next Stevenbomb!

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